If you believe about a third of the experts who contributed to ESPN.com's season preview, you'd think the loss of Larry Hughes was like the Lakers losing Shaq.
OK, not quite... But they do seem to think it was enough of a loss to knock the Wizards from a second-round playoff team to a lottery pick in the 2006 entry draft. No one on ESPN's panel predicts the Wizards to improve on their fifth-place finish.
I'm not sure they'll improve, but I certainly don't think they're any worse than they were last year. Sure, they lost a legit ball thief in Hughes, but they also unloaded crybaby Kwame Brown and added Caron Butler and Antonio Daniels.
Hughes was dangerous on defense and on offense, but too often that danger was to his own team. Defensively, he cut down passing lanes and was a solid stopper when he focused on the man and not the ball, but too often he would go for the big steal, come up empty and find himself 15 feet from the man he was supposed to be defending. Offensively, Larry needed the ball way too much. When he was hot and taking good shots, he was capable of scoring 30 in a night. Too often, though, he would toss up ill-advised jumpers that would clank harmlessly off the rim and into the hands of the opposition. It almost cost the Wizards the series against the Bulls.
Losing Hughes should mean that Gilbert Arenas doesn't have to worry about his backcourt partner going Keyshawn on him ("Give me the damn ball!"), and that will allow him to find Brendan Haywood and Etan Thomas, both high-percentage shooters, under the basket more often. As much as I dislike Kwame Brown for his whining and the comments he made after he left, he did submit a legitimate gripe about the team's unwillingness to get the ball to the post.
Eddie Jordan has been working more with the team on defense, hoping that they can avoid the 110-105 contests that were all-too-common last season. A big key to that will be Haywood, who is amazing on the offensive glass but never seems to be in the right place to collect the boards on defense. A healthy Etan Thomas should help that effort as well, as will new addition Calvin Booth at center.
Also, this team is deep. Thomas will likely come off the bench, as will newly-acquired guard Chucky Atkins, center Calvin Booth, guard/forward Jarvis Hayes, forward Jared Jeffries, and center/forward Michael Ruffin. That should take the pressure off the starting five, as last year's bench was hit-or-miss when called upon.
The strengths are clear. Gilbert Arenas and Antawn Jamison are all-star caliber players. There is enough depth to keep everyone well-rested at all times (plus they've got fouls to give with Michael Ruffin and Calvin Booth).
The weaknesses are also obvious. They give up points in bunches. They're not aggressive enough on the defensive glass.
However, what I think was overlooked by most of the experts is that this team should be much-improved on defense. I still don't believe the "Larry Hughes, defensive juggernaut" hype, and I think Antonio Daniels more than makes up for his presence on D. If the offense lost anything from his and Kwame's departure, it is more than made up for by the newfound depth that should allow the team to stay in games even when the starters are getting a breather. Chucky Atkins should provide more consistency than Juan Dixon or Steve Blake ever did. I just don't see this team missing the playoffs.
That being said, it all starts tonight at 7.
Here's a quick primer:
2004-2005 Record: 45-37
Projected Starters: G - Gilbert Arenas, G - Antonio Daniels, F - Antawn Jamison, F - Caron Butler, C - Brendan Haywood.
Key Reserves: G - Chucky Atkins, C - Etan Thomas, C/F - Michael Ruffin, G/F - Jarvis Hayes, F - Jared Jeffries, C - Calvin Booth
Circle The Dates:
11/15 @ Cleveland (Larry Hughes)
11/30 vs. Portland (Juan Dixon, Steve Blake)
12/10 vs. Chicago
12/11 @ Miami
12/16 @ LA Lakers (Kwame Brown)
12/26 vs. LA Lakers
12/30 vs. Miami
2/10 vs. Cleveland
2/24 @ Cleveland
3/8 @ Miami
4/1 @ San Antonio
4/16 vs. Cleveland