What Else Would They Be?

Eric Maynor is supposed to be an upgrade at backup PG. Unfortunately, he's not.

Mike Lee offered up this piece about Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld, Coach Randy Wittman optimistic about upcoming season. Leaving aside the “well, of course, what else would they be?” factor, there were some tidbits that are worth a little scrutiny.

Grunfeld on expectations for upcoming season: ”We’re excited about the upcoming season. We finished last year off strong. Obviously, our young players have worked hard in the offseason. They’ve shown improvement and we want to build on what we started to establish last year. Obviously, our initial goal is to be a playoff contender and ultimately, by the end of the year, make the playoffs.

Standard GM babble that doesn’t mean much of anything. The first sentence that catches my eye is that one about young players working hard in the offseason. This is a story being repeated right now in every NBA city by owners, executives, coaches, players, journalists, pundits and fans alike. It sounds and feels good, but if every team’s young players are working hard and getting better…how much advantage does one team get over another?

In reality, a large number of those stories are chicken manure. Some guys worked hard; others didn’t. Some guys used their time well and improved their games; others didn’t.

And there’s yet another thing to consider — let’s say for the sake of discussion that Kevin Seraphin, Jan Vesely and Chris Singleton all put in a ton of work this offseason and really, truly, genuinely got better. How much will it make a difference? These guys were among the league’s least productive players last season. They’re each coming from such a low level that they could make major improvements and still be bad.

Wittman on his expectations for Kevin Seraphin: “I have high expectations for all of our guys coming in. Do I have expectations for Kevin to have a better year than he did last year? Yes. … Kevin…his confidence level now, and how he holds himself now, being here pretty much all summer working on his game to make that next step. Yeah, I expect that from our young guys to continue that growth. I think we saw it with Jan. Jan had a good summer, whether it was just with us in the summer league or what he did, playing with his national team. You know, those are positive things and you hope that now they can carry that over into the season.”

The team is still prepping for training camp so they’re still peddling optimism. You’re not going to hear a coach saying something like, “Seraphin was really bad last season and we’ll have to see if he’s improved before we’ll count on him as a part of the rotation.”

It would surely be nice if Seraphin could somehow regain the form he showed at the end of the season before last. That guy was at least a competent NBA player. Last season, he was awful — the league’s least productive center, according to my analysis. Seraphin is a weird bundle of contradictions. He has a massive, muscle-bound frame (he says he currently weighs 277 and has a body fat percentage 0f 9.5%), but he rebounds like a small forward. He has a smooth looking post-up game, but those smooth-looking shots miss more often than they hit. And he’s a turnover machine.

Confidence is wonderful, but it needs to come with competence. After his terrible play last season, I’m skeptical about whether he’ll ever be a useful NBA player. By all means give him a chance in training camp to show he’s improved. But I wouldn’t count on him as part of the rotation.

Grunfeld on meeting offseason goals: “I think we had some goals of what we wanted to accomplish. We wanted to upgrade our backup point guard position and Eric [Maynor] has been with us now, three weeks in a row. He’s very solid, very steady. He brings a little poise to the game. He knows how to play. So we feel we’ve upgraded that position. We wanted to get a stretch four and Al [Harrington] will provide that for us. And we also wanted to make sure our young players continue to develop. Our young players, like Seraphin and Vesely, as Randy just spoke about, and Bradley Beal. I think one of the things that Brad also did was improve his ball handling, and try to play better in the pick and roll. He worked on his body and is outstanding shape. As all of our young players are. So, we wanted to see improvement from within and we wanted also address some of the positional needs that we felt like we had and I think we have. And I feel like the continuity of having 11 players back from last year’s roster will also help us.”

Here, Grunfeld is making the same assertion I’ve been seeing all summer — the Wizards have upgraded at backup PG by signing Eric Maynor. Maybe Grunfeld and “everyone” will turn out to be correct, but I don’t think so. My analysis reveals Maynor as unproductive throughout his career — both before and after his knee injury.

Last season, A.J. Price was better. Per 36 minutes, Maynor generated exactly one assist more than Price. But, Price shot better from the floor and the free throw line, got nearly twice as many rebounds, and had 1.2 fewer turnovers per 36 minutes.

For what (in my analysis) is actually a DOWNgrade at backup PG, the Wizards spent their biannual exception. On the first of day of free agency. Which meant that they didn’t have the BAE to spend later when they could have signed other reserve PGs who would have been upgrades over Price, or when they could have signed a reserve big man like DeJuan Blair. But, hey, who needs depth in the frontcourt when you have Seraphin and Jan Vesely?

Wittman on maintaining continuity: “We’re going, as a coaching staff, the last two or three weeks, evaluating how we want to conduct camp, and it’s so much easier when you’ve got … 11 that understand why we’re doing things, how we’re going to do things. That makes it a lot easier in my mind, in terms of evaluating how much you throw at them and how they handle it and all that. So that’s a positive. We established ourselves from a standpoint defensively, and that’s not going to change. That’s got to be first and foremost as we head into camp, that foundation that we built and that they built. They bought into this system and that system won’t change. They know what that system is already compared to last year with as many new faces as we had, that you had to teach that new system. That’s always a positive.”

The team has been selling “continuity” as part of its plan since they made the trade to get Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza. As I’ve written in other places, I think they have the “let’s keep everyone together” part too early in their plan. Continuity is outcome, not a goal. When a team starts winning, it makes sense to keep it together. When a team loses, it’s nuts to say, “We’ll start winning if we keep these guys together.”

No, teams are bad because the players are unproductive. The GM of a bad team shouldn’t be thinking about continuity, he should be thinking about how he get rid of dead weight on his roster and bringing in better players.

Then of course there’s consideration given to what the team’s goals are. In this case, their goal is to compete for a playoff spot. When you’re 178 games under .500 over the past decade (by some weird coincidence, the number of years Grunfeld has been at the helm), I guess that qualifies as a stretch goal. And, they have a realistic goal of achieving it, especially if Okafor’s neck heals. Still, it might have been wise to get another big man (not a SF masquerading as a PF like Al Harrington) in case something happened to one of the team’s 30+ year old bigs.

Speaking of Harrington — while it made Wall (and some fans) happy to sign an officially designated “stretch four” (a power forward who shoots jump shots and doesn’t rebound much), Harrington’s biggest contribution will be to keep Vesely, Singleton and (possibly) Seraphin off the floor. Each of that group landed among the league’s 15 least productive players last season, and it’ll be a net gain if some combination of Harrington and Trevor Booker can consume some of the 3,246 minutes they played last season.

Think about that a sec. Three of the 15 least productive players in the game last season were on the floor for 16.3% of the team’s minutes. Wow.

So, Harrington can help just by playing reasonably competent basketball (which he’s done in the past) and keeping those three on the bench. That said, I continue to think that the team’s best stretch four is Trevor Ariza — a tough-as-nails competitor who can shoot the three.

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