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Stop worrying: The Wizards still don’t have the talent for premature winning

Sacramento Kings v Washington Wizards
Wizards forward Kyle Kuzma
Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images

The new executive team of the Washington Wizards has been busy this summer churning the roster to accumulate future assets in the quest to build an organization that can eventually compete for a championship. Gone are Bradley Beal, Kristaps Porzingis and Monte Morris. In their place are Jordan Poole, Tyus Jones, Patrick Baldwin Jr., Mike Muscala, Landry Shamet, Danilo Gallinari, Bilal Coulibaly, Tristan Vukcevic, and seemingly every second round pick until 2030.

Forward Kyle Kuzma returns with a new four-year, $102 million contract.

A fair amount of online chatter among fans is worry that bringing Kuzma back will somehow prevent the Wizards from being bad enough to land a high pick and a potential star.

While there are many issues to concern one of the NBA’s longest suffering fan bases as the team embarks on a classic tear-down to rebuild better strategy, I think becoming too good too fast isn’t one of them.

Let’s unpack just a bit.

The Wizards won 35 games last season. In departing, Porzingis, Beal, Morris, Jordan Goodwin, Rui Hachimura, Kendrick Nunn, Will Barton, Taj Gibson, Vernon Carey Jr., Devon Dotson, Isaiah Todd and Jamaree Bouyea take with them an estimated 18 wins, according to my estimates. More than three-fourths of those wins were contributed by Porzingis, Beal and Morris.

Note: I find similar results using published win estimates like Win Shares or Wins Produced.

The pu-pu platter of incoming players combined for about 14 wins last season — including estimates for what Coulibaly and Vukcevic might add. That means the Wizards start next season with a baseline of around 31 wins, which would put them in the running for one of the league’s five worst records in most seasons.

Plus, the front office likely isn’t finished yet. I suspect when the season begins the Wizards will have on the roster no more than two of Delon Wright, Shamet, Muscala, Gallinari, Anthony Gill and Xavier Cooks. None of them have a long-term future with the team, all figure to be more useful to other teams with win-now aspirations, and the Wizards would gain more value by filling the roster spots with youngsters.

While Jones is a good player, I’d be surprised if he’s on the roster beyond the trade deadline. His steady play and expiring contract would be ideal for a contending team looking for backcourt help.

The Wizards do have a few wildcards who could theoretically improve their record. Johnny Davis, Deni Avdija and Corey Kispert are young enough that a major improvement is possible.

Poole could get back to the production level of 2021-22, which could give the team a couple extra wins. On the other hand, his efficiency was below average when Stephen Curry wasn’t on the floor, and he was asked to carry more of the offensive load.

It’s possible Coulibaly or Vukcevic are better than the typical rookie (think more like Tyrese Haliburton than Avdija), which would also add wins.

In terms of probabilities, here’s what I think is most likely:

  • Poole hits a production level between his third season and last season’s dropoff — which will give the Wizards an extra win.
  • Davis improves somewhat and maybe adds a win — last season, he was a net negative producer.
  • Kispert tries to expand his role, which results in lower efficiency and about the same level of overall productivity.
  • Avdija receives major praise in training camp but doesn’t significantly improve his shooting and doesn’t make a significant step forward.
  • The rookies look like rookies — rough in the beginning, some improvement as the season goes on. Coulibaly may be the franchise’s only real building block at this point, but he’ll still be one of the youngest players in the NBA. Teens typically struggle at the beginning. Vukcevic is a good shooter with some passing skills, as well as defensive deficiencies that will reduce his odds of even being part of the rotation as a rookie.

Production surges from Kuzma, Wright, Jones, or other veterans are unlikely. They’ve all reached the “they are what they are” stage. They can be useful in the right setting, but realistically speaking, none of these guys are suited to lead a team that even contends for the play-in.

Plus, keep in mind that this front office thinks differently than what Wizards fans have seen the past two decades with Ernie Grunfeld and Tommy Sheppard in charge. The goal of Michael Winger, Travis Schlenk and Will Dawkins isn’t to make the play-in or the playoffs or to come oh so close. They want to win championships with the Washington Wizards.

Those three surely know that none of the veterans on the roster will be part of Washington becoming a contender, except to the extent that they’re traded for other assets. Real talk again: that’s likely true for everyone on the roster except maybe Coulibaly.

That’s not to say the holdovers and recent acquisitions stink. Even younger guys who haven’t flourished yet and may not reach their hoped-for potential could be useful with the right team and the right role. But they’re not building blocks, and that’s what the front office needs to find.

All of this is a long way of saying there’s no reason to worry about the front office getting ahead of themselves and building back another 35-win team. The Wizards could be fun to watch next year, even as they’re losing most of their games. But they will lose, and the front office will trade off veterans with value to other teams and shut down producers with minor injuries to make it happen.

I haven’t loved every move they’ve made so far, but they have goals, they have a plan, and they seem to understand what’s necessary to build a long-term winner. They’re not going to sacrifice those longer-term goals to chase the play-in.

At least I sure hope they won’t.