By Ben Standig and Chase Hughes
The Wizards will not be tanking.
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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