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The Washington Wizards’ Clock is Ticking

It’s a vital year for Washington, who’s trying to find out if they’re a contender as currently constructed.

Ben Dowsett

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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.

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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2018 NBA Draft Diary

Sources: Gregg Popovich, Kawhi Leonard Held Meeting on Tuesday

Basketball Insiders

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San Antonio Spurs star Kawhi Leonard met with coach Gregg Popovich on Tuesday in San Diego, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

The meeting between the two faces of the Spurs’ franchise was done professionally and confidentially, league sources said.

Source: Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports

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NBA Daily: Lots Of NBA Draft Chatter

With the 2018 NBA Draft less than 50 hours away, Basketball Insiders’ publisher Steve Kyler digs into the last from around the NBA.

Steve Kyler

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Lots Of NBA Draft Chatter

With the 2018 NBA Draft on Thursday, things in NBA circles are getting interesting, specifically on the trade front.

The final 2018 Consensus Mock Draft will drop tomorrow, just after the media availabilities in New York, from there we’ll be tracking the minute to minute news, trades and rumors in the 2018 NBA Draft Diary.

So, with that in mind, let’s dig into what we know some 50 hours until the draft gets underway.

Kawhi Watch In Full Swing

With the news last week that San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard may no longer want to be a Spur breaking, there is still a sense in NBA circles that the Spurs are not going to listen to trade offers until the hear from Kawhi directly.

If you know anything about the Spurs organization, you know that we won’t hear the details of this situation in a minute by minute way like we do from some organizations, especially considering the Spurs have never had to deal with a scenario quite like this.

The interesting part of this story is how split the “sourcing” is on what’s real. There have been reports from several different reporters suggesting that the situation isn’t as dire as initially reported and that the Spurs and Leonard have had dialogue, but not the face-to-face meeting the Spurs covet.

It’s unclear why there hasn’t been a meeting, and that is what has some in NBA circles believing the Spurs will open up the phones on Wednesday and see what they can extract for Leonard if only to do their due diligence.

One league source commented that it might be tough for the Spurs to get value out of Leonard mainly because of his injury situation and the idea that he’d only re-sign with the Lakers. The same source doubted that Leonard’s camp would fence themselves inmto just the Lakers because that would make getting him traded extremely difficult, especially if the Lakers wouldn’t offer value to San Antonio.

The sense today is the Spurs are standing their ground. The thing to know is that this situation still seems very fluid, and that face-to-face conversation (or lack of one) could swing this thing in either direction. It is clear several teams would have interest if the Spurs decide to listen to offers, even if it just a rental for the upcoming season.

Trades At The Top Still Viable

It a typical NBA draft there is chatter about top tier picks being traded, but usually, it dies off the week for the draft as teams look in on who they ultimately want to draft.

This year, and unlike previous years there is a sense that several of the picks at the top of the board could be had, especially if it returns draft picks later in the draft and solid veterans.

The Sacramento Kings seem to be leaning towards keeping their pick at number two, and it’s looking more and more likely that Marvin Bagley III is their guy. The Kings took a very long look at Michael Porter Jr, and as of this weekend there was a sense they were OK with where Porter Jr is at medically, but he may lose out to the less risky Bagley. League sources continue to doubt the Kings grab Euro sensation Luke Dončić, so we’ll see if that holds true as we get to draft day.

The Atlanta Hawks have had the third overall pick on the market from almost the moment they landed it. The Hawks seem ready to use the pick but are said to still be exploring their options. The prevailing thought this week is it’s down to Bagley, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Trae Young for the Hawks, with more and more league sources believing the Hawks will draft Young at three. While the notion of grabbing Young at three may seem high, the Hawks have had eyes on Young from the start of the process, and not much seems to have changed. The Hawks have made it clear they would take on contract money in exchange for additional draft assets, so it seems likely the Hawks will be active, even if it’s not moving the third pick.

Things start to get interesting with Memphis at number four. There have been numerous reports that the Grizzlies have dangled the fourth pick in an attempt to shed the contract of Chandler Parsons. Sources close to the situation say the Grizzlies have had some offers, and most of them involve the Grizz picking up expiring contracts and additional draft assets lower in the draft. It’s unclear if the Grizzlies will pull the trigger, but they seem to have deals if they want one.

The prevailing thought in NBA circles is the Grizzlies are the first real landing spot for Dončić. There is also talk of Wendell Carter Jr., and Mo Bamba landing at four.

The Dallas Mavericks at five seem open to taking on contract dollars and could be the landing spot for the fourth pick and Chandler Parsons, but league sources say the Mavericks would not give up the fifth pick unless it returned an All-Star or would-be All-Star.

There are a few other situations to watch as several teams have expressed interest in moving up. The Clippers hold two pretty solid selections and 12 and 13 and seem willing to combine them to move into the top 5. The Denver Nuggets have also expressed some interest in moving to the top five.

The Lakers and Celtics have expressed similar interest at points in the process, but both seem reluctant at this point to part with future assets to pay the price to jump to the top of the draft.

Porter Still A Possibility

The Michael Porter Jr. situation is murky. After two visits from NBA teams, the word on Porter is mixed. NBA teams have seen his MRIs and his medical, and select teams were allowed to bring their doctors and trainers to his most recent “workout.”

The worst case from one team that’s not considering him is that he may require an additional surgery down the line. This same team said their doctors didn’t think anything going on with Porter would jeopardize his career, but they felt like he’d have to be on a program and has a ways to go before they’d deem him a 100 percent.

The upside case, from a team with Porter squarely on their board, is that there wasn’t anything going on they didn’t expect and that their staff felt fairly positive they could not only manage his situation, but they felt they could get him right fairly quickly.

Amusingly, the narrative around Porter is that he could be the next Kevin Durant-type scorer in the NBA (Porter clearly isn’t as long and lanky as Durant) – but he does possess the ability to get his offense against almost anyone.

As one executive whose team wasn’t considering Porter joked, you could get Durant or you could get Greg Oden, hinting at the injury-riddled career of the former top pick back in 2007.

Where Does Luka Go?

There isn’t a more polarizing NBA Draft prospect than Real Madrid’s Luke Dončić. You would be hard-pressed to find an NBA executive who didn’t think Dončić could be special in the NBA. But you might also be hard-pressed to find one willing to bet their job on it.

Throughout this process, more than a couple of executives have expressed they are hopeful Dončić goes high, mainly because it would give them cover in future drafts to do the same thing, which is draft what appears to be the most NBA ready player in the class, despite his flaws.

The problem is if Dončić isn’t special or struggles like some have concerns he might, not only would a team leave a potential franchise cornerstone on the board to in passing on uber-talented collegiate prospects, it might cost the lead executive their jobs.

While that seems somewhat short-sighted, think about the executives drafting in the top six. How many are not under pressure to turn their franchises around? And would a huge draft miss seal their fate?

Atlanta’s Travis Schlenk at three seems pretty secure. Dallas’ Donnie Nelson at five seems pretty secure. Orlando’s Jeff Weltman and John Hammond at six seem fairly secure, but it gets dicey elsewhere in the top 10.

As we’ve seen in previous drafts, NBA executives can and often do outthink themselves, which why every draft has quality impact guys falling later in the process.

There is little doubt Dončić is going in the top 10; it would be pretty surprising if he got past Dallas at five.

Sexton Over Young?

The Orlando Magic seems to be dialing in on what’s there for them at six, assuming they don’t trade up, which they have explored with both Atlanta and Memphis. The prevailing thought among fans is that if Trae Young is there at six, the Magic will pounce.

Early on in the process, though, the Magic seemed to be seriously interested in Collin Sexton, and word is that be might the Magic’s guy at six. The Magic ultimately will catch what falls to them, and if Dončić, Bagley or Jackson are there, things get interesting. However, if the draft goes as scripted, Orlando seems more likely to go, Sexton, Bamba, Carter or Knox than Young – at least at this point.

The draft is a fluid domino effect process, so at six the Magic have to cover a lot of bases, and it seems they have with their individual workouts.

The Magic desperately covet an impact player, so don’t be surprised if the Magic pull the trigger on a move-up deal, especially as we get closer and closer to the moment of truth.

Bamba Could Slide

You won’t find many NBA executives who don’t find Texas big man Mo Bamba intriguing. The problem for Bamba if there are some many super talented bigs in the 2018 NBA draft he is caught in a numbers game.

League sources said recently that Bamba is in the mix at two to the Kings, four to Grizzlies, five to Mavericks, six to the Magic and seven to the Bulls. The problem is he doesn’t seem to be the first or second option to any of those teams at this point.

According to league sources there continues to be questions about how his offensive game fits into the modern NBA, and with more versatile guys sitting at the top of the draft, Bamba is looking more like the consolation prize later in the draft. You will be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn’t think Bamba will be a monster defensively in the NBA, but the question remains which team is drafting defense at the top of the board?

If there is a player outside of the top five that could tumble a little, it might be Bamba, especially if the Mavericks pass at five.

Over the next few days, we’ll be posting all of the draft-related news, notes, rumors and trades in the 2018 NBA Draft Day Diary, so if you want a one-stop shop for all things NBA Draft, bookmark it.

More Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @TommyBeer, @MokeHamilton , @jblancartenba, @Ben_Dowsett, @SpinDavies, @JamesB_NBA, @DennisChambers_, @MattJohnNBA, and @Ben__Nadeau .

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NBA Daily: Kaiser Gates Determined To Silence His Doubters

He may not be listed on some draft boards or seen as an impact player by certain individuals, but Kaiser Gates knows what he’s made of.

Spencer Davies

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If you’re looking to further your career at the next level but coming out of college as a prospect on the fringe, you’d better be willing to work twice as hard to draw attention from the basketball world.

Attending the Preparation Pro Day in Miami with team representatives and scouts watching, Kaiser Gates wanted to show everybody who was there that the chip on his shoulder would drive him to silence his doubters.

“I feel like I have a lot to prove,” Gates said in Miami. “I feel like a lot of the guys in the draft this year, I’m just as good if not better than (them), so I gotta show that.”

After three years at Xavier University, the 22-year-old decided it was time to move on from the program and passed on his senior year to enter the NBA Draft. The news came as a surprise to many, considering he might’ve gotten the opportunity to earn an even more expanded role next season with the departure of Musketeer favorites Trevon Bluiett and J.P. Macura.

The numbers across the board weren’t exactly eye-catching. Primarily a wing, Gates knocked down 37.8 percent of his threes as a junior. He averaged 7.2 points and 4.6 rebounds in almost 24 minutes per game.

Looking at conference play in the Big East, those figures took a dip. Gates shot less than 30 percent from deep and really struggled to contribute offensively for Xavier against tougher opponents.

There was an incredible discrepancy in shot selection over his three-year collegiate career. Astoundingly enough, 300 of his 409 career attempts came outside of the arc. The other 109 tries were twos, which he converted at a 54.1 percent rate.

It’s hard to ignore statistical evidence when it comes to evaluating players, but misuse and fit could have been more prominent factors in this case. It’s something that happens quite a bit at school programs with prospects, and Gates believes that he could be added to that list of mishandled talent.

“I don’t think I’m inconsistent at all,” Gates said. “At Xavier, I know my stats showed that I was inconsistent. Playing at that school it was a great experience—great guys, great coaches.

“Just kinda like my situation and the way I was playing at that school didn’t really allow me to showcase my full talents, and with that being said, it’s kinda hard to stay consistent not doing something I’m used to doing.”

Furthering the point, it’s not easy to be judged off that information, which some use as the only indication of what you’ll bring to the pros. Gates plans on using that as motivation whenever he meets with different teams.

“I would come in and people would just assume like, ‘Oh he could shoot a little bit, play defense, a little athletic.’ But I know on the flip side, I know what I can really do and like, my full potential.

“So when I know that and see what teams already think, already have in their head, just now it’s up to me to prove to them what I can do and show them what I can do.”

So what does that exactly entail?

“My first few years or so, I’ll probably be more of a three-and-D guy—stretch the floor, play defense make hustle plays, rebound the ball, things like that,” Gates said. “But as I’mma grow, (I’ll) look to expand on my game. Maybe work out the pick-and-roll a little bit and expand from there.”

Thus far, the 6-foot-8, 228-pounder has reportedly worked out for multiple organizations, including the Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls. He is enjoying the draft process and his growth as a player since it started.

He may not be listed on some draft boards or seen as an impact player by certain individuals, but Gates knows what he’s made of. And if he can attract the right set of eyes, he’ll be in good shape.

“You could get 30 workouts and that one team could fall in love with you,” Gates said.

“That’s what [my agent] Aaron Turner’s always talking to me about. He’s always said, ‘It only takes one team.’”

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