The Washington Wizards have arrived at a critical juncture in Year 3 of the plan they set back in 2019, with now-team president Tommy Sheppard at the helm of a revamped front office. They first tore the roster down to its studs and have since built it up incrementally by keeping most of their draft picks and working patiently to create a degree of salary cap flexibility they hadn't enjoyed in years.
Throughout this process, Sheppard has insisted they won't "skip steps" towards building a sustainable contender. But now, facing the prospect of Bradley Beal becoming an unrestricted free agent this summer, and the 2022 NBA trade deadline approaching on Feb. 10, there appears to be considerable pressure on the front office to speed up the competitive timeline with a substantial move.
The Wizards sit 11th in the East, outside of the play-in tournament picture. They may need significant help just to make the playoffs in what is a deeper Eastern Conference.
As the deadline nears, here is a look at all the major questions facing Washington featuring what I've heard in talking to people around the league and analysis of the directions they can go...
Bradley Beal's future
The expectation around the NBA remains that the Wizards will not trade Beal and will instead take contract negotiations into the offseason. That said, those paying attention can see Beal has changed his outward stance when it comes to how he views his future with the team. For one, his recent comments to NBC Sports Washington's Chris Miller about the roster and how merely qualifying for the play-in tournament would be a "step back" were widely seen by other executives as him turning up the heat on the front office to aim higher than they have before.
Another sign was over the summer, when Beal was mulling his future leading up to the draft. The story was widely reported, including by NBC Sports Washington, and those close to him indicated he was more serious than ever in considering his options. Beal has since confirmed the general nature of those reports multiple times in press conference settings.
Beal has wielded his influence behind the scenes before, as Sheppard often asks for his input. But public comments such as the ones he has made in recent months have taken that a step further. Beal could be simply using his power because he can, and because he is smart to do so. But ultimately, he will have a hefty incentive to stay in Washington, as they can offer him about $241 million over five years, the biggest contract in NBA history, compared to the roughly $180 million over four years he could receive from another team on the open market.
Factor that in and also consider Beal is only 28 years old. Taking the supermax from the Wizards seems like a prudent business decision and one that he and his agent Mark Bartelstein set themselves up for when they structured his last contract extension in 2019. Beal could take the money now and then reconsider his options down the road.
Defense is a priority
The Wizards have two glaring weaknesses: 3-point shooting and defense. Both have been prohibitive problems for them this season and each are areas they expected to be a lot better in. Defense, however, is their biggest concern and league sources indicate that will be a primary focus of theirs at the deadline. The question is what type of defender could they use, given they are 22nd in defensive rating and struggle at many things outside of preventing 3-point shots.
The Wizards could upgrade defensively at many different positions, whether it's a ball-stopping guard, a physical wing defender or someone else to protect the rim. The bottom-line is the Wizards could use another plus-defender to help the rest of their defensive pieces fall into place.
The Wizards have been able to improve their defense at each of the last two trade deadlines. In 2020, they acquired Shabazz Napier who helped them go from historically bad to league average defensively for the final quarter of the season. In 2021, they brought in Daniel Gafford, who made their defense one of the best in the league to close the year, as they went 17-6 with him in the lineup.
Who is likely to be dealt?
Executives around the league believe the two players most likely Wizards to be traded are Montrezl Harrell and Davis Bertans. For Harrell, part of it is deductive reasoning given he is on an expiring contract, at a position of relative depth on the roster and because Gafford recently got an extension. The same could be applied to Thomas Bryant, though at 24 he offers upside and would likely be re-signed for cheaper this summer.
Harrell, though, is objectively one of the Wizards' best players and if they want to make the playoffs, his consistency as a scorer could help that cause. If he is traded, it could be for a player of similar stature but who helps them more on the defensive end.
One question regarding Harrell is whether the Wizards would view trading him as part of a chemistry shakeup. Part of what Beal said pertained to guys playing for contracts and Harrell is by definition in that group. There was also the altercation he had at halftime with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope last month.
While the Wizards have insisted it was an isolated incident, Harrell and Caldwell-Pope's agent, Rich Paul, made a rare appearance at Capital One Arena days later. He sat courtside and after the game spoke with Sheppard under the stands for an extended period of time. Paul had reportedly been in Philadelphia right before, so perhaps he was passing through on an East Coast trip for some facetime with his clients. If that's the case, it would be quite the coincidence in terms of timing.
As for Bertans, it appears he is firmly out of the rotation at this point. Right before that became clear, both Sheppard and head coach Wes Unseld Jr. had long discussions with Bertans about his role at the end of a recent practice, NBC Sports Washington was told. He spoke with Unseld Jr. for upwards of an hour.
Bertans himself would probably be better-suited in an offense that plays with more pace and creates more transition threes. The Wizards were seventh in pace his first season in Washington, when he had a career year and earned an $80 million contract extension, and last year they led the league in pace. Now under Unseld Jr., they have slowed things down to aim for efficiency on fewer shots. That has left Bertans as arguably a poor fit for the scheme. On top of that, rookie Corey Kispert has essentially replaced him as their go-to 3-point threat.
The conundrum here is that Bertans is still technically the team's most accomplished 3-point shooter and the Wizards desperately need shooting. They are 30th in threes made per game and 28th in percentage. Trading away possibly your best 3-point shooter would seem counterintuitive, but if he isn't going to play anyways, then he's expendable.
Domantas Sabonis is an option
Pacers' Domantas Sabonis is an interesting fit for the Wizards given he is to some degree available, a two-time All-Star and is only 25 years old. League sources indicate they have shown at least some interest in Sabonis, though the Pacers have some added leverage due to the fact he is on a team-friendly contract, making $18.6 million this year and is under contract for about $41.2 million for the two seasons after this one, the final year not including an option.
Some factors the Wizards would have to consider include whether Sabonis is worth the price it would require to get him. The Pacers, for instance, like Deni Avdija. Would Washington be willing to give up Avdija, Bryant and a future first round pick? Even so, would that be enough? Though Paul George and Sabonis are not equal players, remember Pacers president Kevin Pritchard got not one but two future All-Stars when he traded George away, Sabonis included.
Another factor for the Wizards would be the offense-heavy, defense-light pairing of Beal and Sabonis. The Wizards have maintained a goal of building a strong defense and would have to work around that. Sabonis is very talented, however, and with him the Wizards could follow a similar model to what the Bulls have done in acquiring Nikola Vucevic. He's not a perfect player, either, but by making aggressive moves to pool together All-Star talent, the Bulls are starting to see the rewards. Perhaps acquiring Sabonis would put the Wizards on course to bring in someone to push them over the top, as Chicago did with DeMar DeRozan.
What about Jerami Grant?
The Wizards have been in contact with the Pistons regarding Jerami Grant, as indicated first by the Athletic, and confirmed by league sources. Grant is said to be intrigued by playing in Washington due to the opportunity to play with Beal, his familiarity with Unseld Jr. and his connection to the area. Grant would also, on the face of it, be a good fit for what the Wizards need. He's an above average wing defender with the ability to guard multiple positions.
The Wizards' defense has a disconnect between their ability to limit threes and the fact they have a solid shot-blocker in Gafford. Something's missing in the middle and Grant could help bridge the gap. The Pistons, however, are committed to rebuilding through the draft and the Wizards do not have a ton of draft capital to offer due to their first round picks from 2023 through 2026 being tied up in protections involving the John Wall-Russell Westbrook trade. They can trade their 2028 first round pick.
One concern with Grant would be pushing too many chips into the middle of the table for a non-star. Sabonis wouldn't guarantee the Wizards turn into contenders, but at least he's a two-time All-Star. Grant is probably in the next tier, but the Wizards would need to be careful they don't give up too much, otherwise they could limit their ceiling moving forward.