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Player options will haunt Wizards this off-season

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The Wizards’ liberal use of player options makes them less flexible this summer.

NBA: Washington Wizards at Utah Jazz Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

When properly issued, player options are used at the final season of a player’s contract to give someone who’s earned it more autonomy over the future of his career. Over the past two years, 45 of the 53 veterans with the option opted out, instead choosing to become free agents and test their value on the marketplace.

Eight of the players who opted in were either uncertain of their futures in the league or ability to earn equal money as free agents, so the player option served as a life jacket for them – and a potential sinking anchor for their teams.

This off-season, the Wizards will be one of the handful anchored by their own poor decision making and liberal use of player options.

The deadline to opt in or out is on June 29 – more than a month away – but Jason Smith has already made up his mind. Smith has picked up his $5.4 million player option for next season, fastening the Wizards’ already-suffocating budget.

Smith played a career-low 8.6 minutes per game and his once-reliable outside shot disappeared, as he made just four of his 32 attempts from three this past season. He was a non-factor – and for all intents and purposes did nothing more than provide energy from the bench. If he became an unrestricted free agent this summer, Smith’s agent would have difficulty finding him a contract in the league, especially if he wanted to find an actual role beyond clapping and high-fiving teammates.

Giving Smith a player option after signing Ian Mahinmi to a four-year albatross was a headscratcher in 2016 and it remains that way, which should’ve been a lesson. But the Wizards didn’t learn from their mistake, giving Jodie Meeks – who was arguably less deserving of the option than Smith – the additional contractual incentive to sign with the team last summer when he never needed one.

Prior to signing with the Wizards, Meeks had played a total of 39 games in two years. He was on the verge of being out of the NBA – a player who would’ve been lucky to get a deal for the veteran minimum. Ernie Grunfeld felt differently, handing him a multi-year contract for $3.5 million annually.

The signing could have been justified by the team’s front office by noting some of the past chances that panned out. Signing Martell Webster to a veteran minimum deal in 2012, having him unexpectedly break out and become a key part of the team’s rotation, and then paying him the mid-level exception the following off-season, only to waive him a few years later after another surgery, was a mistake in hindsight. Giving Paul Pierce a player option and watching him walk after the team experienced tangible growth in the postseason hurt, too.

Maybe the team wanted to spare themselves similar heartbreak with Meeks or avoid having to pay him more if he had a resurgence in D.C. (a la Rasual Butler or Ramon Sessions), but it hasn’t worked out that way.

Meeks made 77 appearances for the Wizards, just one shy of the most games he’s ever played, but had one of the least productive seasons of his career. Meeks, who was expected to assist with the reduction in Bradley Beal’s playing time, made less than 40 percent of his total shots and the team’s offensive rating was about four points higher when he didn’t play.

Scott Brooks began to limit Meeks’ minutes around January, causing him to become disgruntled and wanting a trade. To no one’s surprise, the Wizards were unable to accommodate his request – because, believe it or not, there are 29 other teams that don’t believe he’s worthy of a “more prominent role” than what he was getting in Washington.

Beal played a career-high 36.3 minutes this season and fizzled out in the playoffs, partially because he never had a reliable backup and was forced to carry the load at his position all season long. Washington got desperate, signed Sessions and Ty Lawson before the postseason began, and were bounced in the first round.

Meeks didn’t contribute in the playoffs – he’s currently busy serving a 25-game suspension for getting popped for a human growth releasing substance.

Like Smith, Meeks would be foolish to opt out of his contract. He has 19 games left on his suspension, which kills his value even if he were to find a reverse-aging pill that made him grow five inches (in height) this summer. As disappointed with his role as he might be, a spot on the bench with an NBA team is better than being unemployed.

Washington can choose to waive Meeks, but they will still be on the books for his contract. Grunfeld, for the seventh straight season, will be tasked with finding a capable backup for Beal this summer. And to sprinkle some salt on the wound, Tyreke Evans, who had the bounce-back season the Wizards hoped to get from Meeks, was available for the veteran minimum when Washington agreed to a contract with Meeks.

Grunfeld and Co. have entered the off-season $24 million over the salary cap and with a failed track record of finding cheap talent. Meeks and Smith will continue to eat the ownership’s money, and even worse, take up spots on the roster that should’ve been used on contributing players. Mike Scott is an unrestricted free agent and decisions on Kelly Oubre and Tomas Satoransky are looming.

This off-season would have been complicated regardless, but knowing that Meeks and Smith are returning because of a self-imposed contractual option makes it that much more demoralizing.