Two years after the Wizards initiated an aggressive rebuilding effort in 2010 — and were fortunate to land the No. 1 overall pick in John Wall — they have accumulated draft picks and used trades to play the free agent game with their salary cap space. That financial flexibility has been used on Nene, Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza.
That’s one solid big man who has been a borderline all-star a few times and two serviceable players and noted defenders throughout their careers – for a total of nearly $70 million over the next two years. Is that enough to ignite a fan base and produce massive season ticket purchases? Probably not. Is it enough to encourage Wall about the future of the organization? That remains to be seen.
It’s easy to say that the Wizards should continue to simply build through the draft and possibly follow the Oklahoma City model, but there is a reason the Thunder cannot be duplicated: Rarely can a team draft a once-in-a-generation scorer, a freakishly-athletic point guard and a skilled scorer and playmaker in consecutive drafts.
The Wizards certainly have not been blessed to be in that position and they can’t continue to waste the last years of Wall’s rookie deal by collecting more high lottery picks. Wall has yet to establish himself as an elite point guard who warrants the need for panic, but the team has to at least make an effort to convince him that it plans to compete and possibly win.
This trade likely ensures that the Wizards will not be taking a top five pick next season, but it doesn’t immediately make them a playoff contender. Okafor has made the playoffs only once – when he played with Chris Paul. Both Okafor and Ariza were deemed expendable by a Hornets team that had one more win than the Wizards.
The Wizards won eight of their last 10 games but still finished with the second-worst record in the NBA last season. To make a sizeable jump from 14th in the Eastern Conference to eighth, or higher, the Wizards likely need to make a few more moves other than taking perimeter players with the third and 32nd picks in the NBA draft.
Okafor and Ariza will help with the Wizards’ plans to be a defensive-oriented team, but since trading away Nick Young and JaVale McGee, they haven’t had many consistent offensive options expect Jordan Crawford. Of the 10 players currently under contract for next season, Wall has the highest career scoring average at 16.3 points per game.
Okafor hasn’t averaged at least 15 points since winning the rookie of the year award in 2004-05 with Charlotte, where he was an offensive focal point. He has been a consistent double-double machine for most of his career, but he failed to average at least nine rebounds for the first time last season, when a knee injury limited him to just 27 games.
Since winning a championship with the Lakers in 2009, Ariza has averaged in double figures in each of the past three seasons – but his shot selection has been questionable and his shooting percentages have been poor. He averaged a career-high 14.9 points while shooting a career-low 39.4 percent in his first season after signing a five-year, $33 million deal with Houston. He is now on his third team since signing that deal.
The Wizards are absorbing nearly $30 million in salary by taking on Okafor and Ariza rather than simply buying out Rashard Lewis for $13.7 million. They will have about $62 million committed to salary next season and would likely need to use the amnesty provision on Andray Blatche at some point to avoid paying the luxury tax. But they aren’t making a financial commitment to them beyond two years, when Wall, Crawford, Trevor Booker and Kevin Seraphin will all hit restricted free agency.
The trade has taken the Wizards out of the free agent market this summer, and possibly next summer. The best free agents this summer are restricted – Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson, Nicolas Batum, Roy Hibbert – and would require some massive overspending to get them away from their current teams. The Wizards essentially have conceded that they aren’t going to attract big names to a team with long history of losing and have decided not to sign a player to a four-year deal – and potentially tie up future money when they will likely need to use on their own homegrown talent.
Okafor and Ariza both have early termination options for the 2013-14 season, but are expected to pick them up. If the Wizards are disappointed with their play this upcoming season, they could look to move the expiring deals or let them play for their next contracts. Ariza will still be 28 when his deal expires.
Okafor gives the Wizards a veteran 6-foot-10 center on a team that already has Nene, Booker, Seraphin and Jan Vesely and can provide some insurance if Nene gets hurt. Okafur won an NCAA championship as a junior at Connecticut and has a stellar reputation throughout the league for his character. He is also a highly intelligent player and could assist Wall since he has already dealt with the pressure of being the face of a franchise when he was forced to be the face of the expansion Bobcats.
The 6-8 Ariza adds depth to a small forward position that was occupied by Chris Singleton, but he also has the versatility to guard and defend wing positions and even some power forwards when teams elect to go small. Ariza was benched the final 10 games of last season when Hornets Coach Monty Williams elected to play Al-Farouq Aminu, but he is the projected starter heading into training camp.
After the season ended, the Wizards trumpeted the progress of their young big men, such as Seraphin, Booker and Vesely. But the addition of Okafor and the presence of Nene creates a situation in which there are limited minutes for their three draft picks to develop and grow. Singleton will also have to fight for minutes with Ariza around. Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld doesn’t believe that the development of their young players would be stunted by this trade.
“I think it’s going help them. They are going to have to earn their minutes and they are going to continue to develop,” Grunfeld said. “It’s going to be a good competitive situation. We have guys that are going to be hungry. Everybody wants to be out there. I think we’re going to have a real nice rotation.”
This trade also takes tremendous pressure off of their draft picks, particularly the No. 3 pick, because the Wizards now will rely more on veterans. Ariza can play small forward and shooting guard, so Bradley Beal, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist or Harrison Barnes would have time to develop and grow into a contributor. If the draft pick exceeds expectations who is going to complain?
So much has been tied into the next two years – from the contracts of Wall to Coach Randy Wittman. Two years from now, what will the Wizards have to show for this investment?
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