Around this time last year, basketball in the nation’s capital looked poised to crest to its highest point since the 1970s. Fresh off a 46-win season and consecutive trips to the second round of the playoffs, the Washington Wizards boasted an ascendant backcourt led by incumbent All-Star starter John Wall, plus a solid mix of veterans and young talent. Most exciting of all, fans and management alike harbored real aspirations at luring D.C.-born megastar Kevin Durant back home in nine months’ time to form LeBron James’ most daunting Eastern Conference challenger to date.
Life comes at you fast, it turns out.
Even aside from Durant’s total lack of interest, a reality that became apparent well before team brass couldn’t even get a free agent meeting with him in July, these Wizards’ magic waned badly last year. A group many picked to face the Cavs in the Eastern Conference Finals even without a Durant-level talent instead missed the playoffs altogether in a confusing, frustrating year that saw out-of-his-depth head coach Randy Wittman finally get the axe at season’s end.
And after a summer where they basically split that potential KD dollar up into a group of nickels and dimes – which nonetheless looks poised to clog their cap enough to limit future flexibility, maybe severely – the franchise is at a crossroads more quickly than anyone had imagined: With a ton of money invested and more possibly earmarked for next summer, is this core capable of justifying its collective price tag?
With three years left on what’s now a bargain in 2016 cap terms, Wall is both the easiest answer and the largest domino on the board. He seemed to plateau just a bit last season after a 2014-15 campaign where he looked ready to pop a squat in the elite point guard conversation and chill for several years, but at least some portion of the regression was on the defensive end and feels effort-based. Whispers that Wittman lost the locker room would certainly apply to its alpha dog if true, and Wall didn’t quite seem fully engaged in the little things that make a good defender.
This isn’t a cover-all excuse, of course – Wall wants to be viewed as a franchise player, and the best of those succeed even through adverse circumstances. His shooting caps his overall ceiling, meaning the value he adds via high-level defense is a must to keep him a superstar-level player. Wall’s regression was a big part of Washington’s fall from a fifth-ranked per-possession defense two years ago to middle of the pack last season.
Wall is still the primary driver of this team’s success, though. It’s his teammates on the perimeter who are the larger question marks with regard to contract value, both real and potential.
Bradley Beal is probably still younger than you think, but he’s well past the days where his youth alone guaranteed greener pastures for the future. Now 23 years old, Beal’s offensive efficiency has mostly stagnated since his sophomore season; he’s always been a strong shooter with real gravity, but his other skills have failed to develop much. He seems like a near lock to miss 15 or 20 games a year at this point, and his defensive regression last season was even larger than Wall’s (and started from a much lower baseline).
Simply put, Beal will need to make serious strides to even approach justifying the five-year, $127 million contract GM and President of Basketball Operations Ernie Grunfeld lavished him with in July. He and offseason addition Ian Mahinmi will eat up roughly $40 million of the Wizards’ space every year through the 2019-20 season, and the Wall-Beal-Mahinmi-Marcin Gortat foursome alone will boast a combined tag of nearly $75 million in 2018-19, which is Wall’s final year under contract.
The collar is already getting awfully tight and that’s before addressing Otto Porter, Washington’s remaining big-ticket item who sits eligible for his rookie extension from now until October 31. Actually a few weeks older than Beal, Porter is another guy reaching the expected end of his developmental curve right as the Wizards are forced to make a big decision about his future with the team. He’s a skilled defender with length who does well against guys his own size when engaged, but he’s had big issues with consistency in effort (there seems to be a team-wide theme here) and struggles with bigger wings. An improvement to nearly 37 percent from three last year was big, but Washington will have to hope it’s more of a baseline for him moving forward if they’re going to shell out another $20 million annually for a guy who does little else offensively.
And make no mistake about it: Porter is getting that sort of money if he wants it, if not from Washington then from someone else. He’s a big, young “3-and-D” wing in a market where supply for such players lags miles behind demand. He’s upped his efficiency while taking on a bigger role each year in the league, and by all accounts he’s a good character guy. He’s getting paid.
And if it’s Ted Leonsis signing Porter’s checks after this season, that’s a wrap. The Wizards’ team is built. Signing Porter in that $20 million yearly range commits roughly $90 million – or around what many expect the cap to settle in at long-term, pending CBA negotiations – to five players.
They don’t necessarily have to decide on Porter this fall; there are risks in waiting, but the Wizards still hold his matching rights if they allow him to enter restricted free agency next summer. But regardless of whether they choose to wait and gauge his development, a looming financial picture adds pressure.
Suddenly, a primary mandate in Scott Brooks’ inaugural season behind the bench is simply figuring out whether this core is worth all that dough – and the timetable is shrinking. Wall isn’t going anywhere unless he asks out, but it’s time to consider the possibility that other core pieces might have to move if things don’t pan out on the floor this year. Beal still has just enough youth and skill to command value, even if it’s lessened somewhat by his new deal; a lot of that slips away in a hurry if he posts yet another year without marked improvement. Mahinmi is a good addition at a fair price in a vacuum, but he and Gortat may end up as a $28 million frontcourt that can’t really play together. Gortat himself will be 33 years old before this season is over, and even at $12 million a year he could be tough to unload without attaching an asset.
Doomsday isn’t here yet, though, Wizards faithful. We’ve touched on effort level as a key issue several times – there’s a real expectation that Brooks will succeed here in ways Wittman was failing. Wall at his 2014-15 level is one of the 15 most valuable players in the league, and the Wall-Beal-Porter-Markieff Morris-Mahinmi projected starting lineup is strong on both sides of the floor if their leader is firing on all cylinders. Jason Smith and Andrew Nicholson were smart depth signings for cheap, and 2015 draftee Kelly Oubre still has potential despite a rocky rookie year. With health and any luck, this team could surprise some people and perhaps cash in a year late on their promise as rising contenders in the East.
That’s far from a guarantee, though, and the talent level on this roster isn’t so enormous that success is simply guaranteed as long as the primary pieces get their heads on straight. There’s a real chance Brooks does well, the locker room finds chemistry and the pieces fit together on the court… and Washington still tops out as a middling Eastern Conference team that lacks the skill beyond Wall to challenge the big boys.
There are worse realities than that, to be sure, and Washington’s front office may need to choose its priority if things continue to stagnate on the court this season: A solid core with a decent floor that’s nonetheless unlikely to compete for real glory, or a shakeup and a much wider range of outcomes?
Again, we aren’t there yet – but we’re not too far away, either. The first couple months of this season are huge: The ship could be righted in a hurry, or the signs could become clearer than ever that this group’s ceiling is capped too low. It’s a quietly vital year for a Wizards franchise hoping their buzz isn’t a fleeting apparition.
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