The Washington Wizards face a crucial decision for the future of the franchise next week, when they will choose the third overall pick in the NBA draft and potentially find a building block and running mate for 2010 No. 1 overall pick John Wall.
But Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld said their plans for the selection would not be changed by the team’s move on Wednesday to acquire veterans Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza from the New Orleans Hornets for Rashard Lewis and the No. 46 pick in the June 28 draft.
“It doesn’t affect the draft at all,” Grunfeld said.
The Wizards auditioned Kansas junior power forward Thomas Robinson, Florida shooting guard Bradley Beal, Kentucky swingman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, North Carolina small forward Harrison Barnes and Connecticut big man Andre Drummond for the No. 3 pick. With the recent addition of size, the Wizards would appear more likely to address their needs for perimeter shooting and scoring help in the draft. Either way, Grunfeld said the organization would be patient with the draft selection.
“I think we’re going to get a player that’s going to be with us for quite some time,” he said. “I don’t think we’re depending on a rookie to come in and play 40 minutes a night for us, either.”
For the past two years, the Wizards spoke repeatedly about their desires to build through the draft and develop talent from within. Grunfeld contends that the plan remains the same, since the team was able to add talent without raiding its own talent pool. Lewis, the second-highest paid player in the NBA, had a disappointing, injury-plagued two-year stint with the Wizards, averaging just 9.6 points and 4.9 rebounds in 60 games after arriving in December 2010 for Gilbert Arenas.
“Rashard unfortunately was injured while he was with us and he didn’t get an opportunity to show the kind of things that he was capable of doing or that he did before his injuries,” Grunfeld said. “He had a very hefty buyout in his contract and we elected to add a couple of players to the roster by using his contract.”
The Wizards had no intention of bringing back Lewis next season, but to cut ties, they had to either find a willing trade partner or complete a buyout agreement for $13.7 million of his $22 million salary. Rather than pay Lewis not to play for them, the Wizards elected to use that money on Okafor, an NCAA champion center at Connecticut who went second overall in the 2004 NBA draft, and Ariza, a forward who won a championship ring in 2009 with the Los Angeles Lakers. Okafor and Ariza are owed a combined $43 million through 2013-14 and will come off the books when Wall will be approaching restricted free agency.
“We get players that are good solid players and fill two solid needs for us. So, instead of going into free agency to fill our needs, we did it through a trade,” Grunfeld said in a conference call. “These players fit in well with what we’re trying to do. I think we’re going to be a better team with the addition of these players and the players we’ll add in the draft. But where we’ll be in the Eastern Conference, only time will tell.”
The 6-foot-10 Okafor, 29, has career averages of 12.7 points and 10.1 rebounds in a eight-year career with Charlotte and New Orleans and he will immediately become the highest-paid player on the Wizards, with a salary of about $13.5 million next season. Ariza, 26, has bounced around New York, Orlando, the Los Angeles Lakers, Houston and New Orleans in his eight-year career, posting career averages of nine points and 4.4 rebounds.
The Wizards made a dramatic improvement last season when they traded away JaVale McGee and Nick Young to get Nene. Grunfeld is hopeful that Okafor and Ariza, veteran players with playoff experience, can continue to help expedite the growth of a team that will still feature nine players with less than three years of experience next season. The move gives the team two more defensive-minded players who fit into the identity that the Wizards began to form after the trade and provides one player who can help the team with its glaring deficiency in rebounding (Okafor) and another who can run the floor with Wall (Ariza). Ariza actually played pickup basketball with Wall in Los Angeles on Thursday.
The Wizards had discussions about Lewis with New Orleans near the trade deadline, according to league sources, but decided to reopen those discussions with the draft — and the deadline for Lewis’s buyout – drawing near. The Hornets recently landed the rights to draft Anthony Davis with the No. 1 overall pick. They reportedly have no interest in retaining Lewis and will save nearly $8 million.
The savings would not have been as impactful for the Wizards, since simply buying out Lewis would have brought them almost $3.5 million under the projected salary cap. They still have the option of using the amnesty provision — which allows teams to waive a player and secure salary cap room — on the disappointing Andray Blatche, who still has three years and $23 million remaining on his contract. They wouldn’t have to make a decision on cutting Blatche until the middle of July and will continue to look into moving him in a trade, according to league sources with knowledge of the situation.
“This doesn’t affect Andray’s status,” Grunfeld said. “He’s still under contract with us.”
The Wizards have drafted four forwards in the past two years — Kevin Seraphin, Jan Vesely, Trevor Booker and Chris Singleton. By adding two players who have started for most of their careers, the Wizards have sent a message to their younger players that minutes will have to be earned. And, without mentioning him specifically, the team has also made an attempt to placate Wall, who has been frustrated with being on a team that has ranked among the league’s dregs since he arrived in Washington.
“We’re trying to get better,” Grunfeld said. “We think we’re a better team today than we were yesterday, but we still have a lot of work left for us. By no means are we satisfied.”