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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Jared Sullinger — Just 23 years old, and unpopular with fans in Boston, Sullinger has nonetheless been a productive performer. Whether he stays that way without an actual commitment to physical fitness is questionable. 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.
- 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.
- 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.