There is an argument, and I've made it before, that John Wall's contract and injury situation combine for one of the biggest roster-building obstacles in NBA history. Never before has a player making as much money as he is suffered an injury as serious as his ruptured left Achilles. He takes up 35% of the salary cap, is not playing this season and has no guarantees of returning to his All-Star form once he comes back.
Even if Wall does return to his prime form, and there's reason to be hopeful he can, his contract includes a lot of money for the Wizards to work around. And that has created a scenario where making small moves count matter even more than they otherwise would.
The Wizards have to maximize all of their other resources, much like the Brooklyn Nets did when they ultimately overcame the disastrous 2014 trade with the Boston Celtics that left them paying a debt of high first-round picks for years. Brooklyn worked around their draft pick blackhole by hitting on late-round selections plus minor signings and trades. And they built a foundation along the way that made them surprising heavyweights in free agency.
The Wizards have plenty of work to do, but first-year general manager Tommy Sheppard is already proving his worth in peripheral transactions, the types that turned the Nets around. They may be less-heralded acquisitions, but they can also become major separators between GMs.
Sheppard has been running the Wizards front office for less than a calendar year, yet he already has an impressive list of marginal moves. Just recently he turned Isaiah Thomas, who was a glaring detriment on the defensive end, into Jerome Robinson, the 13th overall pick just 20 months ago.
Last offseason, his first as GM, he flipped Aaron White, a former second-round pick who was stashed in Europe, for Davis Bertans, who has become one of the best shooters in the NBA. He also turned cap space into Moe Wagner and Isaac Bonga, two guys with intriguing potential. Wagner, in particular, has emerged as a building block.
There are other minor moves Sheppard has made that stand out as good ones. He may have found something in Garrison Mathews, a rookie on a two-way deal who can light it up from three. Anzejs Pasecniks and Gary Payton II have been nice surprises as end-of-the-roster guys. And signing Ish Smith for less money instead of retaining Tomas Satoransky has proven to be a smart decision.
Sheppard continues to nail the smaller moves but he has also hit on some of the bigger ones. He drafted Rui Hachimura ninth overall in June and he has exceeded expectations thus far. Sheppard also re-signed Bradley Beal to a contract extension in October, a move few saw coming.
What will ultimately write the story of Sheppard's tenure as GM are decisions even bigger than those. There will also be some level of luck between the draft lottery, injuries and other factors.
But the best signs for what the Wizards should hope they get from Sheppard are already there. They need someone who can maximize all roster-building opportunities and work within the tight space of their remaining salary cap.
So far, Sheppard has done just that.
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