I’ll do my best not to comment too much on Washington’s actual chances of getting Kevin Durant. Too much is still up in the air. We don’t know what kind of roster they’ll be able to pitch to him, we don’t know what other teams will actually enter the derby, and we don’t know how far the Thunder will advance in the playoffs (but if Saturday was any indication, the answer is not much further). What absolutely does need to be asked though is what the hell will Washington do if they don’t get Kevin Durant?
To recap the steps they’ve taken in anticipation of Durant’s free agency, they sacrificed the integrity of a team that made back-to-back second rounds so they could preserve cap space, they declined to extend Bradley Beal’s contract as an another money-saving move (though in their defense, Beal is overrated), and most damningly, they hired his former coach Scott Brooks despite his questionable performance with the Thunder.
These moves all make a degree of sense in a vacuum, but together they point to a team that’s going all in on a plan that’s far from safe. Generally star free agents stay with their original teams, and when they don’t it’s usually in pursuit of a championship. The Wizards missed the playoffs this season, so at the very least this is an uphill battle. Teams engage in risky free agent chases every year, but generally they do so with more of a fallback plan.
The Wizards, though, are built entirely around the chase for Durant. And nothing on their roster indicates that they’ll succeed if they don’t get him.
Their cap space is far more tenuous than it appears. Though they’ll have max space for Durant, that space disappears the moment Bradley Beal signs an offer sheet. When that happens, his salary cap number jumps to whatever his new actual salary is, as opposed to his far cheaper qualifying offer. Beal may be willing to hold off if he feels strongly that the Wizards can get Durant, but afterwards he’ll likely demand his payday.
Maybe the Wizards can get him to wait long enough to actually use their 2016 cap space on other players, but that might not make a difference. Durant isn’t going to make his decision right away. Every day that the Wizards spend hoarding their space for him is another day free agents are signing elsewhere. By the time he makes a decision, there probably won’t be many starter-quality players left on the market. If the Wizards can’t get Durant, they aren’t just missing out on a star, but likely any sort of free agency victory period.
In any case, those non-star caliber players are somewhat immaterial at this stage. The Wizards need a superstar to jump into true contention. There’s not much of an argument for them to do so after missing the playoffs otherwise. Adding a Nicolas Batum would be nice, but wouldn’t be much more than a lateral move for a team trying to make a real leap. Getting that star is going to be much harder in 2017 because of Beal’s new contract.
Beal is almost certainly going to get over $20 million this summer strictly based on how many teams have cap space. Even if we conservatively peg his annual salary at that number, the Wizards are going to have to do some gymnastics to maintain max space next summer with such a large deal on their books.
John Wall and Marcin Gortat both signed contracts with increasing values. They combine for almost $31 million in 2017-18. Markieff Morris is at $8 million, so when we include Beal’s $20 million that takes the Wizards almost to $60 million for four players. The cap is going to hover around $108 million, so the Wizards won’t be able to commit more than approximately $20 million more in salary to hold onto a max slot.
That’s going to be difficult. Otto Porter will be due a contract extension, and his qualifying offer at the minimum is going to be around $7 million. Kelly Oubre will be on the books for another $2 million or so, and they’ll have to commit another few million to their 2017 first round pick. That’s seven players in the low-70’s.
Could they conceivably sign no other players to deals beyond this summer? Sure, but that makes it nearly impossible to improve their roster as any worthwhile player would want a multi-year deal. Their cap space becomes something of a double-edged sword. The work it would take to preserve it would also likely keep the Wizards out of the playoffs, and if they missed the playoffs two straight years no superstar would even consider them. And remember, Durant is a unique case. He’s from Washington D.C. Most superstars aren’t.
If free agency is off the table, the draft is the next logical step in reloading the roster. But the Wizards traded their lottery pick this season for Markieff Morris. They’re out three more future second round picks, and have no picks incoming from other teams. They have among the least draft capital in the league over the next few years.
And even when they’ve had picks, they haven’t effectively used them. John Wall was a no-brainer in 2010, but consider their selections since then:
- Jan Vesely over Klay Thompson, Kawhi Leonard and both Morris twins in 2011.
- Bradley Beal over Andre Drummond and Harrison Barnes in 2012.
- Otto Porter over C.J. McCollum, Giannis Antetokuonmpo, Nerlens Noel and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in 2013
- No player from either their 2014 or 2015 drafts averaged more than 10.7 minutes per game for the team last season.
Granted, past failures don’t necessarily mean that they can’t make the right picks in the future, but the same GM who made those bad picks is still there. Ernie Grunfeld has been Washington’s GM since 2003. The team has never advanced past the second round. They traded a pick that could have been used on Stephen Curry in 2009 for Mike Miller and Randy Foye. He is objectively a bad GM. Yet he’s been employed for over a decade. A bad record over such a long period of time is damning enough to believe that the Wizards aren’t going to suddenly start nailing draft picks overnight.
If they don’t get Durant, the Wizards are essentially left with the same core group they had this year. One superstar in Wall, a bunch of question marks filling out the rest of the roster, a bad GM and a coach hired mainly for recruiting purposes. There’s no logical path to contention there, no assets to trade, no other free agents to pursue, no prospects to draft. That’s reckless franchise building.