If you lost track of the Washington Wizards amid all Sunday’s wild NBA free-agency news, that’s fine, and reasonable. It speaks well of you, all things considered. A solid double-fistful of the league’s big stars switched teams over the weekend, and none of them came to or left the Wizards—but the Wizards, nothing if not doggedly consistent, nevertheless managed to embarrass themselves.
Bobby Portis, a generally butt fifth-year player the Wizards acquired for the back half of the last season of his existing contract in the trade that sent Otto Porter to the Chicago Bulls, agreed to a two-year deal with the New York Knicks. Jabari Parker, the other butt player the Wizards received in that deal—which, again, sent out a max-salaried 25-year-old elite shooter the team took third overall in 2013—is also a free agent, after the team declined an option that would have kept him under contract next season; he’s not expected to return to Washington, according to reports. Meanwhile, Trevor Ariza—the 34-year-old forward on an expiring contract whom the team acquired in a November trade that sent away 23-year-old former first-round pick Kelly Oubre and 26-year-old guard Austin Rivers (whom the team acquired in a trade last June)—signed a two-year contract with the Sacramento Kings.
In the abstract, shedding Portis, Parker, and Ariza—generously, two crummy players and an aging and deeply eroded one, all of them acquired as undisguised rentals partway through what was already a lost season—is fine; nobody should regret it. But in context, it means that the Wizards ultimately traded away Porter and Oubre, players they drafted third and 15th overall, respectively, and who developed into, respectively, a very good NBA player and a useful and intriguingly athletic one, who sure seemed to figure into the team’s long-term plans as recently as last October, in exchange for, in total, a single 2023 second-round draft pick. And not any old 2023 second-round draft pick! A top-36 protected 2023 second-round draft pick. More on this in a second.
Under ordinary circumstances, you might point to salary cap room as the real benefit of those trades. But the punchline, here, is that even having cleared Porter’s max salary off the books entirely, and having replaced it with nothing, and having all but totally sat out yesterday’s bigger free agency moves, the Wizards still have at least $96 million in salary committed against the 2019–20 season’s roughly $109 million salary cap. And that’s before taking into account however much Thomas Bryant’s sensible three-year, $25 million contract, inked yesterday, will pay him in its first season; it also doesn’t count the cheapie two-year, $12 million contract the team reportedly agreed to with guard Ish Smith this morning; it doesn’t account for whatever incoming rookies Rui Hachimura and Admiral Schofield’s contracts will look like. The Wizards don’t have salary cap room! They just also don’t have Otto Porter or Kelly Oubre.
Oh, right, about that 2023 second-round draft pick. Turns out it’s maybe not protected anymore? This morning, the Wizards completed a sign-and-trade with the Bulls, sending off very good 27-year-old Tomáš Satoranský, a combo guard who can defend three positions, capably run a halfcourt offense, and shoot 40-percent on a low volume of spot-up three-pointers, and who has been a vital if underutilized part of Washington’s rotation for the past two seasons. In return, the Wizards will receive, uh, whatever sense you can make of this paragraph, from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski:
The Wizards will receive some valuable draft considerations, sources said, including the elimination of protections on a 2023 second-round pick that Chicago owed Washington; the Wizards get the better of Memphis’s and Chicago’s 2020 second-round pick and the right to swap the Lakers’ 2022 second-round pick that Washington obtained in a deal for the better of Chicago and Detroit’s 2022 second-round pick.
If what seems like maybe it amounts to the right to exercise the better of two second-round picks in a pair of future drafts doesn’t strike you as a hot return for, in total, three versatile and still-young wing-sized players ranging from “useful” to “borderline all-star” (plus Austin Rivers), that only means you’re a sane person. As if these facts have not made it obvious yet, the Wizards still do not have a general manager; tomorrow marks three months to the day since owner Ted Leonsis fired Ernie Grunfeld, 16 years after Grunfeld took the job and at least 15 years after he proved himself incapable of doing it.
What should the Wizards have done differently? There is no short answer to this question, unless “everything” qualifies, and maybe it does. Everything about the team’s present state is an expression of some prior mistake or mistakes, each of those in turn a moment when the Wizards found themselves in a hole of their own creation and somebody in charge—Leonsis or Grunfeld, or Abe Pollin or Wes Unseld before them, or Satan, or God—decided the thing to do was to dig some more. Maybe “Hire a general manager at some point between April and yesterday” is the closest thing to a legible near-term answer. Possibly having a general manager might have helped.
A postscript: 24-year-old big man Julius Randle, who averaged 21 points and nine rebounds last season, signed a contract with the Knicks yesterday that will pay him an average of $21 million in salary over three years. $21 million is just slightly less than the Wizards will pay next season to the center tandem of 32-year-old Ian Mahinmi ($16 million) and 33-year-old Dwight Howard ($5.6 million), who combined to average 16.9 points and 13.1 rebounds in 43 total games last season. Bryant, whom the Wizards re-signed to that sensible three-year deal mentioned up above, is also a center. The Wizards have eight veteran players under contract as of this writing; three of them are centers and one of them is John Wall, who ruptured his Achilles in February and whose four-year supermax contract extension officially kicked in yesterday.
At a certain point a couple of weeks ago, fans of this team had convinced themselves that Masai Ujiri would leave the Toronto Raptors to take over Washington’s front office, because if you are going to be insane you might as well be all the way insane. Anyway, he didn’t.