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The Wizards’ long-term mediocrity is holding them back

The Wizards’ last five years, with Bradley Beal as their top player, have experienced a long run of mediocrity. They haven’t been good enough to make the playoffs in most of the past several seasons, but also not bad enough to get a top pick.

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NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at Washington Wizards Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

The Washington Wizards sit in 11th place in the Eastern Conference. 4.5 games from the final play-in game spot. They’re also the 11th worst team in the NBA based on the standings.

Objectively, the Wizards’ mediocrity is one of the worst positions to be in: not contending; but also not rebuilding. This spot in the standings is not unfamiliar to the Wizards, as seen over the last five seasons:

  • in 2020-21: 14th worst record overall and 8th playoff seed,
  • in 2019-20: 8th worst overall and 9th seed,
  • in 2018-19: 6th worst overall and 11th seed,
  • in 2018-19: 14th worst overall and 8th seed.

One could say that the Wizards’ draft choices given their lower draft positioning have been about average. Troy Brown Jr. was a miss in 2018, but the Wizards were able to acquire Daniel Gafford for him. While not necessarily thriving, we have seen reasons to believe that Rui Hachimura, Deni Avdija, and Corey Kispert are all rotation-level NBA players. After picking 9th, 9th, and 15th, this group does not represent a commendable track record, but the selections were at least base hits. In my opinion, it’s not the picks that were wrong, but the draft slots.

The development of the recent picks and Gafford has been mixed, partly due to mismatched priorities from management and ownership. After Russell Westbrook was acquired last year, the goal shifted to maximizing that years’ team and to further appeasing its best player, Bradley Beal. Though the young players have played rotation-level minutes and shown flashes the last two seasons, we currently see a frustrating trend from coach Wes Unseld Jr now, with Hachimura and Avdija playing sometimes sporadic minutes despite a turn south in the standings from the team and with only a few games left.

With Beal injured and out for the season, we should think that it provides the Wizards a prime opportunity to evaluate these youthful players by scheming a slightly higher usage. We have seen it in moments. But thus far in March, we are seeing Hachimura and Avdija playing just over 20 minutes per game, while Gafford is just under. Kyle Kuzma and Kentavious Caldwell Pope are good enough players but it is fair to question why they are playing over 32 minutes per game in March on a team that is stationed where it is. Their upward mobility is limited.

It continues a trend that existed previously with coaching staffs under Randy Wittman and Scott Brooks. If given a veteran alternative, they chose that player more often than not over one who had a possibly longer future in Washington. It highlights a constant in D.C. with capping the team’s potential future by relying on veterans even if the team isn’t winning in the short term.t

Worse yet, there are a number of decisions ahead for the top veterans that may present Wizards fans with a fair bit of fear, uncertainty, and doubt when considering the track record from ownership and management. If we look at the top half of the Wizards roster, it looks like this (player tiers from The Athletic and ages to start next season):

  1. Beal (29) - Tier 3A or around 25th best player - soon to be free agent
  2. Porzingis (27) - Tier 4B in 2021 or around top 80 - 1 year remaining then player option
  3. Kuzma (27) - Tier 5 (should be 4B/top 80) - 1 year remaining then player option
  4. KCP (29) - Tier 5 or top 125 - 1 year remaining

If we look at the group in a vacuum, it is a slightly worse than league average group both in quality of play and by age when considering top cores of four across the league. Kristaps Porzingis’ injury history should cause any and all fans to worry, but there is talent with this group. Unfortunately, the surrounding context in this case cannot be ignored.

The contractual status of them screams that right now is the time to reset this roster. In relation to Beal, many agree that trading him should have been done in 2019 or 2020. Nevertheless, the team should not double down on a mistake by signing him to a monumental (see what I did there?) contract.

Beal is still, despite the injury, in high demand across the league and at age 29 is viewed as young enough to have other teams thinking of a five year run with him as a prominent second or third best player on a contender. Whether it be Miami, Philadelphia, Memphis, Toronto or Golden State, there is likely a very attractive return still available on the trade market for Beal. Whether by opting in and trading or by sign and trade, a good decision maker could capitalize on who and what comes back.

Besides Beal, I am primarily concerned with the two players who hold player options for the 2023-2024 season. While Tommy Sheppard didn’t negotiate the contracts for Kuzma and Porzingis, the Wizards are, once again, stuck without leverage due to player options. This is a problem because it takes away the upside if these players outperform their contracts next season. If they do outperform, they are practically guaranteed massive raises, or they leave.

With Kuzma, it’s widely believed that he will opt out regardless. It is less expected with Porzingis but it wouldn’t be unheard of to see a player turn in a healthy and career-best performance in a contract year. If that occurs, the team will likely feel the need to pay Porzingis, who was just traded due to a long contract and injury concerns, another long contract into his 30s.

Kuzma’s value will likely never be higher than it was at this past trade deadline, but it should still be high at the draft and during this offseason. KCP on an expiring deal can be seen as a good deal for teams with ball-dominant first options and can be moved for at least neutral value. The wise strategy with Porzingis is likely to let him rehabilitate his value early next year but to then trade him at the first opportunity.

If the Wizards continue down this road with reaching the playoffs as the only goal, it will get expensive very quickly and it will not just be a one year problem, but a multi-year issue with players who will quickly be past their primes.

It is depressing to consider, but the Wizards are back in the seemingly comfortable and all too familiar zone of mediocrity. Yes, there is some potential with this group to improve. We saw it with Kuzma this year. The quartet of young players can get better and finally contribute to winning. The veterans are not all that old. Alas, NO, there is not enough to justify the investment in guaranteed dollars and years that it would take to keep this group together.

This core does not profile as a title contender! Most NBA experts likely agree it isn’t even a playoff team. Deciding right now against long term deals for players in their late primes with an injury history (Beal and Porzingis) and to those who are coming off of career years (Kuzma) is what a prudent organization would do.

Regarding Bradley Beal, I think we can all understand why Sheppard has operated the way he has by not trading him. Beal is a very good player, in his prime, and he wanted and wants to win in D.C. The Wizards should’ve strived to make it work. As shown above, it just didn’t work out. It has now been four years with Beal as the lead player and it has resulted in one playoff victory in a series loss decided after only five games.

In order for the Wizards to exit this stalemate, the team should follow the recent examples set by the Orlando Magic or Indiana Pacers and establish a potentially better way forward. No, future success is not guaranteed, and it certainly still isn’t for Indiana or Orlando. But the odds improve greatly!

It is not too late to exit this precarious position, and this situation can be improved. It needs to happen this offseason or this cycle with long and inflated contracts for a mirage of winning will begin again. And it will end poorly for our favorite franchise that has not reached 50 regular season wins in over 40 years due to this mindset.

The Wizards can avoid mediocrity. But hard decisions need to be made and recognizing them is the first step. It is obvious to many who follow the NBA that this is not a veteran group to build around and overpay. Hopefully, Ted Leonsis and his organization will come to the realization that mediocrity will never do.