Washington Wizards: Contender By 2014/15 Or Bust

Apr 25, 2012; Cleveland, OH, USA; Washington Wizards point guard John Wall (2) passes through the lane against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first quarter at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-US PRESSWIRE

Looking at the salary cap situation for the Washington Wizards, it's easy to conclude a DC contender needs to be in place by 2014/15 or bust. John Wall will likely already have a five year max extension in his back pocket. The class of 2010 will all be looking at their qualifying offers while Trevor Ariza's and Emeka Okafor's contracts expire. Andray Blatche's deal will become an expiring contract, which should elicit a little shiver of excitement from not a few of the Wizards faithful. Of course, general manager Ernie Grunfeld has an issue with letting significant expiring contracts reach full term.

Ernie's tendency combined with the current cap situation points to an active trade deadline for the third straight year, but that seems unlikely. The Jazz are far better positioned to be players at the trade deadline, with Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson on expiring deals, a massively enticing coupling of cap space and serious talent for a contender with assets to liquidate. This year, more than any other since the Wizards drafted John Wall, looks to be about providing a stable environment for the team to push into the playoffs. Unless a franchise-changing talent comes available, this year's theme is 'Let It Ride.'

There is still plenty of friction over the Ariza-Okafor for Rashard Lewis trade. It hasn't received an unabridged thumbs-up across the blogosphere, naturally, and plenty of invested observers are less than happy with it. On the surface, you have acquired expensive, offensively-challenged veterans to put with an offensively-challenged team. Go a step deeper, and you have veterans that fit the defense-first culture the Wizards are building on short-term contracts while only paying $7.7 million more (this season) than you would have for an empty roster spot. Hang a left, and you've surrendered an opportunity to use theoretical cap space to execute an unbalanced trade. If signing Ryan Anderson for four years is your cup of tea while you're trying to figure out what to do with the class of 2010, that is.

In 2014/15, half the Wizards' cap space will be tied up in John Wall and Nene Hilario. In 2016/17, Bradley Beal will be due and Nene's contract will be coming off the books. That could very well be half the Wizards cap tied up in two players until the time comes for John to receive his third contract, big 'ifs' in there, of course.

In theory, the Ariza-Okafor trade has established a cap deadline that mirrors the GM's two-year contract extension. SB Nation reporter Michael Katz relayed owner Ted Leonsis' statement he would find a return to the lottery "unacceptable". The roster may now be replete with playoff-tested veterans to go with the promising youngsters, but that's a huge step from even last offseason:

...how long until the Wizards are back in the playoffs?”

Leonsis answer:

“Well, basketball players come into their prime statistically younger than hockey players. The stats show that basketball players reach their prime at 25 years old, and with hockey players it's 27. If you have young players with upside and they believe...” Leonsis then completed the answer by shifting his focus to the Caps.

What a difference a year makes, eh? That suggests to me that watching the Nene effect and Kevin Seraphin blossom in the close of the 2011/12 season escalated expectations. It tells me that Ernie sold Ted that Okafor and Ariza means playoffs and the perfect environment for John Wall to take the next step. (Playoff revenue funds amnesty in Andray Blatche's final year?) Ernie's track record shows that he can deal a veteran to a playoff team at a position of need before the 2013/14 trade deadline expires. He has, in effect, staked his job on the outcome of the Okafor-Ariza trade.

That's not to say the fate of the John Wall era rests on the trade. Is it hugely impactful? Yes. I'll echo Mike's sentiments here: no player wants to be part of a permanent rebuilding project. The Wizards ensured that was no longer the case. If they opt to part ways with Ernie Grunfeld, there will still be a wide variety of S&T deals with additional young assets and draft picks a new GM could use to acquire another major piece. And all it may take if Wall and Beal have grown significantly is one more.

Make no mistake. Once the team roster has taken shape in 2014/15, the Wizards should be looking to win homecourt advantage in the playoffs. There is a mountain of uncertainty between here and there, and while all signs point to contending 2014/15 or bust, there's plenty of ways to get there.

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