The 2013-14 Washington Wizards were a team that overcame obstacles in the regular season to overachieve in the playoffs and emerge as an exceedingly likable bunch. The face of the franchise was a young guard with significant upside, but they succeeded with a small core group that shared the big responsibilities and propped up a shallow reserve unit.
They enter the summer with a difficult decision on a key member of that core. It's a player that has taken a while to bounce around after entering the league very young, but seemingly found a home in his specific role in this specific system while still being in his prime. They badly want to re-sign this player even for a significant price and even if he only recently came into his own, but he's holding out because there are a lot of teams that could have significant cash to pay for his services after striking out on better options.
There's a widespread school of thought that believes it's still essential to keep this core player to build on the unexpected success this franchise generally doesn't see. This school also believes that such player is valuable in ways unique to this specific situation. Any cheaper alternatives would not come close to matching the all-around impact this player provides.
In other words, it's 2004-05 again, and Trevor Ariza is Larry Hughes.
Obviously, the two players are different. Hughes was a great scorer in a year where there were many strong two-guards. He fit Eddie Jordan's Princeton offense perfectly and supplied the secondary scoring alongside Arenas and Jamison. He was known as a strong defender, though he also gambled often for steals and was probably overrated on that end.
Ariza obviously isn't the scorer Hughes was, but his contributions are similarly en vogue in 2014. Teams search far and wide for tall wing players that are elite defenders, excellent three-point shooters and are willing to accept a smaller share of the offense. Ariza is one of the few in the league that checks all three boxes. His significance on a team that boasts John Wall is especially unique, the perfect marriage between kick-out passing and corner three-point shooting. The 2013-14 Wizards shared the load in a more egalitarian way than the 2004-05 edition, but Ariza gobbled up a large share of it, albeit in a different way Hughes did.
Back in 2005, it was easy to get tunnel vision and believe Hughes was irreplaceable. Almost everyone on the team, particularly star Gilbert Arenas, wanted Hughes back badly. The Wizards too wanted Hughes back badly, offering him a whopping $72 million over six years as a final offer. But Hughes instead bolted for the Cavaliers, who missed out on top targets Ray Allen and Michael Redd and were desperate enough to give Hughes $65 million over five years to get LeBron James a potential sidekick.
It was rough news for a time. Michael Lee, who was still the Wizards' beat writer for the Washington Post, wrote that Hughes signing in Cleveland "appeared to be the latest heartbreak for a franchise that seemed headed in the right direction after advancing to the playoffs for the first time since 1997 and winning a playoff series for the first time in 23 years." Some, like Michael Wilbon, wrote the Wizards would be OK because the price was too much, but that didn't comfort Arenas and Antawn Jamison, for example. A team on the rise was forced to replace a big part of its success.
But as it turned out, the Wizards were able to replace him and then some. They signed Antonio Daniels, a much-needed backup point guard that had some good years, then traded malcontent Kwame Brown to the Lakers for Caron Butler. Meanwhile, Hughes' career floundered in Cleveland and he never was the same. The Wizards didn't get back to the second round, but that wasn't because of Hughes' departure. They replaced him quite well with better players.
This is an important lesson for Ernie Grunfeld, who engineered those series of moves nine years ago. It feels like Ariza is an essential member of the Wizards' nucleus that cannot be replaced, but it also pays to take a step back and look at the big picture. Rather than spend the money on Hughes, Grunfeld made a brilliant trade out of nowhere and used some leftover money to patch up another hole on the roster. The Wizards stagnated, but that had more to do with worse playoff matchups and other roster mistakes than the loss of Hughes.
There's a similar opportunity here. Keeping Ariza at a high price puts the Wizards so close to the luxury tax that they may not be able to afford additional frontcourt help behind the brittle Nene. The market is wild and there's no obvious Butler move lurking out there (except for Butler himself? OK, just kidding) but there are more affordable replacements that can be found. Finding another big man, even one that has warts, may ultimately be more important to the Wizards' future than keeping Ariza at the price he wants. Trades can be made if the Wizards really need wing depth, even with the limited assets available.
Again: it pays to take a step back. Losing Hughes in 2005 seemed like a devastating blow, but the Wizards ended up recovering nicely. Losing Ariza this year may seem like a devastating blow, but should trust their ability to recover nicely again if Ariza really will cost $9-11 million a season.