The NBA draft lottery wasn’t just randomly cruel to the Washington Wizards. The wicked bounce of those ping-pong balls also served as an implicit reminder that should refocus the franchise before it makes a series of complex decisions this summer: There is no savior. There is no easy way out. There are no miracle solutions. Here’s a shovel and a towel. Get to work, and expect it to be the hardest thing you’ve ever done.
It felt more like an omen that the Wizards, who nose-dived to the league’s sixth-worst record this season, ended up with the ninth overall pick. In perhaps the wildest and most intense lottery in NBA history, they landed one spot higher than the worst-case scenario. The bad luck portends the hard decisions that await this offseason. It’s critical to stop dillydallying and pretending and overvaluing the current roster and get down to the central questions of the Wizards’ future. Can they redirect the organization without gutting it? If so, can you trust that it will work? Or is a near-complete rebuild the only way?
Before this week, there was hope of an escape door via the lottery, and that’s why the bad luck of sliding to No. 9 was multifaceted. The 2019 draft supposedly revolves around three players that the Wizards won’t be able to touch: Zion Williamson, Ja Morant and RJ Barrett. Even worse, this is considered to be a thin crop of talent overall. It means the No. 9 pick could have high bust potential, or if you want the sunniest possible outlook, he could be a raw future star who requires several years to develop. It’s also rather imprudent for the Wizards to consider moving down in the first round despite their need for multiple players with good upside and cost-effective contracts.
Such a disappointing week would cause many general managers to lose some of their hair. But we’re not sure whether the Wizards’ next personnel czar will even have hair. They seem to be late in the process of making a hire, with a list that reportedly includes interim leader Tommy Sheppard, Troy Weaver, Danny Ferry and Tim Connelly.
Connelly was reportedly offered the job Friday afternoon, but it was not immediately clear whether he would accept it.
With the June 20 draft about a month away, Wizards owner Ted Leonsis needs to have an executive in place within the next week. Sure, this hire is so important that you’d rather he take the time to get it right than worry about preparations for a single draft. But the free agency period begins soon after the draft, and what happens in the NBA between June 20 and about July 15 could shape the league for the next five years. There was so much tension in Chicago during the lottery because this summer is huge, perhaps 2010-level huge.
That was the year LeBron went full LeBron, and the Miami Heat’s Big Three was formed. The influence of that free agency period lingers almost a decade later, and now there’s another class of free agents — potentially led by Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard and Kyrie Irving — that seems willing to make decisions that will reconstruct the balance of power. In addition, superstar forward Anthony Davis still wants out of New Orleans, even though Zion is about to arrive.
It’s not just the teams directly involved with acquiring or retaining these stars that factor into this summer. It will affect nearly all 30 franchises in some way. So the Wizards don’t have time to welcome a new GM or team president and wait for him to pick out a desk chair, decorate his new office, take a long time reorganizing the basketball operations department and then take a methodical approach to evaluating and reshaping the roster. This new leader needs to be empowered to take charge immediately and be prepared to make moves much bolder than he normally would in his beginning weeks.
If the hire comes from outside the organization, he needs to be clear about the franchise’s path before he knows the route to the office. The NBA is amid perhaps its most transitory era, with shorter contracts and players more amenable than ever to franchise hopping. Every three years or so, there are these moments of great shifting, and if you want to improve your franchise in a timely manner, you must have your stuff together to benefit from those shifts.
The last big one was 2016, when the salary cap spiked. The Wizards were prepared for it; they spent more than two years shuffling the roster for ideal cap flexibility. Nevertheless, they blew it. The roster’s shortcomings and salary cap inflexibility, a good portion of which can be attributed to the mistakes of 2016, led to Ernie Grunfeld losing his job in April after 16 years running the franchise. So we’ve seen the damage that an aggressive plan with good intentions can do. But it would be a mistake to go the other way, turn passive and mostly sit out the 2019 wave.
While the Wizards don’t have cap space this time, they do have Bradley Beal, a 25-year-old all-star, to dangle in the trade market. Trading Beal would be the most difficult decision in this tough offseason. He’s a young talent, still ascending, who could be a part of the solution. With John Wall out for most of next season recovering from a torn Achilles’, Beal is the only marketable star to sell to fans. He’s also a loyal and trustworthy face for the franchise.
But he’s the only desirable asset the Wizards have under contract. Wall’s supermax deal — four years, almost $170 million — kicks in next season. Many act like his career is over; it’s not. He will return and resume what has been a very good career. But his contract is untradeable, and his injury history is concerning, and he turns 30 in 16 months. It would be foolish if the Wizards subscribed to the hope that Beal can hold down the fort, wait for Wall to return and resume being a playoff team in 2020-21 with a few good personnel moves. They have to be proactive. Despite Beal’s willingness to be patient with the franchise, they are on a ticking clock with their youngest star, who has two years and $55 million remaining on his deal.
If the possibility of trading Beal isn’t on Leonsis’s mind, the GM hire doesn’t really matter. It should be essential to this process that every candidate present the makings of creative plans to build around Beal or build without Beal. Maybe it’s better to talk about the latter this way: Build something new because of Beal’s trade value. It’s better to trade Beal when he’s coming off his best season, when his value is highest and when the league is full of teams that have sold their fan bases on their plan to acquire an all-star this summer.
Guess what? Some of those teams are going to be greatly disappointed. And that’s when the Wizards should strike. That’s when they are likely to get the most assets in return for Beal. Because of how highly Beal is regarded in the organization right now, the Wizards figure to make excessive demands in a trade for Beal. But in reality, a good return would be a promising young player on a rookie contract, one current draft asset, one future first-rounder and some cap filler that could be useful in the short term.
Think on it, and there are plenty of intriguing trade possibilities that could be available to the Wizards soon. Many of them involve teams — the Los Angeles Lakers, for instance — selecting before Washington in this draft.
But they have to hire a GM first, and then we’ll have a greater sense of what is best for the franchise based on that person’s history, skill set and vision. Leonsis should have ranked the candidates in order of track record or potential in finding talent in creative places. That’s how you get a sense of who really knows talent. Then he should have written one word in capital letters and circled it: BOLD.
The Wizards need a talent evaluator who thinks differently and has the acumen and audacity to pull it off. And then they need to make the introduction quickly and make way for the new leader to go to work. There’s much to be done in a short period, and it could make or break a new era before it really begins.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/Brewer