John Wall’s injury and subsequent major setback have put the Washington Wizards in a really tough spot. His supermax Designated Veteran Player Extension is set to kick in on July 1, but it would be a pleasant surprise at this point if he sees the floor at all in the 2019-20 season. He was shut down just after Christmas 2018 with an Achilles injury and had surgery shortly thereafter to alleviate pain in his left Achilles. A month later, he fell in his home and completely ruptured that Achilles, which will sideline him for at least a year from February 2019 but considering the Wizards’ investment in their star point guard, they have every reason to take all available precautions during Wall’s recovery process.
As unfortunate as it is, Wall’s contract compared to his current ailment and level of play is a topic of discussion for anybody taking over the basketball operations for Washington. To this point, they have yet to hire a full-time leader of their front office, but wasted no time getting the word out after Game 6 of the NBA Finals that they wanted to hire Toronto’s Masai Ujiri. Team owner Ted Leonsis is willing to pay through the nose for Ujiri’s services after successful stints in Denver and Toronto and considering that there’s no cap on non-players in the organization, it makes sense that Leonsis would swing for the fences with an offer for Ujiri. He’s clearly willing to spend the money to make the Wizards a high-end basketball club once again, though the financial commitments they’ve already made will make that difficult for Ujiri or anybody else who takes the job.
While going after Ujiri is the right move for Washington if they can pry him from Toronto, the Wizards’ set of pre-free agency decisions make it somewhat tenuous to bring him in so late in the process. For now, it seems as though interim general manager Tommy Sheppard is running the show, who has a vast amount of NBA experience over his career spanning more than a quarter century. Sheppard (or the executive who takes over in the next few weeks) has a number of decisions to make rather quickly, as the draft is coming up within a few days and the Wizards have no fewer than five potential restricted free agents who will need qualifying offers, or not, before free agency opens.
The nature of the players Washington has under contract gives them immense roster flexibility, even if they don’t have much financial flexibility. With Wall out for most of, if not all, of 2019-20, they’ll have to address the point guard spot in the draft or free agency, but they can otherwise go in any direction with their signings and draft pick. For now, they only hold the No. 9 pick in the upcoming draft, though there are rumors swirling around Bradley Beal’s availability, with further draft compensation and young players joining the Wizards in the event Beal is moved. He has two years and $55.8 million left on his contract before he hits unrestricted free agency in 2021, so there’s very little rush for Washington to move on from their star guard.
Among the five possible restricted free agents on the Wizards’ books, three stand out as high-priority players: Bobby Portis, Tomas Satoransky, and Thomas Bryant. Sam Dekker is on the borderline of this group, as his $3.9 million qualifying offer seems to be slightly more than he’s actually worth, but he did play significant minutes down the stretch last season after being acquired at the trade deadline in a three-team trade with the Milwaukee Bucks and Cleveland Cavaliers. Due to Washington’s particular financial constraints, perhaps they’d be willing to have Dekker on the team at that amount, even if they can’t come to a long-term arrangement at a better value. Chasson Randle has been in and out of the league throughout the last three season and is on that path once again, though he acquitted himself well in the minutes he played for the Wizards this past season.
Washington’s restricted free agents will be fascinating to monitor as the calendar flips to June. Given where the Wizards are with their cap situation (over the cap but nowhere near the tax), it would surprise nobody if teams are reluctant to try to sign Portis and their other restricted free agents to offer sheets. Washington has enough flexibility to match essentially any reasonable offer for all three of their primary restricted free agents, which could have a negative effect on their earnings. Squeeze Portis and the others too much and they’ll sign qualifying offers and leave next summer, but the Wizards have significant leverage in these negotiations from that perspective.
All three of Portis, Satoransky, and Bryant likely project to be backup-level players at their various positions, which will push them down teams’ priority lists but will potentially open them up to more overall suitors, considering any team with an unused exception late in the process will be able to come in with an offer sheet for one of them. Portis’s score-first-and-score-only mentality might turn him away from teams looking to build a playoff contender, but for a team looking to raise the floor of their bench units, he makes a lot of sense. A lot of teams could do worse than Satoransky at either guard position, though with Wall’s absence hanging over the 2019-20 season, another team would have to come with a pretty lucrative offer to pry him away from the Wizards. Bryant broke out as the team’s starter in 2018-19, which earned him a higher qualifying offer than he would have gotten otherwise, but his rim-running ways are better suited to a bench role. He found the perfect situation last year after Ian Mahinmi and Dwight Howard combined to miss 121 games, but the hope is that both will be healthy for the upcoming season. Whether either of those guys is better than what Bryant can bring to the table is an open question, but they’ll likely get first shot at the starting spot and Bryant may have to look for employment elsewhere next season.
Trevor Ariza will be an unrestricted free agent for the second consecutive summer and although things went better in Washington than Phoenix, it seems as though he would be better off finding a home with a contender. The Wizards can bring him back for up to $18 million, but doing so would put a severe dent in their below-tax spending power. Ariza’s a very valuable starter-level player for teams looking to contend for championships, but the Wizards are decidedly not among those teams and the sort of money it would take to keep Ariza around should be out of their price range.
Staying below the tax should be relatively easy for the Wizards. Assuming they correctly opt out of Jabari Parker’s $20 million contract for next season, they’ll have about $35 million in money to spend below the tax, but the cap holds for their restricted guys will push them out of the cap space derby. A big cost-cutting trade could change things, but for now, Washington is looking at adding to their team through the draft and with their mid-level exception and bi-annual exception, should they choose to use it this year. Filling out the rest of the roster with minimum contracts will still leave them well below the tax and able to make some moves throughout the year, if the right trade comes along.
Washington’s in an unfortunate spot after the injury to Wall, but they can still put a competitive team on the floor in 2019-20 with some smart additions in the draft and free agency. Relying on internal growth from Troy Brown will also be a big part of their future, as last year’s first-round pick was disappointing in his first NBA campaign. Head coach Scott Brooks has had a lot of success with player development throughout his career in Oklahoma City and Washington, so Brown’s development is in good hands from that perspective.
Wall’s supermax contract hangs over the franchise like a dark cloud ready to bring torrential rain, but if he’s able to fully recover from his Achilles injury and return as at least a mid-tier starting point guard, that would go a long way toward mitigating the negative value attached to his contract. There’s very little chance that he’ll live up to the full amount after the injury, particularly because of how much he relies on his athleticism, but his value 18 months from now should be significantly higher than it is right now. The short-term may not be kind to Wall and the Wizards as he recovers, but the opportunity to develop the younger guys and get Beal significant reps as the lead guy will only make them better and perhaps make him even more valuable on the trade market. Beal missed out on All-NBA honors in 2018-19 and isn’t supermax eligible this offseason, but if he were to have another big year as the lead guard for the Wizards in Wall’s absence, he could find himself in line for a supermax extension next summer, which would add five years and nearly $250 million to his current contract. Tying himself to the Wizards for what would essentially be the rest of his athletic prime might not seem that attractive at the moment, but as Wall works his way back to the court and if Washington can land Ujiri or another high-level executive in the front office, perhaps Beal would be more open to committing to the club.