Contenders are built around the players that can break and consequently dictate gameplans. I was more emphatic than I have ever been that any shot at James Harden should have been taken. That he was a player worth the five-year max.
Which could easily strike you as disingenous. After all, this is coming from the guy who said the Wizards couldn't have made the deal the Rockets did without giving up far too much talented youth. Give me a moment to explain the evolution in my thinking.
Always underlying my thoughts when I look at trades, free agent activity, draft picks et cetera is my understanding of the franchise's operational rationale. So what change gestated in my head that I went from "couldn't match so why bother" to wondering about organizational inflexibility? Simply put, the scuttlebutt about Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey and his activity leading up to the trade.
As I mentioned last night, NBA fans watched Daryl Morey win trade after trade and build a team that would have made Billy Beane proud, but left the Rockets without the marquee talent contenders (see: above) are built around. From here we descend into the realm of the mildly hyperbolic.
When Morey went after Harden, he went ham. It may not have been daily calls to Sam Presti, as I originally thought, but when Presti prepared the Thunder's final offer for Harden, Houston was the team on tap.
Negotiations started with Presti asking for Kevin Martin, Chandler Parsons, Jeremy Lamb and three first rounders before Morey got Presti down to Martin, Lamb, the Raptors lottery pick and an additional Houston first. Could Ernie Grunfeld have matched that package? Maybe. He definitely could have made it a two horse race.
Maybe hearing Bradley Beal, Kevin Seraphin, Chris Singleton and two first rounders was simply a non-starter. Morey negotiated a more favorable deal, something a good GM should be able to do. Still, my chest tightened a little when I wrote that. But how much do you trust what your analytics department is telling you about James Harden? How much faith do you have in your player development to turn those players you're holding onto into stars? How comfortable have you become in your plan? Has a bumpy road made you risk-averse in an environment that can and does demand aggressive action?
Ted has spoken on the importance of knowing the aging of contracts. In fact, it's point nine of the 10 point plan:
9. Measure and improve. Have shared metrics--know what the progress is--and where it ranks on the timeline-- be honest in all appraisals; don't be afraid to trade young assets for other draft picks to build back end backlog-- know the aging of contracts-- protect "optionality" to make trades at deadlines or in off season; never get in cap jail. Having dry powder is very important to make needed moves.
It's easy to hide behind the rationale of the plan and claim the Wizards made the right move, to reaffirm confidence in the original course. Simple matter to mistake complacence for confidence. Did the aging of the #okariza contracts feed into that? One thinks the aging angle might have been mitigated by departing rookie contracts.
But more than anything else as a Wizards fan, I am stung by the thought that the Wizards are waiting for maximum leverage on their remaining powder so they can trade for the kind of superstar upper management casually discussed and declined to follow up on. How is not going all out for a game-changing talent not part of the playbook? One can always back off when the heat gets hot.
Going back to the aging question, was the timing wrong? That would be the most upsetting answer for me, at this point. When star talent rules the league, talent must dictate the plan, at least to an extent. Beyond an internal discussion, what evidence is there the Wizards cocked an eyebrow at a 23-year old statistical stud Olympian up for grabs? Zach Lowe initially wrote about the Harden trade, with respect to the Thunder's prospects:
[T]he fall from "true contender" to "fringe contender" is a steep one — one of the largest a team can take
Conversely, that step up is just as steep and the flexibility to scramble for an unexpected opportunity to get a leg up is essential for a franchise with a contending mentality. Whether or not this franchise has a contending mentality is seriously in question.
And it isn't as if either owner Ted Leonsis or Ernie Grunfled is coming out and stating their confidence in the roster's upside was a deciding factor. Of course, one doesn't expect them to comment on rumors, well, usually. I'll leave you with Kelly Dwyer's final word on the matter:
[W]hat an expected turnout for Washington, a team that can't seem to get back on its feet because the man attempting to help it up was the one who kneecapped it in the first place.