The case for the Washington Wizards to sell at the trade deadline

With the February 10 NBA Trade Deadline just 24 days away, not much buzz has surrounded the Washington Wizards, at least not yet. The most notable news was non-news, when Brian Windhorst reported that he "has heard nothing about Bradley Beal on the trade market" on the Hoop Collective Podcast. Only 10 games remain from now to then, and it will likely take time for a consistent rotation to emerge with the entire squad finally available. How long before all the old and new faces start to gel? It's a fascinating question, and I don't expect Tommy Sheppard or Wes Unseld Jr. to make any rash decisions before then. Here's Sheppard's history from his first two deadlines days:

I believe the franchise should pivot and start fielding offers from teams who are seeking to upgrade/win-now. In other words, look to sell. Here's why:
  • Zigging when everyone else is zagging
"You just laid out Cuban’s zigzag theory: If a growing cluster of NBA teams are trying to execute the same strategy...then common sense says it’s better to zag the other way because you’ll find inefficiencies just by thinking differently"
This was Bill Simmons in the Grantland 2014 Trade Deadline Diary with Zach Lowe, and it's strangely applicable to the spot where the Wizards currently reside.

As of January 17, just 5.5 games separate the 7-seed and the 12-seed in the East -- and that doesn't even include the 13th place Indiana Pacers, who somehow have an even Net Rating (-0.2) for the season. All of these teams will likely be pushing for wins down the stretch, which should make the race for the playoffs(in) pretty contentious. Can Washington wind up surviving that game of musical chairs? Sure, but it's also time for an honest assessment of the 2021-22 Wizards thus far.
Ever since the 10-3 start, the Wiz have been one of the worst non-tankers in basketball. While they've played well here and there (wins in Dallas and Utah, valiant effort on New Year's versus Chicago), the team has had its fair share of blowouts and other desultory losses over the past two months. Even most of the victories have not been particularly encouraging -- squeaking by the likes of Detroit, Oklahoma City twice, and Orlando.
Although they've dealt with protocol madness, the truth is that the most of Washington's common lineups are in the black (the usual starting lineup is -6.0 per 100 possessions). On the flip side, the Celtics are +16.7 when the 5-man unit of Smart/Brown/Tatum/Horford/Williams is on the court, while the Hornets, Raptors, and Hawks are all positive with the preferred starting lineups. The Knicks are the only one in this group in the same boat as Washington. Good teams typically perform well with their main players on the floor -- which is distressing for the rest of the season outlook.
With all of these potential deadline buyers in the Eastern Conference morass, wouldn't it make sense to consider selling (i.e. zag the other way)? After all, paying a premium for a marginal boost in talent — think Jerami Grant over the glut of Wiz forwards — could be throwing good money at bad, especially in a seller's market. Some of the Wiz veterans would surely be in high demand during this tepid deadline.
  • The state of the roster
If one thing is clear from the last couple games, it's that the Wizards have too many guys right now. It's impossible to go 11/12 deep in this league and have complete buy-in -- any hooper can speak to the importance of rhythm/getting into the flow of the game. Unseld is going to need to sort things out sooner rather than later. This abundance of depth is a double-edged sword of sorts: a) it makes it difficult to find a clear upgrade at any position, but b) the team can weather the loss of a few guys (whether it be to trade/injury/protocols).

The most logical solution would be some type of consolidation trade -- packaging several of these solid players into a true difference-maker. Unfortunately, deals of this nature rarely occur in the NBA. Would Sheppard be willing to mortgage the future -- part with Rui Hachimura and/or Deni Avdija, plus several picks (would also potentially have to unprotect the 2023 first-rounder owed to Oklahoma City)? All indications point towards no. (Not to mention that it's unclear if such a player is currently available on the block).

Which leads us to another point: the dry pipeline. Here's the list of the team's 25-and-under group:

Deni Avdija (age 21)

Thomas Bryant (age 24)

Daniel Gafford (age 23)

Rui Hachimura (age 23)

Corey Kispert (age 22)

Isaiah Todd (age 20)

Further, in terms of future assets, the Wizards owe the aforementioned first to OKC and don't have any extras incoming. They also currently do not possess a second-rounder until 2025. This begs the question: which franchises have a less appealing combination of young players/draft capital than Washington? Teams with title aspirations — Brooklyn, the two Los Angeles teams, Milwaukee, Phoenix, Utah — come to mind. Indiana and Portland are the only other two in this boat -- it's no coincidence that both are subject to deadline speculation.

Washington could use this opportunity to replenish the cupboard by moving a veteran or two -- biding their time until the offseason to make a real impactful acquisition (where presumably more players will be available). For example, what would Kyle Kuzma — averaging 23 a game over his last 12 on an undervalued contract — fetch on the market right now? I'd like to imagine a significant haul. Meanwhile, the team has plenty of oversized wings to fill the void. The same goes for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Montrezl Harrell, and perhaps one of the point guards.
  • What about Bradley Beal?

"He knows these things are made with his future in mind, with our future in mind. I think it’s very OK to say that he’s a shareholder in this. And no CEO ever makes a decision without his shareholders in mind. Bradley’s a huge part of this." - Tommy Sheppard to the Ringer back in October

For better or for worse, everything the franchise is building towards revolves around the three-time all-star. Over the past three years, Sheppard has been treading the fine line of placating Beal ("be competitive/win-now") while maintaining hope for the years to come (taking the long-view on transactions) -- but what ultimately is the end game here? It's time for the organization to quit walking on egg shells and accept the risk of alienating Beal.

We know what "Bradley Beal, number-one option" looks like at this point: a ceiling of 40 wins/first-round roadkill. Could he be the co-star on an elite team a la Devin Booker in Phoenix? Possibly, but the odds of the Wiz ever reaching that point seem slim.

Meanwhile, we can rule out Beal demanding a midseason trade (based on all reporting) or exercising his $36.4MM player option for 2022-23 (why would be turn down the bag). This leaves two scenarios for this upcoming offseason: 1) Beal reups with Washington on the supermax, or 2) Beal departs in free agency.

Option 1: Bradley Beal agrees to a 5 year deal worth around $235MM -- where he'll make upwards of $50MM as a 33-year old, ridding the Wizards of any flexibility moving forward. Why should Washington be champing at the bit to commit this kind of dough when it's already been established that he's not THE Guy?

Option 2: Bradley Beal decides that he wants to leave. At first blush, this is an organizational disaster -- losing one of the best players in franchise history for nothing. But...

"Despite a $7 million increase in the salary cap from $112 million to $119 million, ESPN is projecting only four teams to have cap space. The Detroit Pistons, Orlando Magic and San Antonio Spurs are expected to have a minimum of $30 million in room." - Bobby Marks in his 2022 Free Agency preview piece

A mere three teams with the space for Beal next summer, each of them somehow further away from winning than the Wizards. I'll go out on a limb and say that Detroit, Orlando, or San Antonio won't be among the franchises in the running for his services.

That said, the landscape of the league is quickly shifting below us -- the 2021 offseason may have just been the tip of the iceberg. The days of hoarding cap space like the Knicks and Heat in 2010 are likely behind us. In this current NBA — where the pendulum has swung more towards the player side — it's more about becoming a desirable situation and figuring out the rest later. We already saw two highly-priced free agents in DeMar DeRozan and our very own Spencer Dinwiddie finagle their way to a preferred destination regardless of the salary sheets. I'd expect more to follow in the coming years.

Should Beal choose to move on during the summer of 2022, it would likely require his next team to orchestrate a sign-and-trade with Washington. The Wizards would hold most of the leverage, so Sheppard and the front office would hopefully be able to recoup a nice return in the form of young players/draft picks.

Now tell me, is either scenario markedly worse than the other? I say no, which is why the Wizards should at least explore selling at the trade deadline -- regardless of Beal's feelings.

It's time for the Washington Wizards to have some ambition and deviate from the status quo. Tommy Sheppard's slow and patient process-oriented approach is admirable (particularly when you compare it to his predecessor), but at some point the franchise must pick a direction. Given the circumstances laid out, I believe that the most sensible path forward is to sell.

This represents the view of the user who wrote the FanPost, and not the entire Bullets Forever community. We're a place of many opinions, not just one.