It wasn’t long after the Washington Wizards completed their most successful playoff run in over 30 years that optimism dwindled heading into an off-season that assuredly guaranteed Washington to bring back all the key pieces from the previous season to run the whole thing back.
Sure, it would be safe and a little nostalgic to see if the team could catch magic once again, but how effective would a stagnant roster be compared to the undoubted improvements that other squads would be able to make? The Eastern Conference was famously putrid last year, (coincidentally?) the same year that this Washington team made some headway. But aside from the other seven teams that made the playoffs vying to get back to playing April-June ball, there would be the ones on the cusp trying to break into the fraternity.
The summer posed the ultimate catch-22 for Ernie Grunfeld and his troupe. Re-sign all free agents and hope that individual improvements from the likes of John Wall, Bradley Beal, and Otto Porter would be enough to get over the hump? Or free up maximum cap space only to have more holes than the money available to plug them? Neither option sounded very enticing nor were the Washington Wizards ever really in play for the LeBrons, Carmelos, and Boshs of the world. And as us fans started to realize these outcomes, we collectively took a long stare into the eyes of mediocrity and decided that come hell or high water, this team better not do anything to screw up the #KD2DC movement just two short years away.
But yet again, Grunfeld did not panic when backed up against a wall (admittedly, a wall that he built with blood, sweat, and titanium-based bricks). He smartly navigated multiple negotiations and crafted the Wizards into a team that definitely improved in the short-term and still remained flexible enough to drop dollar bills on billboards around the city begging a certain Seat Pleasant, MD native to come home. But before we get all warm and fuzzy about where we should host the championship parade (Constitution Avenue., obviously), like any good Washington Wizards story, there were at least a few frowns with the many newly-minted smiles in the DMV. So let’s cover the positives and the negatives of what has certainly proven to be one of the better off-seasons in the NBA.
Thumbs Down: Randy Wittman’s Extension
I hate to start off my ultimately complimentary piece with a negative, and I can already see the legion of people who would disagree with this opinion. But hear me out. After his first playoff appearance and playoff series win, it became a forgone conclusion that Randy Wittman would return to the bench and see his project through with the Washington Wizards.
The players loved him and he built a sense of unity from the shambles of the previous locker room culture. He ran a tight ship and crafted a top 10 defense in consecutive seasons despite big time injuries to key players. All understood and duly noted. Here’s where I’m lost on bringing him back. What exactly did he do to warrant such security? He won 44 games in a middling conference and won a playoff series against a team that had been running on fumes and Tom Thibodeau’s vocal chords since mid-January. His offense featured zero innovation and he somehow managed to coax a team featuring three prominent 3-point shooters and the best 3-point assisting PG in the NBA to lead the league in mid-range jumpers.
The Washington Wizards were aided by the easiest schedule in the league, and even then were just one less victory from serving as an appetizer to Miami’s march back to the finals. With the speedy Wall at the helm, Washington played at the 18th fastest pace and finished 17th in points per 100 possessions, both unacceptable and puzzling figures. Wittman is a great guy by all accounts, but just isn’t good enough to coach a potentially top flight team. He doesn’t ‘deserve’ anything from one season, because if that was the case, Lionel Hollins and George Karl would be much further in the complaint line than he is. Players have his back, which is great to know, but they won’t be against any coach who helps them get better as individuals and as a team. It really looks like the franchise is taking aim at 2016 and nothing else, but to me, keeping Wittman around just stunts the growth of the guys already here until then.
Thumbs Up: Bringing Back the Polish Hammer
Now here’s a free agent re-signing I can get behind! Yes, 5 years may have been excessive, but that’s unfortunately the price you pay when you control Bird Rights of a skilled center in today’s NBA. And although it’s unlikely the Washington Wizards will be eager to pay a 35-year old Marcin Gortat $13.6M in 2018-19, they had to pony up now for fear of losing him to one of many teams who were flush with cap space and ready to spend.
I also subscribe to the theory that age isn’t quite as meaningful as minutes played, and Gortat is helped by that tremendously. Although he is on the wrong side of 30, he’s logged just over 11,000 minutes in his career, due in large part to his role as a backup center in Orlando (For reference, LeBron James is turning 30 this December, about 2 months after he’ll cross the 40,000 minute mark in his career. He’s also a cyborg sent from another planet so maybe that isn’t so relevant). In addition, Gortat has been very durable in his time as a starter, playing essentially full seasons in 2011-12 and 2013-14. And if you want a comparison, look no further than the deal that Minnesota handed to Nikola Pekovic last summer, which were for the same terms (5 years, $60M). Both players are similar in their ability to score and rebound, with Pekovic getting the nod offensively and Gortat shoring up the defense a little better.
The other consideration in making Gortat the no. 1 priority this offseason was that the lack of any desirable backup options. The best name on the market, Greg Monroe, was a restricted free agent and would probably have required the max to be forked over from Detroit. Guys like Spencer Hawes or Jordan Hill seem a lot better coming off your bench than in the starting lineup playing 30 minutes a night. The Washington Wizards understood this from the get go and wasted no time inking Gortat to a deal that had him and (maybe more importantly) John Wall grinning the whole month.
Thumbs Up: Telling ‘The Truth’ About Trevor
You see what I did there? Wait, neither do I, never mind.
Anyway, for as easy as the Gortat negotiations went, the Washington Wizards stalemate with Trevor Ariza was doubly painful. For one, Ariza suffered from what nearly ever swingman/forward/wing had to deal with this off-season thanks to LeBron and Carmelo taking days on end to make the biggest decision of their lives (seriously, people criticized them for this?). Secondly, the Wizards took a much harder line with Ariza knowing that although he was invaluable in many moments last year, he also had a skillset that could be more easily replaced than Gortat’s.
Ultimately the deal he took with Houston was very fair (4 years, $32M) but it disrupted the clean cap sheet Washington was determined to maintain for Durant’s courtship. It’ll be tough to see Ariza go; he was a consummate professional night in and night out. As a player who flourished under a point guard put on this world to get people open 3’s, he took nearly 6 a game and hit them at close to a 41% clip. This accompanied his established role as the best perimeter defender the team had to offer. There’s a reason why the Wizards competed closely in season series vs. the Heat, Pacers, Thunder, and Knicks (homes to the four best small forwards in the NBA). But the best part about prudence in letting Ariza walk was the ace up Grunfeld’s sleeve that no one saw coming: Enter Paul Pierce.
Pierce is coming off a season in which he was re-invented as a small-ball power forward that thrived in Jason Kidd’s unusual sets for the Brooklyn Nets. The team did not achieve its purpose of winning a championship and making a $190M loss worthwhile, but he redeemed himself well enough even at his advanced age. The numbers actually show that Pierce remained efficient when paired with a traditional PF/C combination so though it looks like he’ll primarily play the 3 in Washington, it doesn’t look like he’ll slip much from last year’s performance (and as the cherry on top, Pierce shot 54% from guess where….the corner 3.
The best part about what Pierce can bring to the table, aside from his championship moxy, veteran leadership, and all other clichéd phrases you can think of, is his end-of-game shot making. This was a trait that Washington sorely needed last year and probably contributed to several meltdowns in close games. Thanks to Wittman’s vanilla sets and Wall’s errant jump shot, the Wizards often settled for inefficient execution. Pierce brings a lengthy highlight reel over the course of his career of hitting big shots, but more importantly finished 3rd in the NBA last year in FG% with the game on the line. The Wizards didn’t replace everything Ariza did, as his defensive prowess will have to be found elsewhere. But for two years at the mid-level exception, Pierce will be a pretty good imitation.
Thumbs Up: Big Man Galore
For as well as Drew Gooden played in the 2nd half of the season and the playoffs last year, the fact that in 2014 some team was willingly relying on his services was mildly frightening. And so given that fact, heading into a summer where every big man on the roster was a free agent except for Nene, Washington knew it had to beef up a unit that offered little else beyond the starters. Grunfeld used a clever trade exception earned from the Trevor Ariza move to Houston to create room to sign Kris Humphries and DeJuan Blair, both on cap friendly contracts who immediately upgrade the bench. Trevor Booker was a nice piece with high energy and a solid jump shot but his lack of size caused the Wizards to become a sieve defensively and overmatched on the boards.
Chris Singleton was a minus at basically every facet of the game and Al Harrington looked better coaching summer league than he did on the court. Drew Gooden was re-signed but will probably be saved for spot duty whenever Nene’s annual 30 game absence commences. Both Humphries and Blair can hit the glass and score buckets down low, and best of all add a little bit of a nasty streak to the team. With Gortat and Nene both aging, it’ll be critical to have additional options to spell the starters without immediately blowing an 8-point lead. Only downside with this approach is the lack of depth at guard and wing. With the impressive performances by Porter and Glen Rice Jr in Las Vegas, it’s possible that those spots are already covered, but this team is still at risk from one John Wall injury sinking everything they’ve worked towards.
Thumbs Down: Snakey’s Qualifying Offer
Thumbs Down: July 24th, 2014
Current date, meaning still a long way to go till training camps open and we do this dance all over again. Enjoy the summer.