The most dreaded — and anticipated — day of the regular season has arrived, and teams are poised to add a missing piece for a postseason run, surrender postseason hopes to begin rebuilding efforts, or simply dump undesirable contracts to avoid the stiffer penalties for exceeding the salary cap. Though the Wizards (15-37) have climbed out of the muck of their early struggles and won 11 of their past 20, Coach Randy Wittman said the team isn’t necessarily in position to stand pat.
“We’re not Miami. We’re not Oklahoma City, where you’re pretty set,” Wittman said. “Teams like ourselves, we’re always looking. We still need to continue to build and improve this team. So for a team like us, we’re probably looking or listening. Again, I’m not up there, I don’t know. Even though we’ve been playing at a good clip here, I still think you’ve got to look at the future and [ask], can you make the team better? And if you can, you’re probably going to try to do some things.”
Two blockbuster deals have already been completed, with Oklahoma City trading James Harden to Houston before the season opener and Memphis shipping Rudy Gay to Toronto last month. Atlanta Hawks forward Josh Smith is arguably the biggest name talent that could be acquired in a deal with the 6-foot-9 forward becoming an unrestricted free agent this summer and seeking a maximum salary deal worth $94 million over the next five years. Other talented players have also been floated around, including Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett from Boston, big men Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap from Utah and Milwaukee guards Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings. But as Wittman said, “A lot of turns out to be a lot of talk.”
The Wizards have made inquiries about Smith, whose athleticism, versatility and defensive skill could possibly mesh with an uptempo team led by former No. 1 overall pick John Wall. Those talks didn’t go very far, according to a league source with knowledge of the Wizards’ plans, because they were unwilling to meet Atlanta’s trade demands and were also lukewarm about making such a large financial investment for a player who hasn’t made an all-star appearance in his first nine seasons.
In each of the past three seasons, the Wizards have been among the league’s most active teams at the deadline. They shipped Antawn Jamison to Cleveland and Brendan Haywood, Caron Butler and DeShawn Stevenson to Dallas in 2010 in two deals that yielded Josh Howard, spare parts and draft picks. Kirk Hinrich and Hilton Armstrong were traded in 2011 to Atlanta for Crawford, Mike Bibby, Maurice Evans and the draft pick that turned out to be Singleton. And, in a stunning deal last March, the Wizards traded JaVale McGee, Nick Young and Ronny Turiaf in a three-team deal that landed Nene.
Wall, Trevor Booker and Kevin Seraphin, the Wizards’ draft picks in 2010, are the longest-tenured players on the team, which has undergone a major overhaul since Ted Leonsis purchased the team from the Pollin family. Wall; Beal, last year’s third overall selection; and Nene are unlikely to be moved, but the same source added that the team might not make a deal until closer to the deadline.
“I’ve been here now for three years,” Seraphin said. “I see my teammate leave, see some teammate come. That’s something you can’t control. If you can’t control it, I’m not worried about it. There’s nothing I can do. There’s nothing we can do.”
Crawford is the most likely candidate to get moved, since the third-year reserve shooting guard doesn’t appear to be in the Wizards’ current or future plans with Wall back after a three-month, injury-related layoff and Beal beginning to play at a higher level. Wittman recently benched Crawford and he hasn’t handled his latest demotion well. After not playing for the fourth consecutive game — a 96-88 loss to the Toronto Raptors — on Tuesday, Crawford tossed his jersey and warm-up shirt into the stands with disgust.
The Wizards have fielded calls from teams around the league interested in acquiring a player who provides scoring punch at a relatively low price. Crawford was the Wizards’ leading scorer until last month and averaged 19.1 points, 6.1 assists and 5.1 rebounds in December, but the team went 3-11 during that stretch as injuries sidelined Price and Trevor Ariza. He has appeared in just four games this month, averaging 4.3 points. One rival Eastern Conference executive said the Wizards would get “very little” in return for Crawford.
“He’s like any of our other 14 guys. He’s got to stay with it. His opportunity is going to come again,” Wittman said of Crawford. “This season is too long, up and down, that it’s going to go smooth. It’s a test of your will and character and I look at those things. As you’re building a team. Who’s handling it the right way? And who stays in it, stays ready and those are important things.”
Players realize that anyone has the potential to be moved, but veteran Emeka Okafor, who has been traded twice in his career, said the deadline hasn’t been a distraction for him or any of his teammates. “Nothing happens until it does. You don’t really think about it. It’s part of the game. If you didn’t say it right now it wouldn’t have entered my mind. I’m pretty sure it’s the same case with a lot of guys on this team. . . . We’re here. Things happen at the last minute but you can only worry about what you can control. We’ve got a game on Friday” against Denver.
The Wizards will have one more practice before the deadline, which might not amount to any major deals. “As a coach, you always can’t wait until that day is over,” Wittman said. “You can ask every team. There is somebody or some anticipation or anxiety or call it whatever term you want. It’s a yearly reality.”
As Wittman spoke to reporters, the ominous whistling sound of an old science fiction movie emanated from a cellphone ringer. Wittman looked around and laughed before saying, “I don’t know if that’s a good sign.”