There’s only so much time to compete for a championship. Washington’s core, for the sixth straight year, was running it back — this time, supposedly healthy, and ready to catapult atop the East with LeBron James heading to Los Angeles. The last thing the Wizards wanted to do was wait around for DeMarcus Cousins to recover from a torn Achilles, especially since there was no guarantee he would ever return to his All-Star form following such a devastating, career-altering injury.
Washington wanted immediate help — someone to replace Marcin Gortat in the starting lineup after trading the Polish Machine to the Los Angeles Clippers for Austin Rivers. John Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter had spent too much time together — and apart due to injuries suffered themselves — and didn’t have much of any left waiting around for a new teammate to get healthy.
So Cousins called the Golden State Warriors instead.
Months later, the Wizards find themselves with little depth at the center position, forced to rely on 21-year-old Thomas Bryant in the absence of Dwight Howard and in the ineptitude of Ian Mahinmi.
As John Wall told the media after Cousins’ victory over the Wizards — a game where he flashed his dominance, scoring 17 points on 8-of-12 shooting in 24 minutes — the All-Star big man “considered” reuniting with Wall in Washington, but the team couldn’t stomach waiting for his rehabilitation process to be complete.
Wall believes Cousins “wanted to be here” — but the Wizards, ultimately, passed. And in doing so, the Wizards took the safe route. They waited for Howard, who was waived by the Brooklyn Nets shortly after being traded by the Charlotte Hornets, to become available just because he could suit up on opening day. The Wizards wanted a center who could contribute on-the-spot, even if that meant the move lacked upside.
For three straight seasons before coming to Washington — all for three different teams — Howard had been a relatively consistent presence, at least in terms of availability. He played 71 games in his final season with the Rockets, 74 games in his lone season with the Hawks and 81 games with the Hornets. At 32, though, the Wizards weren’t getting a young, spry Howard — they were getting a Howard who had played 35,754 minutes. There was no guarantee that Howard, who previously had back surgery, would stay healthy and contribute. Signing Howard was a gamble, just as acquiring Cousins would have been, but it was a risk made lacking consideration for the future.
It’s the type of move Washington’s front office has been making for years — mortgaging a possibly special future for instant mediocre gratification. The ownership’s public disdain for “tanking” has put pressure on the front office and coaching staff to make these types of short-sighted moves. The front office has routinely erred on the side of signing veteran players and the coaching staff has shelved the development of youth for the sake of trotting out journeymen, despite history showing that this exact decision-making has almost no long-term promise. Ownership put the pressure on the front office and coaching staff to make the playoffs at all costs, which maintains a low bar and keeps the wheel of mediocrity endlessly spinning in hopes of participating in a handful of extra games in April.
The Wizards weighed their options:
- Sign Cousins, fill the void at the start of the season with Mahinmi and a young player (who eventually became Bryant), and allow for the team to build its confidence in his absence.
- Sign a veteran, like Howard, who could assist with fortifying the front court without a void to start the season.
Realistically, the Wizards, even with a healthy Howard, were never truly going to compete for a championship — but with him in the lineup, they would have given themselves a better shot to win on a nightly basis than they would’ve had with Cousins recovering on the bench. Worst case scenario, they probably thought, they would still be in a position to finish the season with home-court advantage with Howard — a situation they might have not have been in had they waited for Cousins to recover.
By considering the present instead of the days that await, Washington chose not to reunite the Kentucky duo — a dream-like scenario the franchise’s fans have been fantasizing about since 2010. Washington decided not to have three bona-fide all-stars — a few bordering on “superstars” - on its roster for the sake of possibly securing a handful of more wins to start the season.
And now the Wizards are left with what they have: an injured Howard who might miss more games than Cousins this season, an unplayable backup who’s making $16 million annually, and a promising center who they expected would spent most of his time developing in the G-League.
Winning requires patience, and to really build a championship-quality roster, a team will has to take chances. Washington has been slothing around in purgatory for years and had the opportunity to make a splash, but the ownership and front office passed on the risk for a seemingly smaller one. Other teams, like the Toronto Raptors — a franchise that traded their best player for a better one, knowing the massive risk involved with him possibly leaving a year later — took those risks and are now heading into the All-Star break with an ambitious finish in mind.
Washington wanted safety — a step forward, enough to make progress, but not big enough to make a leap to the end-goal. So they passed on Cousins — joining the many that did — and let him dial the Warriors’ number.