If the Wizards don’t alter their top-heavy roster, they will give five players — Beal, Wall, Otto Porter Jr., Ian Mahinmi and Marcin Gortat — a little more than $100 million next season. That’s not exactly The Jackson 5 of the NBA, either. It would be the second straight season in which that quintet rested so heavily on a shelf that can’t handle much more weight. That’s fine if you are the back-to-back champion Golden State Warriors, who will give about $120 million to their five highest-paid players. That’s even justifiable if you are the runner-up Cavaliers, who spent about $106 million on their top five last season.
The Wizards? They were right to retain their core of high draft picks in Beal, Wall and Porter, even at the max salaries that the market made clear it would cost. But they have done a patchy job of building around them, and now every miscalculation is magnified.
It’s reassuring that the Wizards have been willing to spend big and pursue elite status during this crazy NBA arms race. Over the past five years, they have advanced to the playoffs four times, making it to the second round the first three trips before being bounced early last season. But there’s a feeling now that they are regressing, although Wall’s knee problems this past season make the truth unclear. Still, these are urgent times for Washington, and the franchise has little financial flexibility as currently constructed.
The 2017-18 Wizards had the league’s fifth-highest payroll and were an estimated $1 million over the NBA’s $123 million luxury-tax line, meaning owner Ted Leonsis soon will be paying a penalty for the first time. For the coming season, the salary cap is projected to remain at $101 million, and the tax line should be at $123 million again. The Wizards already have more than $124 million committed to 10 players, and that doesn’t include their draft pick.
Despite frustrated calls for the Wizards to shake up their roster in a major way, they would prefer to stay the course. Still, they recognize the need for some change and some fresh energy. Two frontcourt starters, Gortat and Markieff Morris, are in the final years of their contracts and might be the easiest core players to trade. Gortat, who is scheduled to earn about $13.5 million, continues to be the subject of trade rumors. Morris, who is set to make $8.6 million, has a team-friendly salary. Wall has expressed his desire for more athleticism at center, where Gortat and Mahinmi ($16 million) are expensive 30-somethings who don’t loiter in the air.
Some kind of trade figures to happen this summer, but right now, the draft is critical. It’s even more important because, since taking Porter No. 3 overall in 2013, the Wizards have traded three of their past four No. 1s and had little luck with second-rounders and undrafted players. Four years ago, they traded their No. 1 in a deal to acquire Gortat from Phoenix, which helped the team grow into a winner. The Wizards dealt their 2016 No. 1 at the trade deadline to get Morris, a significant upgrade at power forward. A year ago, they used their No. 1 to pluck Bojan Bogdanovic from the Brooklyn Nets in another trade deadline deal, and he was helpful as a bench scorer during their 2017 playoff run. Last summer in free agency, they lost Bogdanovic to Indiana, but because the Brooklyn deal allowed the Wizards to shed Andrew Nicholson’s contract, it’s not a decision that haunts Washington.
But when you trade draft picks for veterans, even youngish ones, there is always a cost eventually. The Wizards reaped the immediate benefits that they wanted. Now, they’re paying a literal price.
This time, the Wizards want to bring in a useful player who won’t be eligible for a bloated salary for four years. Get the pick right, and they will have a player capable of outperforming his contract. The No. 15 pick will make about $1.8 million in his first year. Right now, the Wizards have three players you can consider bargains: Morris, Oubre ($3.2 million) and Tomas Satoransky ($3.1 million). And assuming they continue to grow, both Oubre and Satoransky are due for pay bumps after this season.
As much as the Wizards need an athletic big man, they shouldn’t obsess over filling that hole. Their biggest need is simply a player with the talent and versatility to thrive in their system. They could use a backup point guard such as UCLA’s Aaron Holiday. They could use a sweet-shooting combo guard such as Wichita State’s Landry Shamet. With Porter on a max deal that they should consider trading (difficult to do with a 15 percent trade kicker) and Oubre nearing the end of his rookie deal, they could use a versatile wing such as Oregon’s Troy Brown Jr. or a bigger forward such as Ohio State’s Keita Bates-Diop.
If a big man with the talent of Texas A&M’s Robert Williams falls to them, the Wizards should make the obvious pick. But they don’t need to reach for one. Their style of play and the leaguewide trend dictate that they can make use of a variety of perimeter players. This draft seems to be a good one. If Michigan State’s Miles Bridges and Kentucky’s Kevin Knox are fighting for late lottery spots, the potential is clear. At No. 15, just out the lottery, the Wizards are in a fine position to draft a future starter, which isn’t always the case with a mid-first-round pick.
They must choose wisely. It’s critical for now and later. Forget their inconsistent draft history under Ernie Grunfeld. Forget the current frustrations after a first-round exit. This is an opportunity for fresh air, a chance to make free agency and trade season a lot easier.
The Wizards need one good pick in one good draft. That’s the line separating revision and stagnancy. To start the process of making their money work better for them, they can’t land on the wrong side.
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