As Wizards fans have come to expect, the NBA offseason is a time of chaos and dysfunction. Usually however, that involves Ernie Grunfeld paying Ian Mahinmi $64 million or Andrew Nicholson $26 million and then giving the Brooklyn Nets a first-round pick just to get rid of Nicholson’s contract. Instead, this summer has been about playoff teams imploding in the East.
First, Jimmy Butler was traded for pennies on the dollar even with 2 years remaining on his contract. The best player the Bulls received is one coming of a torn ACL just last February. Atlanta paid Charlotte to take on Dwight Howard, literally moving down in the draft to rid themselves of his contract (and of Dwight Howard). Then, as if Sam Hinkie were running the team, they let Paul Millsap walk while letting the Knicks badly overpay for Tim Hardaway Jr. If that weren’t enough, the Pacers traded Paul George for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis….again that’s Paul George for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. The only addition thus far to the conference has been a dude who’s best known as the best white basketball player in the NBA, aka Gordon Heyward. Even then, the Celtics traded a significant piece of their team in Avery Bradley to accommodate Heyward’s max deal.
All of this occurred before the biggest bombshell dropped last week in the form of Kyrie Irving requesting a trade out of Cleveland. Suddenly, LeBron’s reign atop the East appears to be in danger of ending and not because LeBron is moving west next year. While a trade request does not mean that Cleveland will, or even should, trade Irving, it is a signal that all is not right in the ‘Land. After failed pursuits of both George and Butler and after losing a credible general manager in David Griffin, Cleveland’s hold on the east appears to be tenuous at best. While most assumed that Cleveland would take a step back after next season with the likely departure of LeBron, no one could’ve predicted this much turmoil for a team coming off 3 straight finals appearances.
So where does all of this leave the Eastern Conference and more important the Wizards? For starters, it is important to note that Irving has not been yet traded nor is there any indication that he will be; by default Cleveland is the favorite to make their fourth consecutive finals appearance. It remains to be seen just how massive a haul Cleveland could potentially receive back in any Irving or Kevin Love trade discussion, but it is safe to assume that any trade would not bring back the same caliber of a superstar as Irving….yes Irving is definitely one of the superstars of the league. With the possible departure of LeBron next summer, Cleveland is in trouble.
As for the Wizards, their future has gotten plenty more expensive, but also much more stable than the current state of buffoonery in the East. With only Boston getting better (one could argue Philly as well) over the summer, another playoff trip is all but guaranteed. After re-signing Porter and extending John Wall (who will finally start to earn more than Reggie Jackson) the core pieces are in place for sustained success. That core, however, is not a championship caliber core and that is where things begin to get murky.
With the team capped out for at least the next couple of seasons, it will be hard for the Wizards to add any pieces barring any salary dumps. Marcin Gortat, Mahinmi, and Markieff Morris are set to earn a combined $37 million each year for the next two years. Gortat shot 50% on dunks as a center last year, Mahinmi missed the majority of the season battling knee injuries, and Morris spends more time mean-mugging than contributing to the ebbs and flows of a basketball game. The only building piece besides the big-3 is Kelly Oubre and he was last seen glued to the bench in games 6 and 7 against Boston, unable to earn the trust of Scott Brooks after being suspended earlier in the series.
Add it all up and it sounds like the future is glum, but that is far from the truth. Any big-3 that starts with Wall and Bradley Beal has a real chance in any playoff series. If somehow the Wizards were able to clear salary cap space, they would be a real player in the DeMarcus Cousins bidding next summer given Wall’s rapport with Cousins going back to their Kentucky days. Even without adding Cousins, the Wizards’ summer of stability has them eyeing the top perch in the East. Their still improving core of Wall, Beal, and Porter will allow them to jostle with Boston for control of the Eastern Conference for years to come.