Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza do not help the Wizards’ long-term plans


Emeka Okafor goes up against Kevin Love in a game in January. (Bill Haber/ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Jason Reid
Columnist June 23, 2012

Newcomers Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza should help the Washington Wizards improve modestly, which is the only amount of progress management seems interested in making.

In trading useless forward Rashard Lewis and the No. 46 pick in this Thursday’s draft to the New Orleans Hornets on Wednesday, the Wizards acquired veterans who have displayed professionalism and a willingness to play defense and rebound. The Wizards have performed as poorly in those key areas as the Oklahoma City Thunder did in trying to slow LeBron James.

Jason Reid is a sports columnist with the Washington Post. He joined the Post’s Redskins team in 2007 after 15 years covering many beats at the Los Angeles Times. View Archive

With centers Okafor and Nene, who was acquired in March, and forward Ariza on the roster, the Wizards now have a more grown-up look. Next season, they could realistically aspire to end the league-wide laughter at their expense, or at least make it less boisterous.

But after years of providing their fans with a product that’s even more awful than Andray Blatche’s half-hearted approach in the weight room, simply becoming less of a punch line isn’t good enough.

Fans want their teams to aspire to greatness. They’re encouraged when management articulates a clear plan to improve.

The savviest in any sport realize that reaching the top, or climbing within shouting distance of it, usually isn’t an overnight process. Franchises supposedly committed to winning (the Wizards claim to be one) eventually need to show significant progress. The Wizards’ latest move provides another example that they need to raise their bar.

The 2012-13 season will be the Wizards’ third since they began their latest (perpetual?) rebuilding project. During that time, owner Ted Leonsis and President Ernie Grunfeld have been open about their strategy of building through the draft, creating salary cap flexibility by jettisoning unwanted players and supplementing their core group with the right veterans through free agency and trades.

Over the next two years, the Wizards will commit $43 million in salary to Okafor and Ariza. That’s grossly overpaying for guys who haven’t been difference-makers in their careers, especially on what figures to be a middling team with no more than 30-something-victory potential.

How bad are the contracts the Wizards just added? New Orleans had hoped to unload either Okafor or Ariza. Essentially, the Wizards enabled the Hornets to amnesty two horrendous contracts and gave them a draft pick. That was the plan after the Wizards dismantled their roster?

Last season, Grunfeld finally acknowledged it made sense to have an old hand around to guide the Wizards’ kid-dominated lineup. Even on Sesame Street, there are a few wise adults.

The past few seasons, the Wizards’ most experienced players weren’t productive. It’s hard to lead from the bench.

Nene brought a sorely needed hard-hat-and-lunch-pail mentality to the carefree Wizards, who often worked harder in the clubs than on the court. He backed it up with borderline all-star talent, leading Grunfeld to see the light.

“We found out last year that when we added Nene to the team, everybody played better,” Grunfeld said in a phone interview Thursday. “You need that leadership and the veteran calmness that’s brought to the table by guys like that.”

It’s logical that Grunfeld would attempt to continue along the path he started with Nene. Okafor and Ariza, however, just aren’t at Nene’s level.

With the Wizards’ hefty investment in them, though, Okafor and Ariza likely will get the lion’s share of playing time at their positions. Leonsis gave Grunfeld and Coach Randy Wittman contract extensions in large part, Wizards officials say, because of the development of young players such as Kevin Seraphin, Jan Vesely, Trevor Booker and Chris Singleton.

I doubt this is an emerging prime-time group, but the Wizards continually promoted their supposedly promising youngsters. Then management potentially stunts their growth by bringing in mediocre veterans to play ahead of them?

“We’re not going to stunt anyone’s development,” Grunfeld said emphatically. “Everybody’s going to get their minutes. Everybody’s going to get their opportunities.”

Perhaps if the Wizards played in Fantasyland. Here’s how it usually works in the NBA: The guys with the biggest guaranteed contracts play the most. Grunfeld has been around the NBA his entire adult life. He knows the deal.

After subjecting talented point guard John Wall to life with the Three Wizards Stooges (Blatche, JaVale McGee and Nick Young) for most of his first two NBA seasons, Leonsis and Grunfeld were likely eager to do something — anything? — to show Wall, who can become a restricted free agent after the 2013-14 season, they’re committed to improving the team. Perhaps they hope that with the experienced Okafor and Ariza playing more minutes, the Wizards would win a few more games and, hopefully, appease Wall in the short term.

Wittman could quickly find himself back on the assistant coach circuit if the Wizards regress (they had an abysmal .303 winning percentage last season). When their jobs are on the line, coaches typically go with proven players.

Also, Leonsis presumably gave Grunfeld a mandate to improve the Wizards’ win-loss record (or he should have) before rewarding him with an extension. All of this points to rolling with the vets.

“Having veteran players takes some of the pressure off of younger players,” Grunfeld said. “It takes the pressure off them having to do it every single night.”

That’s fine. It’s just that the Wizards may have made it much harder on themselves to determine whether Seraphin and Vesely, in particular, possess what it takes to become big-time post players on a good team.

And unless the Wizards can come up with better trades, they run the risk of becoming irrelevant, not only in the NBA, but in the District’s new-look sports market.

The Redskins are riding a wave of Robert Griffin III-inspired excitement. The Nationals are increasing their share of the pie with every Stephen Strasburg strikeout and Bryce Harper hit. Even the Capitals, Leonsis’s other team, have reached the playoffs the past five seasons (they just don’t do much once they get there).

Among sports fans in the region, hope is in greater supply than it has been since Joe Gibbs worked at RFK Stadium. It’s coming from several sources. The Wizards should consider trying to become one of them.

For Jason Reid’s previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.

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