The Washington Wizards face a challenging question as they enter an important summer: Is this iteration of the team good enough to compete for an Eastern Conference Championship? Getting younger at center or building up the bench are simple ways to improve the team, and nobody will object to the front office pursuing those fixes in those areas but a more pointed question has to be asked: Do the Wizards need to break up their core to make it happen?
On the surface the question seems a little silly. Washington just played the Toronto Raptors, a team which recreated itself around their core after it seemed like their window had closed. Why can’t Washington do the same?
At the same time, the Raptors showed there’s only so much you can do to raise your ceiling. Despite making all the right moves to put together their best season in franchise history, they got swept in the second round once again by LeBron James and the Cavaliers, just like they did in 2017.
So before we talk about what the Wizards can do to improve, we really need to talk about whether or not it still makes sense to build around John Wall, Bradley Beal, and Otto Porter.
The case for keeping the core together
Their skill-sets complement each other well. John Wall is hard to stop with the ball in transition and he’s supported by a dynamic off-guard in Bradley Beal who can shoot and handle the ball, and one of the league’s best shooters in Otto Porter.
To understand this core’s upside, look no further than last season. When everyone was healthy, the team had a 41 game stretch with a 29-12 record, which would equal a 58-win pace over a full season. The core had a net rating of +12.7 in 1,141 minutes on the court, which helped Morris and Gortat thrive as well. All five starters averaged double-digit scoring averages:
- John Wall: 22.8 ppg
- Bradley Beal: 23.0 ppg
- Otto Porter: 14.2 ppg
- Markieff Morris: 15.7 ppg
- Marcin Gortat: 12.0 ppg
They did all that even though they didn’t have an adequate bench that could maintain or build leads when the core players needed rest. With a better bench, that team could have easily pushed a 60+ win pace.
These players aren’t the problem. The problems are the cap space wasted in building the team around them. Had Washington spent more wisely in the summer of 2016, when Otto Porter was on his rookie deal and Bradley Beal’s cap hold was all that counted towards their cap, they’d be in a far better position than they are now. Their failure to get help that summer in spite of doling out over $100 million in guaranteed contracts (with player options) has cost the Wizards draft picks and the financial flexibility needed to build properly around them.
Thankfully, Marcin Gortat, Markieff Morris, Jason Smith, and Jodie Meeks are entering their contract years, so the Wizards may finally have an opportunity to move some of those anchor contracts. Teams who are looking to position themselves to make a run at the loaded 2019 free agent class (which features Kyrie Irving, Al Horford, Terry Rozier, Klay Thompson, Marc Gasol, and Kawhi Leonard, among others) will find value in Washington’s expiring deals.
With some tweaks to the current roster which could come into fruition either through the draft, trades, or using the stretch provision to free up some space, the Wizards might be able to rebuild what was so successful for a sustained stretch of the ’16-’17 season.
The case for breaking up the core
The front office while making some positive moves has had two defining offseasons which has inhibited this team’s ability to be a title contender. As David Aldridge put it in his Monday Morning Mailbag:
His second half includes two glaring mistakes that would have gotten GMs in many other cities fired: blowing first-round picks in 2011 on Jan Vesely (sixth overall) and Chris Singleton (18th), then whiffing completely on Kevin Durant in 2016 after spending two years positioning the Wizards to have the cap space to go after the DMV superstar.
Masai Uriji is considered one of the top executives in basketball and has shown discipline in drafting and developing, while also adding talent like Serge Ibaka via trade and C.J. Miles in free agency. Ernie Grunfeld has not shown any such discipline. Draft picks have already been sacrificed to plug holes and shed bad contracts, and still the Wizards are constrained by those 2016 contracts that hamper their flexibility.
They still have several assets which should pique interest around the league, but in terms of outgoing salary, there isn’t a robust market for players like Ian Mahinmi or Jason Smith. How can Washington add to their team if the negative value of their worst contracts outweigh the value of their young assets?
The Wizards will finally have their full allotment of draft picks this summer, for the first time since 2015. However, it takes rookies time to find their niche and contribute to a veteran team. Just look at Kelly Oubre. This Wizards’ core is in win-now mode, do they have time to wait for rookies to develop?
But let’s say the front office manages to find a gem in the draft; will Scott Brooks rely on a rookie in critical moments? The usage of Tomas Satoransky and Oubre in critical moments this season suggests he probably won’t.
Brooks still has issues trusting reliable bench players in key moments as well. Mike Scott was arguably been Washington’s best and most consistent bench player throughout the season. He showed chemistry with the starters and played at a high level in the playoffs, sporting a +9.9 net rating with a .745 true shooting percentage in Washington’s first round series.
Yet, after averaging 27.5 minutes per game in the first three games of the series, he only averaged 14.6 per game in the final three contests, including just 15 minutes in the Wizards’ Game 6 loss in which they struggled to generate offense all night.
The very nature of Brooks’ system could also be an inhibiting factor on the current core going forward. He’s very big on half court, isolation basketball, but that doesn’t suit Wall, Beal, or Porter’s best strengths. As we saw all throughout the season, the team looks very pedestrian when the game slows down. The trio’s collective inability to create high-quality shots for themselves and get to the free throw line doesn’t lend itself to building a team that can consistently close games, which you need to go deep in the playoffs.
Given the shortcomings of the front office and coaching, it’s hard to envision how the Wizards will be able to reconfigure the roster to get the most out of their best three players. Through no fault of their own, the only way to get to the conference finals may be through breaking up the core.
It’s risky and drastic, but if they can’t overcome the roster flexibility issues they face now, it’s hard to see how they’ll do when they’re getting paid over $90 million together starting in the 2019-20 season.
Who can be moved?
The Wizards should not look to trade John Wall. He’s the only player on the team who has consistently shown the elite talent necessary to collapse a defense and force opposing coaching to game plan against. Over the last two playoff runs, he’s averaged 26.8 points, 10.7 assists, 4.3 rebounds, 1.9 steals, and 1.2 blocks per game. Losing that level of postseason productivity is not the fix to what ails the Wizards.
Frankly, he might not be movable even if Washington wanted to trade him. Once his supermax extension kicks in, he’ll make nearly $40 million per year. Putting enough salary together to make a trade work financially will be a challenge in and of itself, before any discussions can be had about finding fair basketball value.
That leaves Bradley Beal and Otto Porter. Both players have excelled at times and even though they are on max deals, both should be movable. Beal is coming off of his first All-Star appearance and Porter’s efficiency and versatility make him a unique and valuable commodity.
They both also have their weaknesses. Beal, for as nice as his jumper looks, has never been the most efficient shooter, and Porter’s ball handling (or lack thereof) makes it difficult to scheme ways to get him open when the defense is focused on limiting his shooting chances. The hope would be that each can improve upon these weaknesses, but they may just be what they are and that means you have to ask, are they enough?
If they aren’t, the Wizards have to consider making one or both available, especially if the Spurs want to move on from Kawhi Leonard or if signs are encouraging for DeMarcus Cousins to make a full recovery from his Achilles injury.
John Wall, Bradley Beal, and Otto Porter aren’t the problem with the Wizards, but they also might not be enough to overcome the deficiencies which are already in place. If retaining them doesn’t involve a clear path to advancing to a new level, you have to ask what’s the point of paying more for the same results?