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In a never ending cycle of mediocrity, the Washington Wizards constantly find themselves stuck between barely contending for a bottom playoff seed or strategically positioning themselves for advantageous draft lottery odds. The past 24 hours were just a microcosm of the frustration that surrounds this team.
The Wizards are at a crossroad as an organization and it’s becoming increasingly difficult for Washington to decide which path they want to take moving forward. On the court, their performances of late indicates a team clearly in the process of a franchise rebuild, despite the fact that the organization has continued to exude the bravado of a club that fancies itself a playoff contender.
After blowing a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter to lose to the New York Knicks, 106-102, on the night of the NBA trade deadline, the Wizards find themselves in 13th place in the Eastern Conference, four games behind the 10th place Chicago Bulls. Should the Wizards make it to 10th place, they would qualify for the NBA’s new play-in tournament format. At 15-28, the Wizards are off from their organizational goal, set before the season, of making the playoffs, but are still finding a way to keep themselves in the picture.
Bradley Beal, the team’s longest tenured player and leader, stepped up and took full responsibility for Washington faltering in a winnable game against New York. “I put this one on my shoulders. I’ve gotta close the game out,” Beal told reporters in a post-game press conference.
He’s right. As an All-Star and the leading scorer in the league, Beal could have outperformed his 8 of 23 shooting night to better position the Wizards to close out a contest they controlled for the majority of the night. Ultimately, Beal and the Wizards fell short because they didn’t have the supporting cast to compensate for their star player having an average outing.
The lack of a contribution from Washington’s ancillary cast has been a detriment to the team for some time now and it’s easy to identify the catalyst of where the Wizards have faltered.
It starts and ends with the draft.
In the modern NBA there are three main mechanisms in place to improve a team: free agency, trades, and the draft. The Wizards were fortunate to land in the top three of the draft three out of four years from 2010 to 2013, netting them two game-changing players in John Wall and Bradley Beal. From that point until the Wizards transitioned their decision making from Ernie Grunfeld to Tommy Sheppard in 2019, the Wizards neither developed nor retained any of their draft picks from 2013 until the drafting of Rui Hachimura two years ago.
Otto Porter Jr., Kelly Oubre Jr., and Tomáš Satoranský were all promising prospects that were supposed to develop with the Wizards and aid Washington’s All-Stars in leading this team to playoff success that they had not achieved in decades. Instead, those players and others drafted during that time period are no longer on the Wizards roster and have yielded very little in terms of future assets.
Troy Brown Jr. is just the latest prospect to suffer the fate of limited opportunities and growth in the Wizards’ system.
The Wizards traded Brown to the Chicago Bulls along with forward Moe Wagner, who was subsequently traded to the Boston Celtics for Daniel Theiss as a part of a three-team trade with the Wizards before the NBA trade deadline on March 25. Instead of prioritizing the development of the versatile 21-year-old Brown, Washington miscast and overlooked Brown’s talents in a manner that never allowed him to gain his footing in a Wizards uniform.
In nearly three seasons with the Wizards, Brown played less than 2,800 total minutes and was always seemingly in Scott Brooks’ doghouse when it came to the rotation. A lot of the fault behind that lies with Brooks who precariously gave away a lot of Brown’s potential minutes to NBA journeyman Ron Baker during Brown’s rookie season. Ultimately Brooks never had the trust in Brown to consistently rely on him in his rotations when it really mattered.
The disconnect extended to the Wizards front office, who thought enough of Brown to pick up the fourth-year option on his contract even though he was never able to fully gain the confidence of Brooks to earn meaningful minutes. With the exit of Brown, it wraps up the Grunfeld era in D.C., as Brown was his last first-round draft pick as the decision maker with the Wizards.
In the aforementioned three-team trade, the Wizards received Daniel Gafford and Chandler Hutchtinson as compensation for parting ways with Brown. Hutchinson is a former first round pick himself, but has not shown the flashes of a player drafted in his position. Gafford is the main prize and the Wizards brass are excited about his athleticism and potential as a rim-running big in their system. Brooks has complimented Gafford’s ability to add a vertical threat that this team has desperately needed.
“He’s a big-time lob threat and we haven’t had that since I’ve been here. He’s very bouncy around the rim,” Brooks said.
As far as assets go, Gafford is a classic buy-low, sell-high candidate as a prospect because of his upside and the fact that he is signed to a manageable contract of $3.7 million over the next two seasons.
The acquisition of Gafford and Hutchinson extends the Wizards developmental timeline a little further, but it still leaves them directly where they have resided over the last few seasons—in the middle. While the Wizards have so far been satisfied with their last two first round draft picks in Hachimura and Deni Avdija, the harsh reality is that making franchising altering draft picks outside of the top three selections is an extremely difficult task.
For Sheppard, the goal remains the same.
“The playoffs is always the goal. We don’t retreat from that,” he said. “But to get there, you have to have depth. You have to have better players. And I think that’s what we’re moving towards.”
Currently the Wizards have the fifth-worst record in the league, which would give them the fifth-best odds of winning the draft lottery in what is slated to be one of the most top-heavy draft classes in recent memory. And as much as the Wizards would like to proclaim their desires to push for a playoff or even play-in spot, they don’t have to put forth any extra effort to change course and jockey for the best possible lottery odds. They just need to continue being the mediocre team they are.
Photo by All-Pro Reels on Flickr, used under the Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0 license.