NBA free agency wasted no time getting into high gear this past week, with multiple eyebrow-raising moves going down across the league.
On Sunday, Kevin Durant announced he’d be leaving the Golden State Warriors after three seasons and two NBA titles to join the Brooklyn Nets. Durant will be joined by Kyrie Irving and DeAndre Jordan, though he may miss the entire 2019-20 season due to the ruptured right Achilles tendon he suffered during the NBA Finals.
Even if Durant does miss the duration of the upcoming campaign, the addition of him, Irving and Jordan figures to make the Nets a force in the Eastern Conference in the very near future.
Durant aside, the other big storyline heading into the offseason was where NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard would wind up. It was rumored for some time—well over a year, in fact—that Leonard wanted to be a Los Angeles Laker, and the thought that he might join LeBron James and Anthony Davis in Hollywood was enough to make many basketball fans salivate.
In the end, Leonard did end up in L.A., but not as a Laker. It was announced late Friday evening that he would be signing with the Clippers, not the Lakers, or the Toronto Raptors team he just led to an NBA title last month.
At nearly the same time Leonard’s decision became public knowledge, it was reported that the Clippers had also agreed to a trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder that would bring All-Star forward Paul George to L.A. to play alongside Leonard.
When I heard about the Clippers’ big moves on Friday night, the first thing that crossed my mind wasn’t necessarily how exciting the NBA free agent scramble can be. I mean, don’t get me wrong—the whole thing is very intriguing for a sports fan, and the NBA is arguably more popular nowadays then it’s ever been. But all I could think about was what a mess the Washington Wizards’ leadership, or lack thereof, truly is.
While the Nets were busy signing a core of star players that should make them a beast in the East for the next few years to come, and the Celtics were reeling in Kemba Walker to replace Irving, the Wizards were trading Dwight Howard to the Memphis Grizzlies.
Am I upset that the Wizards dealt away a player who is well past his prime? No, not at all.
What I’m upset about, or perhaps more aptly, beating my head against a wall for, is what the one-year Dwight Howard era in D.C. represents. Much like their NFL counterparts in our nation’s capital, the Wizards, while nowhere near the worst franchise in their respective sport, are consistently underwhelming to the point of driving their fanbase to absolute madness.
Sure, a big reason why the team missed the playoffs with a dismal 32-50 record last season was due to the loss of John Wall. Wall ruptured his left Achilles tendon when he slipped and fell in his home back in January, and by that time he hadn’t played in a game since December due to recurring pain in his heel.
Wall underwent surgery to repair the tendon in April, and while he recently told the media that his rehab is progressing quicker than expected, he’s still slated to miss the entirety of the 2019-20 season, which is bad news for the Wizards.
A five-time All-Star, Wall is third on the franchise’s career scoring list. More than that, he’s one of the best point guards in the league, and his kind of talent at the position is very hard to find.
I’m not blaming Wall’s injury on the Wizards. It’s not their fault, or his. It just happened, unfortunately.
However, what I am blaming the franchise for is an absolute lack of direction.
The Howard signing, for instance, was a bad idea even on a one-year pact. With the Charlotte Hornets in 2017-18, Howard played in the most games (81) since making all 82 with the Orlando Magic in 2009-10 and averaged the most points (16.6) since checking in at 18.3 per game in 2013-14 with the Houston Rockets. However, it’s hard to argue that he’s a player whose production hadn’t been trending down overall for the past few seasons, and the Wizards were his fourth team in four years. They had the same information going in that I do now, and they made the decision to sign him anyway.
The Howard signing came after the Wizards traded Marcin Gortat, who was a fan-favorite and nothing if not steady, to the Clippers in June 2018. While Howard’s production the previous year was statistically superior to Gortat’s, who averaged 8.4 points and 7.6 rebounds per contest, Gortat was always there for Washington, playing in at least 81 games in four of his five seasons with them and providing a big, tough body under the basket.
Howard, meanwhile, missed all of preseason and played in a total of nine games in a Wizards uniform.
Then, we have last December’s trade that then-general manager Ernie Grunfeld pulled off with the Phoenix Suns. In that gem, he sent Rivers and Kelly Oubre Jr. away and got Trevor Ariza in return.
Rivers only played in 29 games for Washington after coming over in the Gortat deal, averaging just 7.2 points per outing on a miserable .392 field-goal percentage.
Oubre, the Wizards’ 2015 first-round draft pick out of Kansas, was coming off a 2017-18 campaign in which he averaged double-figure scoring (11.8) for the first time in his young career, and he had upped that production to 12.9 during the team’s first 29 games of 2018-19. Once he got to Phoenix, that production shot up to 18.9.
For Ariza’s part, he wasn’t bad for Washington after the deal. He put up 14.1 points, 5.3 rebounds and 3.8 assists in 43 games. But he was a rental, and he’s now a 34-year-old free agent.
Oubre is a free agent too, by the way, but wouldn’t it have made more sense to invest in an improving 23-year-old on the wing who you apparently thought enough of to use a first-round pick on not long ago?
Of course, Grunfeld never was highly-regarded, really. He held his position in the organization for 16 seasons, beginning in 2003 and coming to an unceremonious end with his firing on April 2.
The Wizards were 536-678 during Grunfeld’s tenure, which included six seasons with less than 30 wins. But there were also eight playoff appearances, including taking the highly-regarded Celtics to seven games in the 2017 Eastern Conference semifinals.
See what I mean about lack of direction and absolute madness?
The Wizards still have not named a replacement for Grunfeld, but regardless of who that may be, they need to decide whether or not they’re a franchise looking to add pieces to contend, or one that needs to blow it up and rebuild from the bottom up.
There is talent there. Bradley Beal averaged career-highs of 25.6 points, 5.5 assists, 5 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game last season. The Wizards recently selected Gonzaga forward Rui Hachimura with the ninth pick in the NBA draft, and they’re hoping 2019 first-round pick Troy Brown Jr. is ready to step into a major role this coming season after playing just 14 minutes per game in 52 contests as a rookie.
If those two pan out and Beal continues his All-Star play, would the return of Wall be enough to even make them a playoff team in the East in 2020-21? If so, then they need to make a splash in free agency next summer to go “all in,” so to speak.
If not, then it’s time to make the hard decision and start from scratch.
Either way, do something definitive. Please. We’re begging you.