The Wizards Have Options. They'll Choose the Worst One | Wizards Blog Truth About

The Wizards Have Options. They’ll Choose the Worst One

Updated: January 29, 2019

A back-and-forth on Twitter with Wizards’ season-ticket holder (and former Timberwolves’ season-ticket holder) Aaron Rupar last week got me thinking about the Wizards’ options in the coming months.

I’ve long been on the record as saying this team needs to be blown up and rebuilt. It’s also well known that Washington will do no such thing, and the likeliest scenario is a short-sighted trade that sacrifices the future in order to make the playoffs this year.

But there are numerous paths the Wizards could take right now. For example, do you go for the full rebuild, trade all your best players for future assets, and start all over? Or do you simply take a year off, sell all your expiring contracts for picks or young players, tank the season, then give it another go next season with a potential franchise rookie snagged at the top end of a top-heavy draft? Or how about a middle ground, where you flip Otto Porter for a miscast piece on another team? (A good example of this latter option is the hypothetical McCollum-Gordon swap laid out by Jonathan Tjarks earlier this month.)

The only decisively correct path to success is to fire Ernie Grunfeld and put in place a general manager with a cohesive long-term plan, but why waste time on fantasies? Let’s instead explore a few different routes the Wizards could take. The Wizards’ performance in the days between now and the February 7 trade deadline will play a significant role in determining the immediate future, and unexpected occurrences (e.g. Victor Oladipo-type injuries) could throw a wrench into plans.

For now, here are four potential options:

Option No. 1: Stay the Course/Go All-in

This is the likeliest scenario, unfortunately. Ted Leonsis recently emphasized a refusal to tank — as everybody has correctly pointed out, no owner will ever, especially midseason, condone the intentional losing of games — but the repeated mandate to simply make the playoffs is the most telling element here.

If the stated goal is to make the playoffs, in a league in which roughly 53 percent of the teams make the playoffs, you’ve already given up. Leonsis has contradicted himself regularly since buying the Wizards more than eight years ago (emphasis mine in all cases below):

  • He declared in October 2010, “We are in this together – to improve your experience at Verizon Center and to build championship-caliber teams that will make all of us proud” and “I am always cognizant of that, no matter how many changes we have made or may make, I will believe in the wisdom of our crowds.”
  • He stated before this season began, “We need to raise the expectations. We have to make the playoffs. I’d like us to win 50 games. I’d like us to go to the Eastern Conference Finals.” … “If you are patient and work hard and are committed to continuous improvement then you can win a championship.” … “No excuses.”

Yet here we are, locked in a perpetual state of mediocrity. Years have gone by and the Wizards have nothing resembling a “championship-caliber team,” there has not been “continuous improvement,” and the expectations have remained the same for several seasons. Leonsis is certainly not listening to “the wisdom of [his] crowds” pleading for the dethroning of Ernie Grunfeld. (Look at his mentions.) All that’s left now is another offseason riddled with excuses about a litany of injuries hampering the team—and tall tales about how they were right there.

And because every other element of the cycle has remained the same, so too will the step that comes around each year in early February: The Wizards prepare to cast off another future asset in favor of winning a few more games this season, sneaking into the playoffs, getting thoroughly beaten while running their best players into the ground, and doing it all over again.

Will that asset be Troy Brown, the first-round draft pick who, despite an injury-free season, has played just 190 minutes, and that’s after a recent uptick in playing time? Here are three relevant facts:

  1. Otto Porter and Kelly Oubre, the team’s only other first-round draft picks since Bradley Beal, played 319 and 671 minutes in their rookie seasons, respectively. Each of them has been criticized for developing slowly;
  2. Only 14 players were drafted ahead of Brown last year, but 39 rookies have played more minutes than Brown has this season;
  3. The Wizards have played 1,176 first-half minutes this season; Brown has played a grand total of 53 first-half minutes this season (that’s less than five percent!).

Will that asset be a future first-round pick? After all, the Wizards are currently burdened with all of their future first-round picks.

Sidebar: Washington traded its 2017 first-round pick at that year’s trade deadline for several months of Bojan Bogdanovic. The result was Washington losing in the conference semifinals for the third time in four years, and Brooklyn drafting Jarrett Allen. Allen was given plenty of opportunity to develop (1,441 minutes as a rookie) and looks like a rising star. He had 20 points, 24 rebounds, and 3 blocks for the Nets in a win earlier this month; the last Wizards player to record at least 20 points, 20 rebounds, and 3 blocks in a game was Pervis Ellison in 1992.

Will that asset be a future second-round pick? Probably not, as the Wizards won’t have their own second-rounder until 2023.

Another sidebar: Sam Vecenie of The Athletic put out a 2019 mock draft this week in which the Hornets, using the Wizards’ second-round pick, are projected to select UNC’s Cameron Johnson. Johnson is a 6-foot-8 forward shooting 46 percent from 3-point range and averaging 15 points per game against one of the nation’s toughest schedules. The Wizards won’t get to use that pick because they traded it (and other picks) away to draft Kelly Oubre, who they have since traded away. They traded away their 2020, 2021, and 2022 second-round picks in a pair of deals that sent away Jodie Meeks, who had exercised his wholly unnecessary player option, and brought in Sam Dekker and $1.5 million. This future-sacrificing cycle will harm the Wizards for years.

Those are the only assets that really fit into this category. More on Bradley Beal, Otto Porter, Tomas Satoransky, and Thomas Bryant in a moment. Considering the Wizards probably won’t move on from Brown this early in his career, when his value is minimal, expect to say goodbye to another future first-round pick at a time in which the Wizards, already in salary cap hell, desperately need cheap players for the coming years.

Option No. 2: Swap Complementary Stars

This is the McCollum-Gordon swap. The only piece Washington has that it can afford to lose, because it will still draw something of significance, is Otto Porter. Porter’s value has dropped since he signed his max contract, and this year has been disastrous so far, but he’s shown flashes recently as five of his eight best scoring performances this season have come in January.

Shipping Porter out now makes as much sense as anything, but it’s unclear what a team would be willing to give up for him. Half the teams in the league have been linked to Porter over the years, and Shams Charania reports the Jazz are currently interested. Derrick Favors seems like the likeliest target in this scenario, if the Wizards are indeed hoping to pick up a replacement third option and continue down the Wall/Beal/[insert third option] path. But if a Wall/Beal/Porter trio isn’t contending for an Eastern Conference title, it’s hard to envision a Wall/Beal/Favors trio doing much better.

There have also been rumblings of the Mavericks having interest in Porter, but Dennis Smith doesn’t make sense as a target as long as John Wall is on the roster. Harrison Barnes works on a salary level, but that’s not exactly going to rally the Wizards’ fans.

Aaron Gordon or Nikola Vucevic from the Magic could make sense. Orlando isn’t exactly known for prudent team-building, so maybe they botch that trade, but I’m still not sure Porter is a big enough asset for either of those players.

In theory, swapping Porter for another fringe star that doesn’t quite fit in his current situation makes a lot of sense. In practice, it’s tough to find a good match.

Option No. 3: Retool for Next Year

This is probably the best option, the one that best combines pragmatism and immediate fan gratification. In this scenario, the Wizards sell off their expiring contracts of any value: Identify teams looking to win now and offer them Trevor Ariza, Jeff Green, and Markieff Morris in exchange for draft picks or young players on rookie deals.

That list could also include Tomas Satoransky and/or Thomas Bryant. In a perfect world, the Wizards would clear Ian Mahinmi from the books and figure out a way to keep both Sato and Bryant. In a more realistic world, the Wizards will extend qualifying offers to both players, both players will receive offer sheets from other teams, and the Wizards will be unable to afford either player, losing them for essentially nothing. If Washington can’t figure out a way to clear room to re-sign either or both of them this summer, the best remaining option is to sell high now.

More than anything, the Wizards need young, cheap talent. Trading a veteran for draft picks would not only save money, but it would clear room for Brown — the only player on the roster that matches the description of young, cheap talent — to develop this season.

If the Wizards still believe John Wall will recover fully from his nagging injuries and be the player he was a couple of years ago, and they are prepared to face the immediate future with a Wall-Beal-Porter trio, they’ll need to build around that core with young talent, not veteran mercenaries. With Oubre already in Phoenix and no guarantee of keeping Satoransky or Bryant past this season, the pool of young talent is painfully shallow.

The Wizards could cut their losses now and clear the way for their only young player on a long-term deal. Stop this business of playing Beal nearly 40 minutes per game, and let Troy Brown play 20-30 minutes per game. While you’re at it, give Sam Dekker and Devin Robinson more playing time and see if you have anything there.

If this front office really cares about tangible success and continued improvement, as the team’s owner claims to value, it will accept that a down year is worth the sacrifice if the payoff is multiple 50-win seasons down the road. Option No. 3, when executed correctly (and with a little luck), results in a roster next season that looks like this:

  • A Wall-Beal-Porter core
  • Troy Brown either as sixth man or starting alongside Porter
  • A lottery pick (ideally in the top 10) coming off the bench
  • Ian Mahinmi and Dwight Howard both on expiring deals
  • Some combination of Satoransky, Bryant, Robinson, Dekker, and other young players you picked up in 2019 trade deadline deals for Ariza, Green, Morris, etc.

A word on the top-10 pick: I’ve seen many people disregard the value of this, as the 2019 draft is considered extremely top-heavy. I’m not holding out hope for Zion Williamson, or even R.J. Barrett or Ja Morant. But here’s a glimpse at what players currently projected to go in the late lottery are doing:

Highlights don’t tell the whole story, and these prospects all have flaws. But there is plenty of talent available in the entire top half of the first round, and forsaking that option has the potential to cripple a team. Even if you don’t get a star, you can absolutely get a fourth or fifth option as a rookie.

Oh, and you can definitely get a star. Here are some players that were drafted with picks 8-15 in the past decade: DeMar DeRozan, Gordon Hayward, Paul George, Kemba Walker, Klay Thompson, Kawhi Leonard, Andre Drummond, C.J. McCollum, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Devin Booker, Dennis Smith, and Donovan Mitchell.

Option No. 4: Blow It All Up

This won’t happen, because Leonsis is stubborn and President Grunfeld wants to keep his job. But here is the total rebuild, swing-for-the-fences option.

John Wall is probably untradable for at least six more months, and teams will want to see how he looks on the court again before taking on that contract. While he’s out, the Wizards could sell high on Bradley Beal right now. Beal is playing some of the best basketball of his life and would fetch a decent haul of young assets.

The Anthony Davis trade request throws another wrinkle into this situation. It’s unlikely Davis gets moved before this deadline, as New Orleans should wait until July to see what offers matriculate. But if the Pelicans receive an offer that blows them away and pull the trigger, there will suddenly be a handful of teams who have already come up with packages of young talent and picks, but, with Davis moved, no asset to trade for. Beal won’t command the same return as Davis, obviously, but he’s a young star under team control for two more seasons after this one.

And here’s the best-case scenario, if the Wizards went this route: Trade Beal for young players and/or draft picks now and let Porter get a few games as the top guy. If he plays well and demonstrates an ability to thrive as the featured player in an offense — or even if he just inflates his numbers quickly and baits another team into thinking he’s better than he is — the Wizards could pick up additional future pieces to jumpstart a rebuild.

That leaves Washington with Wall (out for the season), Satoransky, Brown, Bryant, whatever players you get in the two above trades, and an island of misfit toys on expiring deals. That team won’t win many games, further solidifying a quality draft pick, and it will give Sato, Brown, and Bryant more exposure and opportunity to develop. It also clears a huge burden off your payroll, allowing you the ability to sign Satoransky and Bryant to an extension in the offseason.

So, what then?

Imagine if the Wizards stumbled into a top-three pick and picked up, say, R.J. Barrett with their own first-rounder. Then they added another mid-round pick in 2019, which they turn into, say, Bol Bol. Now you have John Wall passing to a potentially elite wing on rookie deal and an athletic freak of a center who can hit spot-up 3s. Add to that mix Troy Brown, Satoransky, and Bryant, plus a few more first-rounders coming in 2020 and beyond, and you might have something.

Maybe Wall doesn’t want to stick around for the rebuild, which is feasible. Let him show he’s healthy, then flip him for a Dennis Smith or a Lonzo Ball or a Frank Ntilikina. Maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t. Either way, it’s more exciting and carries infinitely more upside than what you’re doing now.

This last option, again, is just a pipe dream and will never happen. And many fans, including Aaron, would prefer to win 45 games and make the playoffs every year instead of starting over. And that’s fine.

But Options Nos. 2 and 3 are out there, and a creative front office would come up with countless more options.

The Wizards do not have a creative front office, so they will take Option No. 1. The Wizards will likely make the playoffs, Ernie Grunfeld will likely keep his job, and the future will remain bleak in Washington for years to come. But hey, it’s fun to think about a world where that isn’t the case, right?

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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.