Washington Wizards owner Ted Leonsis recently went on record as saying his team would “never, ever tank.” He doubled down on that sentiment during a radio interview last week, saying the Wizards would not be moving John Wall, Bradley Beal or Otto Porter Jr. ahead of Thursday’s NBA trade deadline (via Lisa Redmond of NBC Sports Washington).
Wall’s latest injury may test Leonsis’ conviction on that front.
On Tuesday, the Wizards announced Wall would need to undergo surgery to repair a ruptured left Achilles tendon he suffered while slipping and falling in his home. Upon his surgery, Wall “is expected to return to full basketball activity in approximately 12 months,” which means he’ll miss most if not all of the 2019-20 season, too.
While Leonsis wants his downtrodden team to compete for one of the Eastern Conference’s final few playoff berths, he should confront reality before swearing off any significant move prior to the trade deadline.
At 22-31, the Wizards currently sit 3.5 games behind the eighth-seeded Miami Heat with fewer than 30 games remaining in the regular season. Even if they do overtake the Heat or the Charlotte Hornets—the latter of whom may be on the verge of acquiring Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol, per Shams Charania of The Athletic—they’ll be little more than a first-round speedbump for the Toronto Raptors or Milwaukee Bucks.
Without a healthy Wall in the fold, the Wizards won’t be legitimate title contenders with the Wall-Beal-Porter core. And without knowing how Wall will fare upon his return, the Wizards would be paying an astronomical price for mediocrity in his absence.
In 2019-20, Wall is heading into the first-year of his four-year, $170 million supermax extension, while Porter and Beal are each owed more than $27 million. Porter has a $28.5 million player option for the 2020-21 season, while Beal is owed a guaranteed $28.75 million that year before he becomes an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2021.
Wall, Beal and Porter alone will earn nearly $92.5 million combined next season. Throw in the $15.5 million the Wizards owe to sparingly used center Ian Mahinmi, and they’re already brushing up against the projected $109 million salary cap with just those four players. The only other player they have under contract for 2019-20 is rookie swingman Troy Brown Jr., the No. 15 overall pick in 2018, who has played all of 208 minutes to date.
The Wizards could attempt to retain the likes of Trevor Ariza, Markieff Morris and Tomas Satoransky this summer, but they’d only have roughly $24 million in breathing room before blowing past the projected $132 million luxury-tax threshold. Leonsis likely won’t want to pay the tax for a Wall-less team with the ceiling of a first-round playoff knockout, which drastically limits the Wizards’ ability to round out their roster this summer.
While Washington is understandably reluctant to trade Beal—he’s averaged 27.3 points on 46.0 percent shooting, 5.8 assists, 5.5 rebounds, 3.1 triples and 1.9 steals in the 18 games since Wall went down in late December—the same shouldn’t be true for Porter.
The 25-year-old Georgetown product is an ideal third banana who would be badly miscast in an expanded role. He shot 43.7 percent from three over the past two seasons and has the size, length and lateral quickness to switch defensively, but he struggles to create offense for himself and doesn’t profile as a nightly threat to go off for 20-plus points. Over five-and-a-half career seasons, he’s topped the 30-point threshold only twice (both in the 2016-17 campaign).
Porter also drew the ire of both his teammates and his coach early this year.
“I love Otto,” head coach Scott Brooks told reporters after the second game of the season, during which Porter played only 25 minutes in a four-point loss to the Raptors. “You guys know that. But he has to play faster. He has to. … He makes winning basketball plays. He gets in plays, but he has to do that consistently for us. He can’t do it for a half. He has to do it for the entire game.”
One week later, both Wall and Beal put Porter on passive-aggressive blast.
“We’ve got guys that’s worried about who’s getting shots,” Wall told reporters. “…You should never worry about that,” he said. “No matter if you’re missing or making shots, you gotta be able to compete on the other end. You can’t do it on both ends of the floor, you don’t need to be playing.”
“Sometimes, we have our own agendas on the floor, whether it’s complaining about shots, complaining about playing time, complaining about whatever it may be,” Beal added. “We’re worried about the wrong s–t, and that’s not where our focus needs to be. And it’s just going to continue to hurt us.”
While Wall and Beal didn’t name names, Brooks did.
“Otto, he has to just keep playing and can’t worry about your shots and worry about your shot-making,” he said.
Porter missed 10 games in December with a knee injury, during which time the Wizards went 3-7. Upon his return, he came off the bench for nearly the entire month of January before Brooks reinserted him into the starting lineup over the past few games.
If the Wizards weren’t sitting nearly $6 million above the luxury-tax threshold this season and were more competitive, keeping Porter around may be a headache worth enduring. But given their short- and long-term outlook after Wall’s latest setback, it makes no sense for them to continue paying Porter $25-plus million annually, especially with other suitors expressing interest in him.
In mid-January, ESPN’s Zach Lowe reported the Wizards “have shown little appetite for dealing Otto Porter anywhere for a return heavy on future assets and cap flexibility,” but he mentioned the Sacramento Kings as one potential landing spot. According to Shams Charania of The Athletic, the Utah Jazz have also been “an interested suitor” for Porter.
Porter isn’t the Wizards’ only wing drawing interest on the trade market, either. On Tuesday, ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne reported the Los Angeles Lakers “continue to have a fondness for Trevor Ariza, should the Wizards make him available at the deadline.” Ariza, who won a championship with the Lakers in 2008-09, is averaging 15.2 points on 39.0 percent shooting, 5.7 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 2.4 triples and 1.5 steals in 23 games for the Wizards since he came over in a mid-December trade from the Phoenix Suns.
But it appears as though the Lakers shouldn’t hold their breath for an Ariza deal, according to Fred Katz of The Athletic.
Ariza loves being on the West Coast and his $15M salary makes him a candidate the Wizards could use to shave luxury tax dollars in a deal, but from what I'm hearing, Wizards don't want to make a trade that makes them worse this year. https://t.co/psNNb6R2aA
— Fred Katz (@FredKatz) February 5, 2019
Leonsis may stubbornly prioritize short-term competitiveness over his franchise’s long-term trajectory, but he’d only be pushing off difficult decisions down the road. If the Wizards can flip Ariza for future assets ahead of the trade deadline, they’d avoid risking losing him for nothing in free agency in July. If they’re able to pawn off Porter to the Kings, Jazz or another interested suitor, they may be able to sneak under the luxury-tax threshold this season, unclog their books in years to come and pick up picks and/or prospects, too.
Is a few extra million in playoff revenue worth condemning your franchise to the treadmill of mediocrity for the next half-decade? That’s what the Wizards must weigh heading into Thursday’s trade deadline.