Projecting the Washington Wizards’ future with help from an expert: Part 1

The Washington Wizards face critical questions, and the front office’s answers to those questions will shape the roster for years to come.

The same could be said every offseason for almost every NBA team, of course.

But Washington’s central issue — whether to re-sign its marquee player, Bradley Beal — looms especially large and serves as an inflection point for the franchise. The Wizards and Beal appear likely to agree to a five-year max contract worth approximately $245 million, and the magnitude of that commitment to Beal would have ramifications for the rest of the roster.

If the front office and Beal reach that deal, as expected, what would be the Wizards’ best path toward building a contender?

To project Washington’s future, The Athletic has paired front-office expert John Hollinger with Wizards beat writer Josh Robbins. Hollinger worked as the Memphis Grizzlies‘ vice president of basketball operations for seven years and also is one of the pioneers in basketball analytics.

Hollinger and Robbins’ conversation will take place in two parts.

In this installment, they’ll evaluate the impact re-signing Beal would have on the front office’s plans. They’ll also cover Kristaps Porziņģisfuture.


Josh Robbins: Thanks for doing this, John.

I want to discuss the Wizards’ future through the lens of roster construction: How can the team transform itself into a bona fide contender over the next several years?

But let me first give you a sense of the mood here in Washington. A group of fans — and it’s difficult to determine whether it’s a solid majority or a smaller, but more vocal, segment — worry the team will re-sign Beal in free agency this summer for the maximum five-year total of approximately $245 million. Spending such a large chunk of the salary cap on a non-superstar is a point of contention, and I understand why, especially considering how the franchise has a history of overpaying players whose final years here turned out to be disastrous (think: Gilbert Arenas and John Wall) or disappointing (think: Juwan Howard and Otto Porter Jr.).

So let me give you a hypothetical. In a world in which the franchise’s majority owner, Ted Leonsis, gives the head of basketball operations, Tommy Sheppard, free rein to either retain Beal or move on, what would be the team’s best course of action if the goal is to build a title contender?

John Hollinger: Well, here’s the thing … the best course of action would have been to trade Beal before His contract expired, and that’s the one option that is now off the table (unless he somehow opts into his 2022-23 season). The big question everyone I talk to has about the Wizards is what exactly their desired endgame might be and whether that entails any goals loftier than chasing the eighth seed. The Beal situation is the perfect example: 18 months ago, he could have gotten the Wizards a Jrue Holiday-esque package (at least) in a trade, but instead Washington hung onto him through two forgettable seasons.

Given the corner they are painted into, the Wizards’ best option is to re-sign Beal, because they can always trade him later, and he still probably would return positive value even on a max. They might have some wiggle room in terms of the fifth-year guarantee, given that no other plausible destinations would seem to have max room this summer.

Robbins: All signs do point to the team and Beal agreeing on a multi-year deal. If such a contract costs $245 million over five years, how would it impact the team’s chances of building an elite roster?

Hollinger: I think they’re going to have a hard time building an elite roster in the next couple of years either way, because the exit they drove right past without so much as tapping the brakes 18 months ago was to trade Beal and tank. Again, given the cards they currently hold, retaining Beal’s rights is probably better than letting him walk to have cap room in a blah free-agent market.

The one fortunate thing for Washington is that, by moving off Wall and then Russell Westbrook, its books are actually pretty decent going forward, even with roughly $80 million committed each of the next two years for Beal and Porziņģis. This is partly because none of the Wizards’ recent lottery picks have proven worthy of a large extension, but I’m trying to stay positive here.

Without the money to add a third elite starter or a high draft pick, it’s hard to see how this team gets above the treading-water, Play-In-Tournament level in the East. The front office has actually done a nice job navigating from the hellscape of Wall’s extension to now … but the team still looks stuck in purgatory.


Bradley Beal was named an All-Star in three of Washington’s last five seasons, averaging 27.0 points per game over that five-year stretch. (Jerome Miron / USA Today)

Robbins: Let’s say, once again, the team and Beal agree on a new deal. In my opinion, Beal at his best is a legit All-Star but would not slot as the No. 1 player on a championship-level team. And he’s going to turn 29 in June, which isn’t old in the real world but would not leave the Wizards a great deal of time to construct a winner around him.

Some fans think the Wizards’ chances of building a championship-level team would be hopeless. I disagreethough I acknowledge the Wizards would have precious little flexibility to make mistakes along the way.

What is Washington’s best pathway toward making a jump into the league’s elite and doing so in a sustainable way?

Hollinger: I agree with your assessments and only see two realistic pathways to contender level: hitting a Nikola Jokić-esque grand slam in the draft or landing a trade for a better player than Beal. Either is theoretically possible, but neither seems particularly likely in reality. Washington does have the pieces to put together a trade if an All-Star-caliber player becomes available; the future first it owes to Oklahoma City is a complication but not necessarily a fatal one.

I still think a far more likely pathway to long-term relevance is for the Wizards to trade Beal and Porziņģis and start over, but they seem extremely reluctant to try this.


Kristaps Porziņģis averaged 22.1 points and 8.8 rebounds per game after his trade from Dallas to Washington. (Brad Mills / USA Today)

Robbins: What do you make of Porziņģis’ future?

The Wizards front office felt that bringing him and the second-round pick aboard for Spencer Dinwiddie and Dāvis Bertāns improved the team’s overall talent level, and I agree with that assessment.

At the same time, though, Porziņģis a player who, with the exception of his 2017-18 All-Star season in New York, has never fulfilled his tantalizing promise. Injuries have derailed, but not scuttled, his career.

He’s under contract for the season ahead for $33.8 million and then will have a player option for 2023-24 worth $36.0 million.

Your crystal ball cannot foresee how he’ll play in 2022-23 or whether he’ll remain healthy, but how do you envision the Wizards and Porziņģis approaching his long-term future in Washington?

Hollinger: I gotta say … Porziņģis actually looked really good in that late-season stint as a Wizard. I thought Washington was needlessly tempting fate (not to mention potentially moving itself down in the draft) by playing him in so many unimportant games, but he looked a lot closer to the All-Star version of himself than he did in Dallas.

The biggest issue with Porziņģis, as always, is health. As I’ve noted before, players of his size rarely have long careers; exactly zero players 7-foot-3 and taller have amassed 900 career games. Porziņģis’ meter is already at 337, with multiple knee injuries along the way. It seems crazy to think he could play anywhere close to 80 games next year, or any future year for that matter, but if he can give the Wizards 65 games at an All-Star level, that certainly makes his contract a decent value proposition, Especially because it also allowed them to Ctrl-Z the Bertāns mistake.

As a result, I just can’t imagine Washington moving down the road toward an extension until after Porziņģis has proven he can stay upright for a full season… especially given this franchise’s recent history with contract extensions for players with knee problems (sorry). If Porziņģis doesn’t have a great year, he’s likely to opt in to the $36.0 million anyway.


Come back next week for the second part of this piece. In that portion of their conversation, Hollinger and Robbins will discuss how the Wizards will address their glaring need for a starting point guard, the team’s strategy for the 2022 NBA Draft and Kyle Kuzma‘s future.

(Top photo of Bradley Beal and Davion Mitchell: Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

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