April 19, 2021

Wizards Mid-Season Manifesto, Part One: The Trade Deadline

This two-part column chronicles staff writer Nathan Hamme’s obsession with building a better Washington Wizards team. It started as a mid-season recap, then became a second half preview. Then it morphed into trade deadline cheat sheet/NBA draft projection hybrid, and ultimately settled as a 4,000 word State of the Franchise diatribe. The second installation will follow Thursday.

At times this season the Washington Wizards have looked the part of the NBA’s “Most Dysfunctional Team”. Whether they are actually the league’s worst or merely one in the league’s bottom tenth is hardly of consequence and certainly not a comfort to fans.

The Wizards rebuilding project is now into its third season and so far the returns don’t look encouraging. Stacked up against some other currently rebuilding squads the Wizards appears to far lag behind—with Cleveland and Utah both playing playoff caliber basketball despite having undergone recent overhauls.

Unfortunately those two franchises are also particularly rosy comparisons for the moribund Wiz. Both had star players that contributed heavily to their rebuild when they left town. LeBron and Mo Williams left Cleveland with a score of valuable picks, while Utah also got great value for Deron Williams (a guy who Washington wanted in last year’ draft, Enes Kanter, and the number three pick from the ‘10 draft, Derrick Favors).

Meanwhile, Washington turned their competitive 2009 top seven of Haywood, Butler, Arenas, Jamison, Foye, Miller and Stevenson into Rashard Lewis, Trevor Booker, Hamady Ndiye and cap space. That’s it. Unless, of course, you consider the subsequent dismantling of the team (at the time 17-33) the cause of their ability to draft John Wall (9-23 to finish, winning fifth best odds in the draft lottery).

In this sense their situation has much more in common with the Rockets, who were forced to deal with Yao Ming’s abrupt retirement and a gaping hole in their roster, but even Houston was able to get Kevin Martin and Jordan Hill out of Tracy McGrady’s twilight. Regardless, the Rockets’ success provides an equally depressing comparison for Wizards fans.

So how does the organization look to dig itself out of this massive hole? From a team that was a playoff regular to a laughing stock and back? Here is a somewhat chronological, fully comprehensive look at fixing this Wizards team.

Let Wittman finish out the season, but start thinking about a long-term solution.

The Wizards play has improved post-Saunders. That much is certain. But is it a result of better chemistry in the locker room and a measure of calm on the court? Or is interim coach Randy Wittman trying some new—and successful—rotations in the team’s playbook? The answer is probably somewhere in between, and his attempt to instill accountability appears to have had some effect. But considering the team has primarily seemed comfortable pushing the ball up court to minimize half-court sets while creating turnovers on defense, it’s possible that everyone on the team just needed a fresh start.

If the Wizards haven’t shown additional strides at the end of the year does Wittman deserve to remain coach? He’s in a tough spot: it’s not just that he needs to have proven he can help develop this particular group of players, because he also needs to be the guy that will be able to attract players from other teams moving forward—and his head coaching record pre-Wizards is not seen as an asset.

Former coaches like Maurice Cheeks and Jeff Van Gundy have necessary name recognition, while assistants like Sam Cassell and Patrick Ewing are well regarded as former NBA stars. Is John Calipari worth considering? (Hint: the answer is “No”).

While someone in the Larry Brown mode would make sense for this team, it seems to me that Wittman has played an impressive “velvet hammer” thus far.

Unless a proven commodity appears on the market as Rick Adelman did last offseason (Stan Van Gundy?), the Wizards are just going to have to do their due diligence and make an educated decision based on who’s willing to undertake this daunting project.

One team’s trash is another team’s treasure

Every year there are teams who jettison contributing players for below market value. It can be an injury, a positional logjam, a fire sale (have the Hornets been sold yet?) or a straight salary dump (Nets?). Whatever the reason, good teams are unscrupulous in scooping their next bread winner off the trash heap (and apologies for the unsettling visual).

Michael Beasley is currently on the block, with Minnesota is looking for a late first round pick in return (the Lakers being one of several interested). The Wizards are desperately in need of scorers and long-range shooters, and could bring in the Frederick, MD native with zero long term risk. Beasley has a qualifying offer of $8.2MM next season which the team could easily afford if he performs, or if they aren’t in consideration for other available free agents.

Beasley is 23 but already in his fourth season, averaging nearly 20 points per game last year. His “character issues” stem largely from doing something many of the leagues players do, and his talent certainly justifies taking a test drive. After all, Josh Howard was on his best behavior in Washington just last year. The Wizards two second round picks might get a deal done, or they could opt to sacrifice one of their young forwards.

Even now, nearing the trade deadline, there are still free agents who warrant a look. Kyrylo Fesenko, a 25 year old, 7’1”, 280 pound Russian, has proven his chops as a defensive specialist with the Jazz these past four seasons. His offense needs a great deal of polish, but he can clog the lane with the best of them.

He’s fully recovered from a knee injury that kept him unsigned over the winter, and getting a foot in the door might allow the Wizards to add his bulk longer term as a defensive specialist. The Wizards front line lacks girth, and outside of Kevin Seraphin and Trevor Booker is more likely to be seen getting pushed off the block than posting up on it. Fesenko isn’t going to make them a playoff team, but the Wizards have to look to upgrade their personnel across the board—especially ones with a specific and useful skill-set.

And while Memphis has reportedly stopped shopping OJ Mayo, his previous availability suggests the Grizzlies are hesitant to offer him anything more than his $7.3MM qualifying offer for next season. If they decide to put the guard back on the market it would be a sizable upgrade for the Wizards at shooting guard—and someone they should consider into his restricted free agency.

A final possibility is to get involved in another team’s blockbuster trade by providing some key assets to make salaries work. The Rockets, Magic, Warriors, Bulls and Lakers and others look to be active in the coming days, and with various rules affecting the ability of teams to complete their deals the Wizards should look for any opportunity to get a pick or prospect.

Even more importantly, the team will need to bring in some veteran influences who demand respect and can show the younger guys how to make a living in this league—something more suited for the off-season, since quality veterans aren’t generally shipped to non-contenders.

Let’s face it: no one move is going to turn this team around, and these options are no exception. But until top free agents start believing they can win in a Wizards uniform, it’s going to mean building a roster bit by bit—effectively evaluating talent and accumulating assets in-season and out.

Trade Nick Young at the deadline.

Young is a decent starter and, at worst, a second string scorer in the NBA. He’s often given a hard time about his defense, but he’s actually turned into a respectable man defender and has the athleticism to be a force on the help-side as well. And, of course, he can score in bunches—including efficiently from the 3PT and FT lines.

Despite getting the go-ahead to chuck it these past two seasons Young hasn’t always had it easy in the Nation’s Capital. He languished behind Gilbert Arenas for years and is still pulled for long stretches of games to get Jordan Crawford minutes. The Wizards have been notorious losers these last three years, something that cannot be enticing for a young player looking for a long term deal.

The other variable, of course, is Crawford. He’s a considerably better passer and rebounder (despite being three inches shorter) and while he doesn’t have Young’s shooting ability he’ll continue to get burn because he’s younger (26 vs. 23) and on an affordable rookie deal.

Don’t get me wrong—I would love to retain Nick Young. But at what cost? Is he worth the contract the team afforded Andray Blatche? While there’s no evidence that anyone is willing to give him that kind of money, is he still expecting a deal that pays him $9 million a season?

Something tells me Nick hasn’t made up his mind to be here (maybe he’d feel more comfortable with one of his home town teams). I certainly don’t begrudge him the opportunity to find greener pastures. But is Arenas-esque personality, streaky performance, and poor body language don’t match the seriousness of this rebuild, making it hard to justify a massive commitment.

One thing is for certain: we should be using his current contract to our advantage. At one year, $3.7 million he’s not only a great value but a low risk proposition. Team’s looking to make a playoff run could be willing to part with a draft pick. A team looking to shed salary might sacrifice assets for a trade exception.

And remember, as long as it’s not a sign and trade the Wizards can offer him a contract that makes them comfortable in the offseason—and if I’m Nick Young why would I invoke my no trade clause? Don’t I relish the chance to showcase my skills in the playoffs and earn that big contract? And don’t the Wizards become a more appealing destination if they can get something out of it? It could be a rare win-win-win situation, but there is minimal benefit in having him play out the season in Washington.

Don’t re-sign Ernie, draft Kevin Pritchard.

Pritchard is currently on a one year deal with the Pacers as Director of Player Personnel, but when the Portland Trailblazers fired him in 2010 it raised eyebrows around the Association—and not solely because it came the day before the draft.

Pritchard may be known as the GM who took Greg Oden over Kevin Durant, but 80% of us would bear the same title had we been heading the Blazers draft team that year. More appropriately he should be known for identifying Nic Batum and Rudy Fernandez in the late first round, and being integrally involved in two of the most impressive fleecings in recent memory: getting Brandon Roy for Randy Foye and LaMarcus Aldridge for Tyrus Thomas and Viktor Khryapa.

The turmoil surrounding the Wizards was not entirely of Ernie Grunfeld’s making. He’s overseen numerous quality moves and constructed some playoff teams during his Wizards tenure. But while Grunfeld is respected around the league he’s not widely regarded as one of its best GMs, and if Washington is to become the “destination city” Ted Leonsis envisions it will need to embrace that new era—and that means a fresh start at the top.

Pritchard’s chops as a talent evaluator are exactly what the Wizards will need if they stick to their plan of building through the draft. His success in brokering deals via trade and free agency shows he deserves another chance at leading a front office. The Wizards can sit back and let Ernie’s contract run its course, but they would be wise to prepare for this one early.

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