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Historically, the Wizards have been active at the trade deadline, usually fitting into the category of “buyers” being willing to mortgage parts of their future in an effort to find immediate success.
But without internal pressure from ownership to “win now,” general manager Tommy Sheppard will navigate this year’s Feb. 6 trade deadline with the future in mind—although that doesn’t mean he won’t have to make some tough calls.
The most difficult decision will pertain to Dāvis Bertāns’ future with the team.
When the Wizards acquired Bertāns in a three-team deal, giving up only the rights for overseas player Aaron White, few, if any, expected Bertāns to be one of the most sought-after players in the NBA just months later. In hindsight, it was probably the most impressive deal Sheppard made this past summer.
Bertāns, having played a minimal role with the San Antonio Spurs, a team lauded for its talent evaluation, somehow slipped through the cracks. He immediately became a contributor for the Wizards, showcasing his elite three-point shot and helping propel the Wizards among the top five offenses in the league.
The “Latvian Laser” is taking 11.4 shots per game, with roughly nine of them coming from three. Last season, Bertāns made a total of 145 threes in 76 games.
Now, with only 36 games played, which is the least amount of games played for any player in the top 10 in three-point shots made, Bertāns has already made 131 threes.
Players with his size and limitless range don’t come around often, and Sheppard has publicly stated that he wants Bertāns in D.C. for the long-haul. But if there’s anything we learned from last season, back when Wizards owner Ted Leonsis said the team would not trade Otto Porter Jr., only to trade him a week later, it’s that public statements don’t always reflect the team’s thinking behind closed doors.
The reality is, Bertāns is going to get a massive raise in the off-season—a multi-year deal potentially exceeding $15 million per season—and retaining him won’t be as easy as it seems. Even with his skill set, that number is a tough pill to swallow for the Wizards.
John Wall’s super-max contract will pay him more than $41 million next season, and Bradley Beal is set to make close to $29 million. Ian Mahinmi’s $15.4 million will come off the books, so while re-signing Bertāns and replacing Mahinmi’s name on the check is possible, Washington will have to find a way to fill out the rest of its roster without crossing the $141 million luxury tax threshold. The Wizards will have about $42 million in total cap space this summer with eight players currently on the roster hitting free agency.
In the past, the Wizards have struggled to capitalize when a player reaches his highest market value. Just last year, the team could have traded Trevor Ariza, who they ultimately didn’t even re-sign, for a first-round pick, but chose to ride out half the season with him on the roster after acquiring him from Phoenix for 23-year-old Kelly Oubre Jr.
The team shouldn’t want to end up in a similar predicament with Bertāns.
At 27, Bertāns is in the prime of his career, and with Wall, a top passer in the league, returning sooner than later, Bertāns’ three-point shooting could possibly become an even greater threat. In his 10 seasons with the Wizards, Wall has never quite played with a player like Bertāns, a 6-foot-10 marksman capable of shooting from virtually anywhere on the court.
Given the potential salary cap repercussions and understanding that Bertāns will be an unrestricted free agent, which means the Wizards could lose him without getting anything in return this summer, Washington will entertain trades, even if they have been unwilling to discuss deals at the moment.
The Wizards have been on the opposite side of these types of trades on multiple occasions. Grunfeld was willing to trade assets like Oubre for Ariza or a first-round (which turned into Jarrett Allen) for Bojan Bogdanvoic for instant production. There are teams out there that might be willing to do the same for Bertāns.
According to NBC Sports Washington’s Chase Hughes, the Philadelphia 76ers, Atlanta Hawks, Los Angeles Lakers, Denver Nuggets, and Boston Celtics are all interested in getting Bertāns, likely for the same reason the Wizards wanted Bogdanovic—someone to take scoring pressure off the star players in the playoffs.
The risk of losing Bertāns in the off-season is probably worth it if teams are only offering, say, a couple of second-round picks. But if a team like Philadelphia, which ranks in the bottom-10 in threes made per game, offers a promising young player like Matisse Thybulle, a defensive savant, then Sheppard will almost certainly have to pull the trigger.
The Lakers, too, could make an intriguing offer centered around Kyle Kuzma, a young player who’s struggled to find a rhythm alongside LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
At the end, the Wizards are practically in a can’t-lose situation. If they re-sign Bertāns, that will mean they found a long-term shooter to place next to Wall and Beal—and, as a reminder, they got him this past summer without giving up anything meaningful. And if they flip Bertāns for a promising young player or first-round pick, then they turned White—a draft-and-stash pick likely to never play in the NBA—into something with value.
After signing a two-year, $72 million contract extension with the Wizards in October, Beal officially took himself off the trade market until at least this coming summer. A weak free agent class made Beal the player to watch, but just because he isn’t eligible to be traded doesn’t mean this year’s deadline won’t have consequences impacting his future with the Wizards.
In a recent interview with Yahoo’s Chris Haynes, Beal acknowledged that he expects the Wizards to make some sort of trade before the deadline passes.
Washington isn’t a seller. The team is comprised mostly of young, relatively unknown players on cap-friendly deals. Beal recognizes that the Wizards are just three games behind a playoff spot and getting another contributor could help them cross that mark. But realistically—from a front office executive’s point of view—getting that type of game-changing player would require trading pieces that the Wizards don’t have.
The only true assets the Wizards have are Bertāns and the first-round pick that’s projected to be in the lottery. The pick is likely untouchable while Bertāns probably can’t net a more productive player in return, but rather an unpolished young player with upside, something the Wizards already have on the roster.
So, if the Wizards make a trade, it’s likely to be a minor deal, possibly unloading Mahinmi’s deal for a pick. How will that sit with Beal, who’s anxious to win now? That remains to be seen.
Mahinmi, conveniently in his contract year, is enjoying the best season he’s had since signing with the Wizards four years ago.
Washington had no intention of playing Mahinmi this season, but Thomas Bryant and Moe Wagner going down left the team with no choice. Mahinmi, surprrisingly, had played productive basketball, averaging a career-high 1.4 blocks alongside a modest 8.4 points and 6.1 rebounds per game. He’s shown that he’s still capable of contributing defensively, for keeping a body on the league’s premier centers, and finishing in the pick-and-roll.
Interestingly, the Dallas Mavericks could have used a reunion with Mahinmi after Dwight Powell tore his achilles, but instead quickly acquired Willie Cauley-Stein from the Golden State Warriors.
The Los Angeles Clippers were said to have interest in getting “dependable size,” and that’s exactly what Mahinmi has been able to add to Washington this season.
Anžejs Pasečņiks has been a pleasant surprise for the Wizards and would replace Mahinmi in the rotation without much of a burden on the coaching staff. Depending on how desperate the Clippers get in their quest for size, Washington might be able to convince them to part ways with Maurice Harkless, a defensive-oriented wing with a $11.5 million expiring contract.
Teams that don’t have what it takes to pry Bertans away might consider the alternative: McRae.
McRae isn’t the three-point shooter that Bertans is, but he’s able to score at a high clip. He’s averaging a career-high 12.8 points, 3.5 rebounds and 2.9 assists. Earlier this month, McRae scored 35 points against the Portland Trail Blazers, and then, three games later, scored 29 against the Atlanta Hawks.
That’s what McRae does. He’s a professional scorer making the most out of his opportunity with the Wizards, a team with a dearth of players capable of creating shots for themselves.
A fringe playoff team like the Orlando Magic, which is essentially tied for last in points per game, or a playoff-bound team like the 76ers, also ranked in the bottom 10 in points, could use a scoring spark off the bench.
McRae is capable of providing that spark without interrupting the offense. He’s making 43 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes, but he can also score the ball without relying on his teammates to find him.
McRae is another player set to hit unrestricted free agency. Washington found value in his $1.6 million deal this season, but he could get a raise that the Wizards might not be as inclined to give, especially if a scoring guard is available in the draft. His value on the trade market won’t be nearly as high as that of Bertans, but a playoff team might part with a second-round pick for his scoring.
Washington took a flier on Thomas this past summer because they didn’t have anything to lose. But unlike the Bertans situation, this hasn’t quite worked out.
At the time, the best case for the Wizards was getting a productive-enough Thomas to generate interest from teams around the league, potentially from contenders, leaving both parties in a more ideal situation. Worst case, the Wizards would get an unproductive Thomas and have a difficult time unloading him.
The Wizards are somewhere in the middle.
Thomas has been through a lot, both personally and professionally. The fact that he’s back, playing regular minutes, scoring double-digit points per game, is a win for his career.
But teams don’t employ players simply for their inspiration. His scoring, particularly his three-point shooting, could be useful for a team needing a lift off the bench, but his defense will make teams squirm.
Washington has the worst defensive rating in the NBA, and a good chunk of that could be pinned on Thomas. Opposing teams see their offensive rating go up by 8.2 points with Thomas on the court than when he’s on the bench. His quickness is no longer there, making him an even greater liability defensively.
There might be a team out there willing to overlook his deficiencies, though. Every single team in the league is better situated defensively than the Wizards, so maybe someone will be comfortable with having Thomas on the floor with a backcourt mate who can cover for him.