The Wizards Are Salary Capped out, but Aren't Championship Ready Yet
The offseason has been a salient one for the Wizards. They were just a few plays away from making the Eastern Conference Finals, and now they’ve solidified their core for the foreseeable future. The coinciding contracts of John Wall and Otto Porter to max-level deals will essentially tie up Washington’s cap space through 2021.
Porter is a skilled combo wing whose defensive versatility and floor spacing have made him an irreplaceable team commodity. The 24-year-old posted a blistering 129 offensive rating on a .628 true shooting percentage. It earned him a 4-year, $106 million deal and will continue his role as third wheel and top wing defender.
Wall is a bonafide superstar, and produced his best professional season in 2016-17, earning a third team All-NBA selection. The accolade made him eligible to sign a super-max $170 million extension that will keep him in the nation’s capital through 2023. Wall joins Stephen Curry and James Harden as the only players to sign the illustrious super max contract.
Wall is arguably the best two-way guard in basketball, and is entering his prime at age 26. In an era where superstar player movement has been in constant flux, Wall chose to lock in with the Wizards rather than test his market in 2019.
With second banana Bradley Beal already under contract long-term, the Wizards are the only team in the NBA with three homegrown max salaried players, and that shouldn’t be overlooked. Washington hasn’t had a 50-win season since 1978 and has lacked an identity for the better part of three decades. This is a meaningful step toward continuity.
Team owner Ted Leonsis should be applauded for committing to paying into the luxury tax. It’s a sentiment that should resonate within a perpetually depressed fan base, sans the last few years. They’ve finally built the franchise up again, and weren’t going to let their small market status compel them to relinquish their foundational pieces. That in itself should be considered a win.
But to me, the Wizards aren’t a championship contender yet. Their relative youth, shallow depth, and lack of financial flexibility are all factors that could hold them back from reaching the pinnacle moment.
The residual effect of rostering three max salary players is surrendering long-term cap flexibility. By 2020, Wall, Beal, and Porter will account for seventy-seven percent of the eligible cap space. Couple that with Ian Mahinmi’s remaining $48 million, and there isn’t much room to fill out the roster. Markieff Morris and Marcin Gortat will continue provide the veteran muscle, but the Wizards have only two more seasons with them before Washington will be inevitably outbid in free agency.
The Wizards’ second unit remains a major concern, especially when compared to the bench units in Golden State, Cleveland, San Antonio, and Houston. Those have to be the comps if the Wizards’ want to reach a championship. Washington was 29th overall in bench scoring last season.
Mahinmi is fully healthy and perhaps he can reassume his intended defensive specialist role, while also converting athletic finishes at the rim. Washington’s best bench scorer is probably Jodie Meeks, whose 37.6% three-point shooting will be heavily called upon after fellow marksman Bojan Bogdanovic signed with Indiana.
Tim Frazier was a clever choice at backup point guard, and well worth the late second round pick that he cost to acquire. Frazier averaged 11.8 assists per 100 possessions over the last two seasons. They took an interesting gamble on Mike Scott, but he’ll never return to his 2015 form unless he fully recovers from a lingering knee injury.
Kelly Oubre is the only promising developmental player in the organization. His switchable versatility is a building block attribute in today’s NBA, but the third-year wing hasn’t progressed on offense, where he is limited to exclusively spot up shooting. He shot 28% from distance last season.
Overall, the Wizards have some interesting storylines with their bench, but as a whole, the second unit is non-impressive. I don’t see a trustworthy shot creator or lock down defender. There are more question marks than check marks.
Beal and Porter are fringe max players, worthy of the contracts they signed, but unqualified to be relied upon as second and third options for a true championship team. Still in their mid-20s, reaching taller heights isn’t out of the question, but every viable contending team has at least two top-25 players (Golden State has four). Without a lot more evidence, it’s hard to see Beal or Porter growing to elite status.
Beal is a polished scorer who improved his offensive rating by 14 points last season, but his advanced defensive metrics have declined over his five years in the NBA. In 2016-17, he posted a career low 112 defensive rating. His 1.6 defensive win shares was his second lowest season total ever. In order to survive in today’s switch heavy NBA playoff series, you have to be a two-way star. Beal’s natural athleticism and 7’0 wingspan should be enough to make him a serviceable defender, but he’s yet to prove it on a consistent basis.
Since the 1980s, Steph Curry is the only point guard to win a championship as the outright best player on his team. Per NBAWowy, the Wizards scored 1.146 PPP on 57% true shooting when Wall was on the floor, but only 1.038 PPP on 53% TS with him resting. He’s is a facilitator by trade, and an elite scorer by necessity, playing for a team that desperately needs another isolation specialist. In spite of this, I think Wall can be the best player on a championship team, simply because he’s an unselfish two-way threat—who makes every teammate better, and is a game changer in the open court. But that doesn’t mean he has to be the best scorer.
If the Wizards find their world-class scoring threat, it will allow John Wall to settle into a distributor role, which is where his best use would be on a theoretical championship team. Perhaps Beal or Porter will evolve into that half court isolation scorer, but it seems unlikely. They’re natural off ball players, Beal as a run-around-screens type and Porter as a catch and shoot floor spacer. Combined, they attempted only 1.4 shots per game in isolation last season (Source: NBA.com).
If the go-to scorer can be found on the open market, that conversation starts with DeMarcus Cousins, who according to some reports, quietly endorses the idea of playing alongside Wall. Washington has the reputation of being a non-destination for free agents, a characterization solidified after they failed to land a meeting with Maryland native Kevin Durant.
Cousins’ future in New Orleans is dubious at best, riddled by a passé coupling with Anthony Davis, and marginal postseason odds in an ultra competitive Western Conference. Cousins will hit the market next summer and will dictate where he ends up. The Wizards surely won’t be able to afford him outright, but New Orleans would be happy to accept a sign-and-trade instead of losing Boogie for nothing, reminiscent of the Clippers and Rockets saga regarding Chris Paul.
The weather feels right for a changing of the guard in the East, but Washington still looks up at the competition. The Cavs are in serious disarray, though they seem to consistently thrive off of crisis. Losing LeBron James or Kyrie Irving would be devastating, but until that happens, Cleveland is in a tier by itself. Aging is a concern for Toronto, but Norman Powell is more promising than any young Wizard. Mix in the upside of Jakob Poeltl, OG Anunoby, and Pascal Siakam, and it’s easy to see how Toronto can sustain their success. Assuming that Boston survives the looming Isaiah Thomas negotiations, they will be set up to win now and in the future. With multiple 2019 lottery projected picks, Boston’s asset pool far exceeds what Washington has.
Washington’s path to contender succession is realizable. Beal could grow into invaluable two-way player. Maybe Porter becomes into one of the League’s best shutdown wing defenders. Oubre could pull a Jimmy Butler and develop into a reliable scorer in his mid-20s. Inarguably, the Wizards are amongst the East’s elites, but there are too many uncertain factors to anoint them as a true contender right now. To me, Washington’s ceiling is an Eastern Conference Finals, but only if injury or trade derail Boston or Cleveland.
*All non-sourced statistics were taken from Basketball-Reference.