Back in February, when it still seemed like the Washington Wizards would get to make a free agency pitch to Kevin Durant, he started to let the city down easy in a peculiar manner.
It was during All-Star Weekend in Toronto, and members of the media stood five rows deep around his table at a hotel ballroom, asking leading questions, looking for clues about his future plans. Durant smiled and talked softly, offering no hints. But when asked about playing for the Wizards and returning to the D.C. area, he spoke in nostalgic but distant terms about how he would always “be a part of the community.” It felt like he was saying, “I’ll love you forever but not in that way.” And then he closed by praising Washington’s burgeoning young back court.
“They’re right in front of you, so don’t take them for granted because those guys are future Hall of Famers,” Durant said.
Looking back, I’ll be damned if Durant didn’t subtly join Stephen Stills, the Isley Brothers and Luther Vandross in singing a version of “Love the One You’re With.”
Four months ago, those were just words uttered along an uncertain path. But now that Durant has resisted even a courtesy visit with the Wizards, they represent the logic behind Plan B as the free agency period begins Friday.
The Wizards are back to building around John Wall and Bradley Beal.
It’s not exactly more of the same. Over the past four years, the Wizards have acquired a solid starting front court (Otto Porter Jr., Markieff Morris and Marcin Gortat) that fits, in prototype at least, with Wall and Beal. And this is the first time that Ernie Grunfeld has had money like this — an estimated $31 million in cap space — to supplement a decent core. But if you were thinking that the Wizards could add a star on the same level or better than that back court, well, that seems unlikely now.
The Wizards will pursue Al Horford, a four-time all-star, but he’s almost as coveted as Durant, and he supposedly prefers warm-weather destinations. Beyond Horford, Dwight Howard and DeMar DeRozan are established available stars, but neither is a good match for Washington.
So if Plan A was to find a load-carrying franchise player to elevate this roster to championship contention immediately, that option figures to be out before the negotiating begins. That would have been easier and more celebrated, and it would have eliminated the nagging concern that Wall and Beal aren’t quite an elite tandem because they would have become extraordinary complementary players. Now, though, the Wizards must go all-in on believing that Wall and Beal are elite and that a contending team can be built around them.
It’s a scary notion because Wall is coming off surgery on both knees, and Beal is a restricted free agent whose salary could soar above $23 million a year. That’s what a maximum contract will cost, and despite a mysterious condition that causes stress reactions in Beal’s right leg every year, he’s certain to receive the max in this market. The Wizards either will be forced to match an offer sheet that could be structured unfavorably, or they will make their own max offer. But they can’t lose Beal.
In a different market, perhaps it would matter that Beal has played in only 75 percent of Washington’s games during his four NBA seasons. Perhaps he would receive 75 percent of the max, which seems fair given his injuries and so-so career average of 16 points per game. But he just turned 23 on Tuesday. His production at a young age includes a 21-game postseason sample size with averages of 21.2 points, 5.2 rebounds and 4.6 assists. He’s getting his money. And then the Wizards had better invest in whatever they must spend to optimize the chances that Beal stays healthy.
If you could guarantee that Wall and Beal both averaged 72 games per season over the next five years, then I would counter that the Wizards are capable of building a roster that would average 50 wins a year and make at least one run to the conference finals. Their challenge is to build a little more security in case of injury. Turn your nose up at such a run, but if the Wizards were to have such a five-year stretch, they would reach levels they haven’t in 37 years.
There seems to be a developing belief that, now that Durant isn’t coming, the Wizards can’t win in free agency. They can’t build an instant championship team anymore, but there’s nothing wrong with building something similar to the current Atlanta Hawks or Toronto Raptors and then hoping an opportunity presents itself to take another step. Since 1980, 11 franchises have won championships. Four of those franchises (Philadelphia, Dallas, Golden State and Cleveland) have one title during this span. Seven teams have combined for the other 33 championships. So don’t tell me that rings are the only standard by which to judge the success of an organization in a league built on a succession of dynasties.
If you’re not one of the NBA’s glamour franchises or if you weren’t fortunate enough to draft one of the defining players of an era, you’re fighting for everything you can get. If you want to win a title this way, you had better start building like Mark Cuban has in Dallas, changing your franchise’s fortunes with a can-do attitude, creating a sustainable playoff model and then competing like crazy at every opportunity until experiencing the breakthrough the Mavericks did in 2011. That championship might define these glory years of the Mavericks. But their greatest accomplishment has been the manner in which they have consistently knocked at the door of the elite, with 15 playoff appearances in the past 16 years and no losing seasons.
Right now, the Wizards would be lucky to get the most out of Wall’s prime. It can be done. Fortunately, this is a free agent market full of quality No. 3 and 4 options. If the Wizards can’t get an all-star, then Nicolas Batum, who’s good enough to be a No. 2 on many nights, should be their target, even though Charlotte claims it will give him a max contract if it must. If not Batum, splitting the money to get three kinds of players would make sense: 1. sweet-shooting combo forward (Ryan Anderson, Chandler Parsons); 2. role-playing big man (Joakim Noah on the high end, Pau Gasol for a little less, Dwight Powell on the lower end); 3. playmaking guard off the bench (Jerryd Bayless, Courtney Lee).
Don’t forget about the Wizards utilizing their cap space in a trade, either.
Durant is gone, and Plan B won’t be sexy. Plan B won’t send droves calling for season tickets. But this is the first time the Wizards can build a complete team around Wall and Beal. And then we could find out how good this back court truly is.
Durant says Wall and Beal are future Hall of Famers. I guess that’s not a branch of the Hall of Fame that gets him excited about coming home. But with $31 million to spend, it is possible to build a consistent winner. Add that to Durant’s list of things not to take for granted.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.