We’ll see what the Washington Wizards do when the NBA’s free agent period opens this evening, but the assessments and strategic direction of Tommy Sheppard and the team’s decisionmakers seem clear.
During draft night, the Wizards behaved like a team that just needs a few tweaks to win big. They stayed in place, used their picks, and went draft-and-stash with their second rounder.
Of course, there’s also the possibility they know they’re more than a few tweaks away from playing meaningful postseason basketball, but they’re content to make conventional moves, minimize risk and increase their odds of securing a bottom four seed in the playoffs.
Either way, their Free Agency Eve trade sending Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Ish smith to the Denver Nuggets for Monte Morris and Will Barton underscores the point — either they believe they’re good enough (with tweaks) to compete at a high level or they’re okay with being on the bottom edge of the middle and hoping the right breaks will push them a little higher.
I have no problem with the trade itself. In exchange for a competent rotation player and a decent backup point guard, the Wizards obtained two competent rotation players. Barton is likely to replace KCP’s production, and Morris figures to be an upgrade from last season’s guard assemblage. That’s a win.
To me, what’s interesting is that it’s the kind of move a team makes when it’s stars are in place, and they need to fill a few spots in the rotation. Taken together, the draft strategy and this trade suggest Sheppard and the team’s brain trust think Bradley Beal and Kristaps Porzingis are elite (or very close).
If you’ve been reading me for awhile, you already know I fundamentally disagree with this assessment. My analysis says Beal and Porzingis are — at best — very good, but not at the true building block level.
Think of it like this — the NBA’s franchise foundation players would typically earn first or second team All-NBA honors. As arguably the league’s sixth best guard a couple seasons ago, Beal earned third team. I thought he deserved that status, though I did have him in a group with a few others who had solid cases for the sixth spot as well. I could have made equally plausible arguments to rank him sixth (where I had him) or as low as eighth. I couldn’t find evidence to rank him any higher.
Porzingis once received a vote (as in one) for third team, and that was several years — and injuries — ago.
In my view, if the Wizards are serious about “winning more” (as Sheppard phrased it), they need high-end talent, not more 4th and 5th guys for the rotation. The move for Morris and Barton, while an incremental improvement, isn’t going to substantially improve the team’s win total next season.
While he didn’t get the accolades, Murray produced at the level of an All-NBA player and a legit “first guy” (his PPA was 195). Last season, he was one of four players to average a triple-double per 100 possessions. The other three: Nikola Jokic, Luka Doncic and James Harden.
Murray would instantly have been Washington’s best and most productive player, he’s entering his age 26 season, and he’s signed at a team-friendly salary for the next two seasons. He’s not a great shooter, but he’s a dynamic playmaker and an outstanding defender. When Sheppard talks about taking a big swing, Murray — young, productive and cheap — is exactly the kind of player he should be targeting.
Given the price Atlanta paid to acquire Murray, it’s possible the Wizards could have matched or surpassed that package while also making the trade for Morris and Barton.
Of course, it could be that Sheppard and his advisors are correct, and that my assessment of Beal and Porzingis underrates them. It could be that these kind of incremental rotation upgrades are exactly the right move for this team and their “win more” goals.
And, it could be that big swings are ahead. With the trade for Morris and Barton, Sheppard modestly improved the roster without giving up anything of major value. That could presage a major trade that’s still to come.
My best guess, however, is that they believe Beal and Porzingis are at least borderline elite players, and that they’re going to compete for a top five or six seed as currently constructed. My guess is they’ll use their midlevel exception and perhaps make a trade or two, but that their “big swing” for the 2022-23 season was trading for Porzingis.
The good thing about the trade is they haven’t precluded themselves from making other trades over the next few days. It’ll be interesting to see what they do, and whether they truly believe what they seem to be communicating.