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Four lingering questions after the Wizards’ moves in free agency

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Atlanta Hawks v Charlotte Hornets Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Are we going to see any other moves this summer?

The Wizards will have 14 players on the roster once the Dwight Howard and Jeff Green signings go through. They’ll only have one spot left on the final roster, which they could use to bring back Ty Lawson, or promote Devin Robinson from a two-way player to a full roster spot.

They could also just leave the roster spot open, as they’ve done in some other years. It would give them flexibility to pull off an unbalanced trade, or bring someone in to help with depth if there are injury issues. Plus, it saves them from shelling out extra luxury tax for someone who probably won’t factor into the regular playing rotation.

If you’re clamoring for some more moves, your best hope might be the luxury tax. Washington is surely looking at ways to unload Jason Smith and Jodie Meeks to get off deadweight salary. If they don’t find a trade partner, they could use the Stretch Provision to spread out the cap hit of the final year of their deals over the next three seasons, which would save them nearly $6 million dollars in salary and nearly $12 million in luxury tax next season, but it would require them to sign more players to avoid roster limit issues.

The Wizards could also explore stretching Ian Mahinmi, which would clear even more space now, but he’d count as a $6.2 million cap hit for the next five seasons, which would keep him on Washington’s ledger as long as John Wall.

Were the Wizards bidding against anyone else for Dwight Howard?

The Wizards are reportedly signing Dwight Howard to a one-year contract for the mid-level exception. From a cap perspective, it’s a coup because Howard will make less than half as much as Marcin Gortat and provide an upgrade in production next season.

It was encouraging to see that ownership gave the Wizards the green light to use the mid-level exception, even though they’re a taxpaying team. In a summer where several teams with tax concerns have been unwilling to shell out money, the Wizards paid up. Good on them.

That said, was anyone really going to offer Howard more than the minimum? As good as he is, he has some baggage and almost everyone else out there already has options at center. Let’s review:

Once those teams are removed, you’re left with the Wizards, Bucks, and Heat. The Bucks already used their mid-level exception on Ersan Ilyasova, so they were out, and Miami probably wouldn’t have been interested in him, especially while they work through their issues with Hassan Whiteside.

So did the Wizards really need to offer the MLE to get Howard? Maybe not. On the other hand, since he’s signing a one-year deal, Washington will only have non-Bird rights on Howard next summer, which means they’ll only be able to offer Howard a contract starting at 120 percent of what he makes this season.

Signing him to a bigger deal this summer gives them more flexibility to offer Howard a better deal next summer than if they only offered the minimum. As we learned with Mike Scott, paying a little more money now might save them some heartache next summer. At worst, if it doesn’t work out, the only cost is extra money out of ownership’s pockets.

UPDATE: So in light of the news that Howard’s deal will actually be a two-year deal with a player option, criticisms about the Wizards bidding against themselves are a little more valid. Giving anyone a player option is a concession you don’t have leverage, which seems like a bad misread of the market. Odds are it won’t matter because he’ll probably opt out, but it creates risk where there didn’t need to be any.

Are the Wizards deviating from Ted’s Ten Point Plan?

Back in 2009, Ted Leonsis detailed his Ten Point Plan for rebuilding, based on his experience with the Capitals. Point 7 is quite interesting, in light of the move to sign Dwight Howard:

No jerks allowed. Implement a no jerk policy. Draft and develop and keep high character people. Team chemistry is vital to success. Make sure the best and highest paid players are coachable, show respect to the system, want to be in the city, love to welcome new, young players to the team, have respect for the fan base, show joy in their occupation, get the system, believe in the coaches, have fun in practice, and want to be gym rats. Dump quickly distractions. Life is too short to drink bad wine.

Say what you want about Dwight Howard, but he sounds a lot like the kind of player Leonsis advocated avoiding when he wrote this. Granted, Howard says he wants to change his image, but everyone says that on New Year’s Eve and very few follow through with it.

Clearly, the Wizards made a calculated risk to pursue Howard in spite of his flaws. That means one of a few things:

  • The Wizards think their culture is strong enough to handle Howard if he gets unruly—which seems doubtful considering how things fell apart with Marcin Gortat last season.
  • They scrapped that part of the plan a few years ago—which could be argued considering they’ve trade a first round pick for Markieff Morris, and have acquired abrasive characters like Glen Rice Jr., Gary Neal and Kris Humphries in recent years.
  • They’re compromising the plan this summer because there just weren’t any other good options this summer. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

Whatever rationale they’re using to look past the “No jerk policy” says something about the state of the Wizards’ rebuild and their approach to get it back on track when things go awry.

Are the Wizards setting themselves up for another Summer of ‘16?

From a team-building perspective, this season is shaping up a lot like the 2015-16, when the team signed several players to one-year deals, to go along with the players who were already on expiring deals, in order to maintain flexibility for free agency. As of now, nine Wizards—Dwight Howard, Markieff Morris, Austin Rivers, Jeff Green, Jason Smith, Jodie Meeks, Tomas Satoransky, Kelly Oubre Jr., and Thomas Bryant—are set to be free agents at the end of the season.

Unlike 2016, however, they won’t be able to chase a max player. Even if you stretch the final year of Ian Mahinmi’s deal, once you add up the salaries of John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter Jr., Troy Brown Jr., a 2019 first round pick, and the minimum cap holds for remaining roster spots, the Wizards are at or over the salary cap line, which limits what they can do in free agency.

Washington won’t shed a tear when Smith and Meeks come off the books, but figuring out a plan for everyone else will be difficult. Howard, Morris, Green, and Rivers are all unrestricted free agents, so there’s a risk that any or all of them could leave in free agency, even if the Wizards make good offers. There are plenty of pitfalls in restricted free agency as well—just look at how tense things are getting with Zach LaVine and the Bulls, or Jabari Parker and the Bucks.

Once the team sees how things will shake out with the rotation, it will be easier to determine who is expendable, and figure out who is worth keeping around by the time the trade deadline comes around. When that time comes, it might make some sense to make a move or two to establish some more stability for the 2019-20 season, provided they can find a good trade partner. Otherwise, it sets the team up for another summer like 2016, where they’ll need to fill a lot of roster spots in a crowded market.

It could make for a wild finish.