Coming off of a surprisingly successful second round exit in the playoffs, the Wizards had two players to re-sign: Marcin Gortat and Trevor Ariza. Having both guys be right in the middle of their prime and coming off of career years, it was predictable that they would get huge contracts in free agency. Most Wizards fans were a little queasy at the idea of re-signing, and likely having to overpay Gortat and Ariza, just to remain a good, but not great team.
They completed the first part, giving Gortat a huge payday, what he called “the best day of my life.” The deal for Gortat, worth $60 million over the next five seasons, seems like an overpay, especially on the back end, but was probably necessary to keep Gortat. Good centers are scarce in the NBA, and Gortat averaged a double-double last season. But, the real question mark was Ariza. Would he really get paid? And by paid I mean PAID. Don’t get me wrong: Ariza had a very good season last year. He was Washington’s best perimeter defender and shot 41% from 3, the best clip of his career from deep. But really, he’s just a catch-and-shoot corner 3 shooter. He benefitted from John Wall’s career year more than just about anyone else on the Wizards’ roster. He was the guy who got the open looks in the corner, off of Wall’s drive-n-kick dishes. That’s no fault of his, but it is to say that Ariza’s offensive production was largely the result of an All-Star point guard who created open shots for everyone else. He’s the type of player that can be replaced. He’s the ultimate ‘3 and D’ guy: he hits 3’s and plays good defense. Those are the kind of players you can find in free agency for cheap.
Sure enough, the Wizards let Ariza walk. They tried to keep him, but he decided to sign with the Rockets instead. The issue was not the money. Ariza only signed a 4 year/$32 milli0n contract, a very reasonable contract for last year’s production. But the Wizards only wanted to pay Ariza for two years, so that they could remain flexible in the 2016 summer, when hometown superstar Kevin Durant is a free agent. Nearly every Wizard fan has thought ahead to that summer, wondering what a Wall-Beal-Durant trio would look like in the East. That would be a young, extremely formidable team that would almost surely be one of the best teams in the conference. No one is really sure if it is just wishful thinking at this point in time, but if Russell Westbrook has more injury troubles and the Thunder struggle to get out of the West, then maybe Durant will look to switch teams. It’s pretty satisfying to see the front office aligning its views and hopes with its fan base. Wizards fans didn’t want the team to safely re-sign Ariza and Gortat, 29 and 30 years old respectively, just to remain relevant. Targeting Durant in the future is definitely a risk. Just about every team in the league is already trying to clear cap space for the 2016 summer, hoping to land Durant, who will still only be 27 years old by then. But the Wizards have a pitch no other team does: come home.
In the meantime, the Wizards are hoping not to regress. Signing 36 year old Paul Pierce was a surprise to everyone. Anyone who watched the Nets last season knows that Pierce was their best player. His numbers were down, but that’s only because he played fewer minutes than ever before. The Wizards badly needed a small forward, having lost Ariza to the Rockets and Martell Webster to back surgery. Otto Porter will have to contribute next season, which is scary given how out of place he looked last season. But, so far in summer league, he has looked significantly better than last season. Regardless though, Porter probably isn’t ready to step into the starting lineup of a playoff team, and that’s why the Wizards went after Pierce. Pierce is a winner and an experienced veteran. Just having his presence rub off on Wall and Beal will be just as valuable as any contribution on the court that he can provide.
Rarely does the Wizards’ front office make the right moves, but the move to let Ariza walk and sign Pierce is worth applause. Pierce will keep the Wizards above water at the small forward position, and it will force Porter to expedite his development. And if he doesn’t? Then at least we find out sooner rather than later that Porter is not worth investing time and money.
I’m not saying the Wizards are going to be better next season than they were last year. They could regress a little bit, but that’s fine. Next season only needs to accomplish a few things: 1) Continue the development of Wall and Beal, 2) Make the Eastern Conference playoffs, 3) Figure out Porter’s prospect for the future.
By the summer of 2016, it’ll be necessary to have made the playoffs the past few seasons, have two marquee All-Stars in Wall and Beal, and enough cap flexibility to make a run at Durant. The Wizards might not have much of a chance, but at least they’re keeping their options open. If Durant can look at the Wiz and see a franchise that has been firmly in the playoffs, with two young All-Stars in the backcourt, and in the inferior Eastern Conference, then tell me if I’m wrong, but isn’t that at least as attractive as Oklahoma City?
For once, Ernie Grunfeld is looking ahead more than just a couple of months.