The Washington Wizards have come into this season with their highest expectations since the Gilbert Arenas era passed. Ernie Grunfeld and Randy Wittman have been stuck with this expectation of making the playoffs, so when Emeka Okafor went down things got a bit tight for the both of them.
The expectation didn’t change and but the notion that they didn’t have the roster to do so without Okafor was a correct one. Their front court without their big paint clogger was extremely thin. Nene was going to end up playing extensive minutes at the center position which was something that he didn’t want to do–even though he’s a bit better in that slot.
And behind Nene there was an absolute wasteland. The Wizards’ front court players have had trouble developing and are not ready to take on huge minutes in a starting role. Chris Singleton and Jan Vesely’s options have already been declined. Kevin Seraphin’s growth has stunted thus far after a promising 2011 campaign. Things just haven’t worked out the way that the Wizards thought they would in their front court.
Enter the Polish Hammer. The Wizards swung the deal for Gortat for the reasons above, but was it necessary? The Wizards made their move to push for the playoffs, but they could’ve waited and kept their pick.
Why this is a panic move
The Wizards brass had pressure from all angles coming down on it to make the playoffs. Ted Leonsis has been a huge supporter of the Wizards’ playoff belief this season. This is antithetical to the mentality that he’s boasted throughout his short ownership tenure with the Wizards. Leonsis has always been slow and steady with his team, but he sees the potential actualizing and wants to see some results now.
With Okafor hurt, Grunfeld needed to make a move in order to appease Leonsis and keep his seat as the president of basketball operations. So, let’s bring in Gortat. Why not? Well, for starters, you gave up a first round pick in an NBA draft class that is extremely deep. Sure, it’s a top 12 protected pick, but it isn’t likely that you’ll be a top 12 lottery team.
A core of John Wall, a much improved Bradley Beal and a healthy Nene would’ve gotten you to at least sniff the playoffs. Even if they’re a 9th seed, they may be outside of the top 12 in the lottery. The chances of the Wizards getting another blue-chip player were slim in this draft, but they did have a chance to get a decent role player. Or, at the very least, someone to fill the front court depth now that they’ve officially given up on Vesely and Singleton.
Furthermore, Gortat may end up leaving after one season here anyway. He’s on an expiring deal and if the Wizards aren’t contending he may not want to stay. There’s little chance that he’s taking a hometown discount to stay in Washington. I’d say that he’d be looking for a deal somewhere close to 9 or 10 million per year–which isn’t bad at all.
But should he choose to leave because the Wizards didn’t have the season or the success that he expected, they could be left in a rut. Okafor’s prognosis was worse than they expected, but they gave up a first round pick to get Gortat. That was an asset that could have potentially been put to good use.
Why the move was perfect
The best case scenario for a situation like this is that Gortat shows us that he’s the player that he was from the 2011-12 season and he works really well with the guards in pick and rolls. He stays healthy, stays in Washington and serves as their big man going into the future.
Even though he’s 29 years old, the Wizards have very little incentive to say no to Gortat returning. They have no depth in their front court and would have no starting center otherwise. The best thing that they could do if they reject Gortat is wait until guys like Roy Hibbert and Brook Lopez hit the market in 2015 but I doubt that they’d be willing to wait that long to win.
Even if they’re a bad team, they can keep the pick if it’s top 12 and draft a player that could potentially help them in the future. But that isn’t the ideal here. The Wizards want to make the playoffs and actually give a team a run for their money. They want to be competitive and that was made clear by this move.
So, even if Gortat leaves, the Wizards may still be able to become a destination for free agents that may help them next season. They’re going to have loads of salary space with Ariza and Gortat coming off of the books this upcoming offseason. That leaves them room to moneyball their way into the playoffs the next season and stay competitive.
So, there are plenty of ways that the Wizards could benefit from this move–even if they lose their pick. That doesn’t mean that all is lost with them.
I’m a firm believer that you have to dump a losing culture at some point if you want to succeed. The Wizards would be doing that here by making the playoffs. Plus, players would finally look at Washington as a destination city again. They’d be able to sign max or near max players after success in the playoffs–much like Golden State did this past season with Andre Iguodala.
I’ll throw this caveat out, though. The Wizards have to be careful because there is a scenario in which they can lose the pick and lose Gortat while not making the playoffs. I doubt that this is the last trade the Wizards make this season. With Ariza being an expiring deal, they’ll probably look to move him once Otto Porter is healthy and back on track.
They probably won’t get too much for him, but they need a third or fourth big man present on their bench. Ariza could land you that if you make a move with an awful team just trying to dump some of their cap. But I doubt that the Wizards would take on too much money at that point–they’re looking to play the free agent game this summer.
We’ll see how the future turns out for Washington. Whether they make the playoffs or not, there will be some decisions that have to be made on all accounts–good or bad.