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Six ways the Wizards can thread the needle and improve their chances for the future

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Oklahoma City Thunder v Washington Wizards Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Wizards General Manager Ernie Grunfeld isn’t a magician, he’s an escape artist. No, he’s not known for finding the likes of Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, or Draymond Green, but he does have an uncanny ability to clean up his own messes. In doing so he somehow earns credit for getting out of the corner that he painted himself into in the first place.

But now with the Wizards actually being a very good team, the stakes are higher than they’ve ever been. While Grunfeld’s forays last summer were both ill-conceived and poorly executed, Grunfeld did nail the hiring of the new head coach. Scott Brooks’ leadership and the growth of the Wizards young stars have improbably landed the team amongst the best in the Eastern Conference.

With no dominant team in the East, the Wizards have a chance to make a deep playoff run this year -- and perhaps for the next few years. But they need Grunfeld to thread the needle by bolstering the roster and sweeping some of last summer’s mistakes under the rug. Grunfeld is faced with the tall task of adding talent while also jettisoning some of the Wizards deadweight.

Here are a few ways Grunfeld can maximize the Wizards’ chances going forward:

Avoid trading for players on expiring deals unless the price is extraordinarily cheap.

Darren Collison would be a great help to the Wizards. But the problem with dealing for him and other potentially available players (like Taj Gibson, Nikola Mirotic, Thabo Sefolosha, and Tyreke Evans), is that the Wizards’ cap situation makes it difficult for them to re-sign any good player set to hit free agency. Otto Porter’s well-deserved extension is going to push the Wizards close to, or just beyond, the luxury tax line. So unless Washington can clear a meaningful chunk of bad salary in the process (and perhaps also have a good sense from a player’s agent he is willing to re-sign for an affordable number), the Wizards should avoid expiring players unless the price is just a future second round pick. So, the obvious corollary to this is….

Target players locked into reasonable deals -- the longer the better.

Credit to Grunfeld; he figured this out last year by trading for Markieff Morris. His twin brother Marcus is a prime example of a player who would upgrade the bench and stick around to grow with the team’s core. Other players signed beyond this season who could fit -- Lou Williams, Wilson Chandler, Will Barton, Tim Frazier, Trevor Booker (sigh), Jeremy Lin (if healthy), and Gerald Henderson -- should also be on Grunfeld’s radar.

Try like hell to trade the 2018 first round pick and NOT the 2017 first round pick.

Any meaningful addition is likely to cost a future first round pick, and Grunfeld is no stranger to using his picks to trade for veterans. The Wizards would be wise to keep their 2017 selection, even if it means sending out a 2018 pick with limited or no protection.

Teams generally try to avoid trading unprotected picks because bad injury luck could land any NBA team in the lottery, and the bounce of a ping pong ball could turn into a franchise-changing superstar. But holding on to the 2017 pick going into draft night provides the Wizards some much needed flexibility. Something called “The Stepien Rule” prevents teams from trading away future first round picks in consecutive years. By trading their 2018 pick, the Wizards would be able to select a player in the 2017 draft and immediately trade his rights. Such a trade could yield the Wizards another seasoned rotation player ready to contribute.

An even better approach might be finding a trade partner with multiple second round picks (there are several), who wants to move up. The Wizards could then use those picks to grab multiple cheap developmental players. Even if the odds of “hitting” on a second rounder may be lower than they are on a late first, the Wizards situation is such that two raffle tickets are better than one. That scenario is a lot more appealing than trading the 2017 pick, as doing so would also prevent the Wizards from trading their 2018 pick for another year and a half.

Convince someone to take Andrew Nicholson.

Nicholson started this season poorly, seemingly lost his confidence, and hasn’t gotten back in the rotation. Be that as it may, the NBA is a people business. There are certainly members of NBA front offices and coaching staffs that are Nicholson fans -- who believe Nicholson would perform far better in their system and their organization. Grunfeld needs to find those people who won’t see his salary as an albatross. Nicholson isn’t in Brooks’ plans this year or in the future. Including him as salary ballast would be a win.

Don’t be afraid to dangle Kelly Oubre.

This was a key point of discussion on the most recent episode of the Becker & Broom podcast. Oubre is young, cheap, and the Wizards’ sixth man. He’s shown signs of one day becoming an elite version of Trevor Ariza -- a versatile defensive terror with a sweet three-point stroke. The Wizards as a team perform well when he’s on the floor with four starters. That said, Oubre himself is not yet consistently productive. Put more bluntly, Oubre is quite promising, but he’s not all that good yet.

His potential is precisely why he stands to have good value on the trade market. Grunfeld shouldn’t be in any rush to move Oubre, but if a great offer comes along, Grunfeld shouldn’t hesitate to pull the trigger. To be clear, I don’t take trading Oubre lightly. But if he is the cost of acquiring a true needle-mover, so be it.

Have a talk with Ted Leonsis about paying the luxury tax.

The Wizards are one of just three NBA franchises to have never paid the luxury tax. I take no issue with Leonsis for that and completely reject the notion that it is evidence of a shred of cheapness on his part. While Grunfeld hasn’t often spent his owner’s money wisely, he has been free to spend it.

That said, the NBA’s massive new media deal has been a windfall for owners and players alike; Leonsis and his partners are likely quite flush at the moment. Grunfeld should ask Leonsis for the right to exceed the tax for just next season -- with the promise to get below the tax threshold for 2018-2019. It shouldn’t be too difficult, and it would give Grunfeld the flexibility needed to undo his recent mistakes and build a sustained winner for the first time. The Wizards are finally good enough that there’s a compelling case to go over budget. The additional revenues from improving the product may justify the investment in and of themselves. If Leonsis wants the Wizards’ long-suffering and often jaded fan base to go all-in, he should consider doing the same.