After the league’s $24 billion television deal kicked in, player salaries skyrocketed. If you could run without tripping all of the time, somewhat dribble a basketball and throw it anywhere close to the rim, you were guaranteed an eight-figure contract.
Most NBA general managers became victims of the marketplace, displaying almost no patience by letting free agency play out the first week of July in 2016. Ernie Grunfeld was one of the many that quickly jumped to sign a mediocre player to a long-term, albatross contract after original plans - KD2DC and Al Horford - fell through.
The rationale for signing Ian Mahinmi was valid.
The Wizards had been a top-10 defensive team for consecutive seasons, but became average after Randy Wittman was coerced into playing small-ball with an inapt roster. Marcin Gortat, a solid rim protector, was never an enforcer and the Wizards needed someone to replace Nene’s presence as a defensive anchor.
Mahinmi’s shot blocking - he averaged more than a block per game in his last season with the Pacers - and pick-and-roll defense were selling points that should have, theoretically, made him a viable candidate for the starting center position in D.C.
Injuries hindered Mahinmi’s ability to progress in Washington and make a difference last year, but that’s no longer the case - yet his role on the team, when healthy, has decreased to such insignificance that his spot on the team would be questioned if he wasn’t secured with a $64 million contract.
He is playing 12.6 minutes per game this season, which is the least amount of time he’s gotten since 2011. He’s averaging a career-high 1.5 turnovers and is making only 48.6 percent of his shots, the second-lowest mark of his career. He has more fouls (40) than shot attempts (35) this season. He’s committing 8.8 fouls per 36 minutes - the worst average of his career. Jan Vesely never averaged more than 6.4 per 36 during his time in Washington.
So not only has Mahinmi been hard to play because he isn’t producing, but he’s making things worse by getting in constant foul trouble. He’s committed at least four fouls in seven of his 13 appearances this season, even though he’s never played more than 19 minutes in a game this season.
When numbers are this poor, alternatives must be considered. While Jason Smith hasn’t warranted much time with his play this season (he’s only 4 of 18 from the field in limited minutes), it’s worth examining whether or not he would be a better option at this point.
Smith is in a funk right now (keep in mind he dealt with a shoulder injury early in the season), but was a legitimate factor for the Wizards offensively last season. He shot a career-high 52.9 percent from the field and was effective from three, making 47.4 percent of his shots from deep. His presence as a floor-spacer alone adds some value, creating more opportunity for the guards to create, even when his shot isn’t falling.
Shooting slumps come and go, but players that are turnover prone and can’t stay out of foul trouble usually weigh the team down in ways that are more difficult to work around. When you commit 3.1 fouls and 1.5 turnovers per game, you’re effectively handing the other team six free throws and a free possession each game. It’s very difficult to redeem that, especially when you’re only playing a quarter of each game.
Between Smith and Mahinmi, the Wizards invested $80 million into two players who would have difficult times earning playing time if not for their long-term deals. But if the Wizards had to bet on someone breaking through and producing first, Smith would be a better pick than Mahinmi.