The Wizards are in the midst of their best basketball of the season. That only makes the upcoming decisions surrounding the Feb. 7 trade deadline more challenging.
With Bradley Beal’s elite play fueling a surge before the team’s trek to London, Washington went 3-2 in five games against NBA contenders. Even one of the losses, Sunday’s double-overtime thriller against the Eastern Conference-leading Toronto Raptors, provided hope for a playoff push and a bit more should the Wizards qualify.
The Wizards, 18-26 and two games back of a playoff berth entering the week, must pass three teams for the eighth seed. Six teams are currently jockeying for the final three spots in the Eastern Conference horse race. With a Secretariat-level kick, Washington could gallop all the way to sixth.
Remain bullish and perhaps the Wizards seek help rather sell off assets. Pulling that off without adding to the luxury tax bill would make team president Ernie Grunfeld quite the contortionist. If reaching the postseason for the fifth time in six years remains the goal, get twisty.
Now for some reasons why the organization might choose another path despite the ample pluck shown by the active players.
Since the 2012-13 season, a team sitting two or more games back of the eighth seed as of Jan. 1 reached the playoffs only three times, according to the website Basketball-Reference.
The idea of trading away players, namely those on expiring contracts, isn’t appealing for those focused solely on the current season’s potential. Doing so accomplishes several goals:
- Acquiring draft picks and player assets for a franchise with only five players under contract for the 2019-20 season and without a second-round selection until 2023.
- Potentially increase the team’s 2019 NBA Draft lottery odds. Washington currently has the sixth-best odds at the No. 1 overall selection. Landing that pick likely means selecting Duke’s runaway top prospect, Zion Williamson.
- Targeted trades could create future salary cap space. Washington’s projected 2019-20 salaries total $111 million, eclipsing the $109 million salary cap and leaving little wiggle room below the $132 luxury tax line. Of the five players under contract, only Beal, John Wall and Otto Porter are established building blocks.
- Eliminate some or all of this season’s entire $8.6 million luxury tax burden. Erasing the luxury tax altogether keeps the Wizards a bit further away from paying a higher tax rate as a repeater tax squad.
The key for league observers is proper self-evaluation, including fair expectations for Wall coming off another surgery. The latest occurred this month as repairing bones spurs digging into his left heel ended the five-time All-Star’s season.
Making moves for coveted first-round draft picks means taking on future salary, a likely scenario for most deadline trades involving rentals like Trevor Ariza.
“I don't think you can worry about clearing money for next year. You just need to avoid the tax,” a former NBA general manager told NBC Sports Washington. “If taking on money next year means getting close to (avoiding) the luxury tax threshold this year I'd be comfortable with that because I think they're more than one year away from fixing this. I would start to accumulate assets as quickly as I could.”
Whatever the future thoughts, there are current realities ranging from that luxury tax payment to season ticket plan renewals.
“Can’t separate basketball from business,” a current NBA team executive said. “We don’t play the game of basketball. We’re in the business of basketball.”
There’s also the playing of basketball. Try telling Beal the Wizards should regroup for next season when hopefully a healthy Wall returns and assets acquired at the trade deadline mature.
Beal, sensing external expectations dropping immediately after Wall’s surgery news, suggested doubters should stay tuned.
“I’m trying to shoot for the playoffs,” Beal said.
Since then he has recorded his second triple-double of his career with 45 points, 10 rebounds and 15 assists in 55 minutes against the Raptors. Beal is averaging 30.2 points over his last nine games.
This isn’t a one-man effort. Guard Tomas Satoransky also recorded a triple-double over the weekend while Ariza fell a rebound shy against Toronto. Big moments for Otto Porter, Thomas Bryant and Jeff Green come regularly.
Beal’s hopes and forewarning for doubters won’t stop many outside the organization from focusing on the allure of salary cap flexibility and asset gathering above all. Both sides have merit. Washington can only make substantive moves in one of those directions before the Feb. 7 trade deadline.
Winning a seven-game playoff series is a lofty goal for a team yet to win more than three games consecutively all season and currently poised for the draft lottery. However, as state lottery promotions might say, you also cannot win if you don’t play.
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