The Wizards are probably done, but the euphoria over their spirited playoff mini run is justified. Before two weeks ago, the Wiz had won just one playoff series since 1981-82. Think about how incompetent a franchise must be to poop out such a run in a league where half the teams make the postseason. Even Donald Sterling is kind of impressed.
They botched picks high in the draft. They empowered the wrong executives. They made soul-crushing trades. They lived through real guns, Finger Guns, Lap Dance Tuesday, JaVale McGee, and JaVale McGee’s mom. They were at times more avant-garde comedy troupe than NBA franchise.
After a history so sad, the last month has real meaning. John Wall has struggled shooting and looked totally out of sorts against Indiana, but he’s learning, and he kept making plays even while flinging up bricks. Bradley Beal emerged as a potential All-Star, a crucial development. Free agents will want to play with a starry backcourt, and the Wiz have long been a sleeping giant in attracting free agents. Washington is a cool city, and a ton of high-profile players grew up in the surrounding region.
So let the Wiz and their fans bask in this a bit, because things are about to get complicated. The moment Indiana sends the Wizards on to a butterbeer bender, the latter franchise will stand at a defining crossroads. The Wizards will operate at the intersection of a bunch of key trends within the sport — the evolving nature of free agency; the imbalance between the East and West; the rising salary cap; and organizational tug-of-war between purists who want to chase the ring and realists happy with sustained “pretty good” success. Navigating this thicket of competing questions will be tougher than hunting Horcruxes.
The Wiz can approach the future on firmer footing, with more confidence Beal will become the player they hoped for when they drafted him at no. 3 in 2012. The Wiz targeted Beal from the start, and they crossed their fingers Charlotte would pass on him at no. 2. Washington had Harrison Barnes slotted in as a backup plan, and sent out some false feelers it was interested in Thomas Robinson, according to several sources around the league. But the Wizards wanted Beal, picturing him as the perfect sweet-shooting spot-up guy around Wall pick-and-rolls and maniacal fast breaks.
But Beal, still just 20, has done more than spot up in the playoffs. He has emerged as a capable secondary ball handler, flashing a collection of wily moves on all sorts of pick-and-rolls. He has often supplanted Wall as the team’s top clutch option, jacking more crunch-time shots than Wall in the playoffs after attempting about the same number during the regular season on a per-minute basis.1 He made massive plays down the stretch in Game 1 against Indy, and in Games 2 and 3 in Washington’s grinding five-game win over the Bulls.
Beal’s emergence is a boon for Washington, but it also introduces some complications. Wall has improved his jump shot, but he’s an inconsistent and sometimes reluctant shooter, and defenses shade away from him when Beal has the ball:
George Hill is roving off Wall with more daring in each game. Watch him abandon Wall in the left corner to crash the foul line as Beal drives in Game 3:
Beal recognizes that defenders slide an extra step off Wall, clogging his own driving lanes. “Yeah, it’s definitely noticeable,” Beal says of the roving. “But John has improved his jumper this year, and he can put it on the floor and get past you.” Beal says he can punish defenders who abandon Wall by kicking the ball to him and forcing those defenders to scramble long distances on panicked closeouts. Good luck stopping a Wall turbo drive if you’re sprinting at him, your momentum going away from the hoop as Wall prepares to jet toward it. “We can still create havoc for the defense,” Beal says. “You have to stop John Wall going 100 miles per hour.”
A situation like this could create tension — the franchise point guard ceding control of the offense to a younger teammate with a more reliable jumper. But Wall and Beal insist they are complementary players, and Wiz higher-ups envision them as interchangeable. “They both respect the game,” says Ernie Grunfeld, the Wizards’ GM. “They know they can help each other. They realize the best way to make a name for yourself is through team success.”
If Beal runs a pick-and-roll in the middle and kicks to Wall on the left side for a second pick-and-roll, which one is the point guard? They are almost the same size, capable in theory of switching assignments on defense in any situation.
And Beal the ball handler is not going away. He has thrived running more pick-and-rolls in the playoffs against two of the league’s three best defenses. The Wiz have scored .926 points per possession in the playoffs when Beal runs a pick-and-roll and finishes with a shot, turnover, or drawn foul, per Synergy. That’s a massive jump from his putrid regular-season number, and would have ranked 12th for the season among 130 players who finished at least 75 such plays — right above Tony Parker. Include pick-and-rolls in which a Beal pass leads directly2 to a teammate’s shot, and the number jumps to 1.066 points per possession — about identical to what LeBron James put up for the season, per Synergy.
The playoffs are a tiny sample size, and Beal’s career ballhandling reel is uglier, heavy on pull-up bricks and off-target passes. But Beal insists the improvement is legitimate, and he has taken on more of a creative burden in the playoffs without an uptick in turnovers. “People used to say I was one-dimensional,” Beal says, “that I could only shoot. But I’ve always had this inside of me.”
Adds Grunfeld: “Bradley Beal is not a shooter. He’s a basketball player.”
He’s a tricky little bugger, that’s for sure. He fools defenders with subtle shoulder fakes, pretending he’s going toward a pick, but then darting away from it as his defender bumbles about. And when Beal meets the big man waiting to cut him off, he’ll freeze that behemoth with a mean hesitation dribble before launching a floater or slashing to the rim. He just didn’t have moves like this in his bag even six months ago:
He almost always goes left, and the Wizards set up a lot of Beal-centric actions so that he’s going right-to-left on the floor. “I’ve always been more comfortable that way,” he says. “I love when teams let me dribble left. Little do they know it’s my stronger hand.”
They do now.
For better or worse, Beal is also the league’s most voracious handoff user. A full 16 percent of Beal’s shots came via handoffs this season, the largest share in the league for any player, per Synergy. This is largely the result of Randy Wittman’s playbook, which includes several sets designed to spring Beal for midrange jumpers.3
Beal loves to juke defenders at the right elbow, faking a cut toward the middle before taking a handoff and slithering to the left baseline. See ya, Mike Dunleavy Jr.
“Yeah, that’s kind of my pet move,” Beal says.
It helps to have two expert screeners in Nene and Marcin Gortat. They are giant humans, and sort of nasty, happy to slam dudes with body checks. But they are also artful pick-setters, changing the angle of their screens at the last second in ways that flummox defenders who just aren’t used to big men setting screens that are both hard and unpredictable. Both bigs will jog up to Beal’s right, slow down as if they are going to set a pick there, and then flip their bodies around so that they are suddenly standing to Beal’s left. “Those are my guys,” Beal says. “The defense just has no idea which direction I’m going.”
Let’s not celebrate like we’ve won the Triwizard Tournament here: Beal still has a long way to go as an NBA-level ball handler. He takes too many pull-up long 2s, and while that’s a good shot against defenses designed to give up that exact look, it makes for a long night when Beal’s jumper is off. Washington’s Game 3 loss to Indiana devolved into an unwatchable series of midrange bricks.
Beal rarely gets to the line and aborts dribble drives, even when a path to the rim is there:
Some of his passes are off target, aimed at the feet of a rolling big man, or thrown just a bit ahead of the play. His defense has been uneven, both on and off the ball, but he works his ass off, and he has the tools to be very good on that end. He’s only 20, and he’ll probably make some All-Star Games at a barren position (shooting guard).
But one of his screeners (Gortat) is a free agent, and the other one is a lock to miss at least 20 games every season. Trevor Ariza is also headed to free agency and figures to draw a ton of suitors; half the league’s teams could have at least $10 million in cap room, and the price is going up for the kind of 3-and-D wing play Ariza brings.
Ariza is almost 29, and Gortat is 30. Executives around the league figure they will get something between $15 million and $20 million per year combined on the open market, likely on three- or four-year contracts.
The Wiz are interested in re-signing both, and you can’t really blame them. They are surely hoping the market for Ariza dampens amid concern over the red light blinking “CONTRACT YEAR” and whether Ariza would get the same juicy corner 3s without Wall’s freakish fast-breaking.
Washington also needs talent. The team’s solid play in the postseason has overshadowed the number of missed high draft picks dotting the roster. Grunfeld traded the no. 5 pick in 2009 — the Ricky Rubio pick — for Mike Miller and Randy Foye. Chris Singleton, the 18th pick in 2011, is in street clothes. Kevin Seraphin, the 17th pick in 2010, rarely plays. (Seraphin’s snake, Snakey, remains an elite prospect with jarring speed covering the pick-and-roll.) Trevor Booker, taken six spots later in the same draft, flows in and out of the rotation. Professor Andre Miller is holding these mid-May office hours only because the Wiz flipped another draft bust, Jan Vesely, the no. 6 pick in 2011, to Denver in exchange for Miller. I legitimately forget Otto Porter is in the league until they show his face on TV.
Whiffing on picks in the middle of the first round is normal, but whiffing on three in a row is discouraging, and getting nothing (so far) for three top-six picks is borderline disastrous.
The Wiz won’t have a first-round pick this year, having traded it to Phoenix, along with Emeka Okafor’s massive expiring contract, for Gortat. The deal accomplished what the team needed under enormous win-now pressure from Wizards owner Ted Leonsis. Gortat cemented a shaky big-man rotation, and the Wiz are in the playoffs.
But it also carried an opportunity cost, and has left the Wiz a bit thinner on assets going forward. There is no easy way to maintain this level of winning without re-signing both Ariza and Gortat. Most league executives outside Washington expect both players to re-sign with the Wiz.
This is a fascinating internal debate for Washington. Gortat and Ariza are solid players, and this current core is very good; the Wiz’s starting lineup outscored opponents by 10.5 points per 100 possessions in the regular season, an elite mark for any five-man group that plays so much, per NBA.com. But this team does not measure up to the other title contenders, and any slippage in play from a foundation player — especially the brittle but very valuable Nene — could be fatal.
The Wiz would appear to need a third All-Star type to really chase the ring going forward, but inking both Ariza and Gortat to fair-market deals would make it difficult to find that player. It would obliterate Washington’s cap room in each of the next two summers, and perhaps even through 2016-17, when these theoretical Ariza/Gortat deals would expire. Those Wiz, of course, would be far too good to net a high draft pick. Would they be stuck?
It’s tempting to suggest the Wiz let both walk, fill the gaps with cheap players on shorter deals, and maintain as much flexibility as possible as more young stars hit free agency or the trade market. This is how Houston kept its cap sheet lean enough to lure Dwight Howard and still maintain enough cap flexibility to chase a third max-level free agent over the next two years.
The Wiz could find bargain players who could produce a decent portion of what Ariza and Gortat bring. Hell, Martell Webster is already around on a four-year, $22 million deal. Ariza’s better than Webster, but it’s not exactly model asset management to have nearly $20 million per season locked up in Ariza, Webster, and Porter.
But Ariza and Gortat are not fungible stiffs. They are really good NBA players. Replace them with cheaper facsimiles, and the Wiz will absolutely feel the hit — especially in the playoffs, when the 20 percent gap between a solid NBA veteran and a minimum-level guy feels like the freaking Grand Canyon.
Three other variables might tilt the Wiz in the direction of re-signing both guys and living with the cap consequences:
1. This has been a pathetic franchise for so long that even a small step back would be unpalatable. The Wiz have buzz and an owner who wants to win.
2. The Eastern Conference is a steaming pile of crap. Indiana has found its form again, but folks around the league are increasingly skeptical this is some young juggernaut in the making. No one is sure what Miami will look like next season, or whether Derrick Rose will rediscover his peak form. The Nets are set for another transformation, Boston is years away, Toronto isn’t some budding 60-win powerhouse (yet), and the Knicks are banking on free agency in 2015 and beyond.
This Washington team, with Ariza and Gortat, could look at itself and legitimately argue it has a real chance to make the conference finals every year over the next half-decade. And if you can get that far, you’re an injury or matchup edge away from making the Finals. You might get slaughtered like the 2007 Cavaliers or the Jason Kidd–era Nets, but getting to the Finals is a giant accomplishment, and one of those New Jersey teams came very close to taking San Antonio the full seven games.
If the Wiz were in the West, they would be Minnesota. But they’re in the East, where it doesn’t take all that much to get shockingly close to the Finals.
3. The cap is going to keep going up, and nobody is quite sure where it will stop. It’s going to jump about $5 million next season, to $63 million, and the league projects another jump to $66.5 million in 2015-16. The NBA’s national TV deal expires after that, and the new one that kicks in for 2016-17 will bring a heaping bonanza of revenue. The cap is tied to the league’s overall revenue, so it may leap even further than expected in the year or two after the new TV deal locks in.
This is the wild card in front-office circles right now. Everyone is trying to project the cap’s path forward, even though no one can really know for sure. Some executives think there will be an inflection point — a single year when it jumps dramatically. Some expect a bubble that will burst. Some expect continued steady increases until the league imposes another lockout in 2017 and tries to institute a hard cap.
If the cap keeps rising, long-term overpays for Gortat and Ariza this summer might be almost harmless. Contracts used to be longer and carry bigger raises compounded every year. They’re shorter now, with smaller maximum raises based on only a percentage of a player’s salary in the first season of a new deal. Teams have pushed harder for contracts that decrease in year-over-year salary. The end result: Contracts signed in the present day look less and less damaging in proportion to the rising cap every season out from initial signing.
The Wiz could re-sign Ariza and Gortat at nearly $20 million combined and still have enough breathing room to use the full midlevel exception this summer and next without approaching the tax.4 This Wiz team, plus two midlevel free agents — that’s a solid team, especially if Beal continues to develop an all-around game.
There are other routes beyond replacing the free agents with cheaper ones. The Wiz could have as much as $15 million in cap space this summer by renouncing both Ariza and Gortat,5 and even more by dumping Professor Miller somewhere. That would give the Wiz enough ammo to make an honest run at Carmelo Anthony or Chris Bosh, or to poach Greg Monroe in restricted free agency.6
The Wiz may need to retain Bird rights on Gortat and Ariza so they can outbid suitors who would offer those players the midlevel exception. That wouldn’t preclude Washington from going under the cap. The Wiz could keep Gortat and Ariza on their books unsigned, talk to Bosh/Melo-level players, and then renounce Gortat and Ariza if they strike an informal deal with one of the stars.
Washington could work the trade market to find a capable replacement for one or both guys — a proven veteran better than the minimum-salary stopgaps, but on a cheaper and/or shorter deal than Ariza and Gortat will get. The Wiz have long liked Jeff Green, who has just two seasons left on his current deal. They could help Denver reboot by flipping one player for the combo of Wilson Chandler and J.J. Hickson, both with two seasons left on their deals.7 They could kick the tires on any number of useful wing players under contract in Minnesota and Memphis.
But the Wiz don’t have many trade assets, especially with Porter’s value as low as it could get. Some of these deals would require sweeteners, and Washington is almost out of stevia.
The Wizards could work the free-agent market in the same way, searching for Marvin Williams/Spencer Hawes/Ekpe Udoh/Patrick Patterson/Ed Davis/Jason Smith/Kris Humphries types who might come cheaper than the Ariza/Gortat combo.
It would be hard to find exact replicas for the kind of production Ariza and Gortat bring now and should be able to maintain as they hit their early thirties. These dudes are good, and they mesh with Wall’s pick-and-roll game. Ariza’s size is also key for the Wiz. Beal is a hearty defender, but he’s not tall enough to defend bully small forwards; Paul George has posted Beal up whenever he has gotten the chance in this series, and Washington has responded with emergency double-teams to save Beal.
These represent middle ways designed to keep the Wiz a bit leaner going forward, in a better position to lure a true third star. But some of these proposals might not bring enough savings to be worth it, considering the on-court drop-off, and the Wiz may not be so concerned about savings. Living in the Eastern Conference and under a soaring cap makes the treadmill of pretty good look a lot more appealing.