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By Ben Standig and Chase Hughes
We can assume by that Wizards owner Ted Leonsis means the Feb. 7 NBA trade deadline will be pretty quiet for Washington.
But it doesn’t mean teams won’t be calling - especially those looking at two-way perimeter players like Trevor Ariza.
Washington only acquired Ariza in mid-December from Phoenix in exchange for two of its better trade assets, Kelly Oubre Jr. and Austin Rivers. The move signaled a playoff push, but also the hope of a reunion with Ariza beyond this season.
Even before Leonsis’ comments, sources to NBC Sports Washington coupled with other factors indicated the Wizards’ plan to keep Ariza for the remainder of the season, despite the impact of John Wall’s season-ending heel surgery.
There is unequivocally a seller’s market for any team focused on the future -- and willing to take on additional salary. Including Washington, 25 of the 30 teams are in position for a playoff berth less than one month before the trade deadline.
“The Western Conference is an arms race,” said a league source. Of the 15 teams, 13 are within five games of a playoff berth.
Five clear contenders exist in the Eastern Conference race. Six teams vie for the final three spots, including Washington.
And there’s already been a flurry of activity this season.
Milwaukee, one of those East heavyweights, made an aggressive move in December. The three-team trade involving Cleveland that brought Sam Dekker to Washington also set the bar for acquisition cost.
In exchange for guard George Hill and Dekker, Cleveland received a 2021 first and second round pick from Milwaukee, guard Matthew Dellavedova and forward John Henson. Dellavedova’s contract includes $9.6 million in annual salary through 2019-20. Henson receives $11.3 million and $10.4 in 2019-20.
“[The Cavaliers] actually like Dellavedova, but it should be clear to get a first even from a contender you'll have to take on some salary,” a former NBA front office executive told NBC Sports Washington.
The Brooklyn Nets obtained a first-round selection from Washington in 2016 by taking on the remaining three-plus seasons of Andrew Nicholson’s $26 million contract. That pick turned into a shot-blocking center, Jarrett Allen.
“That's really what the calculus is now. Is your guy on a one-year rental good enough to give you a first?” the former front office executive continued. “Probably not – but the Wizards have one of them in Trevor Ariza that might have that much cache at the trade deadline. I would hold him until the very last minute and see which of the contenders got the most desperate.”
So who would be interested in Ariza? Wing-needy New Orleans faces pressure putting a winner around Anthony Davis. The Los Angeles Lakers, the favorites for Ariza before the Wizards swooped in, slipped in the Western Conference standings with LeBron James sidelined. Golden State, Philadelphia, Houston and Portland are logical fits.
Trade bait like Rockets guard Brandon Knight ($15.6 million salary in 2019-20) and Blazers forward Moe Harkless ($11.5 million) offer potential, injury risk and needed salary to match Ariza’s. Taking on their money also would mean potentially landing a first-round pick.
“Those are the types of deals [the Wizards] need to identify,” the former front office executive said. “Somebody they believe has upside with length and athleticism, who plays the game the way it’s played now and who's on a longer deal than the team that's paying him wants to [spend].”
Even acquiring second-round picks works for the Wizards, who are without any until 2023.
Adding salary at the deadline presents an both opportunity and complications, with Washington already above the projected $109 million salary cap and only five players under contract.
Beyond hopes of re-signing Ariza, two restricted free agents, guard Tomas Satoransky and center Thomas Bryant are poised for raises.
Green, an athletic power forward with NBA Finals experience playing on a veteran minimum contract, is having a career-best shooting campaign from all angles.
Some team seeking frontcourt depth could take a flyer on Morris even though the 6-foot-10 forward won’t return from his neck injury until at least a week after the trading deadline.
Ariza had 20 points and 12 rebounds Monday in Washington’s 101-87 win over Detroit as the Wizards moved into a ninth-place tie with the Pistons.
“Trevor has come in and made a statement of who he is as a player,” coach Scott Brooks said pre-game, “and he's done a good job of helping us leading our team.”
Maybe the Wizards add depth in the post-deadline buyout market. For now, Washington appears content with the current group.
“Bradley Beal told me, ‘We got enough. We’re going to make the playoffs. We’re not going to let you down,’ ” Leonsis told reporters in London. “So who am I to change the goals? We said, ‘No excuses.’ It would be easy to say we have so many players out injured, but we’re not going to do that. We’re not letting anybody off the hook. We got to make the playoffs.”
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During the Wizards' recent 10-game surge, in which they have won seven games and vaulted back into the playoff race, there have been many reasons for their near-overnight transformation. The most dramatic change between now and the previous 36 games of this season, however, may be on the defensive end.
The Wizards, for much of this season, have been dreadful on defense. They are 23rd in the league in defensive rating (111.1) and have allowed the second-most points per game (115.8) of any team. The latter has them on pace to allow more points than any Wizards or Bullets team has since 1970.
But lately, they have flipped the narrative. In their last 10 games going back to Dec. 29, the Wizards are fourth in the NBA in defensive rating (106.4).
On Monday, they held the Pistons to only 87 points, a season-low for a Washington opponent. That included a 34-point first half for Detroit, the fewest the Wizards have given up in a half this season.
The previous season-low for points scored in one half against the Wizards was set in their last game when the Knicks scored 37 in the second half on Thursday. That means the Wizards gave up only 71 points across four quarters, the equivalent of a full game.
The Knicks and Pistons are 23rd and 25th in scoring this season, respectively, but that remains an impressive stretch for the Wizards' defense. They are locking up opponents and coming away with victories.
"Our defense, overall, has just been better," forward Jeff Green said after the 101-87 win over the Pistons. "We’ve been communicating and not allowing teams to get a lot of offensive rebounds, forcing turnovers and getting out in transition. We’ve been on the same page defensively."
Against the Pistons, the Wizards allowed only two offensive rebounds, tying the fewest they've surrendered this season. It helped the Pistons were missing Andre Drummond, but that remains no small feat for the Wizards, who give up more offensive boards (11.7/g) than any team.
Like Green, head coach Scott Brooks mentioned the rebounds after Monday's win.
"We give ourselves a chance to win every night if we can win the rebounding game," he said.
Indeed, the Wizards are a perfect 11-0 this season when they win the rebounding margin. In games they either lose the rebounding margin or tie, they are 9-26.
As the Wizards have shown all season, rebounding is a crucial part of defense. Forcing an opponent to miss a shot is only part of the battle. The stop is completed once the defensive rebound is reeled in.
Defense and rebounding have been major problems for the Wizards this season and both deal with effort. Because of that, Brooks and his players have often lamented a lack of want-to in the Wizards' lowest moments.
Recently, the effort has been there. It probably has something to do with the desperation of losing three key players - John Wall, Markieff Morris and Dwight Howard - to injuries. With what's left on their roster, they don't have the luxury of starting slow or losing focus in games. The margin for error is thin.
But the Wizards' improvement on defense can also be credited to a midseason roster makeover done by their front office. They changed the team's defensive DNA with guys like Trevor Ariza, Chasson Randle, and Sam Dekker. In these past 10 games, all three have posted defensive ratings under 105. They have infused the Wizards' rotation with a blue-collar approach to team defense.
Ariza, of course, deserves most of the credit. He has built a 15-year career off hard-nosed perimeter defense.
This week, Brooks explained how Ariza's discipline has been integral in the Wizards' recent turnaround.
"Trevor definitely helps," Brooks said. "He's not going to get a stop every time, but he's going to give you great effort. He's not going to gamble a lot. He's not going to take the immature chances that might lead to a steal and a dunk in transition, but most likely it's not. He doesn't take those gambles."
Defense and the Wizards have not been synonymous for most of this season. But over the past 10 games, they have played with a new identity and it might be the key to saving their season.
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