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NBA Free Agency 2012: The Upside Of Sobriety And Plan Versus Panic

When all else fails. #athleticism
When all else fails. #athleticism

Fear will keep league spending in line. Fear of the new cap penalties. Oops. The consensus of cap sobriety has yet to carry the day. You remember that kid's game where everyone stands in a circle, stacks their hands in the middle and whoever's on the bottom brings up their hand as fast as they can and slaps it on top? Watching this year's free agency feels a lot like that. A Wizards fan can't help but re-evaluate the Okafor/Ariza acquisition in light of this (supposedly) anachronistic orgy of spending.

A free-agent market littered with three to four year offers for players out of proportion to their production was predictable enough that Ted, Ernie and the Wizards front-office opted not to set foot in that particular pool this off-season, at least not all the way. As I, among many others, noted, this year's restricted free agent market was set to reward aggression. I misjudged exactly what that meant, but when it comes to putting a contender together on short notice, I can sum it up in twelve words: Joe Johnson in the hand is worth Dwight Howard in the bush. And like many fans, you might ask, are those my only two choices?

So what does that sentiment come down to? As Ken Meringolo might say, free agency for high impact players is 'boldly hoping'; if you have cleared the cap space necessary to make a max offer to restricted or unrestricted free agents, you must stack the deck in your favor in every way possible or you are stuck with hope as your plan, which is no plan at all. See: the Mavericks. Impact players who have been around the league long enough to be unrestricted free agents want to win and the restricted players don't control their own fate. What can you do?

Mikhail Prokhorov went Ahab, and that was just enough to retain Deron Williams WITH a 5 year, $100 million deal on the table. Brooklyn's version of purpose without conscience resulted in $140 million over the next four years for JJ and Gerald Wallace. That's the result of playing out the hand they dealt themselves when they pulled the trigger to acquire Williams before they had anything to show him. It's one example of how having a superstar on your roster is where building any contender starts. Where do the Wizards stand on building a contender? It's safe to suppose they don't like those two choices I mentioned a moment ago, either, but we don't really have to guess. #transparency!

Of all of the tools available, free agency has the most risk, costs the most as you always over pay (because you are in a bidding situation against other teams), and is the most uncertain – just because you have cap space doesn’t mean you can use it and get what you want as to a player joining your team. And free agency burns though cap space for a long term in that free agents tend to sign longer term deals. That translates to high risk and no guarantee of high reward. The free agent you do sign had better be the right player, as the player will get paid a lot of money and also get a lot of term.

A more responsible approach requires showing the ability to win, but without hamstringing your cap to the point where adding impact free agents in the near future becomes a moot point. This is the tightrope teams that are looking grow their own superstars must walk. DC was looking at paying Rashard Lewis roughly $23.9 million to be a corpse on the floor or $13 million to play for another team and turned dead money into viable and valuable starters who fit into the team culture. So, from a certain point of view, the Wizards are paying roughly $7.7 million this year for Trevor Ariza and Emeka Okafor. The Wizards are putting together a team they aren't handcuffed to (Brooklyn) that isn't based on boldly hoping (Dallas). The Wizards would rather not be in such a poor situation in the first place and are doing something about it.

Yes, 2013/14 those expiring deals combine for a whopping $22.2 million...if they're both on the roster. Kirk Hinrich's price tag when the Wizards acquired him was $17 million, but he was only on the roster until the trade deadline of his $8 million first season before General Manager Ernie Grunfeld turned him into expiring money, Jordan Crawford, a first round pick (Chris Singleton) and the sainted corpse of Mike Bibby. The Wizards' ability to make an unbalanced trade to absorb salary from short-sighted spending in the new era of cap penalties is gone if no moves are made, but there are no signs from owner Ted Leonsis that the Wizards are planning to be scavengers when that time comes.

DC is simultaneously rounding off the consequences of Gilbert Arenas' 6 year, $111 million contract signed back in 2008 while establishing a much more traditional roster balance of veteran to rookie talent. The team has forcefully stated via their actions over the last few months that they are committed to building around John Wall. There is talent and upside at every position on the floor. Remember a few paragraphs back about the Nets committing $140 million to Joe Johnson and Gerald Wallace over the next four years? This is the difference between careful planning and orchestrated panic, acting and reacting.

I'm not saying the choice is between taking on a horrific deal and the sober vision the Wizards decision-makers have evinced. But I know which I'd rather have. If the perfect opportunity arises for the right player at a position of need and we don't have the flexibility to execute an unbalanced trade, you can say I told you so. But as I've said many times before, self-determination is an omnipresent theme in every championship narrative and however they're choosing to go about it the Wizards are starting to exercise theirs.

Are there still serious needs on the roster? Of course. Before looking at the incremental improvement gambit we've used before, let's debunk the worst-to-first contending myth:

  • The Heat signed three superstars in their prime to less than max deals. In a state with no income tax. Replicable!
  • The Bulls lucked into a #1 pick, with an already solid team, who morphed into the league MVP faster than Michael Jordan. Replicable!
  • The Thunder drafted three elite talents in a row. Replicable!

There's more to every one of those stories, much more, but the talent driving those massive year-to-year leaps in W-L differential is my primary concern. Ted is one to plan, and since buying a lottery ticket as a retirement option doesn't really seem his style, it's no surprise his plan isn't centered around lucking into elite talents. Thus, the team, as constructed is set to make an incremental climb into the low lottery/mid-first round. The cost of that is the flexibility to execute an unbalanced trade: ok, I'm sure that flexibility is a great comfort to Dallas fans. What can I conclude?

The Wizards accurately assessed both the current free-agent market and the continued fiscal irresponsibility of teams around the league. Taking the sober view, they elected for incremental improvement of the roster, adding needed veteran talent and stability at SF and C for a net cost, this year, of roughly $7.7 million. They sacrificed the ability to execute the aforementioned unbalanced trade because I don't believe they're interested in cleaning up another team's mess and risking the ability to re-sign homegrown talents. The aggression required to execute that move was effectively the #32 pick in the 2012 draft, as I continue to believe Tomas Satoransky was the Wizards' target at the #46 pick dealt to the Hornets. Top tier talents tend to move unexpectedly and Ernie has proven himself capable of having those conversations (Nene Hilario).

All in all, the Wizards spent modestly in this free agency period for a significant result, acquired assets with both immediate court value and immediate-future trade value the GM has a history of being able to utilize effectively while stabilizing the environment around the youth the roster is built on. It's chess, not checkers. The unbalanced trade gambit is lost to the Wizards, but you show me a plan that's all upside and I'll show you a fan-tasy.