Washington Wizards Finding Path To Success Even If Kevin Durant Doesn’t Come Home


The Washington Wizards kick off yet another season next week and it’s fair to argue if this is the most important in franchise history, or at least since the championship runs of the late 1970’s.

This team isn’t expected to reach those heights. In fact, just a trip to the conference finals might be deserving of a parade down Constitution Avenue (assuming, you know, that residents are aware of the local basketball team). But what is of significance is how the Wizards perform in a season that represents an eternal quagmire; how to be good enough to win while being lean enough to win big after next summer.

Before you groan at yet another KD2DC article, keep in mind that’s not actually my point.

Of course a lot of eyes will be on whether the Washington Wizards will be good enough to convince Kevin Durant that his glorious homecoming would also be accompanied with a championship-level roster to join. And the front office has certainly not been coy on the salary cap management, the new practice facility, the curious additions to the player development staff all being integral parts of attracting “key free agents”.

So yes, obviously if we’re talking about adding a former NBA MVP who happened to grow up 10 miles from D.C. and is interested in ownership stake in the local football team, of course I’m with everyone else who will sacrifice a small (figurative) goat to get him to sign on the dotted line. That goes without saying. But the fascinating aspect to me is who the Wizards are without Durant. And the holding pattern they’ve adhered to for the 3 seasons before the sacred summer of 2016.

The Washington Wizards, maybe more than any other organization in the NBA has mortgaged everything about the present and future for a singular player.

While roughly 25 teams can hold maximum cap space in July, only a few are actually in the running for Durant, outside of the Thunder (the usual suspects, Miami Heat, Los Angeles Lakers, and New York Knicks come to mind with a guest appearance from the Dancing Drakes).

Washington has been carving out cap space seemingly since before the CBA was even signed, and for all we know they structured Gilbert Arenas’ deal to come off the books before the Summer of Durant. Because this has never been a top free-agent destination, the Wizards have only ever been linked to him. This can be interpreted in multiple ways, but the way I like to look at it is…Plan B doesn’t exist.

That being said, I’ve always been intrigued by what would happen if they struck out, or he simply just chose to stay in OKC with an automatic top three team in the NBA (oh, the idiocy!).

To his credit, Ernie Grunfeld hasn’t seemed to entertain a thought that doesn’t involve a very real shot at Durant in 2016, making every roster decision with that singular goal in mind. But there might be a problem at hand.

This creates a natural paradox that I addressed above.

How can you progress forward and stay patient at the same time? It’s been a difficult course to navigate and one that’s produced mixed results. Let’s get into what that path has looked like and most importantly why this season might be the one that looks differently than all the rest.

Internal Development

To have good young players to build around, teams must often be very bad.

It’s not very smart to count on Kawhi Leonard falling to 15th, Jimmy Butler dropping to 30th, or Draymond Green parachuting to 35th. Teams stock up through the draft and nearly every player of highest caliber in the NBA is plucked away within the first few precious spots.

Luckily for Washington, they were very bad for a very long time. And they happened to be a little lucky as well.

John Wall fell into their laps in 2010, Bradley Beal in 2012, and Otto Porter in 2013. At different points through all three players’ careers, it seemed like it just wasn’t going to work the way we hoped. Now we’re finding sites in DC to erect statues of the three holding up the Larry O’Brien trophy.

It can be argued (and it has by me) that Washington has a pretty barren track record of success of fulfilling potential this trio has definitely proven to be the exception not the rule. And Washington badly needed it too because if a team is trying to save money the best way to do so is capitalize on cheap talent mostly on rookie contracts.

Savvy Trading

Another way to improve the roster without bloating the salary is to move pieces already in place.

Grunfeld has done a good job of finding undervalued pieces and bringing them at relatively cheap costs. This process actually started as a way to clear out knuckleheads (see: JaVale McGee and Nick Young for Nene) but eventually developed into rolling cap space over year after year while giving another team more immediate relief (Rashard Lewis for Trevor Ariza and Emeka Okafor; Okafor for Marcin Gortat).

The final type of trade Washington utilized was in The Quest For Backup Point Guard.

There have been too many names that they’ve cycled through, and at least one they should’ve just stuck with (Shaun Livingston running the 2nd unit would be a dream come true). But after trading for Andre Miller, then turning him into Ramon Sessions, Washington is finally comfortable sitting Wall on the bench.

Some of these moves haven’t worked immediately, and others were made to cover up previous mistakes. But nonetheless, Grunfeld has batted a high enough average on these decisions to build a competitive roster after dropping a bomb on the team he assembled in 2009.

Fringe Veteran Additions

This is an area that the front office has often excelled at.

Garrett Temple, Martell Webster, Al Harrington, Andre Miller, Rasual Butler and Drew Gooden have all played critical roles in their times here in Washington. In addition, Paul Pierce was signed on a similar short term deal and spent April sending the city of Toronto into collective shock.

Assuming that a team has limited cap flexibility and also enough young players that require playing time, signing veterans who will double as locker room role models and productive role players cannot be undersold in importance.

None of these guys moved the needle in more than a handful of games over the last few years but their timely shooting or defense, coupled with influence on guys like Wall and Beal can often be immeasurable.

The downside, as we painfully know, is that Grunfeld sometimes turns these guys from lovable folk heroes to wildly overpaid deadweight but as the saying goes, you can’t win them all.

Schematic Adjustment

This is the factor that has lagged behind the farthest and the one that has been most obvious to fans and analysts alike.

Not only have the Washington Wizards played behind times, they’ve done so with a roster that was built to win totally differently. And this lies mostly on Wittman and his coaching staff as they’ve stubbornly stuck to an agenda of slow pace and mid-range as every statistic screamed otherwise.

And frankly, all things considered, Washington doesn’t have top flight talent.

John Wall is a top-15 player but no one else on the team has sniffed an All-Star berth or definitively even been a top-50 guy in the league. If Cleveland plays a plodding style with unimaginative sets, they still have LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love to improvise. In Washington, that style led to death of offense and happiness.

This change, in my belief seems to be what separates the current Washington Wizards team from the middling 45 win squad they’ve had in the 2 years prior.

Playing a fast pace will increase variance, capitalize on player skillsets and allow for a little less rigor in sets that were already inefficient to begin with.


Washington, like any team that has a legitimate shot with a franchise-altering superstar, has gotten a little carried away over the last few years.

A lot of moves have been made with 2016 in mind, and the team didn’t really have a path to contention without that key addition. Suddenly you look up and Wall is in Year 6, Beal’s due for a contract extension and the borrowed time while young players develop has evaporated.

But for the first time since the mission began, I see a light at the end of the tunnel even without Durant.

Acquiring players who fit the new-age mold and playing a style that better utilizes available resources creates a more potent attack to deploy. The ceiling for the Wall-Beal-Porter trio is still undefined and regardless of how next summer plays out, Washington will have $25M+ in cap space to play with.

Kevin Durant may not call Verizon Center home in 2016. The disappointment will be all the same, but at least a vision finally exists to prepare for that circumstance. Progress with patience may yet pay off for the soon to not be Wiz Kids.

Next: Wizards' New Offense Could Help Wall Become MVP

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