The overarching question about the direction of the Wizards is even if things do work out – even if they progress this season, add a lottery pick, retain Davis Bertans, and bring back a healthy John Wall; how will they pass the bar set by prior iterations of the team? How would they become a contender?
It’s a question they will face in the near future as long as Bradley Beal and John Wall are on the roster and one that is magnified as the Wizards sit at ninth in the Eastern Conference heading into the All Star Break, two games in the loss column behind the Orlando Magic. With the playoffs being reasonably within reach, the idea of a quick turnaround may be more plausible than it seemed prior to the season. As Ted Leonsis asked this past summer,
To what end however? Wouldn’t the Wizards be trending towards a repeat of the Wizards of 2014-2018, a core group that reached the Eastern Conference Semifinals on three occasions but ultimately last exited the postseason after a first round series loss to the Toronto Raptors in 2018? How does that reconcile with Tommy Sheppard’s comments after getting the full-time general manager role in July that “I don’t ever wanna say, ‘Let’s go get the eighth spot.’ That’s not the big picture at all.”
A person could argue that point and time may prove that to be true, but going in there are noteworthy differences in what Sheppard is building compared to the group(s) we watched most recently frequent the postseason.
There are only two players left from the team that lost game six to the Toronto Raptors in the spring of 2018 – John Wall and Bradley Beal. Wall, as we all know has missed the majority of game action since that series with a variety of injuries, most notably an Achilles tear. In that time, the dynamic of the team has shifted to it being Beal’s team. As the roster around him evolves, his imprints are all over this team’s successes and failures.
Beyond Beal, however, is where the major differences lie. The prior iteration of the Wizards was a team with a bloated payroll and established veterans who were known commodities and in some cases were on their last legs in the NBA.
That version of the Wizards was handcuffed by a front office which cashed in all of their chips to put that team together. They traded a lottery pick for Markieff Morris, they used all of their cap room in the summer of 2016 on players who ultimately did not have a material impact (Ian Mahinmi) or players who required additional assets attached to them to move their money (i.e. Andrew Nicholson and Jason Smith).
As a result, as other team’s continued to add to their core, the Wizards core grew old, injured, and never had the pipeline of young players, draft picks, or cap space necessary to complement or improve upon their core. They didn’t have the assets to go get Kawhi Leonard or Jimmy Butler when the opportunity arose, nor did they have the cap space to take on contracts for additional draft capital or depth. That team was capped out and stuck in reverse.
An easy narrative is that this team faces a similar fate because of Wall’s Supermax contract. Ultimately that may prove to be true but it ignores some realities. This team isn’t going to go from a 30-win team to contender status overnight. Yes, management has asked why can’t this be quick but was that taken too literally? Does management really expect them to go from 30 to their first 50-win season in decades overnight? Or do they think that the bottoming out doesn’t have to take years – that they can quickly get back to the playoffs behind Brad and continue to build around that nucleus in a way the prior iteration of the Wizards could not?
Washington’s actions seem to suggest just that. While some thought the Wizards were going to cash-in on Mahinmi’s contract to bring in a high salary veteran player to put next to Wall and Beal and create a new big 3, they did the opposite. They transacted to take another flier on a prospect – Jerome Robinson.
The Wizards want the turnaround to be quick, otherwise they would have looked to trade Beal, but they are not any shortcuts. What does this mean?
We can only take our best guesses but the Wizards’ actions seem to indicate that instead of taking the bandage approach for a third piece that likely would result in a poor man’s version of the prior Wizards “Big 3”, they are building what they hope is a deep, cost-efficient roster with players who have room for development around their Supermax and Max contract players.
Since the Wizards have not mortgaged future draft capital to get to this point, they will have the opportunity to add to that core or eventually consolidate young players and/or picks in a trade for an all-star type at the appropriate time.
The three younger centers on the Wizards’ roster, Bryant, Wagner, and Pasecniks make a combined $12 million in salary next season, less than ten percent of the expected room below the luxury tax line. Their starting power forward, Rui Hachimura will have three years left on his rookie contract which will average slightly north of $5.1 million annually over that time. Troy Brown Jr., Jerome Robinson, Isaac Bonga, and Admiral Schofield also will be in their rookie deals for the foreseeable future. Their 2020 draft pick, will result in ideally another rotational player on a rookie scale deal for possibly the next four seasons.
They’ve put volume and manageable contracts around their back-court to the point where they can splurge (within reason) on Davis Bertans because as many as three starters and four of the five primary reserves – seven/tenths of their top ten rotation players could conceivably be on rookie deals or fixed contracts at less than $10 million annually.
None of this means a thing if the players don’t develop. The front office is taking on a difficult task – rebuild on the fly around their back-court and to do so they will have to hit and hit big on more than one of these margin moves. However unlike the prior iteration of the team, there’s actually a chance that a 20-year old develops into more than they are today then there was of those veteran team’s breaking through their limited ceiling.
And if it doesn’t work, Washington still took the marginal steps necessary to start, or continue a rebuild, depending on where you think this team is at right now. They don’t have to get rid of Troy Brown or Rui Hachimura to start a rebuild; they would be part of that rebuild.
Beal has signed an extension which allows the Wizards to play this out, even if he does eventually grow impatient and request a trade down the road, they are in position to get a massive return for Beal – one that may not even require a step back based on the track record we’ve seen with teams like the Pacers, Thunder, and Pelicans as they have quickly recovered after trading away a star.
Washington will also have flexibility for the future, which previous Wizards teams often didn’t have. “Why can’t this be quick?” does not mean the front office expects a Finals appearance in June 2021. What I think it means is that the Wizards will use the next few years to position themselves to be a contender in a way their predecessors could not. Maybe they hit it big with their next draft pick. Or maybe they don’t.
Maybe they have to wait on the Wall contract to mature to add the last piece or maybe he becomes a valuable contributor to the team once again. Maybe Beal becomes an elite player they need him to be to make this work or maybe he doesn’t. That’s not the point here.
There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical and just a few weeks ago, the Wizards franchise player was expressing frustration after a disappointing loss to the 19-win Chicago Bulls.
We don’t know which way any of this will go but what we do know is they’re no longer stuck in reverse. They are moving forward – and that’s the big difference between this team and the team we last saw in the postseason walking off the then-Verizon Center floor after game six versus the Raptors just two seasons ago.