It’s not his fault.
Let’s get that out of the way right now.
He was hurt and not much good and normally it would make sense to put some of the responsibility on the player. But in the case of Ian Mahinmi, it just doesn’t.
Rewind to the summer of 2016. Team president Ernie Grunfeld and team owner Ted Leonsis carefully planned since at least 2014 to make sure the Wizards had enough cap space to sign a superstar — a “name brand” free agent in Leonsis-speak.
The strategy itself was basically nonsense. I’ve written about it before, and I won’t belabor the issue except to point out: in 2014 the NBA announced a new TV deal that would radically increase league revenue. That’s when the Wizards hatched their maximum cap space plot.
At the time, anyone with a spreadsheet and the ability to visit Spotrac could have predicted the cap would rise and a bunch of teams would have cap space in 2016. That should have been incredibly easy for Leonsis and Grunfeld because Leonsis served on the committee that negotiated the TV contract.
In other words, with in-depth knowledge of the revenue deluge that would arrive in 2016, the Wizards went ahead with their cap space plan even though they knew several teams would also have a bunch of cap room. There was a “cap smoothing” proposal, but it would require approval from the players association and there were few league insiders at the time who thought that was a sure thing.
The “name brand free agent strategy” involved impossibly bad judgement from Wizards decision-makers. This isn’t one of those “hindsight is 20/20” things. My friend, former podcast partner and sometimes Bullets Forever contributor, Ben Becker talked and texted with me frequently as early as the summer of 2014 about how the Wizards were making a mistake. He thought the smart move would be to take on players signed under the old TV deal because they’d become almost instant bargains and the Wizards wouldn’t have to somehow out-recruit sexier free agent destinations.
The prize in 2014 was Kevin Durant. He didn’t even take a meeting with the Wizards. Plan B was Al Horford. He signed with the Boston Celtics. Plan C was Luol Deng. He signed with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Somehow, Plan D was Mahinmi, Andrew Nicholson and Jason Smith. Washington paid a first round pick (that turned into Jarrett Allen) to dump Nicholson and rent Bojan Bogdanovic for a few weeks. Smith was an engaging personality but not much on the court. But neither of those signings did as much damage to the franchise as the deal for Mahinmi.
I apologize — turns out, I did belabor the issue.
Signing Mahinmi would have been okay if it had been for a year or two, or if the salary had been reasonable. Grunfeld and the Wizards gave him four years and $64 million.
It was a preposterous contract that took vital player acquisition resources and flushed them into a swirling vortex of nothingness. There was no chance Mahinmi would be worth that contract. Not when they negotiated it. Not when he signed. Not when he arrived at training camp with a sore knee. Not no way, not no how.
I want to emphasize — this is about Mahinmi’s contract, not Mahinmi himself. By all accounts, he’s a terrific teammate and person. He isn’t and wasn’t a good NBA player, but that’s not why his time in Washington didn’t work out. It was abundantly clear before the Wizards awarded him that deal that he wasn’t a good NBA player.
He did what any sane human would do when offered a bunch of money: he accepted. It was the job of Grunfeld and the Wizards front office to know better. The failure was theirs.
Here are a few things that should have caused the Wizards to tap the brakes in their pursuit of Mahinmi.
- His only better than average season was 2015-16 — the year before the Wizards signed him. It was his 8th NBA season.
- It was a contract year.
- Mahinmi rated at replacement level for the preceding three seasons combined (2012-15), which included 3,716 minutes of playing time.
- He turned 30 during his first season with Washington.
- They already had a better center.
- The better center already on the roster and Mahinmi could not be played together.
This is before even getting to strategic considerations like the way the NBA was changing to de-emphasize the value of slow-moving big men with no perimeter skills.
Mahinmi’s Wizards career got off to a classic #SoWizards start — with an injury. During his time in Washington, he missed time with injuries to his knee, ankle, back, wrist, Achilles, foot and groin. He also had a concussion.
When healthy, he wasn’t much good. Too slow, too stiff, too unskilled for the modern NBA.
Most of this was easy to foresee. Athletes typically do two things when they turn 30: get hurt and get worse. In a move so Grunfeldian that it ultimately cost him his job, the Wizards bought the expensive decline portion of a guy who hadn’t been any good.
This article, of course, is supposed to be an evaluation of the 2019-20 season and while it was pretty meh by NBA standards, it was easily Mahinmi’s best in Washington. He was healthy enough to clock 808 minutes — second most of his four seasons with the Wizards — and he performed at the level of a rotation-worthy big when he played. Still below average but not terrible.
Here’s how he performed in Washington, according to my Player Production Average (PPA) metric (in PPA, 100 is average and higher is better; replacement level is 45):
- 2016-17 — 78 — 555 minutes
- 2017-18 — 49 — 1145 minutes
- 2018-19 — 63 — 498 minutes
- 2019-20 — 85 — 808 minutes
His PPA for the four years combined: 66. That brought his career PPA down to 76 — it spiked to 79 during his one above average season.
This season, he hung a career-high 25 points on the Miami Heat and for some reason hoisted 26 three-point attempts. He made five.
He’s unlikely to return to the Wizards next season, though it’s theoretically possible they bring him back on a minimum salary deal because he’s actually a good veteran leader. More likely, he’ll sign for the minimum elsewhere, play professionally in France or retire from basketball.