It’s been a season of nearly constant turmoil for the Washington Wizards, after being ranked among the favorites in the Eastern Conference during the offseason—and many other recent offseasons. John Wall has missed almost half of the year, Dwight Howard has barely played, and now the trade deadline has come and gone, leaving the roster appearing far different than it did last season.
This all started in 2018, with another classic “beef” between two of the starters—this time, involving John Wall and Marcin Gortat. As a result, Gortat was dealt to the Clippers in the offseason, in exchange for Austin Rivers — I wrote about it at the time here. The move was essentially a swap of equal-value expiring contracts and was meant to take some of the ball-handling load off Wall and Bradley Beal, while also providing a decent three-point shooter.
Instead, Rivers struggled to find his footing, despite being given every opportunity to be the primary backup at both guard spots, and was sent to Phoenix for former Wizard three-and-D star Trevor Ariza. Ascending forward Kelly Oubre Jr., whose contract was also set to expire, was also a part of the deal.
Also well before the deadline, they traded fan favorite Jason Smith and a second-round pick in a three-team deal in which they acquired forward Sam Dekker—another player on the last year of his deal—who was owed half as much money as Smith.
All the while, the Wizards sat on the outside looking in from the playoff hunt, although a seventh or eighth-seed finish was well within reach. They were forced to make a decision — should they continue to go all-in, or cut their losses and look toward the future?
That question was answered for them when Wall, who was already out for the foreseeable future, suffered a complication inside his house, resulting in a ruptured Achilles and an additional infection. With the point guard expected to be out for a calendar year, the Wizards decided to hit the reset button—sort of.
On Wednesday, the team offloaded Otto Porter Jr.‘s max salary to the Bulls, bringing back forward/center Bobby Portis, former No. 2 overall pick Jabari Parker, and a 2023 second-rounder. While Porter had upside as an outside shooter and provided relative versatility, his development appeared to have stagnated—particularly without Wall—and his health had also frequently been a question mark.
Later that night, they shipped veteran Markieff Morris and their own second-round pick from 2023 to the Pelicans for forward Wesley Johnson. Just like that, last season’s core was all but gutted. Only one of its top seven scorers from 2017-18, excluding Wall, remained on the roster.
While not flashy—and almost a ripoff on paper, given Johnson’s lack of production—the trade was a landmark event, as it got the Wizards under the luxury tax, which seemed virtually impossible previously. On top of that, they turned what was projected to be a top-five payroll roster for each season through 2022 into a much more comfortably-priced unit.
Here’s the problem. While Washington cleared itself some space for the future, it wasn’t done perfectly. If the team was going to sell all of its assets, Trevor Ariza and Jeff Green — two forwards north of 30 years old and in the midst of typically productive seasons — should’ve been sent elsewhere. Contenders across the league, most prominently the Lakers, were known to be drooling over them. Ariza is a former Laker and played an unsung, yet gigantic role on Houston’s recent title-contending teams, while Green has also seen his fair share of playoff action, including alongside LeBron James in Cleveland last season.
Any future assets the Wizards could’ve received for either of them would’ve been valuable, but they had one of their own and let him go in Oubre Jr. Washington’s timeline in reference to him is puzzling. They sent him away to get Ariza—an older version of much the same player—offloaded Porter—the man who was most directly blocking him, on the court and financially— and instead kept Ariza and Green — both of whom will be coveted free agents that can only reasonably be signed to short-term deals. If rebuilding is the goal, why is this the route you would go? Either way, that’s the direction they’re taking.
The Wizards plan at this point is to keep Trevor Ariza and Jeff Green with the hopes of retaining the unrestricted free agents beyond this season, per source.
— Ben Standig (@BenStandig) February 7, 2019
As great as having a low payroll is for flexibility purposes, it also opens up a lot of unknown. Only five players — assuming Dwight Howard picks up his player option, given his uncertain health going forward—will be under contract entering the 2019-2020 season. Even more troublesome, the only forward under team control is Troy Brown Jr., a raw rookie who isn’t known for shooting and hasn’t yet grown into his 6-foot-7 frame.
The last 28 games of the season will be an audition period for many of Washington’s role players. Most notably, guard/forward Tomas Satoransky and center Thomas Bryant will be restricted free agents, and it may behoove the Wizards to attempt to retain them, given the impact they’ve had. Neither should be particularly pricey. Bryant is still a low-usage player and might be an easy bargain-buy, and the four-year, $52 million deal that Marcus Smart signed to stay in Boston seems like a decent framework for Satoransky, though his relatively-elevated age may trim a year off the deal.
The recently-acquired Jabari Parker has a $20 million team option that will more than likely be declined, but Bobby Portis will be a restricted free agent. If he produces at the same rate as he did in Chicago and is a culture fit, he may be worth keeping, but only if the price is right.
Definitely surprised Bulls traded Portis. But don't agree with talk of "no loyalty." They offered him a multi-year extension worth $40-50M last Fall. He said no, which is certainly Portis' right. Also, word around league is Portis is looking for $16M annually this summer in RFA.
— K.C. Johnson (@KCJHoop) February 7, 2019
The Wizards have, more or less, entered a rebuild. With that, only one question remains — can owner Ted Leonsis and general manager Ernie Grunfeld show restraint and successfully lead the team through that rebuild?