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Wizards are attempting a fast cleanup of Grunfeld’s mess, but should it be a long-term project?

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Tommy Sheppard has his hands full while attempting to build the Wizards into his own vision.

2019 Washington Wizards Draft Press Conference
Tommy Sheppard is looking to fix his predecessor’s mistakes. But can he truly fix the Wizards without a long-term rebuild?
Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

Former team president Ernie Grunfeld is gone, but the mess he created will linger. Interim president Tommy Sheppard and the holdover front office has been maneuvering around a payroll long on salaries and short on talent, and the dearth of draft assets because of the Grunfeldian practice of mortgaging the future for short-term goals.

The front office’s tactical shift has been apparent. Sheppard has ended the practice of giving away second round picks and has orchestrated a series of moves to accumulate assets and generate marginal value. The overall approach to the offseason suggests a team planning to be in the lottery next season and reloading in hopes of being in the 2021 playoffs when injured point guard John Wall is healthy.

This approach has merit if Wall can regain his All-NBA form. The odds of that aren’t good, which means barring some crazy good luck they’re merely delaying the long-term rebuild they need.

The Marginal Moves

The new tactical approach was on display when they purchased a second-round pick to draft Admiral Schofield. While it’s fair to quibble with who they chose, the move to spend cash to get a player they like was good.

After the draft, they signed undrafted rookie Justin Robinson, a point guard who had a draftable grade in YODA and could become a decent backup in time. And, they got involved in the trade of Anthony Davis to the Lakers, which got them some young players and a future second round pick.

They also leveraged their ability to match Chicago’s offer to Tomas Satoransky to get protections removed from the second round pick they got in the Otto Porter trade, plus another future second round pick. More on Satoransky later.

The signing of former All-NBA guard Isaiah Thomas is an interesting asset play. Historically, diminutive guards don’t age well, and Thomas is 30. He missed 120 games the past two seasons due to injuries, and was awful when he could get on the court. The injury analysis I did earlier this summer suggests Thomas is unlikely to regain anything resembling his pre-injury form, but his minimum salary makes him an inexpensive, low-probability bet. If he regains something of his old form, he should be traded for draft picks or included in a bigger deal. If not, there’s nothing lost.

These are marginal moves in the sense that they’re unlikely to yield franchise-altering results. The players they got from the Lakers-Pelicans trade are probably going to top out at tenth man. But, there’s a chance one of them could develop into a rotation player, and by making several cheap bets, the team has increased their odds of hitting on one. Overall, these deals are a smart way to use what little they have to add cheap labor and future assets.

The Good

They Wizards re-signed 21-year old big man Thomas Bryant, who had a breakout 2018-19 after the Wizards plucked him from waivers. On a three-year $25 million contract, Bryant is a likely bargain over the next three seasons, especially if he continues to improve. Getting better is probable given his youth (he doesn’t turn 22 until the end of the month), inexperience, and his reputation for being a hard worker.

Most of what Bryant needs to improve (strength and defense) are things that normally get better with time, work and experience. This is going to be a team-friendly deal that will make Bryant an unrestricted free agent entering his age 25 season. He’s now set up for 2-3 more NBA contracts, and could end up earning generational wealth during his playing career.

They said goodbye to Bobby Portis, who came to Washington in the Otto Porter trade. This is one benefit of jettisoning Grunfeld, who may have felt pressure to re-sign Portis, even at an inflated salary, to have something to show for Porter. Despite his involvement in the trade, Sheppard resisted whatever impulse there may have been in that direction, and let Portis depart to the laughable Knicks.

Portis is a good rebounder and a solid three-point shooter, but may be the worst defensive player who gives effort I’ve ever seen since I started watching and analyzing the NBA in 1978. The Wizards were smart to keep the younger, cheaper and better Bryant over Portis.

The Squander

With John Wall sidelined with a torn Achilles, finding a starting point guard or re-signing Tomas Satoransky seemed a priority. The problem: Satoransky, who proved he was a competent starting guard filling in for Wall the past couple seasons, was sure to receive offers at the midlevel exception level, and the Wizards didn’t want to pay that much. While the Wizards did well to get something for Satoransky, that “something” is far less than Satoransky’s value.

The smartest move would have been to deal him (along with veterans Trevor Ariza and Jeff Green) at this past February’s trade deadline. That wasn’t possible in July of course, but the smart move at that point would have been to give him the three-year MLE deal, and then trade him later.

Satoransky won’t be a bargain at $10 million per season, but it’s a fair contract for a productive player who fits anywhere. They could have traded him to a contending team looking for backcourt help at the 2020 trade deadline and gotten significantly more than a second-round pick.

In what’s becoming a Wizards tradition, they overpaid for a replacement level PG early in free agency. In this case, Ish Smith, for whom they inexplicably used part of their MLE. Smith isn’t Eric Maynor 2.0, but it’s in the same neighborhood. Smith is fast and has cut down on his turnovers in recent years, but at age 31 he’s a poor shooter with a well-below average overall impact.

Smith had a few decent seasons in his much-traveled NBA career, but at this point he’s basically a replacement level backup. TJ McConnell, an acceptable rotation guard who could fill a similar role, signed for less money. Delon Wright, a solid player who can competently hold his own at three positions, is still available.

Even if the plan is to tank for a year, using a portion of the MLE and giving him a two-year contract on the second day of free agency is baffling.

The departures of Jeff Green and Trevor Ariza also represent wasted assets. Responsibility for this rests squarely on the shoulders of Grunfeld, who was in charge at the time of the squandering. The Wizards had no business trading for Ariza in the first place. Once it was clear the season was lost, it was malpractice not to trade him and Green for whatever they could get at the deadline.

It’s staggering to think the team effectively has traded Otto Porter, Kelly Oubre, Trevor Ariza, Jeff Green, and Tomas Satoransky for a pair of second round picks and maybe Jabari Parker, if they re-sign him.

The Pending

The front office still has some decisions and potential moves to make. Most pressing is the July 8 deadline to decide whether to guarantee Jonathon Simmons’ contract for the season or release him. They’ll probably push it to the deadline to see if they can get trade value for him, and then cut him to save $4.6 million.

Next is what they want to do with Parker, who became a free agent when they declined the $20 million option to keep him next season. Parker’s performance is a mishmash of explosive-but-inefficient offense and inattentive defense. Parker was decent in his stint with the Wizards, and could be worth bringing back on a reasonable one-year “show me” deal.

They need to figure out how to deal with their bloat at center. At this point, Dwight Howard and Ian Mahinmi should be considered dead money on the cap. If they can get anything for them in trade, they should do it. If there are no trades available, negotiate buyouts. If that doesn’t work, release them or send them home until the trade deadline. Then go find a bouncy 6-10 kid who can shoot threes to develop into a backup.

Finally, the biggest decision facing the franchise is what they’re going to do with Bradley Beal. It’s clear the Wizards believe he’s among the game’s elite players. If Beal doesn’t sign a maximum salary extension this summer, it’ll be because he wants to wait, not because the Wizards don’t offer it. As painful as it may be, the best move for the franchise’s future is to trade Beal for a trove of picks and young players who have a chance of being around when the team is good again.

But, trading Beal would signal a true rebuild, and there’s no indication that’s what Sheppard and Ted Leonsis want. Their offseason thus far signals a team planning a one-year tank/reload and then a return to playoffs contention in 2020-21 when Wall is presumably fully healthy. I think this plan — if it is indeed their plan — involves an awful lot of hope and wishful thinking and they’ll be facing a similar “reload or rebuild” question in 2021 and 2022.