Just one week ago, the Wizards were the trendy pick to reach the Eastern Conference Finals. Charles Barkley and Bill Simmons, among others, had finally seen enough of the dwindling Pacers, and proclaimed that the Wizards would reach the final four of the NBA. Wiz fans tried to temper their expectations, having witnessed the cursed franchise bumble its way through mediocrity over the past decade, but when Charles Barkley tells you your team is loaded, you listen. Even if you don’t believe it. Anyone who’d rooted for or followed the Wizards knew eventually the team would revert back to its usual ways. They just hoped that wouldn’t happen until the sacrificial slaughtering at the hands of LeBron, as had been protocol whenever they managed to reach the playoffs.
The reasoning behind Barkley and everyone else jumping on the Wizard bandwagon boiled down to balance. The Wizards starting lineup features five players who can each score 20+ points on any given night, including a backcourt that will be the best in the league in a few years, if you listen to Charles Barkley. That balance though can easily be flipped into saying the Wizards lack a go-to scorer. John Wall is the team’s max player, the All-Star that should make the plays down the stretch, but his inconsistent jumper often dooms his ability to be a consistent scorer in the half-court. Teams that don’t have a go-to guy down the stretch usually struggle–the 2004 Pistons being a notable exception–in the playoffs. Bradley Beal should be that guy in the future, but right now, his inconsistency off the dribble relegates him to a catch-and-shoot guy more often than not. Despite the urge to anoint him a star, it’s premature to expect Beal to carry the team in crunch time. And expecting Ariza, mostly a corner 3-shooter to score the points at the end of the games is not exactly a recipe for success.
As most everyone inside the Beltway expected, the Wizards came back to earth. They dropped their next three games after going up 1-0 in the series. The question is not whether they can or will come back–they can, but they won’t. The question is what to do this summer. They need to decide whether to re-sign Gortat and Ariza. Both guys would probably receive somewhere around 35-45 million, which looks okay next year, but not on the back-end when those guys are about to hit their mid 30’s. Zach Lowe explained the predicament well: pay those guys to stay relevant and appease a desperate fan-base. Or realize that paying those guys only really amounts to fools gold and consistent playoff appearances, without the real chance at a title; and instead, let those guys walk and try to add an All-Star like Kevin Love or Kevin Durant (would be coming home for him) in a few years.
As much as the Wizards want to stay ‘relevant’ and keep Gortat and Ariza, it’s important to keep in mind that they are still just a 44 win team. They’re not leapfrogging the Pacers or Heat. Wall and Beal have the makings of an All-Star backcourt, but they’re not good enough yet to get to the Finals. Yeah, it’s true that if you can reach the Conference Finals, you’re only a matchup or injury away from the Finals. But in the West, the Wizards probably wouldn’t be a playoff team. They’re not winning a championship with their current roster, even if they added a mid-level free agent. Instead, why not continue to give Beal and Wall more and more control of the team. Let those guys continue to develop into perennial All-Stars, and then try to attract a star in 2015.