Washington Wizards: Kelly Oubre Jr.-Trevor Ariza trade still looms over Wizards season

Washington Wizards, Bradley Beal (Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images)
Washington Wizards, Bradley Beal (Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images) /

The Washington Wizards and Phoenix Suns battled on Wednesday night, but the story of their respective seasons boils down to a December trade.

The Washington Wizards and Phoenix Suns may be headed nowhere this season, but Wednesday night’s 124-121 victory for the Wizards was an exciting ending for the seemingly lottery-bound squads.

Yet, the result was hardly the main storyline in this matchup. Even though neither Kelly Oubre Jr. nor Trevor Ariza played in the contest, the aftermath of a midseason trade involving both players loomed over the game.

Back in December, the Wizards agreed to trade Oubre Jr. and Austin Rivers to the Suns for Ariza. At the time, the Wizards still had hope for a playoff push and the veteran Ariza represented a steady and reliable presence on the wing. Meanwhile, the Suns had already determined their season was headed to the lottery, so the Oubre Jr. acquisition was an expiring contract who they could give a four-month test run to before deciding whether to re-sign him (the team promptly cut Rivers, who signed with the Houston Rockets).

Oubre Jr., who missed Wednesday’s game due to season-ending knee surgery, has since emerged as a potential piece of the Suns’ future. He’s expressed clear interest in re-signing with Phoenix as a free agent, and has given them good reason to bring him back: He’s averaging 16.9 point per game since arriving in the desert, including 21 points per game in March before going down.

Ariza, for his part, has also had a noteworthy season. Even though his shooting percentages are nearing a career-worst, he’s averaging his second-best point per game at 14.1, and tied for his best assist-per-game season. The Wizards have asked him to be a playmaker more than he’s ever been before in his career, and he’s risen to the challenge, especially as the Wizards continued to vie for a playoff spot.

Nearly three months later, reassessing the trade at this point and it’s hard to argue against the final decision, even as Oubre Jr. proved to be a fan favorite and put up even better numbers in Phoenix.

In some ways, had the team kept Oubre Jr., they would been forced to seriously consider paying him top dollars to bring him back. The fact of the matter is that a roster that already had big contracts like John Wall, Otto Porter, and Bradley Beal couldn’t afford yet another near-max player, so the team would have either compromised even more cap space or left disappointing fans with nothing in return. By swapping that expiring contract for Ariza’s, the team gave itself more flexibility.

In addition, the Oubre Jr. trade started to peel back the reality about the Wizards roster construction at that point. The front office, and even fans, were still holding on to the hopes and dreams that the DC Death Row squad represented when it made Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

With Oubre Jr. gone and the team continuing to plateau as it had, it illustrated that the team had issues at its core beyond a trade from a more experienced wing player. In other words, without trading Oubre Jr., the team may have never come to the conclusion that it was time to trade Porter and Markieff Morris as well, and start looking forward.

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None of this is to discount Oubre Jr.’s talent, or minimize the role that Ariza can play at this point in his career. At this point though, neither made sense in their current situation, and the Wizards were justified in moving on to see what they could do to improve, and discover what ailed, their roster. Sending Oubre Jr. to Phoenix was a heartbreaker, but it wasn’t necessarily a mental lapse by the Wizards.