The Washington Wizards sat idle during the NBA draft because, as they were thrilled to say, they traded their first-round pick for Markieff Morris. They’ll probably never exclaim “We’ve got Markieff!” as loudly as they are now, not with his penchant for getting into trouble and indifference toward rebounding and defense.
Nonetheless, in a suspect draft, the Wizards are able to laugh at anyone who suggests that they will rue the day they didn’t pick Georgios Papagiannis. If I didn’t miss a vowel, that’s the player who was taken at No. 13, the pick the Wizards dealt for Morris in February. If the 7-foot-2 Greek center doesn’t become an acceptable NBA player, at least he can be a great spelling-bee foil. On Thursday, as the rest of the league endured a wild night of mass trading and puzzling choices, it made sense that the Wizards’ first move in a critical offseason was to prop up their feet and enjoy the chaos.
It will be the last break they receive for a while.
A week from now, the Wizards will be in the middle of the most lucrative and competitive free agency period in NBA history. With the salary cap expected to rise to $94 million next season, the Wizards could have a little more than $31 million to work with, enough money to give a max contract to even the most veteran marquee free agent. Of course, they covet homegrown superstar Kevin Durant, but that pursuit is complicated, if not impossible. It’s likely that the Wizards will be engaged in intense competition for even their second, third, fourth and fifth options.
For Ernie Grunfeld and his latest rebuilding effort, this is a defining summer. If he’s successful, he completes a roster capable of winning 50-plus games for the first time since the franchise’s 1978-79 season. If he fails, the Wizards remain stuck in the land of so-so, which is an awkward place in the NBA and a sentence that the fan base has endured too many times.
Grunfeld is spinning the offseason a little differently.
“First of all, we have a starting five coming back from last year, and obviously we had a lot of injuries last year, and things didn’t go exactly the way we wanted to, but most of those players have been in the playoffs,” said Grunfeld, the general manager and team president. “They’ve advanced in the playoffs. So we have a very solid, good core coming back, and hopefully we’ll try to add some pieces to it.”
It’s true that the Wizards advanced to the second round of the playoffs in back-to-back seasons before last year. It’s also true that, after finishing 41-41 last season and landing three games out of the eighth and final postseason spot in the Eastern Conference, they don’t have to scrap everything and start over. They do have a talented starting five: Morris, all-star John Wall, Otto Porter Jr., Marcin Gortat and Bradley Beal, a restricted free agent who wants a max contract himself. They have long and athletic 20-year-old Kelly Oubre Jr. as a developmental piece, too. But when you look beyond the names and get into production, when you scrutinize these players as possible fits on a 50-win team, you start to understand that the Wizards have more work to do than they’ll admit.
Wall is a great player who continues to get better, but he’ll be coming off two knee surgeries. Beal turns 23 next week, and he’s been amazingly productive for his age, but he has that troublesome right leg. Porter just turned 23, and his numbers rose to 11.6 points and 5.2 rebounds last season, but can he be the third-best player on a contender?
There’s more: Gortat is a quality center who has averaged around 13 points and nine rebounds over three seasons in Washington, but can he be more consistent? Morris averaged 12.4 points and 5.9 rebounds in 27 games after joining the Wizards last season and filled a much-needed role as a young power forward with upside, but can he play with more energy on the court and be more dependable off it? And will Oubre be a consistent rotation player this season, or is he a true long-term project?
In most offseasons, when a team has $31 million in cap space available, the money dictates that free agents automatically will love your situation. In most offseasons, the Wizards’ core would be more than enough to entice marquee players. But this time nearly half the league will have max-salary cap room, and most of the teams that don’t have the roster flexibility to get there. The competition demands that the Wizards and everyone else will be scrutinized more than usual.
This is why the Wizards must be more agile than they’ve ever been to avoid being relegated to filling out the roster with underwhelming veteran role players. This summer isn’t just about pursuing free agents; maybe some of that cap space is better utilized in the trade market. The Wizards can’t fall too in love with their current starters or their young core because perhaps some of those players are assets to be used to get better.
Everything has to be on the table, except for trading Wall. The Wizards must have the mind-set that they’re going to push the franchise past mediocrity — or die trying. They’re not living right now anyway. They’re just existing. In the NBA, you should always be going for it or starting over. So-so land is no place to be.
For years, the Wizards executed a plan to have cap flexibility this summer, to make a run at advancing past mediocrity. They can’t be timid or stubborn over the next few weeks.
The draft vacation is over. There’s no more time to look at Morris’s highlight reel and laugh as the rest of the league slips on banana peels. The hardest part of the most important offseason in Ted Leonsis’s ownership tenure is set to begin.
All the Wizards have built so far in the Wall era is a little stability. If 41-41 is now considered a disaster, it shows how far they’ve come in six years. But how far do they want to go?
We’ll know the answer soon.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.