Free Agency

Wizards Turn To Plan B

horford

After spending two years carefully clearing cap space for an offseason in which nearly half the league would be able to have room to add a maximum salary free agency, the Washington Wizards top free agent target (Kevin Durant) declined to meet with them, forcing the team to turn to plan B.

Plan B could take a variety of forms as the front office tries to make the best of a disappointing situation. The primary options:

  1. Build the Bench: They have a theoretical starting five on the roster, and they’ve told reporters they’re happy with that group. So, the team could eschew upper-shelf free agents to focus on mid-level guys who could give the team depth.
  2. Reach for (Near) Stars — Durant being gone doesn’t mean the cupboard is bare. The team still has sufficient money to land a maximum-salary free agent, and possibly a significant role player. They’d then be left with the room exception (about $2.9 million) to fill out the bench.
  3. Wait ’til Next Year — They’ve spent the past two offseasons avoiding long-term contracts. Not even getting an at-bat with Durant, the team could opt for lather-rinse-repeat and sign players to one-year contracts. Then they could enter the 2017 free agent market with $30+ million in cap space. Of course, if they strike out with top free agents next season, then what? At some point a team has to commit to trying to build the best roster possible. Right?

There are perils with each approach. The first seems to be the one they’re going to pursue, and it’s the least realistic way to build a contending team. Their problem this season wasn’t a bad bench or depth, it was a lack of elite talent. They could get some good luck and see significant development from Bradley Beal, Kelly Oubre, Otto Porter or John Wall, but more likely they’ll end up “contending” for the playoffs.

The other two are somewhat compatible. They could pursue an upper-level free agent, and then fall back to a Plan C of “Wait ’til Next year” if they whiff.

In my analysis, the Wizards could use upgrades in the starting lineup at shooting guard and power forward. They’ve publicly committed themselves to re-signing Beal, and have spent some time congratulating themselves on using their draft pick to acquire Markieff Morris, but those are the actual needs. Wall is a very good point guard, Marcin Gortat is a solid center, and Otto Porter is a criminally underrated small forward.

Here’s how I’d prioritize the team needs:

  • starting PF
  • starting SG
  • starting SF
  • backups at every position

So, who are some potential free agent targets? I identified some who are worth the money, likely bargains, and likely cap albatrosses over at Vice. But, here are some free agents who intrigue me for the Wizards.

  • Al Horford — the PF/C is entering his age 30 season, and I’m normally hesitant to commit significant money to players past 30. But, the bigs tend to age a little better than guards, and Horford’s game is likely to age reasonably well (as was the case for his historical comps). In my analysis, Horford has a good chance of having 2-3 All-Star level seasons. The fourth year he’s sure to get is much iffier, though. A maximum salary offer would be a very modest overpay in the first year, but it gets more reasonable with the cap surging even higher next season. In Washington, he could split time between PF and C, help lead a recommitted defense, and give the team the future option to trade Gortat to fill other positions of need. Contract: 4 years, $113.6 million. First year salary: $26.6 million. Estimated added wins: 8-10.
  • Jared Sullinger — Just 23 years old, and unpopular with fans in Boston, Sullinger has nonetheless been a productive performer. He has offensive skills that would make him a good partner with Wall, and he rebounds well and passes superbly. Plus, he’s likely available for less than the max. Contract: 4 years, $72.6 million. First year salary: $17.0 million. Estimated added wins: 6-8.
  • Nicolas Batum — I’m not as excited about Batum as others, but he’s skilled, versatile, fairly productive and should be entering his prime. He’s apparently a candidate for a maximum salary, which would be a significant overpay in my analysis. I’d still consider it because he’d be terrific in various combinations with Wall, Beal and Porter. And he’d be insurance for the oft-injured Beal. Contract: 4 years, $113.6 million. First year salary: $26.6 million. Estimated added wins: 6-8.
  • Mirza Teletovic — The Wizards are reportedly ready to make a major financial offer to stretch four Ryan Anderson. I wanted them to acquire Anderson four years ago, but they traded their cap space to New Orleans for Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza (and New Orleans then used said cap space to acquire Anderson from Orlando). But, Anderson hurt his back and endured personal tragedy, and he hasn’t been the same player. Instead of paying $18+ million (in the first year), the Wizards could likely land Teletovic — an even more prolific long-range shooter who rebounds and defends about as poorly as Anderson — for half the money. Teletovic is past 30, but might be obtainable on a shorter contract because of it. I project Anderson adding about four wins next season; Teletovic about three. That difference isn’t worth an additional $9 million per season.
  • The Wizards are going to need a backup PG. My top two — both of whom might be available for the $2.9 million room exception — Donald Sloan and Ramon Sessions. Sloan was just about the definition of average, but he’s good passer (over 10 assists per 100 team possessions last year) and competent, albeit not prolific, three-point shooter. Sessions did a solid job backing up Wall last season, and while similar in effectiveness to Sloan, he was stylistically quite different. Where Sloan is in more of a passing PG mold; Sessions is a penetrator and scorer who makes frequent trips to the free throw line. Both guys were efficient last season. Either could be an adequate backup for Wall next year.
  • The Wizards should also strongly consider bringing back versatile forward Jared Dudley, and using him as PF or SF depending on the matchup. Dudley is probably going to be one of the biggest bargains in free agency this year. He’s a solid player who’s going to end up signing for less than his on-court production deserves.

Predicting deep-discount bargains is a big challenge because there’s so much free agent money available. For example, it’d be fun to take a flyer on Spurs big man Boban Marjanovic. He was wildly productive last season, but in 504 minutes of mostly garbage time. Could he be effective with more playing time? It’s an intriguing question, but it could be an expensive experiment given the ocean of free agent money and the thin free agent talent.

Some possible bargains, according to my Diamond Rating (a metric that attempts to identify players who were productive in limited playing time that might perform well in an expanded role)…

  • Boban Marjanovic, San Antonio
  • Cole Aldrich, LA Clippers
  • Festus Ezeli, Golden State
  • Quincy Acy, Sacramento
  • Dwight Powell, Dallas

You may have noticed those are all big men. The backcourt free agent group looks pretty thin in my analysis. The best “bargain” candidate is Seth Curry, who performed well in just 725 minutes for the Kings. Another intriguing name is Indiana’s Solomon Hill, who might be a tweener without a position, but might also be a small-ball PF.

All this written, I can’t say I’m optimistic about the Wizards and free agency. The Ernie Grunfeld-led front office has shown a propensity for suboptimal moves. My guess is they’ll land Ryan Anderson, and then seek to fill out the bench with veterans. I don’t expect them to pursue the lather-rinse-repeat strategy and try to roll cap space into next offseason. There’s internal pressure to make the playoffs, and I anticipate low-risk moves designed to achieve that modest goal.

 

 

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Wizards Must Try Not To Let Success Go To Their Heads

Seen on Twitter the past few days is the heady news that the Washington Wizards went .500 in November — tied for the franchise’s third best winning percentage for month in the past 30 years. Forgive me if I don’t join the parade. For a team like the San Antonio Spurs — a good team that competes for championships — the same record would be their ninth worst in the same time span.

A .500 record for a month is not cause for celebration. The Wizards have a good starting group, but an awful bench. The net result: precisely average. The team is improved, but that’s not the same thing as being good. In a weak East where several teams are tanking, even a meh team can make the playoffs.

All that said, let me reiterate — the Wizards are improved. John Wall is the best PG in the East, and currently ranks 7th overall at his position. The team is getting well-above average play from Martell Webster, Trevor Ariza, Marcin Gortat and Nene. The team’s depth makes any success feel tenuous, but they have a core of good players for this season.

One common thread of Wizards discussion I’d like to address before posting the weekly PPA update is this notion that PG Eric Maynor was at some point “good” and that he’s abruptly and inexplicably gotten worse in Washington.

The facts are that Maynor has been a sub-par player throughout his career. That people believed otherwise is testament to attributing to Maynor that which should have been attributed to his teammates. In other words, folks believed Maynor was causing (or contributing) teammates to be better when, in fact, those other players were producing on their own.

The reason I’m addressing this topic is that asserting that Maynor was at some point “good” or “serviceable” is to let the Wizards’ front office off the hook. In reality, signing Maynor was a terrible waste of resources, and evidence that Ernie Grunfeld and his team still haven’t figured out how to evaluate players. They thought they were getting a steal. Instead, they were getting a lemon. And what’s head-bangingly frustrating is that fairly rudimentary look at the numbers would have told them so.

With that out of the way, here’s the weekly Player Production Average update. PPA is a player rating stat I developed. It credits players for things that contribute to winning and debits them for things that don’t — each in proper proportion. PPA is pace adjusted, accounts for defense and includes a degree of difficulty factor. In PPA, 100 = average, higher is better and 45 = replacement level.

PLAYER GAMES MPG LW PPA
John Wall 17 37.6 158 169
Martell Webster 17 33.6 144 156
Marcin Gortat 17 34.4 139 152
Trevor Ariza 12 35.6 123 146
Nene 14 33.3 127 133
Trevor Booker 9 14.0 102 96
Bradley Beal 13 40.2 82 81
Jan Vesely 11 17.9 81 75
Chris Singleton 3 8.7 51
Eric Maynor 16 10.5 50 35
Al Harrington 7 18.6 7 6
Glen Rice Jr. 6 6.3 -5 -10
Garrett Temple 15 11.5 -18 -14
Kevin Seraphin 13 8.5 -39 -27

What jumps out? On the plus side, the team has a good group of starters. Wall appears to be doing what I predicted at the start of the season — making The Leap to becoming a top-shelf PG. Webster, Gortat, Ariza and Nene round out a quality lineup.

On the down side, there’s the rest of the team. Booker has dipped below average for the first time this season on scant playing time. So far this season, the team falls apart on defense when Booker is on the floor.

Vesely appears to be the beneficiary of lowered expectations from fans. He was so inept last season that anything positive gets exaggerated. He is better than last season in that his play hasn’t been a total train wreck. But, he remains well below average.

Some fans (and perhaps the Wizards as well) hoped that Singleton would provide some kind of significant contribution when he returned from a foot injury. Thus far…not so much. Very small sample size, however.

Maynor’s production has slipped below replacement level. Seriously, the Wizards would do better (or at least do no worse) giving his minutes to someone from the D-League. What’s scary: as bad as he’s been, Harrington, Rice, Temple and Seraphin have been worse.

The Wizards will need to either a) get some level of production from The Bench That Grunfeld Built, or b) bolster the bench with a trade or from the D-League. Without radical improvement from its reserves, this team seems perfectly constructed for a first-round playoff ouster — regardless of the opponent.

Wizards Plan Doesn’t Add Up

Wizards owner Ted Leonsis assures us fans that they have a plan and that they’re sticking to it. However, I think The Plan is a lot messier than it seems to be on the surface — and I don’t think it includes a clear and realistic path to building a championship contender.

What is The Plan exactly? It includes young players like John Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter. It includes trading for veterans like Nene, Emeka Okafor, Trevor Ariza and (most recently) Morcin Gortat. It includes shopping for what Leonsis called a “brand name” free agent. That aspect of The Plan was articulated well by Daniel Friedberg at RealGM. Wrote Friedberg:

The recent transactions by the Wizards (the Marcin Gortat trade, declining the fourth year options of Jan Vesely and Chris Singleton) will give them $15 million in cap space in the summer of 2014, making them major players in free agency. That exact amount also depends on what they choose to do with Gortat. While all the sorcery in the world won’t bring LeBron, Carmelo or Bosh to the nation’s capital, a playoff run this year will make this squad more of a draw for lower tier free agents. After a half decade of basement-dwelling drudgery, the Wiz faithful finally have reason for optimism.

But how much optimism is warranted? The Wizards could indeed have $15 million (or even a little more) in cap room next offseason. All they have to do is renounce Gortat, Ariza, Trevor Booker, Jan Vesely, Kevin Seraphin and Chris Singleton. The last three don’t matter much. They’re bad NBA players and will be gone after the season.

If the Wizards are to make a playoff run this season, Gortat and Ariza will be major contributors, and Booker is likely to be at least a significant part of the rotation. A Wizards “get into the playoffs” rotation is probably going to include Wall and Eric Maynor as the PGs, Beal and Martell Webster or Garrett Temple as the SGs, Ariza and Webster as the SFs (with a possible contribution from Porter), Nene, Booker and Harrington at PF, and Gortat and Nene at center.

That rotation will have to look something like this:

  • PG: Wall and Maynor
  • SG: Beal and Webster/Temple
  • SF: Ariza and Webster
  • PF: Nene and Booker/Harrington
  • C: Gortat and Nene

It’s at this point that the “logic” of the whole getting into the playoffs will make the Wizards more attractive to free agents part of The Plan breaks down. If the Wizards sign a significant free agent next offseason, that free agent cannot be addition. Since the team can’t have cap space unless it’s willing to give up Gortat, Ariza, Booker, etc., any free agent signing will be replacement of those players. In effect, they’ll be trading the departed players for the new guy.

So, put yourself in the mind of a “brand name” free agent. If you’re interested in playing for a winner, why would you pick the Wizards? The group that “won” (meaning they got into the playoffs) can’t be kept together if the team decides to sign you. Key contributors would have to be let go — guys without whom Washington would have missed the postseason.

In other words, a potential free agent can’t go to the Wizards to “join” a winning team — he has to take the place of important contributors and hope that what he has to offer plus the continued development of the team’s remaining players is enough to do more than keep the team treading water. I don’t see how that package would be attractive to a prominent free agent who wants to compete for a championship.

The Wizards’ cap situation provides some flexibility, which is a positive. If the salary cap rises to $62 million (which is what’s expected), Washington could clear as much as $16 million in cap space. That sounds like a lot, but when the cap increases, maximum salaries increase as well. That $16 million would be sufficient to pay a maximum salary to a player with 0-6 years of experience, but would fall short for players with 7-9 years or 10+ years.

If the Wizards decide to let everyone leave so they can sign Chris Bosh, they’ll either need to convince Bosh to take a starting salary $4.2 million less than the maximum he could receive — and $4.5 million less than he’s due to receive under his current contract — OR work a sign and trade with Miami OR trade away other players (like Beal or Porter) to clear additional cap space.

Let’s say they go after Detroit’s Greg Monroe instead. Monroe would have to take slightly less money (about $2.6 million over the four years of a maximum contract), AND Detroit would have to decide not to match. But let’s say all that happens. At that point, the Wizards would have eight players under contract and about $2 million in cap space to fill the rest of their roster — and they’d be working without a first round pick, which they traded to get Gortat. Who, in this scenario, would be playing elsewhere next season.

Which means, the team would continue to lack depth, especially up front where they’d be reliant on Monroe, an aging Nene and whatever they could get from the second round or the free agent “remnants” bin.

The question really comes down to this: What goals does the front office really have? If the Wizards are serious about contending for a championship with this group, the path to contender status is heavily reliant on player development and hoping to get lucky in free agency or the draft. If their goal is to make the playoffs and then see if they can go on a lucky run, they’re probably setting themselves up to make moves that will keep them treading water.

All that said, the team could still become a title contender if some combination of Wall, Beal or Porter develop into true franchise players. The front office has already committed to Wall as its franchise bedrock with the absolute maximum contract they could give him. Wall hasn’t shown to be worth that kind of money yet, though his breakthrough may be coming.

Beal’s rookie season was a lot like Ray Allen’s, a guy who will be in the Hall of Fame, but wasn’t a true franchise player. Porter, of course, is a question mark — his hip injury has kept him on the sidelines. As a college prospect, he graded as a good-but-not-great prospect.

I’m definitely not saying the team is going to stink. They have sufficient resources to be a perennial playoff team for the next few seasons. That path to being a title contender is less clear, however. The two major trades the past couple years (acquiring Okafor and Ariza; then trading Okafor and a first for Gortat) don’t really look like the moves a team aspiring to win a championship in the near future would make. They seem more like the moves of a team content to make the playoffs in the short term, but without a genuine plan to transition from playoff contender to championship contender.

My expectation for the 2014 offseason is that the team will essentially punt on free agency. My guess: they’ll re-sign Gortat and Ariza to four-year contracts in the name of continuity, and use the MLE to add frontcourt depth rather than taking a plunge in the free agent waters. Then they’ll hope that development from Wall, Beal and Porter will be enough to make them title contenders before age and injury wear down their 30-plus year olds up front.

It’s not the way I would have done it, but there’s at least a chance it could work.