If you like your disappointment in a cluster, you’ll put this second-round exit with the two others of the John Wall and Bradley Beal era and conclude that the Washington Wizards are stuck. Three second rounds, three setbacks in four years? Frustration creates a belief that they’re just an idling good team.
Let’s not get carried away. It’s more logical to put the 2016-17 Wizards into their own category. This was something new. New coach. Nine new players to start the season. New style of play, new belief system, new and improved results — 49 wins, the most the franchise has had since 1979. This season represented the start of something fresh, something better, not confirmation of old limitations. As you unpack the year, that’s a key factor to understand before pondering the future.
It’s important because, when you think that way, the next step is clear: Bring back this core. Double down on the progress. Try to add without subtracting significant contributors.
Sound good? Cool. There’s one problem, though.
To keep the guts of this team intact, the Wizards will have to commit like they never have. Their two most important personnel decisions involve restricted free agents, forwards Otto Porter Jr. and Bojan Bogdanovic, both in position to receive huge pay increases. Retention alone could force owner Ted Leonsis to make a decision to go well over the salary cap and into luxury-tax territory. If the Wizards want to retain Porter, Bogdanovic and the core and then add a solid veteran free agent — remember, depth was an issue from the beginning of the season through Game 7 in Boston — they would certainly have to be a taxpayer.
The luxury tax has been a sensitive subject for Leonsis in the past. There’s a belief he’ll never allow the Wizards to go that far over the cap, but he’ll cite instances, such as using the amnesty provision on Andray Blatche in 2012, that show he’s willing to do what’s required to improve the roster, as long as it makes sense with the team’s overall direction.
The salary cap for the 2017-18 season is projected to be about $101 million, which means the tax threshold is estimated at $121 million. The Wizards already have $87.7 million in guaranteed contracts next season for eight players: Wall, Beal, Ian Mahinmi, Marcin Gortat, Markieff Morris, Jason Smith, Tomas Satoransky and Kelly Oubre Jr. Factor in the expected qualifying offers to keep matching rights for Porter ($7.7 million) and Bogdanovic ($4.5 million) and team options for rookies Sheldon Mac and Daniel Ochefu, and there goes any possibility of cap space.
The Wizards need to pay Porter and Bogdanovic because their options to replace them are limited with their cap situation. Letting a player walk means creating a hole, unless the Wizards work out a sign-and-trade deal with a team that covets one of those forwards.
Simply put, when the Wizards decided to rebuild through the draft starting with Wall seven years ago, they knew they’d have cap flexibility and the opportunity to create major cap space (which they did last summer) while those players were young. Then there would come a time when all of them required monster second contracts, which is now. That’s what you want because it means you drafted properly. But it’s complicated because, once you spend the cap space you created and then reward the youngsters you developed, that’s the team you’ll be married to for a good while. It had better be a contender by then. If not, you’ve invested in a roster that will require significant work to rebuild. Or you could keep pouring money into the product by using salary cap exceptions and end up being a financially irresponsible version of good but not great.
Trust is a complex demand. The Wizards have good reason to believe in what they’ve built under Coach Scott Brooks after one season. Wall, a four-time all-star, had his best season yet. Beal graduated to elite. Porter added consistent three-point accuracy to his versatile skill set. Morris played well, and Gortat was solid. Oubre is progressing fine for a 21-year-old who played one year of college. Bogdanovic was a good trade-deadline pickup, even though he cost the Wizards a first-round draft pick. Smith is a quality end-of-rotation role player.
That’s eight players to feel good about, but then there’s Mahinmi, who is a core member by virtue of the $64 million contract he signed last summer. He played in only 31 regular season games. He battled knee problems during the season and then a calf injury in the postseason. Next year, his $16 million salary could make better sense if he’s healthy. Or it could be the miscalculation that keeps the Wizards from getting past the second round.
It’s interesting that all of D.C.’s Big Four pro teams are facing variations of the same question: What are you willing to do (read: pay) to keep a good, developing thing together? And how good is good, anyway? For Leonsis’s Capitals, who couldn’t turn back-to-back Presidents’ Trophy feats into deep playoff runs, the issue is how much of the core to retain — and at what price? — within the salary cap structure. For the Nationals, Bryce Harper’s big payday looms after next season. With the Redskins, a contract extension for quarterback Kirk Cousins is the constant cloud. And now the Wizards join the fray with Porter, Bogdanovic and the need to add at least another piece.
“We have a good team that should come back better,” Brooks said Tuesday afternoon. “I love our future. We have a bright future.”
Brooks chose optimism over detailing the challenges. Porter could command a max contract depending on the market this summer. Even if he doesn’t, he’s still going to be in the $20 million-per-season range. Bogdanovic figures to exceed $13 million per year. For a team already paying Wall and Beal max contracts and giving the center duo of Mahinmi and Gortat about $29 million combined, it’s no small investment to add a fifth and sixth member to the Eight-figure Salary Club.
Perhaps the Wizards flirt with a Gortat deal; he sounded Tuesday like his desire to be here was fading. The problem with that trade is, can Mahinmi stay healthy? Centers such as Gortat, who averaged a double-double and led the league in screen assists, aren’t easy to replace. Most likely, the Wizards’ best play is to keep this team together and improve mostly through maturation and familiarity.
It’s a costly play, but it took the Wizards 38 years to get within one victory of a conference finals appearance. Since the franchise made the NBA Finals in 1979 for a second straight year, it has been to the playoffs 15 times. It has exited in the first round 10 times and in the second on five occasions. Retaining the core of the so-called “Death Row D.C.” is a better idea than losing early another way.
So, this offseason, we ask: What’s continuity worth to the Wizards?
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.