Here are four questions that will help determine the state of the Wizards:
What are the big-picture goals for this roster?
The Wizards, as should surprise no one, are not detonating their roster and triggering a rebuild. Sheppard’s front office believes the team is more talented than it has been in years past — something its record does not reflect, in part because of a steady stream of injuries. Washington’s core trio of Beal, Porzingis and Kuzma have only played 23 games together largely because of Beal’s three extended absences because of either injury or illness. But injuries don’t account for all of the team’s shortcomings — they are 11-12 when the trio play together.
Distilled to its simplest form, Sheppard’s ethos for the past few years has been to bring in as many players as possible around Beal and see what works. The Wizards are not getting the crème de la crème of the NBA because Washington is not a preferred free agent destination, but the organization has hit on several trades: Daniel Gafford is the starting center, Porzingis is averaging the second-most points of his career (22.1), and Kuzma bloomed last season and has maintained his high level of play, averaging a career-high 22.2 points and 7.6 rebounds.
Should the Wizards want to keep the core trio together, it will be expensive and difficult given that franchise owner Ted Leonsis has only paid the luxury tax once since he took over the team in 2010.
Beal is owed $46.7 million next season in the second year of his max contract, Porzingis can exercise a $36 million player option or become a free agent in July, and Kuzma plans to explore free agency. Speaking of …
Where does the team stand with Kuzma?
Washington has told interested teams that it would like to re-sign Kuzma this summer when he tests free agency.
As far as Kuzma is concerned, signing with a team that allows room for his growth is his top priority, though “winning culture” isn’t far behind. The 27-year-old has gotten accustomed to having the ball in his hands, and though the Wizards’ offense is not strictly designed for him, he has a green light to shoot nearly at will.
Kuzma said he is “100 percent” open to remaining in Washington — where he has undoubtedly grown in the past two years — just as the Wizards have said they want to keep him. (Which, pardon the tinfoil hat, is also a smart thing to say if either or both parties are looking to foster a competitive free agent market.)
It’s a big gamble for Washington, though, which risks losing a key on-court component and fan favorite for nothing in return in free agency if it does not trade Kuzma at the deadline.
What about Porzingis?
The Wizards have communicated to other teams they would like to keep Porzingis as well. While Porzingis has not yet made a decision about his future, he plans to mull his options during the all-star break.
On a personal level, his partnership with Washington has been fruitful — at 27, Porzingis is shooting the second-highest field goal percentage (46.8) of his career. The big man likes being in D.C., where the time difference makes it easier to communicate with his family in Latvia than it was when he played in the Western Conference and where he has forged strong personal connections in the locker room. He has spoken multiple times, unprompted, about how much easier life is on court playing next to Beal and how much he admires Beal as a player.
But Porzingis is a savvy businessman who has not only put up impressive numbers this season but has also managed to stay on court and counteract some of his injury-prone reputation. His left ankle sprain that has caused him to miss two games heading into Saturday is his first substantive injury all season. Testing the market in free agency wouldn’t be a bad option.
Where else could the Wizards make changes?
Coach Wes Unseld Jr. is a supporter of point guard Monte Morris and has praised his improved defense this season in particular. Morris is just the type of player Unseld described as the team’s ideal floor general last offseason: He keeps the offense organized, has the best assist-to-turnover ratio in the league and has been a steadier, if not outstanding, presence in the past handful of games.
Averaging 10.4 points and 5.4 assists and shooting 47.4 percent from the field, he’s also under contract next season for a very economical $9.8 million.
Yet Morris is one of the Wizards’ more attractive non-core assets. If there is a favorable deal to be made, Sheppard may seize the opportunity to take a look at another player.
Otherwise, veteran wing Will Barton had fallen out of the rotation until recently, when Unseld played him for 15 minutes in Dallas and nearly nine in Houston. The 32-year-old is making $14.4 million and is set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer.
At the guard spot, Washington is still planning to convert Jordan Goodwin’s two-way contract to a standard deal. The 24-year-old is eligible to play in five more NBA games this season under his current contract, but Sheppard could make room by either waiving a player or making a trade.