Ernie Grunfeld has finalized the NBA’s most embarrassing trade in league history, sending Kelly Oubre Jr. and Austin Rivers to the Phoenix Suns in exchange for Trevor Ariza. While the move modestly improves the team this season, it uses one of the team’s more valuable long-term bargaining chips for the shortest of short-term gains.
It’s a #SoWizards deal in many ways, starting with the screwy way in which Memphis and Phoenix couldn’t agree on which player named Brooks (Dillon or MarShon) would be included — a disagreement discovered not when the Wizards (acting as go-between to broker the trade) realized the teams were talking about different players, but when the teams saw media reports. Seriously.
Ultimately, the Grizzlies preferred Dillon Brooks to Oubre (perhaps because Brooks is signed cheap for next season, and remains under team control for at least another year after that), and Grunfeld made the trade directly with the Suns...and losing the second round picks the Wizards would have received in the three-team version of the trade.
The deal is a Grunfeld classic. Back in the summer, Washington traded for Rivers to fix their locker room (by excising center Marcin Gortat who couldn’t get along with John Wall) and shore up their bench. Rivers, who was coming off a season that was both well-below average and the best of his career, was terrible on the court and deeply unhappy in the team’s dysfunctional culture. Just a quarter of the way through the season, Rivers most significant contribution to the Wizards was to serve as salary filler. He’s already been released by Phoenix.
To get the 33-year-old Ariza, Grunfeld gave up Oubre, the 23-year-old former first round pick who was playing about as well as Ariza this season. Grunfeld and the Wizards front office believed they would be unable to afford re-signing Oubre in the offseason, and dealt him for what they decided would be immediate help.
Using PPA, I estimate that replacing Rivers’ minutes with Ariza would have added a win to the Wizards’ record so far this season. That may not sound like much, but over the course of a full season, it’s about a three-and-a-half win difference. That’s significant for a basically average role player.
It gets a bit more complex when trying to figure out what Oubre’s departure means on the court this season. Oubre’s individual production was similar to Ariza’s in terms of overall performance, albeit accomplished in a markedly different style. Ariza is the better defender and his overall game is that of the classic low-usage 3&D veteran. Oubre’s is the youngster’s game of constant (and sometimes misguided) effort and the athleticism to make up for mistakes.
One benefit of the trade is that it will likely force Scott Brooks to shorten the rotation. The team will probably go with Wall, Bradley Beal, Ariza, Otto Porter and Thomas Bryant to start, and bring Markieff Morris, Jeff Green and Tomas Satoransky off the bench. That’s an eight-man rotation in which everyone is at least a decent producer, although it’s still lacking in consistent high-end production. There should even be enough space for a six or seven minute first-half rotation for Troy Brown, and spot minutes for newly acquired Sam Dekker. The brightest of bright spots for Washington is that Brooks can’t put Rivers on the floor.
But, acquiring Ariza doesn’t transform the Wizards from an Eastern Conference also-ran into a contender. The trade signals that Grunfeld and the team’s braintrust aren’t about to embark on a full-scale rebuild. Rather, they believe this is a good roster that’s been hamstrung by unhappiness and locker room dysfunction, and they think they can tweak their way to success. They’re hoping Ariza’s play will help on the floor, and that his leadership skills will command the respect of teammates and inspire them to their best performance.
To be blunt, this seems more like wishful thinking than a sober analysis of the team’s roster and its likely fortunes. A realistic assessment of this roster leads to the conclusion that it’s not going to contend for a title or even for the somewhat dubious achievement of being an Eastern Conference power. Rather than using Oubre as sweetener in a trade involving one of their three maximum salary players, Grunfeld has acquired a 33-year-old who might add a couple extra wins this season before doing what all athletes do as they age: get worse.
The strategy to “contend” this year is constructed on the hope for good luck. Their future hopes are built on a foundation less solid than that. It’s #SoWizards.