Plenty of things did not go quite the way the Wizards and their fans expected this season. The team won six fewer games than last season, dropped from fourth to eighth in the East standings, and failed to get out of the first round for the first time in four playoff runs during the John Wall era.
As we unpack the season that was, we also have to look at the future of this team and ask if this was an outlier or the new norm moving forward. The only way we can answer those questions is by exploring the team’s options to see if and where there are opportunities for growth.
Improvement from non-core players
The Wizards’ three core players will be 28 or younger. It certainly doesn’t seem unreasonable to think that three players who aren’t in what is generally considered in their “basketball prime” can improve, but the Wizards’ success isn’t necessarily about how good these three players can be as much as it’s about how much better can the players around them get. Outside of an unexpected jump by Wall, Beal, or Porter into a MVP-level player, improvement outside this core maybe one of the few ways this team can actually go beyond where they are right now.
Before we unpack how the roster can be improved, we must acknowledge a few things:
- The Wizards had the fifth-highest salary in the league this season. According to Hoopshype.com, the Wizards already have approximately $124 million committed in salary for next season, before any draft picks or free agents are signed, and assuming both Jason Smith and Jodie Meeks pick up the player options on their contract. The luxury tax line is projected to be $123 million this season.
- This summer—unless a move is made prior to the draft—will mark the first time since 2015 that the Wizards will have draft picks.
- Speaking of 2015 draft picks, Kelly Oubre will be eligible to sign an extension that would start in the 2019-20 season.
- Tomas Satoransky will also become a restricted free agent next summer, but unlike Oubre, he is not eligible to sign an extension.
- Marcin Gortat, Markieff Morris, Jason Smith, Jodie Meeks and Tomas Satoransky will be on the last year of their contracts.
The Wizards have very little flexibility moving forward. Besides Satoransky and Oubre, the Wizards need veteran players or G-League projects like Devin Robinson to change the trajectory of this team. That is why this summer’s draft picks are extremely important to this conversation going forward. For all that went wrong this season, they ended up with the 15th overall pick in what is regarded as a fairly deep draft.
The other item to consider with this current roster is the ability to move current players. The list of players mentioned above with expiring contracts is not likely to generate much value in return. In order to make something of their expiring contracts, they have to take on high-risk opportunities.
For instance, Would Miami be willing to take on expiring contracts to move on from a disgruntled Hassan Whiteside? And if they are willing to do so, could the Wizards put him in a position that makes him feel valued? If not, then they have merely exchanged a short-term problem for a long-term problem.
Improvement By Changing the Core
There is nothing in Ted Leonsis’ recent comments or his overall track record as the owner of the Wizards or the Capitals to suggest he’ll explore a big overhaul. Ernie Grunfeld’s history with the Wizards before Leonsis doesn’t suggest he’s one to make big changes either. Since he took over, the Wizards have been among the league leaders in roster continuity, maintaining at least 59 percent continuity in all but two seasons since 2003.
With all that in mind, in the off chance that the Wizards do decide to move on from at least one member of the core of Wall, Beal and Porter, we have to consider the trade value of each core player.
Wall missed 41 games this season, but had some great moments in the playoffs and remains perhaps the member of the core with the highest ceiling. On the other hand, his massive extension will kick in after the end of next season, at which point his salary will nearly double.
Consider the Los Angeles Clippers as an example of a team that was in a very similar predicament last season after they signed Blake Griffin to massive five-year, $171 million contract. In less than a year, the Clippers decided to go in another direction. They realized that the likelihood of winning with an oft-injured superstar at that price just wasn’t worth it, and decided to trade him away before his deal got even more onerous.
The Wizards face a similar crossroads this upcoming season. If the Wizards wanted to make a similar move, the optimal time to do it would be before his extension kicks in next summer. Once it starts, teams will have to move even more resources to match his increased salary for the 2019-20 season.
Some teams might pause at the possibility of paying out Wall’s extension, but there is also intrinsic value to teams who are starved for star power on their team and the opportunity to get one of the league’s premier names. With that said, what team that would even be interested in trading for Wall, has the assets to make an attractive offer to him? The point guard position is one of the deepest positions in the game, and most of the teams who lack a top-level point guard also lack the resources to make a compelling trade offer.
Beal is the easiest of the three players to move right now. He has made strides in the past two seasons, including making his first All-Star Game this past season. There’s still room for him to grow, and for a player that will only be 25 at the beginning of next season, the salary for a young, improving All-Star shooting guard would certainly not be as much of an issue.
The shooting guard position is not a deep position at the moment. There are very few players at his spot performing at a high level. The few who are wouldn’t offer much of an upgrade over what Beal’s already bringing to the table. More likely than not, the Wizards would have to take a step backward at the position in any Beal trade. Even if the Wizards got someone back with a higher ceiling, by the time that player reached it, Wall would likely be past his prime.
Porter put together a solid campaign in the first year of his four-year, $106.5 million contract but was hampered by injuries late in the season. His performance did little to quell the debate over whether or not he is truly a star player or just a great complimentary piece that does well at playing off of Wall and Beal.
That debate goes well beyond the comments section of Wizards blog posts. Throughout the league, opinions vary wildly on Porter and his worth in the league. Some think he’s overpaid, others still see him as an undervalued asset. If Washington gets a great offer, they should absolutely consider it, but like Beal, it’s going to be hard to find a deal where they get more win-now value to maximize Wall’s prime than what they’re sending out.
Improvement from Coaching
For all the success of making the playoffs the past two seasons, including pushing the top-seeded Boston Celtics to a Game 7 in the Eastern Conference semifinals last season, it still feels as though the team has fallen short of expectations under Brooks. We can talk about team results, but I think many of Scott Brooks’ critics will point to this group’s failures at the end of games in both the regular season and the playoffs, and his inability to adjust when things don’t work.
Bradley Beal ranked next to last in clutch shooting percentage, only ahead of Carmelo Anthony shooting worse in such situations. The team also ranked 27th in the league this season in field goal percentage in those situations.
An argument can be made that the Wizards struggled without having their most dynamic playmaker healthy for much of the season, and certainly that is warranted, but at the same time Otto Porter ranked 31st among forwards in the league in field goal attempts in clutch situations, taking only 36 shots in those situations for the entire season. It begs the question if the coaching staff is making the most of the talents of these three and that if there is perhaps room to make use of Otto Porter more, especially at the end of games, and maybe that could also help both Wall and Beal to be more effective as well.
If this sounds like the same old song and dance about Brooks, it’s because these are some of the same criticisms he received handling the Thunder’s talented trio. Despite having two (and soon to be three) future MVPs on the roster, Oklahoma City finished in the bottom-third of the league in shooting percentage in clutch situations in their final year together. Perhaps next year is the year Washington puts it together in late-game situations, but Brooks’ track record doesn’t provide much optimism.
And for those who think changing Scott Brooks as the head coach would help, he is still due $21 million for the next three seasons. He isn’t going anywhere. Any improvement from the coaching front will have to come from making some necessarily adjustments to maximize the talents of the team’s best players.
What can we take from this?
I think we have to consider that the most realistic chance of this team drastically moving the ceiling of the core of Wall, Beal and Porter is by hitting a home run in this year’s draft. However, given the team’s draft history, the idea of a team getting a player that is capable of drastically changing the team’s fortune doesn’t seem likely. Still, if they can make some savvy moves around the fringes, they can get back to where they were in 2017 or even a step beyond that.
As the Wizards head into an important summer, they don’t have to look any further than the ascension of the New Orleans Pelicans this season. Despite being capped out and losing DeMarcus Cousins for a large portion of the season, the Pelicans took a big step forward by making useful tweaks around their core. They added veteran players like Rajon Rondo and Nikola Mirotic who took a great deal of pressure off of Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday to produce Cousins got hurt. If the Wizards can make steps to get younger, and get better production from outside their core, then perhaps there is hope for improvement, but if they don’t, this past season could be a preview of years to come.