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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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NBA Daily: Luke Walton’s Uncertain Future

Could this be it for Luke Walton in Sacramento? David Yapkowitz examines.

David Yapkowitz

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There’s one big question surrounding the Sacramento Kings this season: what, exactly, will become of head coach Luke Walton? Walton, in the second year of a four-year deal he signed back in 2019, has often headlined the group of coaches that are thought most likely to be let go next.

Brought in by the previous regime, Sacramento’s situation has changed considerably since they brought in Walton. Former general manager Vlade Divac has since stepped down and been replaced with Monte McNair. And, often, new management will look to build their team, coaching staff included, in their own mold — that’s nothing really against the current personnel, just that different voices sometimes have different visions and want to construct a team within that vision.

If the team plays well, the new management team may be inclined to ride it out with the current staff. In a somewhat recent example, when Masai Ujiri first took over in the Toronto Raptors front office, the Raptors started surging in the standings and Ujiri held on to Dwane Casey for a while before ultimately replacing him with Nick Nurse. Casey had been hired by former executive Bryan Colangelo.

The Kings are in an interesting scenario in that, despite being a perennial bottom-dweller, expectations have existed for the team for over a decade now, the main expectation being that they would eventually improve beyond that bottom-feeder status. Now, that expectation may be more warranted than ever, as Sacramento has some seriously talented pieces in place, including franchise cornerstone De’Aaron Fox and Rookie of the Year contender Tyrese Haliburton.

In fact, just a few weeks ago, the Kings looked like they might actually be turning things around. On a four-game win streak, with wins over the Los Angeles Clippers and Boston Celtics, they looked like a different team.

Since then, unfortunately, they’ve reverted to the Kings of old. Now, they’re on an eight-game losing streak, their first such skid since 2019.

There are plenty of good teams in the Western Conference and, because of that, at least a couple of them are going to be on the outside looking in come playoff time. Of course, it can be hard to fault teams that show consistent effort and improvement. But that just hasn’t been the Kings, for quite some time now.

The main area of concern for the Kings where they haven’t shown real improvement is on the defensive end. They were already among the bottom half of the league on that end before their most recent skid, while it’s been significantly worse during their last eight games.

It’s always a possibility to bring in a defensive-minded assistant to help with that end, much like Sacramento tried to do on offense this past offseason. To spark the team on that end of the court, the Kings added Alvin Gentry to Walton’s staff and for the most part, it’s worked out: Sacramento is 12th in the league in scoring, up from 22nd last season. They’re also shooting better from three-point range while playing at a quicker pace.

But in order to win in this league, you need to do it on both ends. And that’s something the Kings haven’t shown the ability to do.

Sacramento is allowing 119.6 points per game, dead last in the NBA. Their defensive rating of 118.7 is also last. And, at this point, simply adding an assistant might not do the trick; at this point, it might just be easier (and more effective) for management to simply cut ties with Walton and set up a new staff under a new head coach.

Walton’s popularity and potential as a head coach first piqued during the 2015-16 season with the Golden State Warriors. When he stepped in for Steve Kerr, who took leave from the team to recover from back surgery, Walton guided the team to a 24-0 start and a 39-4 record upon Kerr’s return. While the Warriors were in their second of what would be five-straight runs to the NBA Finals and had a strong foundation already in place, Walton’s involvement in the feat can’t be discounted, while it opened the league’s eyes as to his potential as a head coach.

But later, during Walton’s years as head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, the team showed slight, if minimal improvement each year at best. In fact, those Lakers were similar to these Kings in that they were a young team with no real experience just trying to get better. And, obviously, it’s much easier to look good when you already have an established unit.

Coaching in the NBA is a tough and often thankless job. When things go right, they get little credit. When they go wrong, the blame lies almost squarely on their head. As with players, sometimes a coaching situation just isn’t the right fit for either party; maybe this Kings’ roster just isn’t built to maximize Walton’s system.

That said, in this particular case, it would probably be best for the Kings to ride the current situation out. Sacramento has shown some improvement from last season and Walton deserves some credit for that. He’s shown constant faith and trust in his rookie, Haliburton, while he has Fox playing at a near All-Star level and Richaun Holmes looking like one of the NBA’s best in the painted area (and an absolute steal, given his contract).

Going forward, it’s worth rolling the dice and seeing if they can’t end this skid and get back to their strong play earlier in the year. Further, it might not be that great an idea to make such a radical structural change halfway through the season when your team might still have a realistic shot at the postseason.

That said, should the team continue to struggle, then it would be wise to revisit the matter in the offseason. If they do, it wouldn’t be much of a reach if McNair decides that two years is enough and that he wants to bring in a head coach of his own choosing.

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NBA Daily: Where Does John Collins Really Fit?

Since the Atlanta Hawks and John Collins were unable to agree to an extension in the offseason, rumors have swirled about the 23-year old big and his future. Ariel Pacheco breaks down which teams might be the best fit for Collins should he and Atlanta decide to part ways.

Ariel Pacheco

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John Collins has been the subject of trade rumors all season long. The Atlanta Hawks are reportedly seeking a “lottery level pick” in return for the talented big man. With Collins set to be a restricted free agent this upcoming offseason, any team that trades for him must also be willing to either offer an extension that will likely be north of $100 million or lose him for nothing.

This cuts down the list of potential suitors to just a handful of teams. These teams will have to be willing to part with draft capital and/or young players. Here’s a look at where John Collins could fit in. 

San Antonio Spurs

Few teams are as good of a fit for Collins as San Antonio. The Spurs are off to a surprising start at 16-11 and the sixth seed in the Western Conference. That said, they are in desperate need of a floor-spacing big with some upside and Collins is just that. With the 35-year-old LaMarcus Aldridge set to be a free agent and his play dropping off, Collins can slide right in as the team’s big of the future.

The Spurs have multiple young guys and their draft picks. The question is how much would they be willing to part with. There are a couple of iterations that the Spurs could send out to Atlanta. A trade centered around Derrick White and a protected pick could be something that interests the Hawks. They might also be interested in a deal that includes Lonnie Walker, salary filler and a protected pick. Again, it depends on how far San Antonio would be interested in going in their pursuit of Collins.

Oklahoma City Thunder

The Thunder have quietly been a competitive team this season, possibly more so than they want to be. With a young star they certainly want to build around in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Collins would represent an intriguing co-star to lead the franchise into the future. At the very least, the fit between the two would be beautiful to watch. Oklahoma City has a number of young, high-upside players they like in Lugentz Dort, Isaiah Roby, Darius Bazley and Theo Maledon. Adding in Collins to compliment them would significantly accelerate their rebuild.

The Thunder also happen to have a war chest stuffed with draft capital. They have 16 first-round picks and 13 second-round picks through the 2027 draft. It’ll be impossible for them to select a player with every one of those picks and, while they are unlikely to just offer them recklessly, using some of that capital to swing a trade for a young talent with All-Star potential in John Collins would be a great use of resources. 

Cleveland Cavaliers

Yes, Cleveland just added Jarrett Allen. But that shouldn’t preclude them from a potential move for Collins.

The Cavaliers have struggled after a nice start to the season. While they seem to have settled on a core centered around Allen, Collin Sexton and Darius Garland, they are in need of a frontcourt scorer who can space the floor for their guards. Collins might prove the perfect fit, as he can play alongside Allen and should prove a threat with both Sextan and Garland in the pick-and-roll. And, given his upside, the Cavaliers’ future would shine even brighter.

The difficulty here is finding a deal that works for both sides. If a deal were to happen it would more than likely have to be a three-team deal. The Cavaliers just aren’t a natural trading partner with the Hawks. A third team would be able to give both sides what they are looking for. Cleveland could also bet on Collins not signing an extension with a new team; in that event, they would be better off waiting until free-agency to offer him a deal. 

Sacramento Kings

Sacramento struck gold in this past year’s draft with Tyrese Haliburton. Alongside De’Aaron Fox, the Kings have their backcourt of the future firmly in place. Marvin Bagley and Buddy Hield have both been rumored to be unhappy in Sacramento, involving one or both of them in a trade for Collins could give the Kings a lot more upside and add some frontcourt scoring. 

This is another situation where, given their personnel, the Kings and Hawks aren’t ideal trade partners and would probably need to involve a third team. Sacramento has shown some growth this season and an upgrade in talent could help make their playoff aspirations more attainable. The Kings own all of their first-rounders and should look to be aggressive in improving their roster.

Boston Celtics

Pursuing a Collins deal is unlikely for Boston, who has shown to be very reluctant in parting with future assets in recent seasons. Still, Collins would add a pick-and-roll threat Boston just doesn’t have. The Celtics would then be able to build around an extremely strong core of Collins, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.

The Celtics would have to pay Collins in the offseason, however, making them even more unlikely to swing a deal for Collins. Already paying Kemba Walker, Tatum and Brown over $100 million each, Boston would almost certainly have to and the same to Collins, further restricting their ability to fill out a roster that, beyond those three, has been lacking this season. On paper they are a great fit, but there are just too many extenuating factors that make a deal unlikely.

Plenty of other teams could (and should) put their hat in the Collins-ring but are also unlikely to do so due to various factors. The Houston Rockets, Charlotte Hornets and Denver Nuggets could all swing a deal for the big man, but they either have younger guys at his position or wouldn’t be willing to pay him.

Collins is a talented 23-year-old big man with All-Star potential. It’s not often someone of his caliber at such a young age is available on the trade market and teams should be aggressive in their pursuit. If Collins doesn’t get traded, teams will have a chance to sign him to an offer sheet in restricted free agency. He will likely command a $100 million deal, with any team that trades for him essentially ponying up for the first shot to pay him. 

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NBA Daily: Should Orlando Sell?

Injuries have once again foiled Orlando’s plans for success. Chad Smith assesses the situation and details why it is time for the Magic to finally blow it up and fully embrace the youth movement.

Chad Smith

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As the All-Star break approaches, the Orlando Magic find themselves in an all-too-familiar position. They are the basketball equivalent of a treadmill. Hell-bent on moving full steam ahead, they continue to squeeze out wins but, in the end, they are going nowhere.

There are a variety of reasons why Orlando continues to dwell in the quicksand, injuries being chief among them. There is plenty of young talent on the roster, but they just can’t seem to stay on the floor. Rookie guard Cole Anthony and star Forward Aaron Gordon are both dealing with injuries and will not return until after the All-Star break. It goes much deeper than just this season though.

Jonathan Isaac is in his fourth year but has played just 106 total games. He is expected to miss the entire season after appearing in only 34 games last year. Worse, just when it seemed as though Markelle Fultz had turned his career around, he was lost for the year with a knee injury just eight games into this season.

While injuries may be out of their control, Orlando hasn’t done much to help themselves, control the things they can control, either.

Drafting is a tricky puzzle, for sure, as there are always busts and sleepers that are only be realized years later. But, while Orlando has had the luxury of picking near the top every summer, they have yet to nail the star they have longed for (and desperately need). In back-to-back years they had the sixth-overall pick, which they used on Isaac and Mohamed Bamba. In 2015 they selected Mario Hezonja fifth-overall. None of their second-round picks in that span have contributed to this team, either.

The Magic have seemingly always lived in mediocrity. Despite having one of the easiest schedules in the league, they currently sit 12th in the Eastern Conference. While he obviously hasn’t had the group at full strength, head coach Steve Clifford’s team ranks near the bottom in virtually every statistical category. Player development is something that must be taken into consideration, which puts Orlando in a position where they must make a major decision.

Should they continue with their current nucleus and try to build on another lottery selection next season as they return to health, or sell off their talented veteran players now and embrace a full-on rebuild?

Orlando’s biggest asset is obviously Nikola Vucevic, the All-Star center in the midst of a career year. In year two of a four-year contract worth $100 million, Vucevic’s salary actually declines by $2 million each year. And, at the age of 30, Vucevic will no longer be in his prime once the Magic are relevant again.

Taking advantage of desperate teams that need help at the center position, like the Boston Celtics or Golden State Warriors, could net them multiple first-round picks and or a young player in return. The free agent class for next season is lukewarm at best, so teams may decide to explore trading to acquire top-tier talent. If Orlando puts him on the trade block, their phones will be ringing off the hook all the way up to the March 25 deadline.

Should the Magic decide to move their best player, it would open the window of opportunity for Bamba. The seven-footer is still under contract for one more season so he could be easily dealt if the franchise decides to hold on to Vucevic. Several suitors have already been knocking on Orlando’s door about his availability. With Bamba’s name already in trade rumors, it could signal that the team is headed in a different direction.

Gordon’s name is one that has already been in trade rumors even before the season tipped off. The fourth-overall draft pick in 2014 doesn’t have the same explosion and athleticism that he once possessed, but he is still just 25-years-old and would be a valuable piece for any team.

Despite his regression, Gordon’s value remains high for contending teams looking to add a piece that they believe will put them over the top. The return for Orlando will not be a huge bounty, but moving on from Gordon could be wise as he has one year remaining on his contract at just $16.4 million, which should be very enticing to interested teams.

After suffering 15 losses in 19 games, Orlando has now won three in a row and four out of their last five. While none of those victories came against top-level teams, it is a sign that perhaps the Magic aren’t ready to just cut their losses in the midst of an injury-filled season.

Orlando does have two Disable Player Exceptions, worth $6.1 million and $3.7 million, respectively. This would allow them to add another player but they are just $2.8 million below the luxury tax. That being said, there isn’t a player available that is going to turn Orlando’s season around. They will face the Brooklyn Nets, Utah Jazz, Dallas Mavericks, and Atlanta Hawks before the break.

After missing the postseason six years in a row, Orlando has made the playoffs in each of the last two seasons. The problem is they haven’t done much after getting there. In those two years, they have only won a total of two games; both first-round exits. The year-to-year improvement just hasn’t been there, as Orlando seems to have hit their ceiling with this core.

In the best-case scenario, the Magic would have a healthy Isaac and Fultz to pair with their two talented big men. They would have another lottery pick to add to their pool of young talent. Anthony avoiding the sophomore slump and the continued development of Bamba and Dwayne Bacon would be of major help for the future of this franchise as well.

Odds are, even with all of these coming to fruition, however, the team wouldn’t amount to a top-four seed in the Eastern Conference.

Evan Fournier is another name that could be on the move. The veteran sharpshooter will be a free agent this summer and would like to play for a contender, per Zach Harper of The Athletic. The Magic aren’t keen on the idea of re-signing the veteran scorer, as they will have to pay Isaac and Fultz. Finding Fournier’s new home this season could benefit both sides in the long run.

Orlando’s organizational philosophy has always been to compete for the playoffs, with all indications showing that will not change this season. But, with the trade deadline a month away, there is still a chance they could reverse course on that. Every organization starts a new season with the goal of reaching the postseason. But, at some point, the future must take precedence, even if it means suffering in the short-term for the long-term gain.

Orlando’s best route to long-term success would be to cash in on their talented veterans now. Investing in the future and going young is a blueprint that many teams have committed to. The Hawks, Memphis Grizzlies, Charlotte Hornets and New Orleans Pelicans are all oozing with young talent and have bright futures. The Magic have the opportunity to add either another top draft pick or two or some young established players to their promising young core and they should seize it.

Sneaking into the playoffs and getting smacked in the first round once again is not going to improve this team in the long run. There is no added value in playing four or five additional games after the regular season. This franchise must see the big picture and position itself to succeed using a different path.

The goal for Orlando should not be making the playoffs again. Their goal should be to finally escape NBA purgatory. The plan should be to embrace the youth movement and accumulate some assets, while they still can.

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