"The Wizards are all in on Kevin Durant!"
That sounds incredibly exciting, but this is what it feels like. Objectively, the Wizards aren't good right now, ranked in the bottom half of the league in both offensive and defensive efficiency. Barring a huge improvement, they are going to struggle to finish with a winning record, let alone make the playoffs in an improved Eastern Conference. The roster has more problems than solutions and an entire franchise seems to be passing the time in preparation for a run at Durant this summer.
Going all-in is exhilarating. It's ballsy. You have to bet big to win big, right? But, by definition, going all in is a last resort; if you lose, you're done. Game over. While the outcome may not be quite so grave if the Wizards fail to land Durant as a free agent this summer, it would clearly be a crushing blow the Wizards chances of becoming a great team anytime soon.
Ernie Grunfeld's front office has made a series of bad bets while skipping out on good ones such that the Wizards now find themselves short-stacked. Grunfeld's refusal to acquire players with contracts that extend beyond this season has been painfully unwise. The theory, ostensibly, is that any money tied up this summer could gum up the Wizards pursuit of Durant. But such thinking fails to acknowledge the value (and marketability for trade) of good players on cheap contracts, as well as the impact of the imminent spike in league revenues (and the salary cap) from the new media deal. Last summer's pot odds provided very little downside to being aggressive. Instead, Grunfeld folded strong hands.
The Wizards brought in a collective of low-impact veterans on one-year deals, and in doing so, missed inexpensive opportunities to add to the long-term core. Consider Toronto center Bismack Biyombo: His cringeworthy offense may evoke former Wizard Ben Wallace's, but his defense and board work resemble Big Ben's at a similar age as well. Biyombo signed with the Raptors for two years, $6 million - a small blind of a pittance by NBA standards.
Instead of chasing Biyombo -- a desperately needed cheap, young big with upside --the Wizards chose 33 year-old swingman Alan Anderson. Anderson is actually making $1 million more than Biyombo but was willing to take the one-year deal the Wizards wanted. If you're looking for Anderson, you can find him in street clothes on the Wizards bench, as he has yet to appear in a single game due to injury.
Unlucky? Maybe. Shocking? No way. It's no secret that NBA thirty-somethings get hurt more. Exhibit A is Nene, whose injury history almost assured he'd miss significant time, (which he has). Yet the Wizards went into the season without another center on the roster. How does that make sense again? Meanwhile, Biyombo has filled in admirably for Toronto's injured starter Jonas Valanciunus, and the Raps sit with the fourth-best record in the East.
Maybe the Wizards thought Kris Humphries could fill the role of emergency center. It's obviously not where he's most comfortable or effective, but he held his own playing some five for Celtics a couple of years ago. If so, and they were hell-bent on adding a wing, Baltimore native Will Barton would have been a much better choice than Anderson.
Barton was an analytics all-star when drafted in the second round by Portland in 2012. Denver traded for him last season and re-upped him for a mere 3 years/$12M - around four percent of next year's salary cap. Still just 25, Barton has shined in regular minutes off the bench for the Nuggets. He's more productive than Gary Neal - another underwhelming summer addition on the wrong side of 30 -- has ever been in his NBA career. With Bradley Beal dealing with yet another stress injury in his leg, the Wizards are asking too much of the limited Neal and Garrett Temple. Barton would have come in handy, to say the least.
But the biggest - and smallest -- example of Grunfeld's misguided risk aversion is Boston's Isaiah Thomas. The diminutive dynamo's play is likely to land him at the All-Star Game and Boston back in the playoffs. Celtics GM Danny Ainge stole Thomas from Phoenix at last year's trade deadline for an expiring contract and Cleveland's 2016 first round pick, very likely to be in the late 20's. The Wizards could have easily beaten that offer. They had the matching contract in Andre Miller (who was traded to acquire Ramon Sessions), and could have offered a top-20 protected pick in 2016.
Sessions is solid, but Thomas would have been a massive upgrade who just may have allowed the Wizards to slip past a shaky Atlanta team into last year's Conference Finals after John Wall went down with a broken hand. Looking forward, Thomas may be on the best non-rookie contract in the NBA. Thomas is signed for another two seasons at less than $13M; to boot, his salary actually declines as the cap balloons. He's going to cost less than six percent of the cap in two years. Now go look up the deals Enes Kanter, Terence Ross, and Alec Burks recently signed, preferably while you're in a place you're comfortable crying. Wouldn't it be nice to have Thomas locked up and Tomas Satoransky on his way while contemplating what do with Beal and his chronic injuries?
The Wizards did make a nice little move in acquiring Jared Dudley. They paid nothing to Milwaukee to take him into a trade exception and he's been more than solid. Good deal, right? For now, sure, but Wizards fans shouldn't expect to see Dudley in DC next year. As an impeding free agent who actually stands to be in demand, Dudley is going to command more than the Wizards can pay without sacrificing a chance at Durant. Dudley knows the Wizards' plans for next year and expressed as much to Zach Lowe in a July podcast.
While Dudley is a professional, he's also human. Knowing he's unlikely to be here next year and that he's playing for his next contract has to affect Dudley's approach to his current team. One has to also wonder about how the entire roster feels about being entirely focused on next season and a superstar who plays for someone else.
And so it all comes back to Durant. We probably won't know what the Wizards thought they knew about Durant's intentions (and how that jibed with reality) until the dust settles after Durant makes his free agent choice this summer. The Wizards have certainly behaved as if they truly believe they have a legitimate shot at landing the superstar. But the myopia of favoring cap space over talent is forcing Durant's hand in to choosing his hometown over significantly better rosters. Let this one marinate: the Thunder's top four big men - Serge Ibaka, Steven Adams, Kanter and Mitch McGary -- are each younger than every big on the Wizards roster. They're indisputably better too. Ouch.
If the Wizards had good players like Biyombo, Barton, and Thomas under contract when it came time to chase Durant, they would have has no trouble clearing the requisite space for Durant if he decided to come. They'd be a better team than they are now and a more attractive destination - both for Durant and to other free agents should Durant decide against a homecoming. There have been rumblings about Durant potentially signing a one-year extension in Oklahoma City to align his free agency with Russell Westbrook's, and to set himself up for an even larger next deal due to the surging salary cap and his service time. What then? Are the Wizards planning on sitting on their hands for another full year?
If there's any hope, it lies in the fact that making all the right moves doesn't guarantee success at the poker table. Players make bad bets and still win sometimes, even against big odds. That's the state of the union for Wizards fans - hoping that Ernie Grunfeld ends up being that guy that poker pros hate, who bumbles his way into winning big. If Durant does sign on with the Wizards, most will forget Grunfeld's missteps. But make no mistake - the Wizards are all in Kevin Durant. If he's not their ace in the hole, the franchise's future is going to go bust.