Summer renovations have begun inside Capital One Arena, and while the Washington Wizards’ trade of center Marcin Gortat to the Los Angeles Clippers for swingman Austin Rivers should help improve teammate relations, the move wasn’t simply to conduct a locker-room makeover or take on a payroll fixer-upper.
On Tuesday night, the Wizards made a basketball decision rooted in the franchise’s desire to catch up with the rest of the league. Over the last five years, Washington’s starting five has featured at least one 6-foot-11 big man even as other teams had found success in playing small. Although Coach Scott Brooks has experimented with more perimeter-based lineups, the Wizards never truly went all the way because Gortat remained as the starter and played in several of the team’s most effective five-man units.
With Gortat gone, exchanged for a fearless 6-4 guard who loves to shoot, the Wizards intend to embrace the modern game like never before. If the 2017-18 roster was a building in need of improvements, the Wizards just swung a sledgehammer at the layers of drywall — which, in this case, consisted of outdated big men. The Wizards plan to patch that hole with faster play, more three-pointers and, of course, smaller lineups.
“Acquiring Austin gives us another versatile, experienced player who provides scoring and playmaking,” team President Ernie Grunfeld said in a statement. “He is coming off a career year, and his ability to create offense for himself and others will help our second unit and allow us to play a variety of lineups throughout the season.”
Last season, as much as the Wizards flirted with small ball — at times benching Gortat to play lanky Kelly Oubre Jr. — they still identified as a traditional team. In fact, the Wizards thrived when keeping one center on the floor and surrounding either Gortat or 6-11 Ian Mahinmi with four wings.
The group consisting of Oubre and Gortat along with starters John Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter Jr. produced a plus-14.5 net rating per 100 possessions, the team’s highest among the three most-used lineups. Although the five-man unit of Beal, Mahinmi and three reserve wings formed for only 75 minutes all season, that lineup produced 15.4 net points per 100 possessions, according to statistics on NBA.com.
When the Wizards completely downsized, however — playing 6-10 Markieff Morris at the five — a modest sample size revealed how successful small ball could be.
Morris played only 89 minutes as the center for a lineup with Beal, Porter, Oubre and Tomas Satoransky (who filled in for Wall as he rehabbed from surgery). Yet this unit put up more threes, shot the ball better and scored at a higher tempo than any other Wizards lineup that played for more than 25 minutes.
In preparing for free agency, the Wizards are still open to adding a starting-caliber center. But with Morris’s success at the five, the early expectation is that he can once again log minutes there next season.
Another potential intriguing lineup: Rivers on the floor, running and putting up shots with the Wizards’ all-star guards.
Rivers should save the Wizards about $3 million in luxury tax — though slight, any reduction helps a team expected to once again have a payroll exceeding the luxury-tax threshold. But the acquisition wasn’t about shedding salary; Rivers comes to Washington in his prime after the best season of his six-year career.
Although Rivers has played as a backup, last year he thrived as a full-time starter (healthy for 61 games) while the Clippers dealt with a slew of injuries. When given the green light, Rivers posted averages of 15.1 points on 13.2 shots as well as 4.0 assists and 2.4 rebounds per game, all career bests. He also attempted nearly six three-pointers per game and connected on 37.8 percent of those deep shots — another top mark. By finding possessions to play Rivers with Beal and Wall, the Wizards’ offense could potentially stretch past its midrange preference. Rivers, however, will spend the majority of his minutes with the second unit where he’ll pair with Satoransky, another guard who can play on and off the ball.
With the Gortat-Rivers trade completed and free agency on the horizon, the under-construction Wizards are beginning to take shape.