Washington Wizards should use NBA free agency to bolster bench, maintain momentum


The Wizards may have to use the mid-level exception to keep Martell Webster in Washington. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
Jason Reid
Columnist June 30, 2013

The Washington Wizards finally have regained something they haven’t had in years: momentum. Now, President Ernie Grunfeld must keep it going.

By adding rookie forward Otto Porter Jr. to a roster that already included guards Bradley Beal and John Wall, the Wizards have assembled a talented young nucleus that should lead them back to the playoffs. But for Washington to solidify its position as a playoff team in the Eastern Conference next season, Grunfeld has to strengthen the bench. Backup point guard is the key.

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

Last season, the Wizards were caught off guard when Wall missed the first 33 games because of a knee injury. The Wizards figured A.J. Price, who started a total of three games during his first three seasons in the league, would be okay playing fewer than 15 minutes per game behind Wall.

Price wound up being in the 30-plus-minute range to start the season, which wasn’t good for the Wizards. During Washington’s 4-28 start, point-guard play was a glaring deficiency. The Wizards also tried Jordan Crawford in the role until he brought back bad memories of knuckleheads past and was shipped to Boston.

When free agency begins Monday — teams can begin negotiating with players but contracts cannot be signed until July 10 — Grunfeld and his staff should go all-in on signing an all-around better backup for Wall. The Wizards should only target free agents who are potentially good enough step in over long stretches for Wall, who missed a lot of time in his first three seasons, but also capable of staying sharp if Wall plays in more than 70 games for the first time in his career. Washington needs a veteran who has produced consistently as a part-time starter and also has made things happen coming off the bench.

The Wizards want Wall to be on the court with Beal, Porter and center Nene — the guys they’re rolling with long-term — as much as possible. Still, the Wizards have to make sure they have a good insurance policy in place in case Wall’s body forces him to take another long break.

Every team wants super subs. Finding those guys, especially while working within the constraints of the league’s salary cap, is the hard part. Considering Wall’s injury history, the fact that the Wizards have assembled enough talent to make a positive move next season and that their long-suffering fans are eager for a new day, the Wizards can’t mess around with whom they put behind Wall.

In any other offseason, the Wizards could dangle the $5 million mid-level exception at the best unrestricted backup point guards. But after what Martell Webster accomplished in his first season with the team, the Wizards might have to put that money aside for the veteran forward.

Webster was an extremely pleasant surprise. He had a career year and ranked 12th in the league in three-point field-goal percentage. The journeyman bet on himself, signing a one-year, $1.75 million contract. Now, Webster is unrestricted.

Although Porter is the future at wing forward, the Wizards need to bring back Webster for his scoring punch and long-range shooting. Even if Porter became a starter sometime next season, which wouldn’t be surprising, Webster would be valuable in a reserve role.

Remember: It’s all about the playoffs for the Wizards. The days of them putting borderline NBA players on the court behind their top five while making their annual trip to the NBA draft lottery are over. They need quality backups. Webster definitely would qualify.

Would another team potentially give Webster a raise of more than $3 million? Probably not. What other teams are willing to pay Webster, however, shouldn’t matter to the Wizards. They need him. Offering the mid-level, or something close to it, right out of the gates should impress Webster. In professional sports, making a player feel wanted is the fastest way to get a signature on a contract.

Forward Trevor Ariza also is signed through next season. But if the Wizards lost Webster, Porter would have to shoulder more early on. If Webster comes back, perhaps Ariza could be used in a trade for a long-range-shooting power forward. In the league these days, it never hurts to have a stretch four.

Fortunately for the Wizards, they have depth at center and power forward. Emeka Okafor and Kevin Seraphin are behind Nene, who has played 70 games only five times in his 11-year career.

At backup shooting guard, the Wizards made a potentially low-risk, high-reward move in getting second-rounder Glen Rice Jr. through a draft-night trade. Rice, who was a blockhead at times in college, could be a solid second-unit scorer behind Beal.

If Rice toes the line and produces, the Wizards would have added another cost-effective young player to their improving mix. If Rice drops the ball again, cut him and move on.

Grunfeld is having his best run since early in his long Wizards tenure. He’s putting together a squad that appears capable of bringing back the playoffs to the District for the first time since the 2007-08 season. Now, he has to finish the job.

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

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