With the Achilles tear sidelining John Wall for most of next season, the Wizards needed to get out of the luxury tax and create financial space to construct a roster for the future. The trade of Otto Porter for Bobby Portis and Jabari Parker qualifies as “something,” albeit not something that makes much sense.
In basketball terms, Porter for Portis and Parker is bad. Porter, even while having a down shooting year by his standards, made the team better. For all his perceived flaws and limitations, over the past two seasons, the Wizards went just 5-13 in games he missed (not including last night’s drubbing by the Milwaukee Bucks).
A couple years ago, Parker seemed to be on a trajectory to becoming a good player, but a second ACL tear and indifference on defense have made him borderline unplayable this season. His contract has a $20 million team option for next season, which the Wizards will decline. It would be astonishing to see him return to Washington next season.
Portis plays hard and is sometimes even effective. He’s a solid shooter with three-point range and he rebounds well, but he’s turnover prone and has been a poor defender. Last season was the best of his young career (he rated a little above average in my analysis), though his defense was problematic. This season, he’s battled injuries, but he’s young and it’s reasonable to expect improvement. The difficulty is that he’s a restricted free agent this summer, which means the Wizards will need to pay market price if they want to keep him.
Realistically, the trades (including the companion deal sending Markieff Morris to New Orleans for Wesley Johnson) don’t begin to fix what’s wrong with the Wizards. Barring an extended run of great fortune (such as winning the Zion Williamson lottery and finding multiple Thomas Bryant-like surprises), the Wizards won’t be more than a fringe playoff team until they’re finished paying Wall.
Last summer, my analysis predicted that Wall had a couple more seasons of near-peak production before his performance would decline. One of those was this year. He’ll miss the next one with the Achilles tear. When Wall gets back on the court at 30 years old, he’s going to be a whisper of what he once was. And he’s likely to continue having health issues.
Analyzing the trades is worth doing, but more pressing is what it signals about the team’s failed leadership. Ernie Grunfeld has been in charge of the franchise since the summer of 2003. Through a compendium of bad moves, squandered assets and borrowing from the future, Grunfeld constructed an expensive team that somehow lacks top-end talent and depth. The latest plan is to rebuild around Bradley Beal, but this is predicated on the delusion that Beal is an elite player.
Further, their refusal to trade older veterans like Trevor Ariza and Jeff Green is downright malpractice. They may be good guys, but neither should figure into any kind of plan for the future because they’re average players and they’re 32 and 33 years old. The likelihood of either playing this well even next season is small.
While the trades give the Wizards some space to re-sign upcoming free agents, they’re now loaded with restricted free agents likely to see significant salary increases next season. They could, in theory, renounce all of them and create $18-19 million in cap space (depending on how much the cap grows), but that would mean the departures of Tomas Satoransky, Thomas Bryant, Portis, and Sam Dekker, plus unrestricted free agents Trevor Ariza and Jeff Green. They could get another $5.6 million if Dwight Howard opts out of the second year of his contract.
That would leave them with just four players under contract: Beal, Wall, Ian Mahinmi and Troy Brown.
But, the notion that the Wizards would pursue a cap space strategy is fanciful at best. The front office doesn’t believe Washington is a preferred free agent destination. They will not try recruiting an elite player with a barren roster and no maximum salary slot.
The team’s meager resources leave them vulnerable to free agent poaching. When franchises with real cap room fail to sign a premier free agent, they could turn their interest to Satoransky on a one-year deal similar to what Philadelphia did with J.J. Redick, Phoenix did with Ariza, and Orlando did a couple seasons ago with Green. When franchises with real cap room fail to sign a premier free agent, they could turn their interest to Satoransky and make him an offer too lucrative for Washington to match.
If there’s any good news for the team, it’s that the collective bargaining agreement places limits on Bryant’s earnings and put the Wizards in a strong position to retain him. Offer sheets are restricted to the non-taxpayer mid-level exception in the first year, and a five percent raise in the second. Teams could leap his salary to the maximum in years three and four of an offer sheet, but the Wizards would still be able to match. Other CBA provisions would allow the Wizards to start a new contract with Bryant at 105% of the average salary, which would be approximately $9.5 million.
This is small consolation, however. Grunfeld and Leonsis have driven the franchise into a ditch. They’re expensive, lack talent, and don’t have the resources for a quick infusion. The team’s history suggests they may keep borrowing from the future by trading draft picks for players now, but these are short-term fixes destined to fail.
Trading Porter in a salary dump is yet one more example of their front office failure. The team’s on-court prospects won’t change until Leonsis pursues what they need most: new, competent leadership to provide the franchise with strategic direction that isn’t based on job preservation and delusion.