November 27, 2014

Wizards Mid-Season Manifesto, Part Two: Into the Offseason

This is the second installment of a two-part column chronicling staff writer Nathan Hamme’s obsession with building a better Washington Wizards team.

Draft post players and shooters.

You can’t stress enough how important this draft is to the Wizards future. They’ve been in the top half of the lottery three consecutive seasons, and returning there for a fourth seems likely. Fans won’t accept if it happens a fifth time, and I’d feel more comfortable with an evaluator like Pritchard at the helm this year.

At the top of the draft there are several players who could help the team to varying degrees next season. The Wizards will certainly hope lightning strikes twice and they end up with the number one pick and Anthony Davis.  A freshman power forward with incredible shot blocking ability (NCAA best 4.8 per game) as well as a great motor and basketball IQ, who’s been called the most polished defensive big man to come out of college since Tim Duncan. He’s the kind of low risk, low-post, high upside, high character guys that would be a perfect addition to the Wizards.

PF/C Andre Drummond may ultimately have the highest upside, but at only 18 and not yet dominating on a struggling UConn team he comes with some risk. His size (6’10”, 270) and post presence are something the Wizards could really use, and he would be an outstanding consolation prize if he decides to declare—and his interestingly timed leap to college this summer suggests he will. Unfortunately this is not the no-brainer pick it seemed before the season, as Drummond has some developing to do.

The next tier consists of more known commodities: Harrison Barnes, Jared Sullinger, Thomas Robinson and Jeremy Lamb. Robinson is a DC native whose maturity, rebounding and post play make him a personal favorite. Sullinger has drawn comparisons as varied as Kevin Love and Michael Sweetney, but he’d be another quality rebounder and big body for a rather milquetoast Wizards front court. Barnes and Lamb are both very talented scorers whose viability depends largely on what the team decides to do with Nick Young. They would both be quality outside shooters that could help take some pressure off of John Wall, with Barnes probably the pick should they decide to go for perimeter scoring.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist had been rising up boards but is apparently not going to declare for this year’s draft. Bradley Beal is another name to watch for the Wizards depending on how many of these underclassmen decide to stay in school.

I expect the Wizards will try to acquire another pick before this year’s deep draft, but moving up might be just as prudent. In addition to their own second rounder they have Dallas’ (projected in the low 50’s) from the Ronny Turiaf salary dump. They also have two in next year’s draft, and given the number of projects and reserves on the roster it’s probably time to turn quantity into quality. Trading two or three of those second round picks might move them into the first round.

Players like Arnett Moultrie, John Henson, Fab Melo, Terrance Jones, Perry Jones and Doron Lamb may be available in the mid-late first round and have significant upside. If the Wizards choose to stay put, the early second round features players like Kevin Jones, Jeffery Taylor, Augusto Lima and Virginia’s Mike Scott. Jae Crowder is a sleeper pick who may not even be taken on draft day, but his basketball IQ, toughness, defensive motor and three point shooting are things the Wizards covet—could he be Marquette’s next Wes Matthews.

Use the Qualifying Offer but make an overture.

Questions still surround what to do with JaVale McGee after the season when he likely becomes a Restricted Free Agent. Centers are at a premium in today’s NBA—even mercurial and inconsistent ones.

Which is why nobody should be surprised if McGee ends up with a $10 million a year deal at the end of the summer. But heck, nobody would have been surprised if Nick Young was offered a $7 million a year last fall. Is it also possible that this season will end and teams will be wary of McGee’s unpredictable play, just as they were with Young in the shadow of the CBA negotiations?

McGee has not shown that he’s worthy of the deal DeAndre Jordan signed in December (4 years, $43 million), or Brendan Haywood was granted from the Wizards before him (6 years, $55 milllion). Yet it’s the kind of money he’s likely to expect, and if you look at stats alone he’s not the least bit crazy.

McGee averages more points, assists and blocks than Jordan in fewer minutes. He has an almost identical rebound rate, and astonishingly is a better free throw shooter (48.5% vs. 48.1%). McGee’s PER is significantly higher despite Jordan having one of the highest FG percentages in the league. But the main difference offensively is what’s expected of the two centers. Jordan takes five shots a game, McGee almost 10. McGee does not have the benefit of an offensively oriented power forward to take the burden of scoring down low, and gets the ball in the post multiple times a game—as opposed to solely on alley-oops.

Unfortunately his bone headed play count (turnovers + goaltending violations + missed box outs) largely invalidate McGee’s efforts as a shot blocker, and his advanced statistics show opposing centers score and rebound well against him. Jordan is a far more polished defender and rebounds well even with another elite rebounder in his front court. Since Jordan can concentrate on what he’s good at he is regarded as a solid contributor for a contending team.

Hopefully McGee’s reel of lowlights will be enough to dissuade teams from making an offer calibrated on statistics alone. The Wizards should give him his Qualifying Offer, let him spend a couple weeks on the open market, then make him make a decision on a 4 year, $36 million contract. After all, he’s 24 year old true center with very little history of injury—he might just need some seasoning and the right coaching staff to blossom. If he’s given a near-max offer by someone else, the Wizards can move on to Omer Asik and Roy Hibbert, both of whom will be on the radar for teams looking for a center and may demand a similar bounty. Regardless, the team has one true center and is a must have position for any team who wants to succeed.

Wait until the summer to shop Andray Blatche.

Bottom line: ‘Dray is a sunk cost this season. He’s not lived up to his deal, even if he’s put up some impressive stats over the years, and isn’t scheduled to come off the payroll until 2015. The Wizards will be lucky to get another equally unpalatable contract in exchange for him this season—with the team’s interest in Tyrus Thomas being a prime example.

But, as Wizards fans have learned over numerous false prognostications about Blatche’s corner-turning, he’s always seems most appealing in the spring and summer—either putting up empty stats or not around to put his foot in his mouth. If Charlotte agrees to sending Thomas or teammate Boris Diaw it will happen immediately. Unfortunately Blatche’s stock hasn’t been lower in years.

In the broader perspective, however, his deal is not really so unpalatable. He’s made only $2-3 million over the mid-level exception for the duration of the contract, and has a unique skill set that could be more impactful in a reserve role on a contender. A more veteran team may convince themselves to gamble on the big man’s potential, so waiting until the cream of the crop is off the market might be the best marketing they can hope for.

Because Blatche is seen as so toxic in the locker room the Wizards have openly shopped him and destroyed any semblance of leverage in the situation. If a deal can’t be struck that gives some type of return on investment the team would be wise to take a wait-and-see approach instead of pushing the panic button. With Trevor Booker playing increasingly well lately at both power forward and center, and numerous other talented youngsters waiting in the wings, it is still something that should be addressed before next season.

Be a player in free agency—even if you can’t sign your targets.

The players mentioned in the trade deadline section may also rightfully apply here. But with Eric Gordon and others likely entering the market in some capacity over the summer the Wizards will need to act the part of a desirable team.

This means opening the pocket book, even doing it a bit more than others, while being as risk averse as possible. Don’t give a lot of years to a guy with an extensive injury history, and don’t be afraid to give a guy the contract he wants with incentives that make it worth his while.

Gordon may fit into both categories. He’s missed almost a season and a half in his short career due to injury, but also stands to be the prize of the free agent market after the Dwight Howard/Deron Williams situation shakes out. While I love his grit and ability, he’s likely in line for a four year deal in the $50 million range—while entirely shifting the evaluation of the Chris Paul trade. But his injury history makes him a risky proposition, and one I don’t expect, or recommend, that the Wizards pursue.

With no other candidates for maximum contracts the Wizards should start looking at second-tier free agents from the outset. While Orlando is not likely to give him up without a fight, Ryan Anderson has proven himself a unique commodity worthy of a four year, $32 million deal. With all the Dwight Howard drama going on how much can they afford to dedicate to Anderson?

The Grizzlies may give O.J. Mayo his $7.3 million qualifying offer, but would they match if the Wizards went four years $34 million for the talented guard? Ultimately the Wizards positional targets will depend on who is selected in the draft, but the need to add known and talented commodities is paramount.

Then there are mid-level exception targets. Robin Lopez has a $4.0 qualifying offer, but might be attainable at the MLE. Brandon Rush is turning into a knock down three point shooter and has a mere $4.3 million QO. Ersan Ilyasova has been a revelation for Milwaukee, both on the boards and as a long range shooter, and will get a raise in free agency—although if he continues his stellar play it may be a big raise.

As near-minimum salary options, Ian Mahimi, Reggie Evans, Hamed Haddadi and Jamaal Magloire could all help the Wizards in different capacities. Let’s face it—not everyone on the team can be on a rookie salary scale, getting useful pieces with minimum-level contracts can be great value. And since upper-echelon veterans are unlikely to covet a stint in DC, the team must see what still productive veterans are still available.

Use Amnesty on Rashard Lewis and save $10+ million.

If Lewis is waived this off-season he is now officially due only $13.7 million of his $22.7 million deal. Using Amnesty should allow the Wizards to take advantage of that opt out while giving themselves about over $30 million in cap space—a pertinent move dependent on whether they’re able to use much of it. And while Rashard’s contract expires after next season and could be seen as a valuable trade asset it requires that the Wizards not cut the veteran and reap those $10 million in savings–something that only makes sense if they’re unable to lure any free agents in the off-season, though that is entirely possible.

The alternative path would involve using Amnesty on Blatche, who has a combined $23 million due over the next three seasons. If they also choose to waive Lewis this option still leaves the Wiz nearly $30 million in  cap room. That’s plenty of money to build around John Wall, Trevor Booker, and whoever remains after an active trade deadline and off-season.

While I don’t advocate locking up three high priced free agents at once, there is no question the Wizards need to spend some of their money to start fielding a merely competitive team. With a little draft lottery luck they can start seeing drastic improvement by the end of next season.

%d bloggers like this: