As the Wizards continue to work their way through a confusing season, a few things have become clear.
- The window seems to be closing for the iteration of the Wizards that includes Marcin Gortat and Markieff Morris as starters.
- Washington’s ultimate upside lies with the five players on the roster who were drafted by the team (John Wall, Bradley Beal, Kelly Oubre, Otto Porter, and Tomas Satoransky).
The current Wizards can be competitive in the postseason and win one or even two playoff series given the right matchups. This group has a 17-13 record against teams .500 and above and is 3-2 against the Celtics and Raptors, the East’s two best teams, in spite of John Wall missing three of those five games (no, they’re not better without him).
The regular five-man starting lineup including Wall is outscoring opponents by 6.4 points per 100 possessions this season. That’s down slightly from last season when the team had a +8.1 net rating, but still impressive.
So why is the window closing? The contracts of Marcin Gortat and Markieff Morris are set to expire after next season NBA season and it will be difficult to keep either at the end of their deals. After their contracts come off the books, Washington will still have $107 million committed to just four players (John Wall, Bradley Beal, Kelly Oubre, and Ian Mahinmi).
Age is also a concern. Gortat will be 35 years old next season and we’re beginning to see slippage in his play. His point and rebound averages are down this season and his true shooting percentage is at its low point since he joined the Wizards. He’s still an effective player, but he’s not the impactful presence he was earlier during his tenure in Washington.
Markieff Morris is the kind of the same player he’s always been. He’s improved as a shooter this season, shooting a career-high 37.6 percent from beyond the arc, but for the most part, you know what you get from him. He’ll give you some scoring, some shooting, limited rebounding, and he’ll foul more than he should. He’ll go through a stretch where you see all of his potential fulfilled and it takes the team to another level, but in year seven of his career, it’s safe to assume he is what he is.
The Wizards have to think about what it will take for the franchise to take the next step. It’s hard to envision Washington’s frontcourt consistently playing at a level high enough to get to where they want to go in the playoffs. Their lack of rim protection and defensive versatility becomes problematic when facing the ridiculously long and athletic frontcourts of the Bucks or the 76ers and they don’t play the perimeter well enough to defend stretch bigs like Al Horford and Kevin Love.
Washington’s reported interest in DeAndre Jordan at the trade deadline speaks volumes. Even though it appears their interest was contingent on Jordan opting-in to his player option for 2018-19, they wouldn’t have been willing to get into those initial discussions to get him for a season and a half if they weren’t willing to part with some serious assets. Clearly, the Wizards need more at the four and five positions to consistently produce at the level necessary to compete for a championship.
That doesn’t mean all hope is lost; in fact, it may time to get bullish about the Wizards future. Why? The DC Five. John Wall, Bradley Beal, and Otto Porter have already made a mark in the NBA, while Kelly Oubre and Tomas Satoransky have both taken great strides this season to show they belong as well. The DC Five (come on folks, we can make this one stick!) offer perimeter length, versatility, scoring, shooting, passing, and defense. There’s no LeBron James amongst them, but as a group they bring plenty to the table and they could be around for a while.
It seems like Wall has been around forever, but he’s still only 27 years old. There are certainly injury concerns, but he’s less than a year removed from an All-NBA season. Beal (24) is making his first All-Star appearance, Porter (24) has proved to be very effective when his teammates remember to get him the ball and when he’s not content to stand in the corner, and the duo of Oubre (22) and Satoransky (26) are relatively inexperienced NBA players who are showing rapid growth year over year and may be just scratching the surface of the players they may become.
We’ve discussed Oubre’s development and how it compares to Porter’s at a similar point in his career, but Satoransky has been the real surprise. When he’s played in Wall’s place with the rest of the starters, the team has a +21.3 net rating this season. He’s shooting 52.2 percent from the field after only shooting 41.5 percent last season, thanks in large part to his dramatic improvement shooting the long ball. He’s shooting 48.3 percent from deep this season after only making 9 of his 37 attempts last season (24.3 percent). On top of that, he has shown great defensive ability in the past week, as he consistently pestered Russell Westbrook and Kyrie Irving without getting into foul trouble. You could make the argument he’s the team’s best perimeter defender.
On the heels of an inactive trade deadline, there’s innate disappointment that the Wizards failed to make the “big move” once again. People want the team to act now before their window closes. My argument is the window for the Wizards’ traditional starting lineup has already closed, so it’s good that the team didn’t make a mistake to close the forthcoming window for a unit with higher upside and a longer lifespan.
The Wizards have a net rating of +17.8 in the 326 minutes this season when Wall, Beal, Oubre, and Porter have been on the floor together. It’s by far the Wizards’ most productive four-man combo on the team that’s played significant time together. In fact, it’s the most third-most effective four-man lineup in the ENTIRE NBA amongst lineups which have played 300 or more minutes together.
The Wizards have their full allotment of draft picks this season for the first time in maybe my lifetime (or so it seems). They have another opportunity to add fresh, young talent to the roster and begin to develop a pipeline of young frontcourt players to support the perimeter talent they’ve drafted and developed.
They also have the opportunity to add new talent in free agency. They won’t have cap space and will have some maneuvering to do just to take full advantage of the mid-level tax exception.
At the same, the salary cap is projected to remain flat over the next few years and there are fewer teams with cap space available this summer. That means better players will be signing for less than what has been market value the last two seasons. It means there will be more opportunities to sign players like Tyreke Evans to bargain deals.
The flattening cap also helps increase the possibility of keeping Oubre and Satoransky when they hit restricted free agency in 2019.
Patience is a virtue and Wizards fans know that better than most -- don’t forget we went 38 years without a division title -- but that doesn’t mean it’s the wrong path. Washington finally has an opportunity to put together young pieces around the DC Five to put together a long and meaningful window to contend. The DC Five has just arrived; let them eat.