The Washington Wizards and the Summer of Decisions

May 11, 2014; Washington, DC, USA; Washington Wizards head coach Randy Wittman gestures against the Indiana Pacers during the first half in game four of the second round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Verizon Center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

After a breakthrough season where they made the playoffs for the first time since the Gilbert Arenas Era, the Washington Wizards find themselves at something of a crossroads. Trevor Ariza and Marcin Gortat, both integral to the team’s success this season, are free agents. Do they bring them back — likely locking themselves into a roster that probably can’t seriously contend for a title and eliminating future flexibility — or let one or both of them walk in the name of long-term growth? So far, they seem headed toward the former, having already given Randy Wittman a three-year extension that will keep him in D.C. until 2017. I disapprove of said extension, since I can’t believe a team with John Wall, Bradley Beal, Ariza, Nene and Gortat finished just 18th in offensive efficiency this year and blame the coach for it. Basically, if you’re set on bringing this group back, you’re banking on the idea that they’ll grow together, and that keeping things stable will help with that. Which is fine. The San Antonio Spurs just won their fifth title in the last 15 years and they haven’t won less than 50 games since Michael Jordan was still playing for the Chicago Bulls, and they owe a lot of their success to the stability of their organization and their ability to keep their guys together. The problem is that the Spurs are helmed by an excellent GM in RC Buford, arguably the best coach in NBA history in Gregg Popovich, and one of the greatest players of all time in Tim Duncan. The Wizards, meanwhile, are helmed by the much-maligned coach/GM combo of Wittman and Ernie Grunfeld, and John Wall is as close as they get to Tim Duncan.* So that comparison probably doesn’t hold water. *Just to be clear, that’s not a shot at Wall. Wall is great and he’s only 23. But his first four years in the league are not really at all comparable to Duncan’s first four years in the league. There’s another problem, and this one is the big one. Stability is great. Keeping the same core in place over an extended period of time is a fantastic way to win titles in the NBA. Just ask MJ’s Bulls, or the Shaq/Kobe Lakers, or Showtime Lakers or Larry Bird’s Celtics or the aforementioned Spurs. But the trick is keeping the core in place, not the entire team. All of those teams shuffled the pieces around their respective cores as they went along. Aside from MJ and Scottie Pippen, there’s not much overlap between the rosters for the first three-peat and the second. Same is true of the 80s Lakers and Celtics between their first titles (’80 and ’81, respectively) and their last (’88 and ’86, respectively). The Spurs completely reinvented themselves on the fly less than a decade ago. So let’s consider the Wizards’ core to be Wall and Beal. They’re both young and very good already. So that’s good. But what happens when the Wizards get locked into long-term deals for Gortat and Ariza, in addition to the ones already on the books for Wall, Martell Webster and Nene? Assuming Gortat and Ariza both get something like 4 years, 32-40 million, Washington wouldn’t have significant cap space again until 2017 at the earliest, and probably not until 2018, thanks to Beal’s presumed extension kicking in around then. That’s not the worst thing, since they’ve got their starting five locked in. You can fill in around that with exceptions and draft picks. The bigger issue is then twofold: one, that if you lock these guys in long-term, they might start getting comfortable with what they have and thus become complacent, and two, that handing out four-year deals to guys who are 29 (Ariza) and 30 (Gortat) has the potential to end badly. The first one isn’t a big deal if you have the infrastructure in place to keep that from happening. (*cough* Spurs *cough) The second one is bigger, especially when you’ve got two guys in Beal and Wall who haven’t even hit their primes yet. So, if I was the Wizards, I’d let at least Ariza walk, hoping Webster can fill in for him and that Otto Porter can figure things out enough to contribute off the bench. I’d see if I could get Gortat back on a reasonable three-year deal, and if not, I’d go looking for alternatives. If neither comes back, the Wizards could have a little less than $20 million in cap room this summer if they waive Andre Miller and renounce their free agents. You could throw a big offer at a young restricted free agent like Greg Monroe or Gordon Hayward or Chandler Parsons. Maybe go find a lower-cost alternative to Gortat at center. There are plenty of options to be explored, if only the Wizards are willing to look.

Caleb Nordgren

Caleb is a proud Chicagoan still adjusting to life away from the big city. He's a journalism student at Michigan State, the Editor of Pippen Ain't Easy and can be found at any given time on Twitter, talking about basketball and generally being sarcastic.