Dear writers and fans of opposing teams;
I've noticed in my daily reading that some of you are still set on the Wizards using their fifth pick solely to get under the luxury tax. I don't necessarily come here to say you folks are dead-wrong, because none of us are prophets. It's true that the Wizards currently have 76 million dollars committed to 14 players for next season, and it's true that the luxury tax level is likely to go down (perhaps way down) from the current level of 71 million thanks to the possibility of the league losing as much as 10 percent of its revenue. It's also true that Abe Pollin, the Wizards owner, was very much against paying the luxury tax as recently as last summer prior to re-signing Gilbert Arenas and Antawn Jamison. Finally, yes, it's true the Wizards won 19 games this year and haven't advanced past the first round of the playoffs since 2005.
But times have changed. There are too many facts pointing in the other direction -- the Wizards are trying to add salary, not cut it -- to properly infer that the Wizards will sell away the pick just to get under the tax level. Six of those facts are below the jump. Read them, please, and then come back to me if you are still not convinced.
1. Abe Pollin's health
This is the single biggest factor at play here, and yet nobody has come out and made the proper inference. I understand why nobody has yet -- after all, Abe hasn't given too many interviews and the Wizards are notoriously tight-lipped when it comes to leaks -- but all signs point to Abe Pollin's declining health as the major reason why the Wizards aren't going to cut salary.
During the Wizards' first-round playoff series with Cleveland in 2008, Mike Wise reported that Abe, then 84 years old, was suffering from progressive supranuclear palsy, a degenerative brain disease that slowly impairs motor skills and balance. Wise wrote at the time that the disease is "not directly life-threatening," but corrected himself in a March 10 column this year, writing that "the progressive nature of the disease leads to trouble swallowing, the deterioration of eyesight and eventual death." The second column was written on the date of Pollin's last public appearance, when he was honored by George Washington University's business school. The 85-year old Pollin was wheeled out to the podium, and his voice was barely above a whisper. In short, he looked like his health was declining significantly.
While all this has happened, Abe has made his desire to win an NBA championship pretty clear. He later told Mike Jones of the Washington Times that he would be willing to go over the luxury tax to make it happen. Abe's been called cheap by his detractors, but it takes a lot to question the sincerity of his desire to win at this point. Abe's attempts to improve his ballclub historically have certainly been misguided, and he certainly has struggled in trying to balance his socially conscious actions with the need to win at all costs. But Abe is not Donald Sterling, interested only in his team profiting. He wants to win, and he'll put down his own money to do it (he did pay for the Verizon Center out of his own pocket, after all). When he says he desperately wants an NBA championship, he desperately wants an NBA championship.
What's my point? Abe Pollin is not going to sit through a rebuilding effort, not with his health declining so much that he won't have many more seasons left to win a championship. Selling the top draft pick just to go under the luxury tax line is akin to rebuilding. Teams that want to win a championship don't sell top-five draft picks for nothing. They do everything they can to improve on the foundation they built.
Costs be dammed. As insensitive as this may sound, Abe cannot take his money to the grave. He doesn't have time in his life to wait around for a rebuilding effort, so he's wiling to go all out in order to make one last run at a deep playoff run with the roster he's got.
2. The Wizards haven't been trying to actively cut salary yet
Let's review the actions of this organization since the end of last season.
- Re-signed injured superstar Gilbert Arenas to a six year/111 million dollar contract
- Re-signed 32-year old Antawn Jamison to a four year/50 million dollar contract
- Fired Eddie Jordan after a 1-10 start, eating as much as eight million dollars if Eddie did not sign on to coach another team
- Traded Antonio Daniels, who was set to make 6.6 million dollars in 2009/10, for Mike James (6.5 million dollars in 09/10) and Javaris Crittenton (1.5 million dollars in 09/10). To review, the Wizards sent out 6.6 million dollars in salary and added 8 million dollars in salary. That's a net gain of 1.4 million dollars in 2009/10.
- Declined to trade Antawn Jamison or Caron Butler to Cleveland (or elsewhere) in exchange for Wally Sczcerbiak and his 13.8-million-dollar expiring contract. Such a move would have cut the Wizards' 2009/10 total team salary down to just over 62 million, which would have put them under the luxury tax.
- Hired Flip Saunders, the top coach on the market save for possibly Avery Johnson, and gave him a four year/18 million dollar contract. This, of course, occurred before the 76ers selected Eddie Jordan to be their head coach. Remember, the Wizards must pay the difference between Eddie's current contract and the contract that he had here before he was fired. If Eddie didn't sign anywhere, that's at least eight million dollars.
Do these sound like moves made by an organization desperately looking to cut salary?
3. Where's the market?
Technically, the Wizards have until the 2010 draft to get under the luxury tax for the 2009/10 season. But as soon as the 2009 draft ends, that task becomes incredibly difficult.
Why? The best way to get under the 2009/10 tax line is to trade for contracts that expire after the 2008/09 season, not the 2009/10 season. Contracts that expire in 2010 count on the 2009/10 tax bill. The last real chance to trade for contracts that expired in 2009 was at this year's trade deadline. The Wizards didn't do that.
Now, there are only a few options available for the Wizards to cut salary. One would be to trade for a contract that is only partially guaranteed in 2009/10 on draft day. The only players that have contracts over 2 million dollars that are partially guaranteed are Jerry Stackhouse (7.3 million, only 2 million guaranteed), Greg Buckner (4.1 million, but only 1 million guaranteed), Chucky Atkins (3.8 million, not sure how much guaranteed), Steve Nash (13 million, all non-guaranteed), Steve Blake (4 million, non-guaranteed), Travis Outlaw (3 million, non-guaranteed), Bruce Bowen (4 million, non-guaranteed), Fabricio Oberto (3.8 million, non-guaranteed) and Matt Harpring (6.5 million, not sure how much guaranteed). The Wizards would have to trade a matching salary for one of those players and then cut them in order to save in 2009.
Another way would be to constantly be on the low end of the 125 percent rule. NBA rules dictate that salaries must match by 125 percent between two teams that are over the salary cap. The Wizards could constantly take in just 75 percent of salary, but that would have to occur in multiple trades to make a significant impact.
The final way to cut salary would be to dump a bad contract on a team well under the cap. Currently, the only team under the cap for 2008/09 are the Memphis Grizzlies. If the Wizards wait until after draft day, they could deal with Atlanta, Detroit, Minnesota, Oklahoma City or Memphis, all of whom are under the projected 2009/10 salary cap. But which of those teams wants any of our bad contracts? Atlanta needs their cap space to sign Mike Bibby, while Detroit is hoping to make a big splash in free agency. Etan Thomas is not a big splash.
If the Wizards really wanted to cut salary, they would have started earlier when more options were open. Now, there aren't too many ways to get under the tax threshold. Either the Wizards are incompetent or they don't really mind that they're over the tax. I'm leaning towards the second one.
4. Flip Saunders
We talked a bit about Flip's contract, but another piece of the puzzle is this: why would Flip take the job if the team was looking to shed salary? Flip had his pick of several openings, or he could have just sat on his contract from the Pistons and not taken any position. Instead, he took the Wizards opening quickly. A coach with the pedigree of Flip Saunders would only do that if the Wizards would do everything possible to try to win.
5. Ernie Grunfeld
Ernie's record in previous stops indicates he doesn't really know the meaning of the term "rebuild." In New York, Ernie gave out large contracts to role players like Chris Childs, Chris Dudley, Allan Houston (not the max contract offer, the one in 1997) and Charlie Ward. He did trade old for new once with the Charles Oakley-Marcus Camby trade, but otherwise, he was spending freely. Then, Ernie moved on to Milwaukee, quickly build them into a solid team, and then gave out huge contracts to Tim Thomas and Anthony Mason. When he left the Bucks, he left a team with tons of bad contracts and no real prospect of rebuilding. They're still paying for it now.
Ernie Grunfeld is not a GM who really knows how to cut salary or is interested in doing so. That's what the record says. So unless he gets fired, I doubt we'll see him actively engaging in a rebuilding effort.
6. They still believe in this team
The Wizards have a built-in excuse for last season: injuries. They played the entire year without their best player (Gilbert Arenas) and their best defensive player (Brendan Haywood). They played most of the year without their previous starting shooting guard (DeShawn Stevenson). They saw guys like Andray Blatche get hurt during the year. In response to that, you keep hearing management talking about how they still believe in this team. It could be a smokescreen, but it's a pretty damn big smokescreen to pull.
For all these reasons, I doubt the Wizards really cut salary on draft day. It's far more likely that they'll morgage their youth in order to bring in a high-priced veteran. The bias of this organization is against youth, not money. They're trying to trade the fifth pick because they don't believe a rookie can help this team much, not because they can't afford him.
So if you're very enamored with Nick Young, Andray Blatche, Javaris Crittenton, JaVale McGee or the prospects with the fifth pick, feel free to offer your overpaid veterans. That's far more likely to happen than a move to cut salary.