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Wizards must plot out strategy for future to prioritize free agent signings this summer

NBA: Washington Wizards at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

I sat down to address what seemed to be a simple question: Which of the Wizards’ upcoming free agents should be priorities to re-sign this summer? Answering pushes another question to the forefront: To accomplish what?

Every move the team makes—from roster moves to playing time decisions—must be in service to a strategic objective. And the team’s actions suggest an internal incoherence that could hamstring all their efforts until they decide what they want to do.

A few weeks ago, Wizards’ owner Ted Leonsis the team would never tank and that they would not trade Bradley Beal or Otto Porter. They were committed to this core and would try to build around them. Then John Wall tore his Achilles and the team abruptly changed course to reallocate resources so they could construct a legitimate NBA roster without paying a crushing luxury tax bill.

Swapping Porter for Bobby Portis and Jabari Parker—both on expiring contracts—bought them flexibility to re-sign their free agents, and perhaps bring in some outside talent. But the first challenge they face is defining what they hope to achieve and what success looks like.

Do they want to “contend for the playoffs” this season and next while Wall heals? Are they willing to take a step back and miss the postseason for two or three years to restock the roster with promising youngsters? Are they serious about chasing a championship, or is being a mid-level team in the weak-sister Eastern Conference sufficient?

While they have some flexibility, player acquisition resources remain scarce, which means they need to pick a direction and commit to it. Spending in one area will almost certainly require sacrifices elsewhere. Their many missteps through the years have accumulated to the point where they have an expensive roster lacking in elite performers and depth.

Ideally, short, medium and long-term goals work in concert. A short-term accomplishment should advance the organization towards its overarching mission. But their current short-term goal—making the playoffs—conflicts with the goal of developing young players for the future because of their heavy reliance on older players. Squeaking into the playoffs by riding 30-plus year olds for big minutes does nothing to lay a foundation for a competitive team in the near or long term. It takes development opportunities from young players on the roster while also hurting their chances to acquire the elite players they’ll need if they ever hope to compete for a championship.

Their decision to “build around” guard Bradley Beal is popular because Beal plays hard and is enormously likable, but it’s also misguided and points to the front office’s fundamental inability to accurately assess player performance. They believe Beal is among the game’s elite, but he simply is not. He’s good — maybe even very good — but there’s a chasm between Beal’s production and the kind of player that can lead a winning franchise. In short, the NBA’s true elite consistently produce at the level of Beal’s best games.

If they take the Build Around Beal and Do the Best We Can path, their offseason priorities may as well be Ariza, Jeff Green and Tomas Satoransky, each of whom fit the reliable veteran mold. After re-signing those three, they would probably have enough money to re-sign Portis or Parker and perhaps acquire a free agent with their mid-level exception. Players like Chasson Randle and Devin Robinson could be brought back on minimum contracts, although that’s the case in any scenario.

The front office could likely talk themselves and some fans into viewing that approach as keeping the team in postseason contention while preserving the hope that the return of Wall might help them have an exciting first round series. In future years, they could even imagine themselves clawing back into the fifth or sixth seed range instead of seventh or eighth.

This would be even more fanciful than treating Beal as a franchise player. As I wrote last summer, players like Wall typically saw steep performance declines and an increase in missed games as they passed 30. Wall may not return to the court until his age 30 season.

They could choose a middle road where they retain a few key veterans on short, team-friendly contracts while they emphasize development. In that case, priorities would be re-signing Thomas Bryant and Portis, as well as Ariza and Satoransky, while using their cap exceptions to sign younger free agents who might still have room to improve. The key here: one or two year contracts with team options on anything longer.

This strategy could include re-signing free agents to deals slightly above the mid-level exception as a way to retain trade assets. It’s likely they could re-sign Ariza, Satoransky, Portis, and Bryant on deals in this MLE-plus range. In doing this, the team would compile several assets that could be slotted into an array of potential trades that could net the Wizards draft picks or consolidate the middling talent into a single player who’s better.

Finally, the team could decide it’s time to commit to the long-term goal of rebuilding to be competitive in 2023-24 when Wall’s contract has been paid off. In the short-term, that would mean playing youngsters more minutes and veterans less. In the offseason, it would prioritize working on sign-and-trade deals for players like Ariza, Green, and Satoransky to bring back future assets. It would mean planning to be in the lottery for the next two or three years. And it would mean trading Beal for young players and draft picks.

A radical rebuild would emphasize retaining young players who might be part of a contending team in five or six years. Of the team’s expiring contracts, that basically means Bryant. It could be worth locking the promising big man into a four-year contract at a reasonable price. Other free agents could be brought back on qualifying offers or short contracts and all should be considered trade fodder. But, there’s no reason to break the bank for any of them, and there’s absolutely no reason to approach the luxury tax for years into the future.

The unfortunate truth is the many mistakes of the Wizards front office through the years have reached a critical mass. Barring a streak of incredible good luck, they will not be more than a fringe playoffs team until they’re finished paying for the Wall extension. It’s time for Leonsis to finally acknowledge this reality and create a strategic framework that can lead to meaningful success.