Wizards

Stronger defense the objective as Wizards approach deadline

Wizards

Previous NBA trade deadlines for the Washington Wizards have had more obvious needs and goals.

Last year, they wanted to hold onto Davis Bertans and make moves for their long-term future. The year before, it was a fire sale to get under the luxury tax. In years prior to those, it was about winning now and adding a key piece for the postseason.

This year, as they approach the March 25 trade deadline, the Wizards want to make up some ground to reach the playoffs but also not mortgage their future in any significant way. As general manager Tommy Sheppard has said publicly, he does not plan to take any shortcuts.

So, the expectation should be that they will do something, but likely nothing major. And according to a person familiar with their plans, defense will be of the utmost concern.

That could be seen in several different ways. Either they could add defense, or choose not to address another area in a trade that could cut into their defensive potential. For instance, Washington currently ranks bottom-third in the NBA in all three-point shooting categories. But there is some trepidation that adding a shooter, or at least the wrong shooter, could hurt their cause on the other end of the floor, per a team source.

Since Feb. 3, in their last 20 games, the Wizards have ranked 14th in defensive rating. From Feb. 3 to the All-Star break, across 17 games, they had the ninth-best defense. The sample size is big enough to build off of.

 

The problem with evaluating the roster is that there have been several iterations of the team so far this season. They began the year with Russell Westbrook playing through an injury, then lost starting center Thomas Bryant for the season, had a weeks-long and calamitous ordeal with the coronavirus and then finally hit their stride in February, at one point winning eight of nine games.

Since that stretch, however, they have lost five of six. In just three months, they have had about as much continuity week-to-week as Westbrook's wardrobe.

Meanwhile, the team hasn't had much practice time, which head coach Scott Brooks said recently is important for evaluating internal options leading up to the deadline. This year's trade deadline is also arriving far earlier than in most seasons. In 2018-19, the Wizards had played 54 games by the deadline. Last year, they had played 49. This season, they will have played 42.

When it comes to internal options, the Wizards do not want to make any moves that would get in the way of developing recent first-round picks Rui Hachimura and Deni Avdija. Their improvement is paramount to the team's future. They present high upside and are on rookie contracts.

In terms of weighing the future, the Wizards have reason to maintain flexibility going into this summer. The following season will be the final non-player option year in Bradley Beal's contract, which could make the timing right to attempt a big step forward.

The Wizards also have limited expendable resources as they approach this deadline. Their future first-round picks can be set aside because they are highly unlikely to deal them. They have future second-round picks, but not one this year. 

Backup point guard Ish Smith could interest teams, according to league sources, and Raul Neto has emerged behind Westbrook. With Neto as a key cog during their February surge, the Wizards have made do without Smith, who is currently out with a quadriceps injury.

But Washington could also see Smith as an asset for their own cause, as someone who could generate more offense for their bench, which they need. Though the Wizards are 10th in points overall and 10th in bench points, they are 22nd in offensive rating as a team and are 26th since the Feb. 3 turnaround.

Other players who could be tradeable are out of the primary rotation like Troy Brown Jr., Isaac Bonga and Jerome Robinson. Brown and Bonga, however, were mentioned by a high-ranking member of the organization as players who could see more playing time in the second half. Brown gives them rebounding and corner three-point shooting, while Bonga provides defensive versatility.

The Wizards are just under a million dollars away from the luxury tax, according to Spotrac. Also per Spotrac, they have two trade exceptions worth about $3.2 million combined (Jordan McRae, Isaiah Thomas trades) that expire on March 20. And they have a $4.16 million disabled player exception for Bryant. Basically, they can't add a bunch of money in a trade given where they are in the salary cap.

 

Those numbers, however, also make a trade more likely for them than the buyout market, which hasn't been a reliable source of help for the Wizards in the past, anyways. The top players often go to the very best teams first and signing them can risk disrupting chemistry.

So, boil it down and the Wizards will probably make a trade that tweaks their roster, but doesn't represent a significant change. Here are a few players who could fit the bill:

Mike Muscala, C, Thunder - he wouldn't help their defense much, but he's a big man who can shoot (37.1 3PT% since 2017) and that's what they have missed the most with Bryant out

Ed Davis, C, Timberwolves - the Wizards have improved their rebounding this season, but could double down with a guy like Davis, who remains one of the best offensive rebounders in the league

James Ennis, SF, Magic - Ennis is shooting 44.7 percent from three this season (4.4 3PA/g) and he's a solid wing defender

All three players are on cheap, expiring deals and play for teams outside of the playoff picture -- well outside in the case of Davis and Ennis. That would be a logical formula, though the Wizards were able to find some help last year by getting point guard Shabazz Napier, who was out of the rotation on a contending Denver Nuggets team.

To sum it all up, there are a lot of complicating factors at play for Sheppard and the Wizards as they approach the deadline. They aren't going to be sellers and for a variety of reasons are unlikely to be major buyers, either. If they want to swing a big trade, waiting until the offseason would make more sense.

Don't expect an active deadline for the Wizards, barring something unforeseen.