Finally, after almost two months of bad basketball, the Washington Wizards made a significant trade to do something about their lusterless state. You wanted change? Okay, here’s some change, with a bewildering twist: In exchanging Austin Rivers and Kelly Oubre Jr. for old friend Trevor Ariza, the Wizards managed to double down on their spiritless, quarreling, underachieving core.
From the Wizards’ perspective, this on-again, off-again, okay-let’s-do-it-for-real trade was about leadership. It was about defense, too, because Ariza remains one of the smartest and most dedicated perimeter defenders in his 15th season in the NBA. But most of all, Ariza comes with championship credentials, having won a title in 2009 with the Los Angeles Lakers, and with the credibility of helping John Wall and Bradley Beal improve their professionalism and hone some winning traits during his first stint in Washington from 2012 to 2014.
Rather than blow up the roster, the Wizards want to salvage the season, which is something that I warned against in a previous column. Ariza might help them do just that. At 33, he isn’t as athletic as he used to be, and he’s mostly a catch-and-shoot offensive player now. Still, the Wizards needed a veteran glue guy, and perhaps he can put out a locker room fire or two while he’s here.
In a larger sense, however, the deal illustrates how hesitant the Wizards are to break up the Wall-Beal-Otto Porter Jr. core despite an 11-18 record . Maybe they’re still trying to catch their breath because the start of this season has been so shockingly poor. Maybe it’s only right that Ernie Grunfeld, the team president, shouldn’t be allowed to make that major of a trade while owner Ted Leonsis evaluates his murky job status. Or maybe the Wizards still believe too much in a trio of maximum-contract players who are providing minimum impact.
Let us hope it’s not the latter. Everything should be on the table right now, and while the Wizards must guard against getting fleeced in any blockbuster trades, they need to operate with urgency. Let the Ariza acquisition be the final stop-the-bleeding, win-now decision the franchise makes. If it works, fine. If it doesn’t, the Wizards have to stop doing surgery on the rest of the roster and address the elephant in the room: Wall, Beal and Porter are making about $70.6 million combined this season for a team that will be either lottery bound or a last-caboose playoff qualifier. Next season, when Wall’s supermax extension kicks in, that trio will earn $92.5 million. If the madness doesn’t stop, their number will be $98.4 million during the 2020-21 season.
There aren’t enough Trevor Arizas in the NBA to provide a cushion soft enough to absorb that kind of investment in three athletes who don’t even play well together anymore. Their skill sets suggest they should fit perfectly, but they don’t. It’s not entirely their fault; Grunfeld has made too many mistakes building around them. But the reality is that, if you’re going to invest that kind of coin in three players, they had better be all-NBA selections and the team had better win 55 games a season. The Wizards aren’t even close to that.
So, again, it comes down to the question of what the Wizards want to be. Do they just want to survive and keep pretending that, because their birth certificates say that Wall, Beal and Porter are young, there’s hope for a miracle maturation? Or do they want to make a major alteration and reestablish some control of a ballooning payroll?
The fear is that Ariza only will help the franchise continue to delay the inevitable. Grunfeld has a history of pulling off some unimaginable saves when his job is on the line. We can focus on how much money Wall, Beal and Porter make, but you’re still talking about two all-stars and a high-grade role player in Porter. Put Ariza with Markieff Morris, Jeff Green and Tomas Satoransky, and the Wizards can get back to decency, especially if Dwight Howard returns from surgery and provides some rebounding help. But how many more times will the Wizards be allowed to make last-minute revisions and trade young talent such as Oubre to rent Ariza?
Oubre is an energetic and athletic 23-year-old wing player who is averaging 12.9 points and 4.4 rebounds . The Wizards spent three years developing him, and he has improved gradually. He gave them some toughness and attitude to go with his emerging skill. And now he’s off to Phoenix, along with Rivers. The franchise would have had a difficult time keeping Oubre after this season. He will be a restricted free agent, and he will receive an eight-figure offer that Washington would have had trouble justifying because Porter, who plays Oubre’s position, makes $27 million a year.
Now that Oubre is gone, consider this: In 2013, the Wizards selected Porter No. 3. They’re proud that they developed three max players, including Wall (the No. 1 pick in 2010) and Beal (the No. 3 pick in 2012). But since establishing that draft-based core, they have traded first-round picks for various reasons and struggled to fill the roster with the appropriate amount of quality young talent. Rookie Troy Brown Jr. stands as the only draft pick since 2013 on the roster. It’s a common problem for winning teams that draft outside the lottery, but the Wizards are one of the more extreme examples.
Now, with Ariza, they have gotten older. They have gotten wiser, too. They found a leader, at last. But he’s on an expiring contract, and if the Wizards don’t improve by the February trade deadline, they probably will flip him to another team.
Whatever happens, Ariza is a short-term solution. The Wizards are doing a lot of short-term thinking as they attempt to salvage this strange season. You have to wonder when they will be forced to change their thinking.
The possibility of rebuilding is scary, for sure. Remaining stagnant is infuriating.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.