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The Wizards and a future of risk

Jun 23, 2012, 2:00 PM EDT

Wizards uniform, logo

You know what I’d be angling for, were I an NBA GM?

A boat. Because those guys make a lot of money and I want a boat.

I’d also be angling for the Washington Wizards’ 2014 and 2015 first rounders.

Getting future firsts is difficult in the NBA. NBA front offices take a lot of flak for their decisions, but in general, they understand that you never know what can happen and you want to hold onto those things. Most teams have a pretty good sense of what the future holds. But the Wizards? They seem like they understand what the future holds, but they’re just not considerably concerned with it. As long as they win now, that’s what matters.

The Wizards’ trade of Rashard Lewis and his buyout-able contract to clear cap space to New Orleans for Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza wasn’t a horrible move. There have been considerably worse trades made over the course of the past five years by other teams, and a few by the Wizards. A lot of it comes down to this: if you’re going to get nothing for Lewis, and then have to overpay with long-term contracts for veterans to move forward as a franchise, why not get something for Lewis and get contracts which have a shorter (but not expiring) shelf-life?

It’s a reasonable approach. It doesn’t mean that they can’t draft the best player available with the third pick. It doesn’t mean that they can’t move forward with the remaining young players that they have. It just means they didn’t give out money to veterans who would have wanted five-year deals. It does, however, mean that they are in win-now-while-building-for-the-future mode. That’s a popular approach right now. The Denver Nuggets are a great example of that. They can compete right now, make the playoffs, excel, but they’re also set to make a big move if one comes available. The Houston Rockets are right below them in that regard. So that’s kind of the approach. “Get better for the future while also getting the fanbase to appreciate you not being terrible.” That doesn’t sound so bad, right?

The problem is that the Nuggets have affixed themselves with players of high value and low-cost with younger assets on cheap deals while the Wizards have gone after veterans on big money with more miles on them. This isn’t building an exciting team that can also swing for the fences. It’s building a tolerable team that is just waiting to die. It’s a mix somewhere between the 2010 Bobcats and the 2012 Sixers.

There are any number of risks here, my biggest fears hidden in the idea that the rookie they draft this year doesn’t need heavy minutes. It’s true that rookies don’t play 40 minutes a night. There’s always room. But consider the situation. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist or Thomas Robinson would be entering into a situation where a coach who just made it out of the interim tag is coaching for his job, and has the option of playing a veteran who knows what he’s doing and knows how to win 30-35 minutes a night or splitting those minutes with a rookie who more than likely is going to need quite a bit of development. (If Bradley Beal falls to them, everything works out great and there are puppies and rainbows. This is a pretty likely scenario.).  In that case you’re risking limiting the kid’s confidence and hurting his development, all because you know that Trevor Ariza isn’t going to get completely lost chasing his guy off the backscreen or helping on the pick and roll recovery.

So that’s not a great scenario. But the Wizards feel like they need to win now. That they have to throw the fans a bone. And it’s true you have to get out of the cycle of losing and change the culture. But you do that by drafting quality players. I’m even fine with the Nene acquisition, that gives them the old guy to be a rock for this team. Throw in some low-minute veterans on affordable contracts.

But instead?

The Wizards are more than likely pleased that the contract for Okafor and Ariza expire just as John Wall is coming up for an extension. But consider that final year. Assuming neither player opts out (and  if they do, that’s actually worse, because now you’re already committed to the win now concept but just lost one of your valued veterans — Okafor has an Early Termination Option and Ariza a Player Option for 2013-2014), they’ll be going into that season with a 28-year-old Ariza, and a 31-year-old Okafor and Nene. If things go as planned, they won’t have a very good pick in the 2013 draft, because they’ll have improved enough to either escape the lottery or be at the very far reaches of it.

So you enter the final year of Ariza and Okafor’s deals trying to convince John Wall after having either made the playoffs and been vanquished in the first round under any conceivable matchup (does that team beat the Bulls without Derrick Rose, even?), or having won 35 games but barely missed the playoffs. You’re trying to convince John Wall to sign the extension (which he inevitably will, either during the season or in restricted free agency; guys don’t leave off their rookie years, just doesn’t happen). And so that’s when that team either has to sell out to try and make a big jump, or, if they haven’t really accomplished anything or if they get off to a bad start because of the way the team is constructed, they have to blow it up, tanking out.

So then that next year holds even more promise for a return to the high lottery as Nene turns 32 before the start of the season.

As long as you don’t trade them a player that makes them so considerably better that they improve to the point of avoiding that situation? You could wind up with quite the asset by obtaining a draft pick from Washington in either year.

These are a lot of ifs and contingencies. The Wizards could also flip Okafor with an ETO next year for a nice package or prospect. They could move some combination of players. John Wall could make the leap. But it shows you the danger of moving in this direction. The Wizards want to win now. But they need to be careful to make sure that they realize that if this thing starts to turn south, they need to bail for the friendly waters off Rebuild Island. The only sure way to develop into a respectable team long-term is through the lottery, to keep being terrible until you get the right combination of players to change things organically. The Wizards are trying to inject a techno-virus to change everything.

We’ll have to see if the patient survives the shock to the system.

  1. cosanostra71 - Jun 23, 2012 at 2:11 PM

    You’re trying to convince John Wall to sign the extension (which he inevitably will, either during the season or in restricted free agency; guys don’t leave off their rookie years, just doesn’t happen).

    Didn’t Shaq leave off his rookie years?

  2. skinsdiehard - Jun 23, 2012 at 3:09 PM

    The Celtics core is 34, 36 and 35 years old. When did 32 become a dinosaur in the NBA? How old is Duncan, Kidd,Novitski, Nash? Just a dumb post here. The Wiz know that they are not going to attract free agents. As Grunfeld said, they have to build a respectable team first to attract free agents, that they have enough youth and three lottery picks: Wall, Vesely, Beal (hopefully), Singleton, Seraphin, Booker, Crawford, Mack and the 32nd pick this year. They don’t need any more rookies. The only vets on the team are Nene, Okafor and Ariza. This whole thing is overblown.

    • thenoblefacehumper - Jun 23, 2012 at 9:40 PM

      The problem is the Wiz are making their beds with vets who aren’t exactly Duncan, Kidd, Nowitzki, or Nash. It’s not just age. Okafor and Ariza could be useful pieces for a contender, but won’t turn a bottom dweller into a contender. It’d be one thing if they went out and acquired an elite player, but as of now there isn’t anything all that close to an elite player on that roster.

  3. lastdukestreetking - Jun 23, 2012 at 3:12 PM

    Wall will only be a restricted FA, correct? The situation when Shaq left Orlando was totally different.

  4. TheJStyles - Jun 23, 2012 at 5:55 PM

    I just want to know, who was smoking, and what…

    That made them sit there and say…

    “Ya know what, I’m going to write an article about the Wizards draft picks 2 years from now!”

    …wow.

  5. jdouble777 - Jun 24, 2012 at 2:37 PM

    If everyone plays well then there are no issues. If players do not mix, get hurt, play below their ability then their are issues. This trade is not going to define the future of the Wizards nor will any one trade for any team depict where they will be two or three years later.

    If Okafor goes 12pt/10rebs per game, Ariza knocks down 12-15pts and shoots 45% per game, Wall takes the leap to being what he was suppose to be and the young guys are able grow from this then they are going to be fine. Vessley, Wall, Seraphin, Mack, and so on are all the core players that they built through the lottery. When the 3rd and 32nd picks get added then the time to build through the lottery HAS to be over. You cannot just keep losing and losing, drafting and drafting, and then putting nothing around them or you will likely retard their growth, confidence, and your franchise’s future.

    There is financial flexability regardless of what happens as there is not a single player on the roster working on a max contract and a plethora or rookie contracts throughout. What those picks consist of are going to be determined wholly by the ability of getting guys to mesh, buy-in, become a team, and out of that produce an environment in which the youth can involve into stars. Continuing to lose until you draft the next Durant or LBJ is not a formula for anything, ask the Bobcats.

  6. yeslock - Jun 24, 2012 at 7:05 PM

    “So then that next year holds even more promise for a return to the high lottery as Nene turns 32 before the start of the season.”

    Um no. Nene was born in 1982, which means he turns 30 before the start of this season. Doesn’t anyone proofread or do their research on this site?

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