Like quite a few other teams, the Washington Wizards look to have a particularly compelling outlook moving away from the All-Star break. The Wizards stand out because of the dichotomy their season has possessed thus far coupled with an uncertain roster future moving forward.
Thanks to the rough start when the team battled injuries to key players, it stands as incredibly unlikely that Washington makes the playoffs even in a comparatively weak Eastern Conference. Standing a full 11 games back in the win column of the eighth seed in the East, it would take a 27-4 run (87 percent winning percentage) to reach .500 which seems about right for the playoffs. As such, the goals for the remainder of 2012-13 look somewhat different.
That said, the team’s remarkable performance on the defensive end as shown by being #1 in the entire NBA in defensive efficiency since John Wall returned to the starting lineup on Jan. 12. Unfortunately, the team still has a long way to go on offense to make themselves dangerous for years to come even though they have looked better both statistically and with the eye test since Wall came back.
One of the reasons I am fascinated by Washington the rest of this year is that they have a large amount of roster flexibility in the summer of 2014 thanks to the structure of the contracts they have on the books. Other than Nene, the only players under contract past next season are on rookie deals (Jan Vesely and Chris Singleton until 2014 if their final option years get picked up, with Beal lasting through 2014-15 barring a major surprise).
Even though Wall was the No. 1 pick, there should still be a meaningful gap between his cap hold and salary for 2014-15, so the team could spend money in that offseason and use that buffer to sign their point guard without worrying about the luxury tax. Since the only way the team will have the ability to sign meaningful free agents this summer would be if both Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza choose not to utilize their player options and leave Washington, the remainder of this season serves as a nice evaluation period for the players they have on roster so that they can make smart moves this summer and during the 2013-14 season to make sure the team is properly put together for the future.
With that future standing as the best focal distance with which to view the rest of the season, here are a few of the major questions the team should look to answer in the remaining two months:
1. What do they want in a long-term starting small forward next to John Wall and Bradley Beal?
It certainly appears at this juncture that Washington has their starting backcourt of the future locked up barring injuries. That reality coupled with the gap between the present and when they have valuable cap space to create a period where they can figure out what the team needs on the perimeter outside of those two and whether the pieces already in-house can be a part of that solution. The production and fit of Martell Webster has shown the value of having a quality shooter getting at least rotation minutes next to those two while it would appear that they do not need to concern themselves with getting a defender who can handle both swingman positions since neither Beal nor Wall should spend much time on opposing small forwards. A more thorough determination of the strengths and weaknesses of their current backcourt should give management two summers and two drafts to find the optimal fit while having other holes provides the cover to fill other niches if the right guy does not come along early on.
2. Where do Kevin Seraphin, Jan Vesely and Jordan Crawford fit in the long-term minutes distribution?
Washington has an interesting challenge in evaluating these three in particular because they come up for free agency relatively quickly considering where they are in their development. That means that the amount of time each is underpaid by virtue of being on a rookie deal (and thus more desirable to trade) ticks away each and every game. I am still unsure whether Jordan Crawford makes sense for a team with Wall and Beal though pretty much every organization needs offensive firepower off the bench, especially one with as anemic an offense as the Wizards have right now. Fortunately, the team has him under contract on the cheap for next season as well and could likely pick up a small asset via trade should they decide to go in a different direction for a backup Shooting Guard. Vesely’s situation has more complications because we have so much less of an idea what he will become long-term or even a complete idea of where he stands right now. Personally, the hardest component of defining Vesely comes on the defensive end- I have no idea what position he reliably covers at his peak. The offensive niches can vary (especially if he improves his jumper) but his defense needs to come along more quickly. Seraphin seems the closest to his NBA role but the team must determine what a second big man off the bench who could still improve beyond that would be worth to them after his rookie contract ends. It seems reasonable for Washington to let other teams establish the market on Kevin and then calculate whether or not matching makes sense in 2014.
3. Should Emeka Okafor be a part of Washington’s long-term plans?
In terms of 2013-14, we all know that the ball is largely in Okafor’s court. He has a player option at a value higher than he will get yearly on the open market though Emeka could opt for the security of a multiyear deal anyway, as unlikely as it seems right now. Assuming he picks up the player option, Wizards brass has around 100 games (hopefully) to determine if Okafor makes sense for this team’s future at whatever price he’s looking for then. Since Emeka will be 32 years old at the start of the 2014-15 season, he should not have the leverage to demand a big contract and could thus potentially slot in as a third or fourth big getting paid a little more than that because the team should have a quality C/PF drafted in either 2013 or 2014 who can shoulder more of the load. Since Nene still has three years left at $13M per season, the team needs to be judicious and intelligent about spending in the short term particularly since the rest of the team is so young.
4. Which way of using the potential cap space in 2014 makes the most sense?
While most teams point to leaving the space and pursuing both trades and free agent signings as the best route to improving a team, Washington has the tactical advantage of carrying most of its talent in expiring contracts going into this summer and next season. Since the Summer of 2014 marks the most likely time that LeBron James and a few other prominent players will be free agents, we could see some teams try to make a Miamiesque series of moves to create the space to sign one or more of them. Should that be the case, Washington carries the ability to trade guys like Okafor, Trevor Ariza, and youngsters like Seraphin and Crawford to take on quality players whose contracts are inconvenient for their current employer. This method of improving the team would also take out some of the uncertainty and potential fan disappointment of striking out on the big fish in 2014 and also allow the team to be more proactive in terms of signing John Wall to an extension. Furthermore, since Okafor, Ariza, and the rest of the expiring actually provide value as players, a wider swath of teams could be more wiling to give up assets during the season since it might not make them markedly worse. Again, having a backcourt of the future helps here since it narrows the sights somewhat and gives the franchise time and direction to scout potential targets.
Even though this season will not produce postseason play for Wizards fans, it should shine a solid light on the quality players the team has right now while also illuminating the direction the organization should head as John Wall, Bradley Beal, and the rest develop into a team the Eastern Conference needs to pay attention to in the years to come.