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Wizards focus on improving what John Wall can't fix in free agency

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NBA: Indiana Pacers at Washington Wizards Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

In what has become an annual summer tradition, John Wall helped make some people very rich this summer. He has a proven track record of making moderately successful players better simply by how well and how frequently he can put them in positions to get easy baskets.

This year, the lucky recipients of the John Wall Grant were Bradley Beal who signed a $128 million deal to stay in Washington, Jared Dudley who signed a $30 million deal with the Suns, and Garrett Temple who signed a $24 million deal with the Kings.

After all three players signed their deals, they were all quick to thank Wall for his part in helping them get big money:

Beal, Dudley, and Temple join other familiar faces from recent Wizards history — Marcin Gortat, Martell Webster, and Trevor Ariza — who saw their shooting numbers spike playing alongside Wall and turned their success into big paydays in free agency.

But after years of watching John Wall make players better and richer, this needed to be the summer where the Wizards returned the favor and surrounded him with the talent to bring out the best in his game and lift the team to new heights.

The obvious fix would have been a star player, and that’s why the Wizards spent the last two years putting themselves in a position where they could acquire Kevin Durant if he had been willing to consider them in free agency. He wasn’t, so they moved to the next best star who was willing to listen to their pitch: Al Horford.

The odd thing here is that even though he isn’t in the same star class as Durant, the Wizards still had to use the same recruiting approach when free agency began. They offered the same four year max deal they would have offered to KD, and because a max deal would have eaten up nearly all their cap space if he accepted, they were forced to pass on opportunities to sign useful players who committed before he decided to sign with Boston late on the second day of free agency.

After striking out on the two proven stars who could have taken the Wizards to the next level just through their presence, Washington had to move on to Plan C: The unsexy plan. With Durant and Horford off the board, as well as pretty much anyone else who could have upgraded the starting unit, the only option left this summer was to use their $30 million worth of cap space to revamp their bench, which was virtually empty save for Kelly Oubre.

So how do you craft a bench that can take the Wizards to the next level? John Wall had some interesting thoughts on the subject when J. Michael of CSN Mid-Atlantic asked him what the Wizards should try to address in free agency:

The best player on the Wizards’ roster, three-time All-Star John Wall, knows what he wants to see happen when free agency opens Friday. He has his eye on addressing two major voids.

“You got to have a lockdown defender on the wing or something,” Wall told CSNmidatlantic.com over the weekend. “You got to have a big man that can protect this paint and block shots.”

Well, the Wizards certainly took care of one of those concerns, signing Ian Mahinmi to a four year, $64 million deal less than an hour after Al Horford signed with Boston. Even though Mahinmi’s individual block numbers don’t blow you away, he does a great job of limiting opportunities for opponents to get to the paint to get a good shot off. He helped the Pacers finish with the third-best defense in the NBA last season, and held opponents to the 10th worst shooting percentage in the paint last season.

There’s no question the Wizards got someone to fill the role they were looking for. And honestly, there isn’t even really a question of whether or not Mahinmi got overpaid. $16 million per year is a fair price in this salary cap for a center in his prime that’s coming off a year where he started 71 games on a playoff team.

Oddly enough, Mahinmi’s deal will take up almost the same percentage of this year’s cap (15.9 percent) as Marcin Gortat's did the for the first year after he signed his deal in 2014 (16.5 percent).

As things currently stand, they will be two of the team’s four highest-paid players next season. Together, they’ll take up 28.7 percent of the Wizards’ cap space, and they may not be able to play together. Offensively, Mahinmi’s jumper is non-existent which makes it easier for opposing teams to clog the lane on Wall-Gortat pick-and-rolls. Defensively, teams will try extra hard to put Gortat in positions where he can be exploited further out on the perimeter. In other words, the Wizards just replaced Nene with another high-priced backup center who probably can’t play with the starting center.

So why do it then? It’s all a matter of investing in what Wall can’t fix: Interior defense, and what the team does when he’s not on the floor. Wall has shown over and over again he can turn cheap perimeter players (Hello Trey Burke and Tomas Satoransky) and stretch fours (Hi Andrew Nicholson) and add value to their game. He can’t make a cheap big man protect the paint better.

If Mahinmi can come through and help improve the team’s defense and bench play, that’s a big win for the Wizards, and probably the best they could have asked for in this free agency market. All that said, it’s still a huge gamble and one that could create some challenging locker room dynamics down the road if Scott Brooks can’t figure out a way to put Gortat and Mahinmi in roles where both are satisfied. Otherwise, the Wizards could be walking into a repeat of what happened when Brendan Haywood and Etan Thomas were forced to slug it out (figuratively and literally) over who would start at center for several years.

So while the names and faces have changed this summer, the Wizards are still taking the same approach to roster construction as before. They're investing big in areas John Wall can’t fix, and letting him take care of the rest. Now Washington just has to hope this year’s mix of talent is enough to help them become a contender in the Eastern Conference.

But at the end of the day, the real bet the Wizards are making here isn’t about whether or not two high-paid centers can coexist on the same roster, it’s about whether or not Wall can continue to turn low-cost players into useful pieces. As most of the players who have played with John Wall can attest, it’s not a bad bet to make.