Though there may be some commonalities between title teams in this era of star movement, there is technically no one way to build a contender. The Wizards for years tried to build around two high-priced star guards. Now, they are shifting strategies, and the roster overhaul they have undergone in recent days has made it clear.
The Wizards are opting for depth and flexibility over marquee names, at least for now. That's what their roster amounts to after they traded Russell Westbrook to the Lakers for three rotation players and then replaced him with Spencer Dinwiddie in free agency.
Dinwiddie comes in at about half the price of Westbrook, allowing Washington to spread its money around to other parts of the roster. The Wizards also have a more balanced payroll of contracts that should be more tradeable.
For a team whose depth fell short in their first round playoff loss to the Sixers, that makes sense. It also tracks with how general manager Tommy Sheppard and team chairman Ted Leonsis stated their team-building goals back in 2019 when Sheppard was promoted to oversee the front office. They mentioned depth as a separator between teams with sustained success.
The question is to what extent it will work. The Wizards appear to be moving forward with Bradley Beal, a bunch of proven veteran role players and some young guys with upside. That's a markedly different approach than the alternative, which would have been keep Westbrook and Beal and try to add around them, perhaps even a third star.
Westbrook requesting a trade, though, may have prevented that from even being possible. Various reports have made it a bit murky as to how firm his trade request was, but nonetheless a request was made.
If this new path works for the Wizards, it could look like the Hawks this past season. They were the only team in the conference finals on either side that didn't get there with a collection of All-Stars. The Hawks instead made it that far with Trae Young and a strong supporting cast of role players. They technically had zero All-Star selections this season, as Young was left off the roster.
The Hawks, though, have an excellent core of young players with John Collins (23) and De'Andre Hunter (23) flashing star potential alongside Young (22) who very much already is one. They also have 2020 sixth overall pick Onyeka Okongwu. Atlanta went on a deep playoff run and could get even better just by running it back.
To become a title contender, the Wizards may have to bank on the same element developing for them. If Rui Hachimura, Deni Avdija, Corey Kispert or Daniel Gafford turns into a star, they will be in business. Otherwise, they may find themselves looking for a star down the road. It should be noted the Wizards made their biggest move of last offseason, the trade for Westbrook, after training camp had started.
The Wizards appear to have a much deeper roster than they did last season, but new head coach Wes Unseld Jr. has some things to sort out. Dinwiddie is not a high percentage shooter and the Wizards will have to find ways to balance their lineups to include the three-point shooting they have added this offseason.
The Wizards have some guys who are threats from long range like Davis Bertans, Kispert, Thomas Bryant and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, but also some guys who don't consistently make threes like Dinwiddie, Avdija, Hachimura and Gafford. Unseld Jr. will need to strike a balance around Beal in the starting lineup.
Dinwiddie would ideally fit into that mix by breaking down defenses off the dribble. In his last healthy season in 2019-20 (he tore his ACL in December of 2020), Dinwiddie was ninth in the NBA in drives per game, per Second Spectrum.
Dinwiddie, though, didn't do a ton of passing on those plays when he was in Brooklyn. Of the top-10 players in drives per game in 2019-20, only De'Aaron Fox had a lower pass percentage. Regardless, Dinwiddie's ability to get into the paint should help rotate the defense and create openings for Beal and the Wizards' array of shooters.
Dinwiddie should also help the Wizards' defense, which they are further committing to after showing improvement this past season. He's a big guard at 6-foot-5 and helped the Nets form the ninth-best defense in 2019-20.
The Wizards are still investing plenty of money in the point guard position, but far less money than the supermax contracts Westbrook and Wall were earning. Dinwiddie's annual salary will put him around the middle of the pack among NBA starting piont guards, in the range of Malcolm Brogdon ($21.7M), Lonzo Ball ($19.8M) and Fred VanVleet ($19.7M). Last season, only the Nets spent more money on their backcourt than the Wizards did.
Perhaps over time it will prove wise to scale it back a bit. As good as Westbrook and Wall were, it's rare that teams built around point guards win titles. The Stephen Curry-led Warriors and Isiah Thomas-led Pistons are anomalies in NBA history.
The Wizards appear to be moving in a different direction now, away from the model they have tried for years. Depth and defense are key and should in theory raise the floor of the Wizards and help them be more competitive night-to-night. Whether it will also raise their ceiling is what they need to determine.