Please, Just Blow Up the Wizards (and Fire Ernie) | Wizards Blog Truth About It.net

Please, Just Blow Up the Wizards (and Fire Ernie)

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Updated: May 1, 2018

The Wizards are in perhaps the least enjoyable position for an NBA team. They’re treading water, wallowing in the mire of mediocrity. They’re the pre-Giannis Bucks and the pre-Process Sixers. They’re the mid-aughts Nets.

Those teams are all different, sure, but they’re really the same. They have some pieces and are competitive enough on a game-to-game basis, but they’re not going to contend for a title, or even a conference title without some good fortune. Here’s the general formula:

  1. Overestimate the strength of the team’s core. In this case, it’s a core of John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter, and to a lesser extent Marcin Gortat, Markieff Morris, and Kelly Oubre. Thinking the core is ready to take the next step, the front office impatiently goes into win-now mode a year or two early.
  2. Overpay role players. For (this era of) the Wizards, the atrocious contracts of Ian Mahinmi, Andrew Nicholson, and Jason Smith were the biggest offenders, but giving a 30-year-old Marcin Gortat a five-year, $60 million deal in 2014 was an early indicator of where this was going. (As our own Kyle Weidie explained at the time, this was a necessary move by the Wiz–it’s what followed that hurts.) The bizarre pattern of attaching player options to contracts that likely don’t require them doesn’t help, either.
  3. Sacrifice future for present. This goes hand-in-hand with the above step. The ultimate example of this is the first-rounder for Bojan Bogdanovic trade, a move Ernie Grunfeld made before last season’s trade deadline knowing full well the Wizards couldn’t afford to keep both him and Otto Porter. Other examples range from giving up first-rounders for Gortat and Morris and second-rounders for Tim Frazier and Trey Burke (all trades that were varying levels of fine individually, but they play a part in a longer equation); playing tapped-out veterans such as Marcus Thornton and Kris Humphries while refusing to develop Kelly Oubre; and signing veterans (Ramon Sessions, Ty Lawson, J.J. Hickson, Will Bynum, etc.) midseason instead of scouring the league for young diamond-in-the-rough types.

An Example.

This is the kind of thinking that leads to teams such as the 2010-11 Bucks. The year prior, Milwaukee had increased its win total from 34 to 46 behind a core of rookie Brandon Jennings (who, incredibly, shot .370 from 2-point range and .374 from 3-point range), Andrew Bogut, John Salmons (acquired midseason), Michael Redd, Carlos Delfino, and Ersan Ilyasova.

Thinking this was an up-and-coming core (step 1), the Bucks front office went ahead and traded for Corey Maggette and his nearly-$10 million salary (step 2). Turns out Corey Maggette was not the player to push Milwaukee to the top. The team won just 35 games the next season behind the league’s worst offense (they scored 91.9 points per game!), then traded away Maggette, Salmons, and Jimmer Fredette in exchange for Tobias Harris, Shaun Livingston, Stephen Jackson, and Beno Udrih.

A 31-win season followed, during which the Bucks signed Mike Dunleavy and traded Bogut and Jackson for Monta Ellis and Ekpe Udoh (and Kwame Brown!), then Livingston was shipped out in a trade right before the draft. In desperation mode, the Bucks fired coach Scott Skiles in January of the following season, then at the trade deadline swapped 20-year-old Tobias Harris for J.J. Redick, on an expiring deal, in a win-now move to make the playoffs (step 3). They made the playoffs with a 38-44 record and got swept by the Heat in the first round.

Following that season, the Bucks blew it all up. They facilitated a sign-and-trade that sent Redick to the Clippers in exchange for a pair of second-rounders, they swapped Jennings for Khris Middleton and Brandon Knight, and they dealt Luc Mbah a Moute for a pair of second-rounders (one of which eventually became Malcolm Brogdon). Ellis signed with the Mavericks, Dunleavy signed with the Bulls, and they drafted Giannis Antetokounmpo with the 15th pick. Giannis eventually became an elite talent, but he was a project to start and the team won just 15 games his rookie season, enabling the Bucks to then draft Jabari Parker, starting the new core.

This was all toward the end of a 14-season stretch that featured 10 seasons of between 30 and 42 wins. The four exceptions: 52 wins (2000-01), 30 wins (2004-05), 28 wins (2006-07), 26 wins (2007-08). First off, that’s one more 50-win season than Washington has seen in a long time, and it led to a trip to the conference finals. But more importantly, that’s 12 times in 14 seasons Milwaukee was not either one of the four best or four worst teams; the two exceptions resulted in a loss to Allen Iverson’s Sixers in the ECF and spending the sixth overall pick on Yi Jianlian.

(Milwaukee won 42 games a season ago and 44 this past season, it has most of its core locked up for the immediate future, and its future draft pick cupboard is nearly full. The smart move would be continue walking the line for another year or two and let the team develop naturally; beware an ill-advised win-now move.)

How the Wizards Fit.

That’s what the Wizards are looking at right now. A fifth consecutive season of 40-something wins just wrapped up with yet another disheartening postseason performance–this time they didn’t even make it to the second round before falling apart.

John Wall is probably good enough to be the best, or at least second-best, player on an elite team. Bradley Beal might be good enough to be the second-best player on an elite team. With some proper coaching, Otto Porter could be the fourth-best player on an elite team.

The problem is, none of those three players is LeBron James, who allows you to surround him with a handful of scraps from the league’s collective leftover pile and still contend for a title. As a result, you need a logical team-building strategy that considers both the present and the future. If you take Washington’s current trio and surround it with several talented, high-energy role players and supplement the group with a steady flow of eager young draftees on dirt-cheap contracts, maybe you’ve got something. (Hi, Toronto.)

The Wizards haven’t done that. Instead, Ernie Grunfeld has traded away virtually every draft pick the team has had in win-now moves; the only two players Washington has drafted and kept since 2013, when it drafted Otto Porter, are Kelly Oubre and Aaron White (who’s playing in Lithuania). These moves have slightly improved the roster (usually) in the immediate term, but they’ve ravaged the team’s future assets.

In the best-case scenario, you get a Marcin Gortat, who was a solid starter for several seasons. In the more common scenario, you get a Bojan Bogdanovic, who was great for a handful of regular season games and negligible for most of one postseason, then you couldn’t afford to keep him. Meanwhile, the pick Grunfeld shipped away (which had to be traded because he needed to pawn off Andrew Nicholson’s contract) became Jarrett Allen. Allen, 19 years old and making $1.7 million, averaged 15-10-2 per 36 minutes for Brooklyn last season. Gortat, 33 years old and making $12.8 million, averaged 12-11-1 per 36 minutes. Allen, named a “rising star” by Nets Daily and ranked as a better rookie than Lonzo Ball by Complex, will continue to improve; Gortat will continue to decline and say things like “Small ball in this league is just trash.”

Other moves that were low-risk and low-cost on their own haven’t panned out and ultimately compounded the problem. As mentioned earlier in this story, Washington dealt second-round picks in back-to-back offseasons for Trey Burke and Tim Frazier.


Sidebar

Pause there. Let’s just look at that for a moment. In the span of a year, Ernie Grunfeld:

  • Signed Andrew Nicholson, Ian Mahinmi, and Jason Smith to terrible long-term contracts.
  • Traded a second-round pick for Trey Burke.
  • Traded Nicholson and a first-round pick (and Marcus Thornton) for Bojan Bogdanovic (and Chris McCullough).
  • Watched Bogdanovic sign elsewhere because the team was out of cap space.
  • Traded a second-round pick for Tim Frazier.

The only players noted above who will still be on Washington’s roster next season are Mahinmi and Smith. Mahinmi is making $16 million per year and–over the course of two seasons–has only occasionally been playable. Smith played a grand total of 285 minutes this season, including two minutes in the playoffs. He was paid $5.2 million for his services, and he has a $5.4 million player option for next season. (This doesn’t include the 2017 offseason, which featured the Jodie Meeks player option debacle.)

In exchange for $[redacted] million, a first-round pick, and two second-round picks, the Wizards won 92 games over two seasons–just a five-game increase over their previous two seasons.

Here is a complete list of transactions made by Ernie Grunfeld since July 1, 2016, that you can possibly qualify as “good”: signed John Wall, Bradley Beal, and Otto Porter to max contracts; signed Mike Scott (he’s now a free agent); signed Tomas Satoransky; traded Sheldon Mac for a heavily-protected future second-round pick. If you want to throw short-term signings of Ty Lawson and Ramon Sessions in there, go ahead. I won’t.

/Sidebar


Signing players such as Lawson and Sessions (and Will Bynum and J.J. Hickson and Marcus Thornton and Brandon Jennings) to midseason contracts is another problem. When you use one of your roster spots, and eventually rotation spots, on veterans who have no long-term upside, it hurts down the road. When second-round picks are traded for players other teams would probably end up dropping, it also hurts down the road. When you offer player options to free agents who would surely sign without them, you hurt yourself down the road.

And when you do all three of those things, and you have a terrible eye for talent (shoutout Andrew Nicholson), and you’re reactionary (shoutout Kevin Durant Al Horford Ian Mahinmi), you have a very distinct ceiling to your success.

You have to keep your draft picks for two major reasons: First, they bring low salaries. Second, they bring upside. The Wizards, several seasons ago, featured lots of players with high upside and low salaries. The team decided to go for it a year or two early and began trading picks for veterans, and it didn’t pan out.

The result is the roster we see today.

Assets (can be traded for value):
Wall, Beal, Porter, Oubre, Satoransky, draft picks.

Negatives (asset must be attached to any trade):
Mahinmi, Gortat, Meeks, Smith.

Neutral (a good GM could maybe turn into something of small value):
Morris.

If we’re assuming Grunfeld keeps his job for at least another year, and we’re assuming the Wizards don’t trade any of their assets, there are basically two ways Washington can actually improve: 1) Grunfeld nails the 2018 NBA draft (a friendly reminder that Grunfeld has drafted three All-Stars in more than 25 years as a GM, two of whom are John Wall and Bradley Beal), and 2) Some combination of Wall/Beal/Porter/Oubre/Satoransky takes a massive leap.

It’s safe to assume Grunfeld will not be drafting a star player, especially not an instant-impact one, in the second half of the first round.

That means Wizards fans have to hope and pray for immediate and considerable improvement from one or more of their five quality young players in order to have a chance at making it to the next level. Don’t forget:

  • Wall missed 41 games this season, missed a lot of time early in his career with various injuries, and has averaged about 36 minutes per game over the course of his career.
  • Beal just played the first 82-game season of his career and only reached 65 games played once in his first four seasons.
  • Porter was effectively useless for the 2018 postseason due to injury and has missed nearly a full season’s worth of games over his career (67 excluding playoffs).
  • Oubre and Satoransky are both restricted free agents in 2019.

Locking up Wall, Beal, and Porter for max contracts was the correct move. But because of those deals and the Mahinmi albatross, Washington has $107 million on the books for the 2019-20 season–and just four players under contract. For reference, the salary cap for this season was a hair under $100 million.

Again: The amount of money you’ve committed to paying four players two years from now is more than the salary cap for this season. And two of the five assets currently on the roster will be free agents.

The Only Option.

The only option then is to blow it up. Not necessarily all the way up, but trade one or two of your three core players, ideally for younger, cheaper talent with room to grow. And draft picks. Please get some draft picks.

This core has been really fun at times, and the potential at one time looked considerable. But Wall will turn 28 shortly after next season begins, and Beal and Porter will each be 25 at the start of next season. They’ll each continue to grow and improve, but we’re probably not going to see some incredible one-year leap from any of them. Trade them now while their value is still high.

My preference would be to keep Wall, trade Beal, and test the market for Porter. And see if you can attach one of your negatives to the deal.

Maybe you see if the Nuggets are willing to part with Gary Harris or Jamal Murray. Maybe the Pistons blow it up and are selling low on Andre Drummond. Maybe the Lakers strike out on one of the max players they want and you work out a Julius Randle deal (assuming the Lakers re-sign him). Maybe the Nets are willing to take on Mahinmi’s money in exchange for adding Porter, and you can work out a Jarrett Allen deal. Maybe the Suns are willing to part with T.J. Warren (you’re not getting Devin Booker or Josh Jackson).

And there’s always a move for DeMarcus Cousins, which Zach Lowe points out could still happen, but we can get a little more creative. (Also, the deal he mentions of Porter, Oubre, Gortat, and a pick in a sign-and-trade for Cousins–if the league allows it–would then pair a big man coming off an Achilles tear with a point guard with recurring knee problems; the upside is very real, but we’re also looking at the possibility of Dwight Howard plus Steve Nash levels of disaster.)

Each of those players could potentially be a second or third option on an elite team down the road, just as Beal and Porter could be. The difference is, I’m comfortable saying at this stage, we know this team is not going to contend for a title as currently constructed, but we don’t know how it would fare if you make substantive changes.

If you replace Beal and Gortat with Gary Harris and Trey Lyles, for example, are the Wizards better or worse? Beal’s salary is roughly $9 million more than Harris’s over the next three years (Harris is also under contract one extra season), and Gortat will cost about $10 million more than Lyles will next season (after which Gortat will be an unrestricted free agent and Lyles will be a restricted free agent). Other things would have to be worked out to make it feasible money-wise, but it’s potentially manageable.

Is Beal better than, say, Julius Randle? Absolutely. But Randle gives the Wizards an athletic big man like the one Wall has been begging for, his coming deal will be much cheaper than Beal’s current, and it would change the entire dynamic of the Wizards’ lineup. Plus, you could likely squeeze a pick or two out of it considering the Lakers are going into win-now mode.

What about something like Beal and Gortat for Andre Drummond and Reggie Bullock? Hey look, there’s an athletic big man and shooting! A Wall-Drummond pairing could be deadly for years to come (Drummond will be 25 when next season starts and is locked up for three more seasons), and while you still don’t have any shooting in your frontcourt, you add a wing who’s coming off a year of .445 3-point shooting on 4.5 attempts per game and is just 27 with one more year ($2.5 million) under contract.

It’s tough to say how Wall would feel about any of this. Suffice to say, based on his recent comments, Wall wants changes made. If this offseason consists exclusively of another overhaul of the bench, your star player is going to be furious. Maybe he would be furious if you traded his best teammates away and he didn’t like who you got in return.

Or maybe he appreciates the front office hearing his unhappiness and doing something about it. The worst-case scenario is really bad: Beal (or Wall or Porter) goes on to thrive for a different team while the pieces Washington got in return fall flat and the whole thing falls apart. But what’s the best-case scenario for this team as currently constructed, as we look at it today? A loss in the Eastern Conference Finals? That’d be a step up, sure, but it’s hard to imagine a ceiling higher than that right now.

This sucks. Make no mistake about it. This team, a few seasons ago, was on the rise and had mountains of potential. But it’s over. There is no roster flexibility left. Quality free agents don’t want to come to Washington; all you’re getting is veterans looking for a late payday. I’m not saying start from scratch. But if the Wizards don’t move one of their three best players now, three years from now we might be looking at a complete rebuild and nothing to show for this era of Wizards basketball but early postseason exits.

Oh, and you have to fire Ernie Grunfeld if you ever want success in your basketball life. But that goes without saying.


 

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Bryan Frantz
Reporter / Writer at TAI
Bryan is a D.C. native with a degree in something or other from UNC. He has important, interesting hobbies, but mostly he just weeps over D.C. sports teams. You can find him on the Metro, inevitably complaining about Red Line delays.