By Charlie Gibson
Follow me on twitter @cgibson1619
Cover photo from misterirrelevant.com
When Washington acquired Jared Dudley over the summer to be a Paul Pierce pseudo-replacement they did not know just how large a role he was going to be asked to play. They got him for a phantom second-round pick (top-55 protected) from a Milwaukee front office that needed to open up front-court minutes and didn’t want to deal with Dud’s impending surgery. The 30 year old Dudley was brought to the Capital to provide many of the same skills Pierce did—three point shooting, ability to play stretch-four, and loud-mouthed charisma. Injuries to others, along with Dudley’s consistent and smart play—which he previously showcased in Phoenix and Milwaukee—have resulted in Dudley playing the second most minutes on the 20-21 Wizards halfway through the season.
Last year the Wizards’ leaders in minutes were, in order, Wall, Gortat, Beal, Pierce, Nene. This year, it has been, so far, Wall, Dudley, Porter, Gortat, Temple. Beal has played the 7th most minutes on the team, and Nene the 11th. Wall has had a mishmash of players around him, and the Wizards have struggled to keep up with an improved Eastern Conference playoff field. Wittman’s vaunted defense, which had withstood injuries before, has not been able to survive the switch to small-ball, currently ranking 19th in defensive efficiency.
The Wizards started the season with a horrible November, getting outscored by 7.5 points a game in their 11 matchups. The team quickly found itself near the bottom of the conference, but has started to play with more urgency—following the lead of John Wall. Since December 19th they are 10-7 and have outscored opponents by 2.75 points per game. Many players have stepped up during that span, including Garrett Temple who has played the second most minutes during that stretch.
This Wizards team, handed the fifth seed the last two years, has its back against the wall. This is compelling stuff. Every player has to scrap for the team to win games, and they have been. Wall has been better than ever, averaging 21.9 pts/10.8 ast/2.2 stl in his last 27 games (Dec/Jan), was East Player of the Month in December and, since, East Player of the Week. Jared Dudley is shooting 46.2% from three, third best in the league, and when he and Wall have played together they’ve outscored opponents by 4.3 points per 100/possessions.
Marcin Gortat has stepped up, averaging 13.6 pts/9.9 reb—both highs for his time in Washington—and has also been an East Player of the Week. Temple has averaged a three and a steal a game, and at 34.1% from deep is making just enough to be a legitimate 3&D player. Ramon Sessions leads all players averaging under 22 minutes/game in made free throws a game with 2.8. Gary Neal is shooting 42.5% from three, and Otto has had stretches of strong play. In fact, of the Wizards top 11 players, only Kelly Oubre (who has played with energy) has a single digit PER.
That’s great, but they’re still .500. Can they improve?
An old fashioned fight for the playoffs is what we are going to get this year, so we might as well enjoy it. That’s because the team you see is more or less the team you’re going to get for the season. Ernie Grunfeld has made moves to ensure the Wizards have cap space this summer. Nene and most role players are expiring, the salary cap is set to jump $20 million, and Beal has a cap-hold smaller than his expected salary. It is unlikely Grunfeld will make a trade that would upset this balance, especially because becoming this financially flexible is one of the reasons the current roster is this thin in the first place.
Grunfeld should, however, be expected to make a small trade before the deadline. He’s made a deadline trade every year since 2010. (I’ll count it down for you. 2015: got Sessions, 2014: got Andre Miller, 2013: dumped Jordan Crawford, 2012: got Nene, 2011: got Jordan Crawford, 2010: blew up team by trading Jamison and Butler.) That’s every year since before Wall was drafted. I have to say I think Ernie did a good job with all those trades, and I expect him to make a small upgrade this year. But, since he can’t take on money, and almost definitely won’t trade Nene, his ability to upgrade the roster will be fairly minimal.
There are other ways the Wizards can look different than they did the first half of the season. The improved East has handed the Wiz one of the most difficult schedules so far, per ESPN. They are 0-6 combined against Toronto and Boston, and they are 10-13 at home, third worst in the East. They won’t play the Raps and Celts six more times, but if they don’t fix that home record they are toast. Three February games against the 76ers are coming at a good time.
Fans—and Randy Wittman—can also hope to get more production from Nene and Beal going forward. The two have played in 20 and 21 games, respectively, but have looked good for the last two weeks.
Nene has the best defensive rating (per basketball-reference) on the team, and they’ve outscored opponents by 5.3 points per 100/possessions during his (measly) 353 minutes on the court. His versatility on defense and passing on offense, along with his size, bring unique elements to the team. He’s only playing 17.7 minutes a game so far, but his recent starts—to replace Gortat and to match Miami’s size—have energized him. His 17.4 PER and the team’s struggles without him show that Nene may have been a little over looked during the whole switch to small ball. This is the last year of his contract and they might not make the playoffs. He should be out there basically every minute Gortat is not, and they should share the court at times. Nene needs to play 20+ minutes a game while he’s healthy.
Brad Beal is shooting 53.5% in the 143 minutes he’s played without John Wall on the court, and 42.5% in the 572 minutes he’s played with Wall (per nbawowy). This is a small sample size, but it matches the eye test. Beal looks more comfortable being aggressive when he knows he’s the most talented player out there. Beal plays off of Wall quite well—the transition Wall to Beal three is my favorite play—but he also takes more chances and the burden of more possessions when he’s out there alone. My point is I like Beal in the 6th man role for the time being, staggering his minutes with Wall, and contributing efficiently. In the future he should be starting, but this seems okay for the time being. He was recently quoted saying he may be on a minutes limit the rest of his career. To me this is hyperbole that I’ll start to worry about when I hear it from someone who is both a doctor, and older than 22.
Right now the Wiz are in a scrum with New York, Orlando, and Charlotte, right outside the playoffs. Miami (23-21) currently occupies the eight seed and Boston (23-21) is seventh. Washington should be able to reach these guys if they can maintain their play of the last month. This is no laughing matter, however. DC has no wiggle room, and needs to play with total focus the rest of the season. In the tier above those teams are the Pistons and Pacers. There are scenarios in which the Wiz could catch one of them, just like there are scenarios the team could finish 10th—where they sit today.
This current construction of the John Wall Wizards, if they make the playoffs, probably has about the same ceiling as the last two Wizards teams. If they avoid the eight seed they can provide an interesting series, but if they play Cleveland they have no chance. The main reason it matters, desperately, if they make the playoffs is for John Wall’s legacy. The more important question than “how will the season end?” is “how will the team evolve into the next era?”
We’ve all known the plan for some time now. Clear up maximum level cap-space for summer 2016, when DC native Kevin Durant is an unrestricted free agent. Durant is a top-4 player in the league, and was top-2 when the plan was set in action. Having a top-3 player, more than anything else, is the best indicator of having a shot at the championship. However small the Wizards chances of Durant may have been, they were worth going for because he would have changed DC as a basketball city.
Like I said, we all know the plan. Ted’s always been transparent—ever since his “Ted” Point Plan to let young players develop. Nobody was too coy about the ultimate goal, including John Wall. Ernie ensured that Nene’s and Wittman’s contracts expired this summer, and Ted, in turn, ensured that Ernie’s contract expired this summer. The team has made an effort to not acquire players with contracts beyond 2016. Dudley, Anderson, and Neal were one-year deals, Sessions and Temple are free agents, Martell Webster was waived and stretched, and Humphries, Blair, and Gooden have non-guaranteed deals.
The goal is to get Durant, but the chances of that look pretty small right now unless he and Westbrook start hating each other. As has been detailed elsewhere, a max contract for a 9 year veteran in 2016 is significantly smaller than a max contract for a 10 year veteran in 2017 (when the cap will go up another $18 million!). Durant could make $40 more million over his next five years by signing a “LeBron-tract” this summer. So if the most likely scenario is that Durant does not come home, this is a major off-season of transition for the franchise.
John Wall has three more years on his deal, after this one. In 2019 he has every right to walk out that door and sign with any team he pleases. Three years is a long time and no time at all in the NBA. Ted Leonsis has some major decisions to make, and fast. First he has to decide if Grunfeld is the man running the team going forward. Gunfeld has been team President and General Manager since 2003, quietly one of the longer tenures in the league. The fact that he is still around leads me to believe he will be for a while, because he and Ted must be talking, frequently, about how to plan for the future—mustn’t they?
Here are some decisions that Ted and his team of minds are thinking about:
1. The Wizards will have to decide who will coach their team next year—whether it’s Randy or someone else. We all know Wittman. WizofAwes hates Wittman. Wall likes him, he’s defense first, and he’s had success. It seems like it might be about time to move on. A new coach has more upside than another Witt season. Let’s get the boys a real tactician. My preference is to get a big name coach who is well respected (but I’m old fashioned that way), and yes Jeff Van Gundy that means I’m looking at you.
2. Brad Beal: to re-sign or not to re-sign. He’s missed games with a stress reaction in every season, he’s never looked like an All-Star for extended time, and the contract he is going to get will be bigger than John Wall’s. To me this is still an easy one, you have to do it. He’s 22, he has a lot invested in him, and he’s been great in the playoffs. His upside is worth it. Grunfeld can leverage the extra year only Washington can offer him to try and get Beal to take a couple million less than the max, but Beal’s guaranteed to be retained. Another question is how the team uses his Bird Rights. His cap-hold is $14 million but his projected ’16-17 salary is $20+ million. If the Wiz sign him after other players they can go over the cap to do so. Leonsis paid $551 million for the team; Forbes now has it worth $960 million. He can afford a year in the tax.
3. How to handle free agency if Durant doesn’t sign. They should have $30 million in cap room this summer, factoring in Beal’s cap-hold. They could try and attract a second-tier high end FA like Al Horford or DeMar DeRozen, or they could spend it on a number of quality free agents. Impact players will be available, such as Chandler Parsons, Harrison Barnes, Nic Batum, Hassan Whiteside, Dwight Howard—but they will all come with caveats and price tags. Alternately, they could roll over their cap-space, Mavericks style, and have massive cap-space in summer ’17. It seems unlikely they would use a year of Wall’s career on another patchwork roster, so look for major change this summer. Don’t count Ernie out from using a trade to alter the roster, not just free agency.
Those are choices in the immediate future that the front office will have to face. Always on their mind should be the potential of getting an elite running mate for Wall. He has never played with another All-Star and has had to carry the team every year. Finding Wall an elite teammate would go the furthest in getting him to stay in 2019. It is something the Cavs were unable to do for LeBron, the Raps couldn’t do for Bosh, the Timbs couldn’t do for Love, and New Orleans couldn’t do for Chris Paul. The ability to truly compete means everything.
If Ernie really has it in him to acquire a superstar is another story. The man’s pulled some great trades, don’t get me wrong. He got Marcus Camby and Latrell Sprewell via trades for the ’98-99 Knicks, he made the famous Ray Allen for Gary Payton trade for the Bucks (questionable, in a vacuum), and, for the Wiz, he traded for Caron Butler, Antawn Jamison, and Nene. But a superstar is going to cost you everything. Love, Harden, Melo, Pau, CP3, and Deron Williams were all traded for more assets than Ernie has ever been comfortable dealing. Current ownership has been patient with young players, but with the era of development over, how patient can they really be with Beal, Porter, and Kelly Oubre? They all have promise, but if a superstar becomes available Ernie better have the balls to pull the trigger. Let me be as clear as I can be: if Wall’s college roommate, DeMarcus Cousins, demands a trade from Sactown, Wiz brass has to be ready to offer the three aforementioned players and picks.
However the three seasons after this one play out, they will have a major impact on the whole franchise. Wall is a rare talent and a charismatic leader. He has embraced the city and wants to win here. So here we are, Ted, you’ve got three years to convince Wall to stay by turning the Wiz into a contender. It’s time to put all the cards on the table.