Back in August, Ted Leonsis laid out the Washington Wizards' long-term strategy in what seemed like very clear terms. The Wizards had just given John Wall a maximum contract extension, and Leonsis was talking about what he believed to be the positive implications of completing the move right away rather than waiting.
"We want to have the opportunity to bring in that one transformational key free agent," Leonsis said afterwards. "Well, free agents only want to come to teams that they know are stable, that are making the playoffs and they think they can be additive to get you over that next hump. That they know you're willing to make the investment."
Later, Leonsis clarified:
"I think [Wall's new deal will] help us to not only to keep future young players that want to be here, but when the time is right, to be able to attract brand-name, marquee free agents."
Nine months later, the Washington Wizards have more than accomplished their goals. They are an "in" team after completing a longer playoff run than expected. Not only did they knock off a Chicago Bulls team so heavily respected league-wide that the Nets moved heaven and earth just to avoid them in the playoffs, but they did so convincingly. Wall had his playoff moments. Bradley Beal emerged better than ever on the biggest stage. They put up a heck of a fight against the Pacers, coming really close to winning that series. Their Q rating could not possibly be higher.
And yet, we're hearing lots of this. From ESPN's Marc Stein:
The early word is the Wizards will try to retain both [Marcin Gortat and Trevor Ariza] as opposed to letting them go to make some sort of fantasy run at the likes of Baltimore's own Carmelo Anthony or seemingly gettable restricted free agent Greg Monroe.
From Michael Lee of the Washington Post:
The priority for team owner Ted Leonsis and President Ernie Grunfeld is retaining unrestricted free agents and starters Marcin Gortat and Trevor Ariza- the Wizards' best rebounder and shot blocker and the best three-point shooter and perimeter defender, respectively. Both players earned $7.7 million this season and will be looking for raises in the summer, when the Wizards will be at least $18 million under the salary cap (currently $58,679,000), which is expected to increase.
Washington believes it has enough to bring back both players.
And this, from Jason Reid of the Washington Post:
The buzz on the Internet is that the Wizards will have to choose between Gortat and Ariza. They couldn't possibly keep both and remain under the luxury tax threshold, the thinking goes. But the thinking may be wrong.
Gortat and Ariza both have salaries of a little more than $7.7 million. Even if the Wizards offer Gortat a few million more per season and also make a strong pitch to Ariza, they could remain under the tax.
I understand why. Ariza and Gortat were major contributors this season, and both have expressed a desire to stay. There's a very real risk in losing both and taking a step back next season, which would be disastrous to the positive momentum the 2013-14 Wizards built. And yes, the salary cap is expected to keep rising, so there might be another window to make a big move.
But at the same time ... this is the Wizards' best chance!
Only the rest of the league knows for sure, but shouldn't this be a hot destination? Great city, a team on the rise, plenty of cap space, the chance to attack a weak Eastern Conference ... doesn't all that appeal to some of these top free agents? Besides mystique, why would Kevin Love, for example, prefer the Celtics to the Wizards? Which team is in a better position now? (Note: That's a different question than asking which team has more trade assets, because clearly the Celtics do).
This also might be the Wizards' only chance. Keeping Gortat and Ariza will likely eat up $15-20 million of the salary cap for however many years they sign. Nene comes off the books in two years ... just as Bradley Beal's extension will kick in. Wall has the biggest slice of the team's salary earmarked. The salary cap is expected to rise significantly, but it'd be hard to believe it goes up so much that the Wizards would again have between $15 and $20 million in cap space with Wall, Nene, Ariza and Gortat all on big-money deals. Possible, but hard to believe. There are trade avenues to explore, but other teams have significantly more non-player assets to use.
That's why now is the time to get in the discussion with the big guns. The Wizards are among the more tight-lipped teams generally and hate when their business leaks to the media, so I wouldn't mistake the quiet for inactivity. Still, I'd like to hear them come out of the woodwork more, if only to send a message that they mean business. Talk to Carmelo Anthony. Talk to Greg Monroe. Wedge your way into the Love rumors, even if they don't have much to trade. Talk to Chris Bosh. Showing that aggression will pay dividends at some point. The Clippers, for example, would've had much less of a chance to get Chris Paul if they didn't hold that token meeting with LeBron James in 2010.
And before you ask: there are ways to do this while still keeping open the chance to re-sign Gortat and Ariza. It's true that to sign anyone, the Wizards would have to renounce their rights, basically setting them free. But as Grantland's Zach Lowe noted:
The Wiz may need to retain Bird rights on Gortat and Ariza so they can outbid suitors who would offer those players the midlevel exception. That wouldn't preclude Washington from going under the cap. The Wiz could keep Gortat and Ariza on their books unsigned, talk to Bosh/Melo-level players, and then renounce Gortat and Ariza if they strike an informal deal with one of the stars.
Point being: the Wizards, if they wanted, could work out the timing to maintain the backup plan.
This is the opportunity the Wizards should seize. It's in part by necessity, because the alternatives are keeping Gortat and Ariza or trying to find reasonable replacements that will be cheaper, but not better in terms of talent or fit. But it's also in part because the Wizards DID make a nice playoff run and DID get the national attention they desired. The point of "playoffs or bust" is to use that as a springboard to future success. There's a major opportunity at play here, and the Wizards shouldn't be quick to pass it up.
Now, obviously, the free-agent targets may pass on signing here. That happens. And if so, keeping Gortat and Ariza is a fine plan so that the positive momentum gained from this year doesn't go away.
But again: even if those free agents go elsewhere this year, the Wizards would still send a message to the rest of the league that they are serious about being a destination for stars. If they play their cards right, that might pay off in the future. Like, say ... in 2016, when a certain local star is on the market.
You cannot become a destination for "brand-name, marquee free agents" until you act like a destination for brand-name free agents. To answer Leonsis' words from August, the time is right to start doing that.