The time to talk arrived earlier than expected, but once the NBA granted teams permission to speak with agents early Wednesday, the Washington Wizards made sure the first person they contacted was Aaron Mintz, the representative for restricted free agent Nick Young.
Young had a breakout campaign in his fourth season, averaging a career-high 17.4 points and emerging as the Wizards’ leading scorer after the team dealt Gilbert Arenas to Orlando. The Wizards have already extended a $3.7 million qualifying offer that gives them right of first refusal if Young signs an offer sheet with another team and have made it clear that retaining Young is imperative toward their efforts to build an exciting and athletic team around point guard John Wall.
But the Wizards also know that they will need to add some more experience to a team that has seven players under contract — with only one of them older than 26 — and three more draft picks set to sign whenever the players re-form the union and the collective bargaining agreement is completed and ratified by a majority of owners and players. So the Wizards also reached out to acknowledge interest with the representatives of two of their unrestricted free agents, Josh Howard and Maurice Evans.
“We’re looking to see what the possibilities of retaining them are,” Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld said of Young, Howard and Evans. “Obviously, we have a young team and we’d like to keep the nucleus together. But I think you have to keep a balance as far as veterans are concerned also. We’d like to add a couple of veterans who are currently not under contract, then see who’s available to us.”
Nene, Tyson Chandler, Marc Gasol and David West are considered some of the big catches in an otherwise uninspiring free agent class, and the Wizards aren’t expected to make a serious bid for any of the top players on the market. Teams can discuss terms with agents but cannot agree to a deal until the signing period begins on Dec. 9.
The salary cap for the upcoming season is expected to be around $58 million and the Wizards have about $47 million tied up in the players — with nearly $22 million assigned just to Rashard Lewis — so the Wizards aren’t in a position to open the bank to sign much more than a second-tier talent such as former Wizard Roger Mason and big men Jamaal Magloire, Jason Smith and Aaron Gray.
The new collective bargaining agreement will have an amnesty provision that allows teams to waive one player currently under contract before the season begins and remove that contract from the salary cap. Waiving Lewis would create considerable cap room to sign players, but it would also produce potential problems with teams forced to spend a minimum of 85 percent of the salary cap. Tying up money in a weak free agent market could potentially damage the Wizards’ rebuilding plans, with center JaVale McGee and Wall eligible for extensions in the future.
Two people with knowledge of the Wizards’ thinking have said that it is unlikely that the team uses the amnesty provision on Lewis or anyone else before this season. But the Wizards could wait and see what players other teams waive, which could add more free agents to the mix.
Grunfeld said that he isn’t looking to sign players who would take significant minutes away from the young players the Wizards are developing. Wall, Lewis, McGee and Andray Blatche are projected to be starters, with the team hoping to find playing time for second-year playersJordan Crawford, Kevin Seraphin and Trevor Booker and rookies Jan Vesely, Chris Singleton and Shelvin Mack.
“I think we’re pretty well balanced at each position,” Grunfeld said. “We have a team that is building. Some of our young players got valuable experience last year, which is going to help them this year. They’ve been together for a while and now we have to incorporate some of the younger players, along with some of the veterans that we sign.”
The signing period coincides with the opening of training camps but the Wizards are in better position than most since they’ll likely have enough for five-on-five drills and Coach Flip Saunders was able to establish his system with many of his core players last season.
“We probably have more players under contract than many teams. I think that always helps, but when you don’t have an extended time to work with young players and you have to cram things in a little bit,” said Grunfeld, whose team will open training camp on Dec. 9 at Verizon Center. “But we are familiar with some of the players we had coming in last year, but we also have some players that are going to be fresh and new to everything we can do.”
Young, 26, has been with the Wizards his entire career but is expected to attract interest from several teams that need shooting guards (Chicago, Denver, Phoenix, Dallas and Milwaukee) and have money to add the player with the highest scoring average of any perimeter player on the market (Sacramento and New Orleans). The new agreement cuts the time to match an offer sheet from seven days to three days, but many agents feel that teams will be unwilling to tie up money in restricted free agents with the shortened signing period, making it more difficult for them to get outside offers.