Stop worrying: The Wizards still don’t have the talent to win early

The new Washington Wizards executive team has been busy this summer assembling the roster to accumulate future assets in the pursuit of building an organization that can ultimately compete for a championship. Gone are Bradley Beal, Kristaps Porzingis and Monte Morris. In their places are Jordan Poole, Tyus Jones, Patrick Baldwin Jr., Mike Muscala, Landry Shamet, Danilo Gallinari, Bilal Coulibaly, Tristan Vukcevic and seemingly every other round until 2030.

Forward Kyle Kuzma returns with a new four-year, $102 million contract.

A lot of online chatter among fans is concern that bringing Kuzma back will somehow prevent the Wizards from being bad enough to land a high pick and a potential star.

While there are many issues concerning one of the NBA’s longest-suffering fan bases as the team embarks on a classic teardown to rebuild a better strategy, I think getting too good isn’t one of them too fast.

Let’s unpack a bit.

The Wizards won 35 games last season. Upon departure, Porzingis, Beal, Morris, Jordan Goodwin, Rui Hachimura, Kendrick Nunn, Will Barton, Taj Gibson, Vernon Carey Jr., Devon Dotson, Isaiah Todd and Jamaree Bouyea take an estimated 18 wins with them, by my estimates. More than three-quarters of those wins came from Porzingis, Beal and Morris.

Note: I find similar results using published win estimates like Win Shares or Wins Produced.

Pu-pu the plate of incoming players combined for about 14 wins last season — including estimates of what Coulibaly and Vukcevic could add. That means the Wizards will start next season with a baseline of about 31 wins, which would put them in the running for one of the league’s five-worst records in most seasons.

Plus, the front office probably isn’t done yet. I suspect that when the season begins, the Wizards will have no more than two of Delon Wright, Shamet, Muscala, Gallinari, Anthony Gill and Xavier Cooks on the roster. None of them have a long-term future with the team, all seem to be more useful to other teams with win-now ambitions, and the Wizards would get more value by filling the roster spots with youth.

While Jones is a good player, I would be surprised if he is on the roster after the trade deadline. His steady play and expiring contract would be ideal for a struggling team looking for backcourt help.

The Wizards have a few wild cards that could theoretically improve their record. Johnny Davis, Deni Avdija and Corey Kispert are young enough that a big improvement is possible.

Poole could get back to that level of production in 2021-22, which could give the team a few extra wins. On the other hand, his efficiency was below average when Stephen Curry wasn’t on the floor and he was asked to carry more of the offensive load.

It’s possible that Coulibaly or Vukcevic are better than the typical rookie (think more like Tyrese Haliburton than Avdija), which would also add wins.

In terms of probabilities, here’s what I think is most likely:

  • Poole is hitting a level of production between his third season and last season’s dropoff — which will give the Wizards an extra win.
  • Davis is improving somewhat and maybe adding a win – last season he was a net negative producer.
  • Kispert tries to expand his role, resulting in lower efficiency and about the same level of overall productivity.
  • Avdija receives high praise in training camp, but does not significantly improve her shooting and does not take a significant step forward.
  • Rookies are like rookies – rough in the beginning, some improvement as the season goes on. Coulibaly may be the franchise’s only real building block at this point, but he’ll still be one of the youngest players in the NBA. Teenagers typically struggle in the beginning. Vukcevic is a good shooter with some passing skills, as well as defensive deficiencies that will reduce his odds of even being part of the rotation as a rookie.

Production increases from Kuzma, Wright, Jones or other veterans are unlikely. They have all reached the “they are what they are” stage. They can be useful in the right setting, but realistically, none of these guys are suited for to lead a team that is even fighting for play-in.

In addition, you must remember that this front office thinks differently than what Wizards fans have seen for the past two decades with Ernie Grunfeld and Tommy Sheppard at the helm. The goal for Michael Winger, Travis Schlenk and Will Dawkins is not to make the play-in or the playoffs or to come oh so close. They will win championships with the Washington Wizards.

These three certainly know that none of the veterans on the roster will be part of Washington becoming a contender, except to the extent that they are traded for other assets. Real talk again: that’s probably true too all on the list except maybe Coulibaly.

That’s not to say that holdovers and recent acquisitions stink. Even younger guys who haven’t blossomed yet and may not reach their hoped-for potential can be useful with the right team and role. But they are not building blocks, and the front office has to find that.

All of this is a long way of saying there’s no need to worry about the front office getting ahead of itself and rebuilding another 35-win team. The Wizards could be fun to watch next year even if they lose most of their games. But they will lose, and the front office will trade veterans with value to other teams and shut down producers with minor injuries to make it happen.

I haven’t loved every move they’ve made so far, but they have goals, they have a plan, and they seem to understand what it takes to build a long-term winner. They are not going to sacrifice the long-term goals to chase the play-in.

At least I hope they won’t.

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