Tuesday, February 24, 2015

KD to DC

Ever since the James Harden trade, people have been trying to dream up ways to get Kevin Durant out of Oklahoma City. The most common involve him going home to DC in 2016 in much the same way LeBron James returned to Cleveland. He would get to be in a new Big Three with a pair of star young guards and he would be playing in one of the biggest media markets in the NBA - this would be the perfect opportunity for him to take his star to the next level rather than stay in a small market with cheap ownership for the rest of his career.

The idea makes sense on the surface, but once you start to look at it more closely, it's not too hard to poke a lot of holes in it. For starters, most NBA players don't want to play in their home city. There are too many distractions and too many people with their hands out. Chris Bosh and LaMarcus Aldridge both grew up in Dallas and neither has ever expressed much interest in making a return home. What happened with LeBron is more the exception than the rule. KD is a fairly private guy who choose to go to college in Texas rather than stay home. If LeBron had played college, he would have went to Akron or Ohio State.

Wall and Beal are good and there's a sense that this is a young team on the rise, but there's a lot less in DC than meets the eye. They are 33-23 on the season, which is only 1.5 games ahead of OKC despite having most of their players and playing in the much easier conference. They are fifth in the East and they are 1-10 against the other top 4 teams in the conference. If the current standings hold, they would be matched up with the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round and they would be beaten like a drum.

If you don't believe me, ask yourself who guards LeBron James on this team? Paul Pierce? This isn't 2008. The modern NBA is a game of wings - you can't really run out a 37-year old Paul Pierce as your biggest wing defender in your starting line-up and expect to win a championship. He should be coming off the bench like Vince Carter at this point in his career. I was surprised the Wizards let Trevor Ariza walk because there was no way they were going to be able to replace his size and athleticism as a perimeter defender. They don't really have much behind Pierce either. They have 35-year old Rasual Butler and 21-year old Otto Porter, a guy whose still finding his way in the league and almost certainly won't be getting much rope in the playoffs.

When you go up and down the roster, that's the first thing that jumps out. The Wizards have a bunch of old dudes on the back end of their careers. Maybe that helps them in the playoffs or maybe it doesn't. The Wizards seems to be under the impression they are playing in the mid 1990's Eastern Conference - they have built a massive team with veteran experience that plays two post men, pounds the ball inside and fires up mid-range jumpers. When they played the Atlanta Hawks a few weeks ago, it was like watching Polish cavalrymen charge into Nazi tanks.

How exactly are Nene and Marcin Gortat supposed to defend Al Horford and Paul Millsap 20+ feet from the basket? The only way they can get stretch big men back is on the other end of the floor, where they can use their size to try and punish them in the box. The problem is that strategy takes the ball out of Wall and Beal's hands and keeps them locked in the half-court rather than using their speed to get the game going up and down. John Wall would kill for the kind of driving lanes that Jeff Teague gets in Atlanta or that his old Kentucky running buddy Eric Bledsoe gets in Phoenix.

It's the same story off the bench, as Washington has grabbed on to every conventional-sized PF who shoots mid-range jumpers like it's the biggest market inefficiency in the game. Kris Humphries, Dejuan Blair, Kevin Seraphin, Drew Gooden - Gooden is the only one of the bunch who can even play the pick-and-pop game out to the three-point line. This is a team constructed by two guys who came up in the mid 90's - Ernie Grunfeld and Randy Wittman - and the only way they are going to be a team like the Hawks is if they take a time machine back to 1995.

Let's not forget that the only reason they are even in this situation is they got lucky as hell in two consecutive lotteries. Were it not for Wall and Beal, they could very easily be Sacramento East. Even with all their draft bounties, there was no recognition of the way the game was changing or discernible plan to build the best core possible. Back in 2012, did anyone even think about pairing Wall with Andre Drummond in a spread pick-and-roll offense? Beal is great, but Wall + Drummond would be the most unstoppable two-man game in the league so all you would have to do is find a few shooters and you could do what Stan Van Gundy is doing in Detroit. That's what a modern front office would try to do. Grunfeld played it safe and made the conventional pick, a decision which ended up backfiring on him in 2013.

The Brain Trust

I will never understand why they took Porter at No. 3 overall, knowing that one of the big selling points was his ability to play in the NBA right away and that Grunfeld would almost certainly bury him on the bench behind Ariza and Martell Webster. If you knew the guy wasn't going to contribute immeditaely, why not go with a more high-upside choice like Giannis Antetokounmpo? Knocking them for Giannis and Drummond may be a little unfair, but this is a team that should have at least thought about getting a guy like Nerlens Noel or Alex Len in one of their many forays through the lottery. Nene and Gortat are both in their 30's and their franchise players are both under 25 so why not secure a young high-upside big man in your last trip to the lottery? What is the point of taking an older swingman with a smaller ceiling if he isn't going to play anyway? Because he's the hot name on the mock drafts and he played at Georgetown?

Their best bet to break out of the box they are in is to sign KD in 2016, move him to the 4, start Otto Porter at the 3 and go with a spread pick-and-roll offense with whichever one of their remaining big men hasn't begun to break down. That could be a really good team, but what's in it for KD? Playing at the 4 is hard work - just take a look at the beating Draymond Green takes on a nightly basis in Golden State. In Oklahoma City, he has Serge Ibaka to do all the heavy lifting for him and he still benefits on offense as if he were playing with a smaller player because of Ibaka's ability to spread the floor.

You can spin it forward like once they have KD they will have all the space in the expanded cap room to bring in more FA's, but that's putting the cart before the horse. Are we even sure that Washington DC is a huge free agent destination? This is a franchise that has never won anything in one of the least appealing cities in the US to live in. All of the media people who live in DC try to sneak it in that group of New York, Los Angeles and Miami, but it's not that. New York has Broadway. LA has Rodeo Drive. Miami has South Beach. DC has ... K Street?

If we are talking lifestyle, I can see the appeal of going to Miami and hanging out on the beach year-round or going to NY and hanging out with Jay-Z and Beyonce or playing in front of the biggest stars in Hollywood on a nightly basis. DC is Hollywood for ugly people. People go to LA to be famous and they go to New York to be rich. People go to DC because they are attracted to power, they watched too many episodes of West Wing as a child and they want to change the world. These are not the kind of people you want to see partying with you when you are up in the club. If they were in any other city of the country, they wouldn't even be let in the club. No one's rooting for you if you are playing for DC's team. Regardless of whether you are a Democrat or a Republican, pretty much everyone in the country hates DC. The only difference between DC and Mordor is there's no golden ring and there's no lake of fire we can throw it into that will end their rule.

This a franchise that is going to have to sell winning not location. As it stands, it's hard to see the Wizards jumping the Cavs or the Hawks in the near future. The Raptors have a franchise-caliber big man (Jonas Valanciunas) whose only getting better as he moves into his mid 20's and the Heat have the most talented starting unit 1-5 if they can get everyone healthy next season. The Bucks have a good young core with three guys who should be able to close out games - MCW, Giannis and Jabari Parker - and the Pistons are looking more and more like Van Gundy's old Orlando Magic teams with each passing game. From there, you still have a Pacers team that is getting Paul George and a lottery pick next season. The days of the East being the dregs of the NBA are coming to a close and the window for Washington might already be closing shut.

That's how fast it goes in the NBA. It won't take very long for Wizards fans to go from dreaming about Kevin Durant to wondering whether John Wall will stay for a 3rd contract.

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