John Wall spent more than 15 minutes Saturday dissecting the Washington Wizards‘ roster flaws. He is, after all, the player emboldened by the organization to be the leader, vocal and otherwise. And as Wall capitalized on his platform, he spared no feelings, shared cold-blooded truths and strongly advocated for improvements.
“A lot, to be honest,” Wall said when asked about pieces the team should add. “There’s a lot that we can use. I really don’t have to say certain positions. There are certain things that people who have been around the team understand what we could use to help our team. It’s not throwing shade to anybody that is on our team because everyone that is on our roster gave everything they have to make it work and fit with the team, but at the same time, when it’s not working and then you try and you try and you try and it keeps failing over and over, then you have to make certain adjustments and certain changes.”
Those changes, however, won’t come as easy as a 15-minute interview might suggest.
The Wizards, shepherded by team President Ernie Grunfeld, find themselves in a mess by their own doing. As they try to clean it up, they must navigate the changing climate within the NBA and face significant practical hurdles.
Wall said he supports signing an “athletic big.” But Washington is committed to three traditional centers: Marcin Gortat and Ian Mahinmi, who don’t fit into the modern NBA game, and Jason Smith, who can’t get off the bench.
Wall also said he wants more wing help to back up Otto Porter Jr. But the money tied up to the centers, coupled with Porter’s maximum contract, will hinder the team’s spending in the offseason.
“It’s just figuring out what pieces we can add to our team, what guys can stay and what guys can go,” Wall said matter-of-factly. But making moves is not that simple. Several organizations are waiting out their own bad contracts while teams with cap space prefer not to take in multiyear contracts, meaning an ideal trade could be difficult to execute, even if another team might find the Wizards’ assets desirable.
The Wizards, however, are not without hope. The team can still try to make trades, use the stretch-and-waive option — which allows teams to spread out over multiple seasons the money they owe players they let go — or find that unpolished or underappreciated player no one else wants through clever and astute scouting to improve the roster. Still, while the franchise player has a wish list, an overhaul seems more like a pipe dream.
“John Wall isn’t that far off from what they need,” said Eric Pincus, an NBA salary cap expert for NBA TV and Basketball Insiders. “[But] they have lower flexibility. They don’t have as much spending power, and when they do spend, they have tax on it.”
In 2016, a year of big contracts around the league, Washington overspent on Mahinmi, who came off a career season with the Indiana Pacers and was rewarded with a four-year, $64 million contract. When considering that the team already had a traditional big man on the roster with several years remaining on his contract in Gortat, the deal was, at best, perplexing.
“They made the mistake that everybody made for the most part in 2016. In their case it was on Mahinmi,” Pincus said. “When you already have Gortat, didn’t make a lot of sense.”
This past season, the 31-year-old Mahinmi, who has battled injuries throughout his time in Washington, averaged 5.8 points, 4.1 rebounds and 3.0 fouls. Gortat, who was frequently benched in fourth quarters as the team elected to go small, excels in setting screens and rolling to the basket but refuses to add a three-point shot into his skill set.
“I was relaxing down there on the bench and we run small ball, which is the worst thing that man could ever invent in this league,” Gortat said during his Saturday interview with reporters. “I hate small ball. Small ball basketball in this league is just trash. I hate that.”
Together, the old-school duo will take up more than $29 million next season. Throw in last summer’s investment with Porter, who is set to make $26 million next season, and Washington heads into the 2018 offseason — before even drafting and signing their first-round pick or wooing a free agent — already beyond the luxury tax threshold.
According to Pincus, the NBA recently sent out a memo advising teams that the salary cap for the upcoming season will be projected at $101 million and the luxury tax threshold at $123 million. The Wizards have eight players signed for next year in addition to a pair (Smith and Jodie Meeks) who can exercise player options and return to the team. If both players opt in, the Wizards’ 2018-19 roster salary will push $124 million with just 10 players under contract while at least four would still need to be signed. This past season, Washington was one of only four teams that exceeded the luxury tax as teams tried to stay under, and that trend will likely continue into next season, except among true championship contenders.
The Wizards’ main spending tool for the summer would be the taxpayer mid-level exception, which allows teams to sign veteran free agents up to a specified amount — projected to be $5.3 million — without it counting against the salary cap. But Pincus points out that five to 10 teams around the league should have significant cap room, while at least 10 more will be able to pay free agents the more attractive mid-level exception, projected at $8.6 million. This will greatly limit the caliber of free agents the Wizards can attract.
Instead of banking on inexpensive free agents the Wizards can get active in the trade market. Gortat enters the final year of his contract and understands how that can hold value.
“I know how the league goes. Management is going to make the right decision for the future of the team,” Gortat said about potentially being traded. “If something’s happening, I want to be informed. I don’t want to read this little headline on the bottom of ESPN, ‘Gortat gets traded,’ and I’m finding out from TV. I would like to know that from my agent.”
Even so, trades can be costly. By shedding Gortat, the Wizards might have to package an asset like the young and economical Kelly Oubre Jr. or a first-round draft pick, or even be willing to take on a player with two or more years remaining on his contract. That would mean taking on more money. Though stretching and waiving would free up short-term flexibility, that would leave the Wizards on the hook for Gortat’s salary of $4.5 million for the next three years or $6.3 million owed to Mahinmi for the next five.
Making the situation even worse for the Wizards is the fact that there are other contending teams with big futures. Philadelphia has youth, picks and the potential to create more cap room to chase LeBron James in the offseason. Indiana, after winning 49 games despite trading Paul George, can bring back the same group that pushed James and the Cleveland Cavaliers to seven games in a first-round series. Boston, a rare team that spent wisely in 2016, is locked in with a young and talented core and still could land the Lakers’ lottery pick if it’s No. 2 or 3.
In Washington, however, the summer doesn’t seem as bright.
Wall gave an audit of the areas the team desperately needs to address and how the onus falls on the men “upstairs.” However, the Wizards’ front office wields no higher power to appease their star.
“At the end of the day, we don’t make those decisions. Upstairs does their part,” Wall said. “It’s me and the other 14 guys on the team and the coaching staff who prepare ourselves to play every game and listen to the game plan the coach gives us, go out there and give 110 percent effort. I think those guys that are watching and seeing understand what they can add and what we might need to make our team better to finally get over the second round or get through the first round like we didn’t this year.”