Bradley Beal’s development into the Wizards’ new recruiter is welcome and has led to a little fun, allowing Wizards Twitter and the blogosphere to guess who he pitched at All-Star Weekend. There’s just one issue. Even after moving Porter’s max contract, the Wizards still have a cap crunch.
Washington already has $83 million committed to four players for next year’s roster. John Wall--whose availability for next season is in question--is one of those four players under contract. Another one of those four, Ian Mahinmi is out of the rotation and has not come close to living up the four-year, $64 million contract he received in the summer of 2016. Once you factor in Dwight Howard’s player option, which he will likely pick up, the Wizards are up to $89 million, which puts them $20 million under the salary cap and $43 million under the tax line.
The Wizards can create extra space by waiving and stretching Ian Mahinmi, a move that would spread his $15.4 million salary next season over three years and open nearly $10 million more to spend this summer. There’s an argument for riding out the final year of his deal, as painful as it is, so it won’t limit them in the future, but if Beal’s recruiting works, it’s imperative to put the best roster around him.
That doesn’t sound too bad until you factor in the Wizards’ cap holds. Each player the team plans on keeping takes another bite out of the apple because they can’t use their Bird rights unless they keep their cap holds.
- Tomas Satoransky ($5.9 million cap hold) – Likely a priority keep given John Wall’s injury.
- Thomas Bryant ($3 million cap hold) – The waiver wire find from the Lakers has been the surprise of the season, going from training camp afterthought to starting 43 games at center.
- Jeff Green ($1.6 million cap hold) – A veteran wing who has lauded for his professionalism and leadership.
- Bobby Portis ($7.4 million cap hold) – One of the two players the Wizards received for Otto Porter. The Wizards likely want something to show for next season after trading away a player they invested so much in just 19 months ago. He is averaging 15.0 points and 8.1 rebounds per game while shooting 50 percent from the 3-point line and has a +2.5 net rating in Washington.
Trevor Ariza ($18 million cap hold) – If the Wizards are serious about keeping Ariza, he alone virtually rules out any chance Washington has of using cap space to sign a free agent.
Lakers are interested, but Trevor Ariza and Washington Wizards remain in each's future plans, league sources tell ESPN. Ariza is enthusiastic about re-signing with Washington. Wizards' trades creating financial flexibility that'll make it easier to bring Ariza back on new deal— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) February 7, 2019
This doesn’t include Jabari Parker, who has a $20 million team option for next season, nor does it \include cap holds for Chasson Randle, Sam Dekker, and the Wizards’ two-way players Jordan McRae and Devin Robinson. I also haven’t included the cap charge for the Wizards’ first round pick in the 2019 draft. Right now, the Wizards are on track for the seventh overall pick which would incur a $4.4 million cap hit.
The Wizards are no longer in an untenable position, but they are not in a great position to sign a premier free agent. They can’t get to max cap space, and they can’t even get to the money to sign a good free agent without renouncing most of their free agents. From there, they would have to use the room exception, trade exceptions, and the veteran’s minimum market to fill out their roster. They’d be right back to where they were, with a top-heavy roster and little flexibility.
So what can and should the Wizards and their new lead recruiter do? It starts with acknowledging where they are and plotting out a strategy built around a clear direction, something Kevin Broom recently touched on. Given Brad’s pronounced commitment to the team, the direction seems clear: Build around Brad. We know the aforementioned obstacles to that so what can they do, and what do they need to be successful down this road?
It starts with luck. Their 2019 first round pick and the new lottery system are the Wizards best path to adding a high-end, cost-controlled talent to the roster. The Wizards have a 7.5 percent chance of landing the first overall pick in the lottery, just 6.5 percent lower than the three worst teams in the league. They have a 31.9 percent chance of moving up into a top-four draft spot. Regardless of where they land, it is critical that the Wizards identify a player with high-end potential that can at least contribute early in their career.
They cannot replace John Wall by finding another healthy All-Star who can slot in at his money in free agency. The cap does not work like that and the market has not either, at least not in Washington’s case.
What they can do is take as many chances as possible, without tying themselves in long-term financially. Some front office’s biggest mistakes have come in reaction to free agent misses. They missed on Al Horford so they signed Ian Mahinmi, Jason Smith, and Andrew Nicholson to long-term deals, taking away any flexibility they could have had in subsequent offseasons.
For now, this means doubling down on the draft to get extra picks and seeing what their two-way players can do with expanded roles. It also means taking more low-risk, high-reward gambles. Jabari Parker is a good example. As the second overall pick in the 2014 NBA draft continues to make his way back from injuries and learns the system, he has shown flashes of an all-around skillset that could be intriguing to a team in Washington’s position, but has also had games that make you understand why Milwaukee and Chicago moved on from him. Maybe he is worth a small, short-term investment? If they decide he isn’t the guy, that’s fine but find other players who either haven’t had opportunities, or dropped off the radar but still have talent that can raise the team’s ceiling.
We know what Trevor Ariza can offer, just like we know what Jeff Green can do. The Wizards can argue the need veteran presence on the roster but it should not come at the expense of investing in ways to build around Beal.
The Wizards need to identify the right targets to gamble on and use the tools available to do just that. They have the mid-level exception, the bi-annual exception, and several trade exceptions at their disposal. We have already seen it work here this year! They took a relatively small risk picking up Thomas Bryant off waivers this summer and the move has paid off great dividends this season.
No front office will make all the right calls, but they have a better chance of getting some right when they take more of them. Given their precarious cap position and willingness of their all-star player to put his name behind front office overtures; now is the time to shoot their shot, and keep shooting!