I've spent lots of time reading everyone's reaction to the big trade that sent Trevor Ariza and Emeka Okafor to the Washington Wizards for Rashard Lewis and the No. 46 pick, and this all feels so familiar. Once again, we've drawn our battle lines between two distinct points of view. I call it, "The Battle Of Certainty Vs. The Unknown."
On one side, you have people happy about getting useful players and imploring the other side to come up with a "realistic" alternative. Of course, the logic here is circular. Any alternative plan could be deemed unrealistic because it relies on assumptions, but the only way for an assumption to not be an assumption is for it to have been conducted, which could never happen because a different move was already conducted. By definition, a move can be viewed as being "realistic" only when it actually is made real. Any move that isn't "real" is, literally, unrealistic. I think you catch my drift by now.
On the other side, you have people who believe it would have been smarter to wait for a better deal or do no deal at all. Of course, here, one must prove that there is another deal coming or that the Wizards could live with another bad season if another deal did not come along. These are pretty impossible things to prove. Also, Ernie Grunfeld's point is somewhat sound here: there is no certainty that a player will accept a free agent contract, whereas they have no choice but to accept a trade.
Ultimately, this is the root of this discussion ... just as it was the root of the Nene trade discussion ... just as it was the root of the Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler trade discussions ... just as it was the root of the Mike Miller/Randy Foye discussions. Those trades were made in different contexts, no doubt. I'm just saying the arguments for and against the trade are framed in similar ways.
So what do I think about this trade? Let's jump.While acknowledging that many of the arguments of the "certainty" crowd are compelling in this case, I think I'd prefer the unknown. It's impossible to separate the salary-cap problems with the on-court success of the team, so I won't try to do so. Essentially, I don't think Okafor and Ariza are good enough as players and leaders to justify the salary commitments, the way they address the Wizards' shortcoming and the roster dynamics they have created over the next two years.
At their very best, Okafor is a decent center that's underrated defensively and Ariza is a useful complimentary wing player. Both are excellent defensively, and more importantly, they have been excellent defensively in recent years. But that's at their very best. In both cases, there have many instances where they haven't approached their very best.
Okafor's an interesting case. Early in his career with the Bobcats, he was a pretty solid player, capable of providing consistent production, but also defined too much by his shortcomings. He was a lot like Nene, in fact, though Nene is far more skilled offensively. His first year in New Orleans was a major struggle, but I thought he bounced back with arguably his best year in 2010-11, emerging as a really strong defensive anchor that slid his feet and protected the rim beautifully. The Hornets' defense in 2010-11 was outstanding for long stretches, and Okafor was one major reason why. Last year, though, he missed 27 games with injury, and he's now pushing 30. He's expensive -- though short-term -- and he's at best on the tail end of his prime.
Ariza, meanwhile, is a classic case of a player who provides some key things, but takes a lot off. He really is a terrific perimeter defender, using his length and quickness to bother top threats. According to MySynergySports.com, offensive players only scored 33 percent of the time on Ariza in both isolation situations and spot-up shots. (Note: small sample size alert on the former). However, he has been a dreadfully inefficient offensive player ever since his departure from the Lakers, posting true shooting percentages below 50 percent in each of the last three years. Only eight small forwards that played at least 20 minutes a game in 20 games this year posted a true shooting percentage lower than Ariza's 49.7-percent mark ... and that was his highest TS% in three years. Ariza's shot selection improved too, so the real issue is he's just not a good shooter at all, whether it's in the paint, from mid-range or beyond the three-point line.
Again, at best, both are really good defensive players and somewhat limited offensive players. They will make the Wizards better next season, and potentially will help push them into playoff contention. Then again, any warm body is an improvement over a $13.7 million money bag that represents Rashard Lewis. The issue is twofold: how much better do they make the Wizards, and is that improvement worth the cost?
One problem I see is that, while decent players, Ariza and Okafor don't address the Wizards' biggest weaknesses. Post-trade deadline, the Wizards were actually an above-average defensive team. Assuming that some elements of that late-season run would carry over, defense wasn't really a huge weakness. You can never be too good defensively, of course, and expecting the Wizards to be as good as they were to close the season is expecting a lot. But I wouldn't say defense is the Wizards' biggest need.
The huge need was perimeter shooting, and this trade does nothing to solve that. Ariza is a career 31.7-percent three-point shooter that many somehow believe is excellent from that range because of one well-timed hot streak in the 2009 playoffs. Okafor, meanwhile, has never attempted more than one 16-23 foot jump shot per game in his career. If anything, this only makes the need even more of a need, because they will likely be soaking up key minutes at small forward and center.
Of course, if the Wizards draft Bradley Beal next Thursday, it will address their perimeter shooting need. But that's a separate transaction, and I don't think it's sufficient to fix the problem. For one, you're asking a rookie to be your best perimeter shooter. For another, he now has to compensate for the lack of shooting ability of Ariza and Okafor, not to mention John Wall.
Essentially, the Wizards are getting two potentially useful rotation pieces that are excellent defensively, not great offensively and don't address the Wizards' biggest need (though the draft pick might). They're short-term upgrades on the incumbents -- Ariza on Chris Singleton, Okafor on the combination of Trevor Booker and Jan Vesely -- but the cost is any possible salary-cap flexibility the Wizards have for the next two seasons, as described here. Nobody really knows for sure what would have resulted from that flexibility, but I would argue that doing nothing here was preferable to getting Ariza and Okafor. Others will argue differently. I understand some of these points, though I respectfully disagree with them.
One argument I've seen a lot is that this will have a positive affect on Wall's psyche. Wall was clearly not happy with the pre-trade Wizards and was much more at ease with the post-trade unit. The argument goes that Wall may have considered leaving when his rookie contract was up if the Wizards didn't at least try to add some more win-now veterans.
I admit to not having a good pulse on Wall's frame of mind here, but barring any inside information I'm missing, this feels like an overreaction to me based on the current league's free-agent setup.
When Wall's rookie deal comes up, the Wizards have all the leverage because Wall will only be a restricted free agent. If he rejects an early extension offer, he plays out his fourth year and becomes a restricted free agent. Once that happens, the Wizards can match any offer that another team makes to him. Wall can demand a trade all he wants, but he can't really back up his tough talk. The only way he can leave after his rookie contract is up is to play his fifth year on the qualifying offer, but this is a huge risk. Wall would essentially waste a year of his NBA career, lose some long-term earning potential, risk an injury, become difficult to trade due to the loss of his Bird Rights and deal with mind games the Wizards will potentially play knowing he is unlikely to return after his fifth year. (Put it this way: if you know Wall's leaving, why bother treating him like a franchise player)?
It's possible he does all this, but it's pretty unlikely. No NBA star that has demanded a trade has done it before his rookie contract is up. They have always signed a contract extension with their first team, then done it when they had the leverage of being an unrestricted free agent on their side. Perhaps a guy on a rookie contract will figure out a way to create leverage, but until it happens, I'm not holding my breath.
We should be concerned if Wall follows the path of LeBron James and only signs a three-year extension instead of a five-year one. That gives him an out sooner.
At the end of the day, this line from Kelly Dwyer's piece resonated with me:
Sure, we knew that 2015 (and not 2012) would be "the thing" for Washington as it slowly worked around its past mistakes. We just didn't think they'd fill the roster with highly paid vets while it waited that growth out. And we sort of hoped Grunfeld could have done better than taking on more salary for so-so players in exchange for Lewis' partially guaranteed deal.
Dwyer, using the royal "we," writes that he understands the deal to a point. I, too, understand the deal to a point. I just don't think it was the best thing the Wizards could have done.
Once again, then, we've arrived back at the fundamental argument of certainty vs. the unknown that will dominate discussion of this deal going forward.