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September Mailbag Part 1: Who will start at center and the forward positions for the Wizards, and whether to go for a third star

Here is the first part of our September mailbag questions.

Washington Wizards v Philadelphia 76ers - Game Two
Daniel Gafford is poised to be the next starting center given the momentum he had last season.
Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

Thank you for submitting your questions for the September 2021 mailbag. Selected questions are below. I’m off for the next two weeks on vacation but don’t worry. Kevin and the gang will still keep up with everything while I’m away though I’ll still be in the comments from time to time. See you in two weeks!

Who is starting at the center position? I’m assuming Daniel Gafford with Montrezl Harrell backing up; and when Thomas Bryant returns will he take back the role or back up Daniel Gafford? (SpaceBoyWinston)

Yanir Rubinstein: I’m not sure what is so special about “starting”, at any given position.Last year we saw a center-by-committee approach that was actually quite useful. Starting roles should be decided by matchups. Either Gafford, Harrell, or Bryant can start. What matters is how many minutes each plays and how they pair with the other four guys on the court with them.

John Heiser: Daniel Gafford gets the first shot. He has to play without fouling. Harrell isn’t a starting-caliber defender. He’s much better coming off the bench. Once Thomas Bryant is healthy (I expect the team to take their time with Thomas Bryant) they have to see what he can do.

Matt Modderno: I think it will depend on Gafford’s conditioning and how much he’s actually able to play each game. I would expect him to be the opening day starter but you really need a guy in his mid-20’s to be able to play more than 20 minutes per game.

Is there one more deal yet to come? (WarsawKen)

John Morrow: Not in 2021, in my opinion. Come 2022, I expect we’ll see movement. It’ll be really interesting to see where the Wizards are in the standings on New Year’s Day. At that point, I expect the Wiz to either go all in and turn a few solid players (and draft capital) into more of a star, or the writing will be on the wall and it might end up being the time to get value for Beal, while it’s an option. I don’t see another play-in type season being enough to continue on with this route for Beal, or the Wizards.

Matt: Before the season? If so, probably very minor. Maybe someone else replaces Cassius Winston on a two-way or something along those lines. I do expect someone of consequence to get moved by the deadline, however. Likely one of the centers, assuming all three are healthy at that point.

Heiser: What is our timeline? One more deal before camp? It doesn’t appear that they’re in a hurry to sort out the roster imbalance right now. They can go to camp with this group and let Coach Unseld see what he has to work with. The trade deadline will be a whole different animal. We could see a few before that clock runs out.

Assuming all the players on the Wizards roster are healthy and ready to play on October 20, 2021, who will be their two starting forwards? (CDKA)

Heiser: Rui Hachimura and Kyle Kuzma get my votes. The team is hoping Kuzma will be a two-way contributor right away. He and Hachimura can both spot up or attack off the dribble. Kuzma believes he’s a starter. He wants to show what he can do with a bigger role. We should want that too! Starting those two sets up KCP as the 3rd guard/6th man and Bertans the first true forward off the bench

Yanir: Again, starting or coming off the bench should be determined by matchups,not by creating some sort of pecking order. Starting really has no special meaning in modern basketball.

Matt: I think Caldwell-Pope and Hachimura. If Kuzma looks really good in camp he has a chance. They seem committed to starting Hachimura during his time here and Caldwell-Pope is the most well-established perimeter defender of the group. Given Coach Unseld’s emphasis on defense I think that gives him the edge over Kuzma to start the season. Osman Baig and I discussed this very question at length on the Bleav in Wizards podcast this week.

When was the last time the Wizards had a roster where no one was over 30 years old? Of the current roster, Bradley Beal is the most experienced. (CDKA)

Matt: They were pretty young overall during John Wall’s rookie year. This year, the Wizards are young, but with meaningful experience, which is a good combo.

Albert: To Matt’s point, the 2010-11 Wizards team was young but their key players didn’t have much experience. The players on the team who were older than 30 were Rashard Lewis, Maurice Evans and Mike Bibby.

Should the Wizards have gone for a third star with Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook, instead of having just Brad as the only star on the team now? (Jmpalomo)

Marcus Atkinson: A quick response to this: NO.

Of the players that were realistically available to this team, which means also what this team has cap space for, what player was going to help this team? They would have to gut their depth just to get another star player, so then if you have injuries you are basically in the same boat the Lakers were in last year, which was a team that was not deep enough to overcome injuries to key players. This team, based on the options out, there was not one player away so there wasn’t a scenario where getting a third star player would fix much. Now the question is, does the move they have made give them a path to build a contending team around Beal? That remains to be seen.

Yanir: I like former head coach Scott Brooks’ saying sometimes that every player should star in their own role. If Harrell stars as a sixth man, and Kuzma stars as microwave scorer, and Deni stars as a secondary ball-handler, I don’t see the point of messing the fragile locker room dynamics by a mega-trade that will bring another big ego to deal with.

Ben Mehic: That’s a complex question, and it’s one that opens a series of other questions — like, how would they get that third star, and who would that third star be? Are we talking Damian Lillard or Kristaps Porzingis?

The former wasn’t gettable for the Wizards because they simply didn’t have the assets to get it done. The latter looked the part of a star a few years ago, but following a number of serious injuries, hasn’t played like one. For the sake of answering the question - let’s assume the Wizards acquired Porzingis for, say, Rui Hachimura, Thomas Bryant, and a few picks. How much better would the team be with a non-defending, often-injured big man? Probably not much better than they were — an 8th seed.

Going for a third star is great in theory, but those players need to be available, and given the dearth of assets on the roster, especially last year, those opportunities weren’t realistic for the Wizards. Now, with a deep roster and a likely improved Hachimura and Deni Avdija, the Wizards will have more flexibility to acquire a disgruntled star if one becomes available (*cough* *Karl-Anthony Towns?*). And if not, the Wizards can hit the reset button without having to worry about finding a way to offload Russ’ contract.

Heiser: Let’s talk trade. Acquiring a third All-Star level player isn’t like ordering takeout on Uber Eats or DoorDash. It requires mortgaging future picks and young assets. The Milwaukee Bucks paid through the nose for Jrue Holiday. Chicago paid in salary and in assets for DeRozan. Both teams had valuable players on MLE+ contracts to include.

Then to make any deal happen we need a player to be available AND the other team has to want your collection of pieces more than every other collection available. What did Washington have to offer prior to the draft? What might they bring back in a trade?

Here’s a scenario:

  • Thomas Bryant, 3rd best Wizard to start the season. Currently injured, rehabbing a torn ACL.
  • Deni Avdija, #9 pick, injured, rehabbing right fibular fracture.
  • Davis Bertans, started the season out of shape. Injured during the season. Looked less than his best until his last playoff game where he lights up the first half, then re-injures himself. Owed 64 million over the next 4 years.

Other than the team’s ‘21 FRP they couldn’t trade another until ‘28 or ‘29 due to protections on the pick used to acquire Russ in the first place.

That leaves our ‘21 FRP (#15) and two players with positive value vs salary in Rui Hachimura and Daniel Gafford. That package doesn’t bring back a 3rd Star. That package doesn’t even bring back Derozan on a giant contract. He’s nowhere near a star and it’s still not enough. And there isn’t enough salary to make it work either.

We’re down to targeting a soon-to-be RFA player still on a rookie contract... Jaren Jackson Jr? Memphis GM says they plan to extend him. Michael Porter Jr? Sounds like both sides want to make a deal in Denver. Not that I think either is a star but it’s an indication of where we were with trade pieces. Conversely, the WIzards now have four new veterans in their prime with salaries/money-owed that are easy to trade and easy to combine in a 2 for 1 deal. Flexibility is huge. The Wizards are much better off long-term for dealing Russ when they did.

Matt: I prefer the current situation. The Wizards currently have the flexibility to go all-in on a star running mate who fits better with Beal if that’s the direction they want to go. They wouldn’t have that if Westbrook were still in Washington.

Morrow: I don’t think they should’ve. Russell Westbrook showed he still has plenty of gas in the tank when healthy, but his playoff performance left much to be desired, again. To expect improvement in his age 33 season after his list of injuries, would be a bet that former Wizards leadership might’ve made. I’m glad it worked out the way it did but wish Westbrook much success in LA.

What’s with those numbers on the Summer League uniforms? Every single other team matched their regular season design, but the Wizards’ was something totally out of left field. The numbers didn’t match and the name font was also different. (AverageBro)

Albert: It’s hard to say at this point but I haven’t heard of the Wizards planning on drastically changing their uniforms. We’ll find out by the time training camp comes around.