Can the Wizards Avoid Being the Atlanta Hawks of Old?

Under franchise cornerstones John Wall and Bradley Beal, the Wizards have achieved a good amount of success for a narrative still in the process of being written. Recent Wizards’ teams are a relative breath of fresh air after the tumultuous end to the Gilbert Arenas era in Washington.

The Wizards have made the playoffs four of the last five seasons, but have yet to garner anything higher than the fourth seed in the conference (past playoff seeds: 5th – 2014, 5th – 2015, 4th – 2017, 8th – 2018).

With LeBron James choosing to join the Los Angeles Lakers and move to the Western Conference, the outlook in the East is a little brighter for teams like the Wizards, Raptors, Bucks, and Pacers. From an NBA general managing standpoint, one might say the Wizards face a serious crossroads in terms of putting forth a legitimate contender in the wide-open Eastern Conference.

Do they need to immediately add pieces to their core of Wall and Beal? Another star? Should they ‘blow it up’? If they wait to make considerable moves, it could hurt more in the long run. Sometimes being idle or sticking to the plan, as GM Ernie Grunfeld has illustrated plenty of times before, does little to no good for a team’s present and future.

The Wizards are startlingly beginning to resemble some of the Atlanta Hawks’ teams throughout the past decade. The Atlanta Hawks put forth some very solid teams, but again were never quite good enough to make consistent Conference Finals appearances or reach a NBA Finals. The Hawks achieved the third seed or higher twice (3rd – 2010, 1st – 2016) in ten consecutive playoff appearances from 2007 – 2017. Many have dubbed the recent Hawks’ teams as the epitome of NBA Purgatory (where you’re good, but just simply not good enough).

Image result for millsap horford hawks

The Hawks are now in full-on rebuild mode after gradually letting go of their former core players; Kyle Korver, Paul Millsap, Jeff Teague, and Al Horford. If the Wizards are not careful about how they manage their core roster going forward, they will will have joined the Hawks, basking in NBA Purgatory for a decade.

While there were other Hawks’ teams headed by different cores of players, there is a recurring theme that the Hawks’ cores of players throughout this period were certainly good, winning cores, but not outstanding. Joe Johnson receives a lot of undue blame because he was the face of many Hawks’ teams, but they also relied on players like Horford, Josh Smith, and Marvin Williams. A key point exists in the fact that the Hawks could still not get over the hump after changing their core. Granted, they did run into LeBron in 2015 after winning 60 games and the first overall seed, but the Hawks were still swept and devoid of talent capable of competing for a championship.

The Wizards must be objective in how they go about evaluating their roster. Is a team led by Wall and Beal really good enough? Even with ample support from the bench? If Grunfeld is unable to field a legitimate contender, he needs to maximize the value of the Wizards’ assets and plan for the future – whether that be a plan that involves keeping Wall, Beal, or Porter separately, any combination of the two, or working out a deal for a player.

Given the Wizards’ salary cap predicament, they face a scenario where they will not have any significant roster space or maneuverability for the foreseeable future. I don’t know that the Wizards can afford to wait in making drastic changes to their roster. Flipping Marcin Gortat for Austin Rivers was a good move that added bench depth and saved $1M, but they need an influx of talent to support Wall/Beal if they want to compete with Philadelphia and Boston. Another disappointing season could result in serious unrest between both Wall and Beal, and their desire to play in Washington.

Wizards owner Ted Leonsis, left, All-Star point guard John Wall, center, join Ernie Grunfeld, right, at a press conference.

The only salary on the books for 2019-2020 is for Wall, Beal, and Porter’s max-contracts, the last year of Ian Mahinmi’s four year deal, and Troy Brown Jr.’s new rookie contract (via basketballreference). The Wizards will definitely look to re-sign Kelly Oubre Jr. at a reasonable price, though he could end up receiving a handsome payday. Regardless, Oubre is a young asset, they possess his bird rights, and he will invariably help build for the future. Unfortunately, these five contracts (approximately $109M) still result in Washington being over the cap and into the luxury tax, so the roster will require a good amount of minimum contracts. In the interim, Rivers, Markieff Morris, Jodie Meeks, Tomas Satoransky are all valuable trade assets as expiring contracts.

The trade idea of a Markieff Morris and Ian Mahinmi for Carmelo Anthony trade is enticing only in the sense that it frees cap space up for the future. There is no reason to expect that an addition of Carmelo would benefit the Wizards or increases their chances to ‘win-now’, as constructed. But it is this kind of thinking that Ernie Grunfeld needs to embrace – begin thinking about the future and ways to improve the team. Moving Otto Porter, Bradley Beal, or John Wall could also be explored in order to shed cap.

Ultimately, Grunfeld cannot be afraid to take chances. Playing it safe can result in the Hawks’ path. The Wizards already being capped out for 2019, by way of a five mere contracts, is not ideal in any sense. Grunfeld needs to maneuver the salary cap in a way adds to the Wall/Beal dynamic either by way of another star, or reform it entirely. From purely a numbers’ standpoint, it does not add up to be maxed-out through five contracts on the books for 2019, there are going to have to be at least 12 roster spots.

The Wizards need to make drastic moves, whether it be either direction of putting all your chips in at the table with the nucleus you have now, or completely reshaping the team identity for the hope of a more suitable future. Adding another star that makes Wall, Beal and the new player options 1A, 1B, and 1C could elevate Washington to the class of the conference. The other route involves trading Wall or Beal, completely changing the team identity because of the All-Star guard tandem is no more (could result in regressing from what they have already accomplished).

Wall, Beal, and Porter are all locked into their contracts, respectively. Keeping these three together for the long haul could likely result in paralleling the Hawks’ teams – a team that is consistently good, but not great. Because each player is set to make max-contract money, they should all be available at the right price, the cost of improving the team, or gathering an amalgam of players you like.

The clock is ticking for this Wizards core, for GM Ernie Grunfeld, and it has only accelerated with the emergence of the youthful Sixers and Celtics. The upcoming years will decide the Wizards’ role as kin of the Atlanta Hawks in NBA purgatory.

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