The dictionary definition of flexible is “able to be easily modified to respond to altered circumstances or conditions.” Unfortunately for Ernie Grunfeld and his staff, that flexibility is very limited, specifically the “easily modified” portion of the definition.
The Wizards have filled every spot on the roster, and they are about $7 million over the luxury tax. Furthermore, the core of the organization is set for the foreseeable future, with John Wall, Bradley Beal, and Otto Porter locked into max deals for at least the next three years. The only flexibility the Wizards will have with their salary cap sheet will come from players outside of their core - most notably role players and draft picks.
The crew is only going to get more expensive in the future as the team (hopefully) drafts players and pays to keep guys like Markieff Morris and Kelly Oubre around. The repeater taxes for being a team that pays the tax in any three seasons over a four-year span are substantially higher than the normal tax rate, so the front office has to be cognizant of that when it comes to building for the future.
The simple solution would be to get under the tax now so they can save their heavy taxpaying years for when the core is at its peak. But while this sounds like a good idea on paper, addition by subtraction is not a good way to build a roster. To get under the $119 million luxury tax figure, the Wizards would have to likely do one of three things:
- Dump a starter for pennies on the dollar
- Attach assets to Ian Mahinmi’s contract to see if anyone will take him in
- Dump two or three rotation players for less expensive (and most likely worse/older) rotation members.
All of these options diminish the current talent of the roster, and some worsen the team moving forward as well. Still, it’s an option that has to be considered. Barring a move this season, the Wizards will already have over $115 million in guaranteed money next summer, and that does not count Jason Smith’s player option, Kelly Oubre’s team option, cap holds for Tim Frazier and Mike Scott, as well as salaries for the Wizards’ first and second round picks.
To put it bluntly: The Wizards will be paying the tax next summer. The cap is only projected to rise about $4 million, but the starting lineup alone will see their salaries rise by a collective $5.3 million. Combine those raises with salary increases for Jason Smith, Kelly Oubre, Jodie Meeks, and Tomas Satoransky and the Wizards are basically right at the tax with only 10 players on the roster. So yeah, they’re paying it next season.
The only ways a taxpaying team can add talent is via the draft, using the mid-level exception, and signing players to minimum deals. Their flexibility to add players is basically zero next summer, just like this summer.
In 2019, Marcin Gortat, Markieff, Morris, Oubre, Jodie Meeks and Jason Smith all come off the books. That’s over $30 million of cap relief. Sweet! The Wizards can finally go out and sign somebody, right?
Well, not exactly. Their flexibility is limited by the fact that Wall’s supermax extension kicks in that summer. He, Porter, Beal, and Mahinmi will be paid $107 million guaranteed in 2019. That alone puts them near the salary cap. They will also, likely, want to bring back Oubre and possibly even Morris. Once you add in potential draft picks and other additions, it’s clear the Wizards won’t have the space to do anything with cap space.
This is the summer the team projects to be the most expensive, and it’s why the Wizards would be smart to hold off on their tax payments so that they’re not paying repeater taxes on top of the already high tax bill. With those four players, plus a first round pick, and new contracts for Kelly Oubre and Markieff Morris (who will have significant leverage because Washington won’t have cap room to replace them), Washington could easily be paying over $130 million to just seven players.
Ouch. Adding eight more players will create a huge tax payment for Leonsis, so it will be very important for the team to find quality veterans willing to take cheap deals. If they fail, the roster will continue to get older and more expensive, and a tax payment will be painful if the team isn’t as good as expected.
In short, the Wizards have very limited means to add players, or more thematically put, no flexibility until 2020, when Mahinmi becomes a free agent and Otto Porter can exercise his player option. The taxpayer mid-level exception and their first round draft picks are the only chance the team has of adding any talent to the roster. If the front office is unable to get any contributors with these resources, there aren’t any obvious ways the team gets any better than it is right now.
With that in mind, I would not be shocked to see the Wizards attach another first round pick to Ian Mahinmi to try to get off some salary sometime during the upcoming season. If Washington can create enough space to be able to use the full mid-level exception next summer instead of the taxpayer mid-level exception, they would be able to sign a quality player to a four-year deal, and a veteran contributor is more valuable to the team than a young player next season.
That option is the easiest way to get off of Mahinmi’s contract in full, but if the Wizards wanted to relieve themselves of his salary in smaller increments, they could also consider stretching him. If you stretch a player, the guaranteed salary remaining on their contract is stretched over twice the length of the guaranteed years left on the deal, plus an additional year.
If the Wizards were to stretch him right now, they would pay almost $7 million per year for the next seven years. If they waited until next summer, they would pay $6.25 million per year over five years, and if they wait until 2019, they would pay $5.15 million per year over three years.
Regardless of your satisfaction with the current roster, this is the price required to keep a team this good together. While it may be frustrating to endure the team having limited means to improve, watching the team succeed for the next half decade should ease some of those pains. This is the best shot the Wizards have had at making the conference/NBA Finals in the last three decades. Can the front office make it happen with almost no flexibility?