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Wizards still face tough road to playoffs despite no tank approach

AWXII - Day 4 Photo by Grant Lamos IV/Getty Images for AWXII

The patience Wizards owner Ted Leonsis has shown with team president Ernie Grunfeld has long passed any semblance of reason and is now speeding off the cliff of absurdity. Before the season, Leonsis articulated specific goals: make the playoffs, win 50 games, reach the Eastern Conference Finals.

Now 45 games into the season, Leonsis has moved the goalposts to just making the playoffs, and is publicly unwilling to reassess the operations of an expensive, underperforming team until at least the summer. Before the season, he said, “No excuses.”

Leonsis did say “...there might be a price to pay by everyone…” if they don’t reach the postseason, but he’s said similar things in the past and the franchise’s leadership has remained intact despite posting the NBA’s seventh-worst winning percentage in the 14-plus seasons since Grunfeld became general manager. It’s almost as if the disconcerting lethargy the players exhibited early in the season starts at the top.

The likelihood of the Wizards making the playoffs is small. The team has played better without an injured Wall, but better is not the same as good. With Wall off the floor, the team has been about a half point per 100 possessions better than the opposition. This is the quality of a 42-win team over an 82-game schedule.

Applying this level of play to the remaining schedule suggests the team is on course to finish with 37 to 39 wins. Basketball-Reference currently forecasts the 8th spot in the East to be 39-43. The playoffs are possible, but improbable.

I’m likely more sympathetic than most to Leonsis’ “we will never tank” policy. He was wrong about Philadelphia being bad for seven seasons (they deliberately tanked for three seasons, were bad for one more, and then won 52 and lost in the Eastern Conference semifinals in year five of The Process), the Wizards are already in no-man’s land this season — they’ve already won too much to give them a realistic shot at the number one pick, but too little to make them a serious threat to reach the postseason.

But, there’s a Process Tank like the Sixers did, and then there’s a “plan for next year” soft tank in which the Wizards trade older players who could help actual playoff teams for future assets such as draft picks or younger players under contract for next season.

While the front office should remain open to the possibility of a transformative trade that involves Bradley Beal and Otto Porter, there are good reasons to keep both. Beal’s reputation continues to exceed his production, but he’s 25 and has emerged as someone who leads by example on and off the court.

With Porter, production exceeds reputation so the return they’d get in a trade would likely not be commensurate with what he does for them. Whatever the perceived limitations, over the past two seasons, the team falls apart when he isn’t in the lineup.

Although parting ways with either could be painful, it could be the right move for the franchise if it returns good young players or a trove of draft picks.

Assuming a Beal or Porter trade is off limits, the team should pursue a “plan for next year” tank that would allow players to continue pursuing the dubious goal of winning enough to squeak into the playoffs. They could use what’s left of the season to establish a competitive try-hard culture that gives opportunities to young players who need experience while also providing the financial flexibility to re-sign players they want back like Thomas Bryant and Tomas Satoransky.

A soft tank that involves dealing some combination of Markieff Morris, Jeff Green and Trevor Ariza could leave the Wizards with enough talent to “contend for the playoffs” (another goalpost moving phrase used by Leonsis and Grunfeld) while also providing them with cost-controlled players they desperately need given they’ll be spending 85 percent of the salary cap on three players. And it would open playing time for players like Bryant, Troy Brown and Devin Robinson who have shown promise in limited opportunities.

But, this is the Wizards, and Leonsis muttered the vague threat of a “price to pay” if they don’t reach the postseason, so it’s much more probable they’ll stand pat or trade for a veteran to help that playoffs push and save everyone’s jobs.