There is no doubt in my mind that the Wizards have reached the preverbal fork in the road. We're 8-17. The season is close to a third over. We have not demonstrated any progress from the beginning of the season. Sure, we've played close games, but against teams like the Raptors, Bucks, Clippers, Warriors, Pistons, Pacers, 76ers and Kings. Teams that, if we really were making progress, we'd defeat more handily.
The "slow start" meme is also losing steam. It's been 25 games. We're nearly a third of the way into the season. We have a 25-game sample of Caron Butler struggling mightily to fit into the offense. We have a 25-game sample of Gilbert Arenas slowly getting his way back into the flow, a 25-game sample of him trading good performances with bad, a 25-game sample of him struggling to finish shots at the rim and convert free throws. We have a 25-game sample of Flip's offensive system not working so well. We have a 25-game sample of the inconsistencies our young players bring. These are no longer statistically insignificant.
The fork leans three ways. Here they are:
OPTION 1: Stay the course, wait for Mike Miller to come back, and hope things turn around. Positives: easier for Ernie Grunfeld to save face, easier to execute (you aren't relying on other teams to accept trades for you), easier to sell to most of your fans (see, we won't tank! We're "trying" to win). Negatives: you aren't building toward much in the future, even a best-case scenario for this year is low-40s wins and a first-round exit, you bring upon yourselves really tough decisions in the offseason with Haywood/Miller and your long-term cap flexibility, you force me to watch this team (slightly kidding).
OPTION 2: Make an in-season trade with the goal being to upgrade this year's team. This could come in the form of an addition-by-subtraction trade (Caron for pieces that help you win now), or by trading your expirings and propsects for a veteran and ballooning your payroll even more. Positives: you're still trying to win and you are actually proactive about it instead of waiting around. Negatives: you still create big long-term questions down the road.
OPTION 3: Rebuild completely and trade what you can for payroll flexibility.
Option three seems to be en vogue right now, but I don't think people realize quite what that means. Below the jump, let's explore it more.
First things first: rebuilding sucks. You do not rebuild and become a good team overnight. Just take a look at two of up-and-coming young teams in our league right now that we envy (Oklahoma City, Portland). Both those teams had several years where they just plain sucked. Oklahoma City was once Seattle, who has not made a playoff appearance since 2005. They were 20-62 two seasons ago and 23-59 last season. Portland, meanwhile, went six years between playoff appearances as they slowly deconstructed the JailBlazer teams. They had to get crappy and unload their terrible contracts before they got good again. Talk to any of their fans - trust me, those terrible years were painful for them.
There are others, too. What about a team like Atlanta, who didn't win more than 35 games from 2000 to 2008? They have an enviable situation now, but it took a lot of time to get there. Then, there are the teams that are only now sort of starting to turn things around -- teams like Sacramento and Memphis. Those teams haven't been relevant since 2006, when both made the playoffs. Memphis got ridiculed for their efforts to rebuild, while Sacramento had the worst record in basketball last year and is facing relocation issues. Both those teams needed to take their lumps, but now, they have young stars, a lot of cap space and some nice long-term prospects. I'd trade rosters with both of them in a heartbeat.
The point here is, if you're going to rebuild, then you need to rebuild for the long run. No going halfway and wondering whether you're really "winning" each individual trade. It's the long-term vision that matters. Seattle didn't "win" the Ray Allen trade. Portland didn't "win" the Zach Randolph trade. Memphis sure as hell didn't "win" the Pau Gasol trade. They made the trades with an eye on the future, an eye on getting long-term cap flexibility. Most of the time, they didn't even get great prospects back. They did, however, facilitate the ability to get prospects later, via the draft, and they also created the ability to choose a direction for the team, rather than being forced to "compete" because you have a bloated payroll.
To rebuild, you have to tear down the foundation. The foundation of this team is clear: Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison. Every other undesirable piece, save for DeShawn Stevenson, expires before 2010. We therefore need to move our Big 3 for cap flexibility and prospects to really rebuild.
I think we can safely say Gilbert Arenas is untradeable. Nobody is touching that contract without sending equally crappy ones back. For example, Golden State might want Arenas, but would insist on us taking back Corey Maggette (three more years at $10 million per). Philadelphia could use Arenas, but only if we take back Elton Brand's massive contract for three more years. Since the goal is to avoid adding long-term salary, we might as well hold onto Arenas for now. Maybe he comes back and can be a foundational piece like he was before. Maybe he gets just good enough for someone to take him on down the road. Either way, he's unmovable now.
The same cannot be said for Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler. We know someone values Jamison around the league -- Cleveland tried to get him last year and is interested in him again this year. I assume Butler will also garner interest around the league, considering he's got the shortest and cheapest contract. But remember, if we're really blowing things up, we want cap space before prospects. You get the cap space to get payroll flexibility, then you draft the prospects with the inevitable lottery picks that result.
So that being said, here are two simultaneous realistic trades I think we need to make to rebuild properly.
- Minnesota does this because they have awful wing production in the short- and long-term. Butler provides that for two years, and the Timberwolves aren't going to have to give up any of their building-block pieces (Flynn, Rubio, Love, Jefferson, even Brewer). He's just as good as anyone they'd likely get this offseason in the 2010 sweepstakes, and they still retain enough cap room to broker one of those uneven trades. For example, the Timberwolves now become one of the few teams able to sign-and-trade for Rudy Gay, who will inevitably become a base-year compensation player with his new deal. They only give up Gomes and Cardinal, while swapping a better player with a longer contract (Sessions) for a guy with a shorter contract (Stevenson)
- We do this because Gomes and Cardinal combine for $10.6 million in 2010 savings, assuming we cut Gomes before June 30 (the remaining years on his deal are non-guaranteed). We also bring in a nice piece in Sessions, who either becomes a cheap replacement for Arenas once we trade him or provides that necessary second ball-handler to play some time behind Arenas and some time with him.
- Cleveland does this for obvious reasons - they need a stretch four and Jamison's among the best in the game.
- We do this to clear Jamison's long-term salary off our cap. We can cut Ilgauskas and let him go back to Cleveland, or we can keep him. Either way, we save $11.5 million. We also get Hickson, a nice young prospect, and a #1 pick (though it'll probably be in the 20s).
We then enter the 2010 sweepstakes with this roster: Arenas, Sessions, Andray Blatche, JaVale McGee, Hickson, Nick Young, a 2010 lottery pick, a 2010 late first-rounder and a 2010 second-rounder. Combined payroll - around $33 million. Enough to lure a max free agent if we want the quick rebuild, and also enough cap flexibility to go the long route if we strike out.
That's how you rebuild. Okay, it's not exactly how you rebuild -- there are other possible trades out there -- but those follow the model. You trim payroll with uneven trades, even if it means not getting great young prospects. Then, you let your young guys play through their issues, filling in the gaps with cheap vets to maintain "culture." You lose, then draft more young guys and try to get foundational pieces. There's no guarantee it works, but it's how you have to do it in this league. To get to Oklahoma City circa 2009, you got to go through OKC circa 2007 and 2008.
I'm not sure we're quite at the rebuild stage yet, but we need to start thinking about it. Once we do, we got to do it right, meaning make unbalanced trades in the short term and take our lumps with a roster that won't win many games. Just a word of caution to those who want to pursue this route: it's going to be a long road back.