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The Wizards-Timberwolves trade is what happens when you try to have it both ways

For about a month, I've wondered about the truth of the Wizards' stated goals for the fifth pick.  From all that was written everywhere, the Wizards wanted to a) make a talent upgrade, b) get a veteran instead of a rookie that needs to "develop" and c) cut salary or not take on long-term salary in any trade they make.

I had no real problems with the Wizards' desire to trade the draft pick, since they clearly committed to a win-now philosophy when they passed on dealing Antawn Jamison for cap relief at the trade deadline.  The problem is trying to reconcile that goal with cutting salary or not taking on long-term money.  That strategy works if you have TIm Duncan or a similar top-six superstar on your team, but the Wizards didn't.  Instead, they had a payroll right up against the old luxury tax line (before the recession) without a bona fide superstar player to take you to the top.  If winning a championship truly was the goal, the only way to do that with the Wizards' type of payroll was to shove the luxury tax aside and trade for a major upgrade no matter the long-term cost. 

Trading for Mike Miller and Randy Foye doesn't do that.  Both players are helpful, but they improve the team's depth, not its top-flight talent.  They don't do all that much to fix many of the Wizards' biggest weaknesses (namely, defense), and by cashing some of his chips (the fifth pick, Etan's expiring deal) to get them, Ernie Grunfeld has created a major roster imbalance that he must now solve, except now he has far fewer assets available to do it.  It's not taking a risk as much as it is maintaining the status quo and making slight upgrades without going all the way. 

What trading Miller and Foye does do is save a bit of money while making said slight improvement.  The only pieces that have contracts that go past 2010 in the trade are the ones Minnesota is acquiring.  Etan Thomas is an expiring contract and Oleksiy Pecherov can be if the Timberwolves don't pick up his 2010 qualifying offer, but Darius Songaila's contract extends until 2011, assuming he doesn't opt out .  In addition, the Wizards save the long-term cost of having to pay the fifth pick in the draft for several seasons.  Assuming the Wizards would have continued to pick up his option throughout the duration of his rookie contract, the pick would have cost the Wizards 2.7 million in 2009/10, 2.9 million in 2010/11 and 3.132 million in 2011/2012, according to this scale (the numbers are probably a bit more than what they actually will be because they're based on the 2007/08 salary cap and luxury tax levels).  We therefore shave an additional $5.3 million dollars off our 2010/11 payroll, and we potentially save $10 million if we don't pick up Foye's qualifying offer (which sounds better than it is; renouncing the qualifying offer means we lose the right to match any offer for Foye.  He's as good as gone then).

We also save a bit of money this year and next.  Miller and Foye's 2008/09 salaries add up to $11.9 million (Miller's $9.1 million and Foye's $2.8 million), while Etan's, Darius' and Pech's add up to $12.5 million.  In 2009/10, we save even more.  Miller and Foye's salaries add up to 13.5 million, while Etan, Darius and Pech's add up to 14.5 million (adding in Etan's kicker).  Combine that with the $2.7 million for the draft pick, and that's nearly $4 million off next year's luxury tax bill.  Of course, that $4 million will be cut into to fill the roster, but it's still savings. 

So we save money and get some immediate help.  Miller's a perfect offensive fit next to Gil, and Foye's a low-risk reclamation project that can score, pass well and spot up better than I gave him credit for in this post.  They'll likely do more collectively to help next year than whoever we picked at #5.  Great, right?

The problem is that we aren't too much closer to the top than we were before.  Miller and Foye are both best at shooting guard, but neither is a good defender.  Both are pretty good passers and decent spot-up shooters, but they're likely going to steal minutes from each other.  I suppose Foye could play the point a bit with Gilbert out, but that's not going to be for much more than 10-15 minutes a game, and Foye has largely flopped as a point guard during his career.  Similarly, Miller could play some backup small forward, but Caron plays a lot of minutes when healthy too, and Dominic McGuire is also there.  There's also the prospect of Nick Young and DeShawn Stevenson cutting further into Foye and Miller's minutes, in addition to maybe even Javaris Crittenton.  The point is, I don't really know how many minutes Miller and Foye will actually be able to get to show they are upgrades over who we've employed at the starting two, backup one and backup three positions in the past. 

And even with this trade, we still haven't fixed two of our biggest weaknesses.  We still lack an excellent perimeter defender to pair with Arenas and Butler and we still lack and toughness and rebounding muscle to team with our frontcourt of the future (Blatche and McGee).  In fact, you could easily argue that we've made both of those problems worse, because we simultaneously are taking McGuire's minutes and giving them to Foye/Miller and losing Songaila, who was an underrated cog last season.  There's certainly the prospect (if not the necessity) to make another trade to shore up those weaknesses, but Ernie's got fewer assets available to do it.  He's basically down to Nick Young, Javaris Crittenton and one expiring contract (Mike James), because he wouldn't trade McGee or Blatche now that they're the only two backup bigs left.  Basically, unless one of the Big 3 is included, don't expect Amare Stoudamire.  More likely, we're talking Nick Collison or Tony Battie

So in making this trade, the Wizards are really trying to have it both ways -- winning now even while cutting salary.  This is clearly the most creative trade Ernie could make to have it both ways, but that's not how success is measured.  It's measured in championships, and I'm dubious that this really got us much further on that front.