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The Wizards need to pick a lane

Washington’s performance in The Bubble highlights the franchise’s need for a clear strategy

Monumental Basketball Portraits
Tommy Sheppard and the Washington Wizards need to pick a strategy as they plan the 2020-21 roster.
Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

You might think showing up for the NBA restart in Orlando was a huge waste of time for the Wizards. They lost seven straight before managing to squeak out a nail-biter against the Boston Celtics — who didn’t play Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward, Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum, Daniel Theis and Kemba Walker. Small achievement, but they did avoid becoming the only winless team in the “bubble.”

No, they didn’t make much progress developing talent and no one gained “valuable experience” or whatever coach-speak pablum you prefer. But it was still valuable because the Orlando experience provides Tommy Sheppard and the front office with incontrovertible evidence the Wizards aren’t anywhere close to being good. And by the time the young guys who might be good — Rui Hachimura, Troy Brown — are actually good, John Wall and Bradley Beal will be on the decline.

If the Wizards were in the vicinity of good, they’d have been far more competitive in the bubble, even without Beal, Wall and Davis Bertans. Good teams have lots of good players. They don’t collapse when a couple are missing from the lineup.

For example, the Brooklyn Nets. Many thought they’d go o-fer in Orlando without Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, DeAndre Jordan, Wilson Chandler and Spencer Dinwiddie. They went 5-3. How? NBA-quality depth highlighted by the likes of Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen, Joe Harris and Garrett Temple. The Wizards were missing Beal and Davis Bertans and went 1-7.

You don’t have to squint to see how the Nets at full strength could be a force in the Eastern Conference — even with Durant’s and Irving’s injury histories. The Wizards? Come on.

But information is good. There’s virtue in honest self-audits. Ted Leonsis said so himself in his since-archived manifesto for building a sports team. The Wizards need a talent infusion. They don’t have enough good players on the roster to be anything more than mediocre.

So what’s next?

Sheppard has to pick a lane. He has two choices: cash in some young players with potential and draft picks to improve the roster, or trade Beal and rebuild in earnest. There are good arguments for either strategy, but he has to pick one or the other.

If I had Sheppard’s job, I know what I’d do. Wall’s contract is untradeable — likely until it expires in three years, but at the very least until he shows that he can stay healthy and produce at a high level. If Wall can’t be moved, shipping Beal out becomes less attractive. What kind of environment would be created by surrounding Wall with prospects and losing a billion games while they restock and hope for relevance?

If Beal and Wall are staying, the team should trade youth and potential for guys who fit their timelines and can make an impact. The dream scenario? Rudy Gobert.

Despite being a two-time Defensive Player of the Year and a two-time All-NBA center, the Stifle Tower is somehow underrated. He’s extension-eligible this summer and the small-market Jazz don’t usually dole out second max deals. Gobert has had a prickly relationship with Donovan Mitchell, who is just 23. Utah might listen to an offer that lets them build around Mitchell with younger players.

The Wizards offer would start with Thomas Bryant. He’s already an offensive force due to his ability to finish inside at a high rate and shoot the three ball. And he showed some defensive improvement in the bubble. He just turned 23 and is on a great value contract. In Quin Snyder’s system Bryant is likely to blossom as a defender.

Next: Rui Hachimura. NBA types keep comparing him to a young Kawhi Leonard. I don’t see it, but maybe Utah does!

The physical tools are there. He’s relatively new to the game and Utah has a great player development record. Throw in Ish Smith’s expiring contract (see, that deal doesn’t seem so crazy now, does it?), Jerome Robinson, and at least one first round draft pick and maybe the Jazz think that’s a lot better than letting Gobert walk in free agency next summer.

Where would that leave the Wizards? Still well short of legit title contention in all likelihood, but they’d be good and interesting. Wall and Beal would enjoy playing with an elite screener and finisher like Gobert. Bertans provides spacing with his limitless shooting range. Like everyone else in the league, they’d need a big wing who could defend and shoot, but the roadmap is there.

Gobert would also provide something Washington hasn’t had since the Wizards were the Bullets — game-changing defense. His defensive impact is probably enough to elevate the Wizards’ abysmal D to league average. A team with potentially elite offensive efficiency and average defense is a recipe for a lot of wins — certainly more than the Wizards have seen in years.

Utah may get better offers. The Nets could put together a strong package. Or Utah could balk at dealing a perennial All-NBA defender, no matter how strained his relationship with Mitchell is. For the Wizards, if it’s not Gobert, it should be someone else.

The wild card is finances. The COVID pandemic and governmental bungling has created unforeseen financial strain around the NBA. Trading for a star would require Leonsis and his partners to make a big financial commitment at an uncertain time. The flip side: some owners might be more willing to consider trades due to their new financial circumstances. An owner willing to spend might have an opportunity to collect some high-level talent.

One thing is clear: there’s nothing to wait and see. The Bubble has shown that the Wizards aren’t going anywhere, even when their top guys get back. Go all-in or tear it down, Tommy. You have to pick a lane.