Every off-season provides teams with an opportunity to reinvent their franchise. Trades, the draft and free agency can move a team from mediocrity to serious contender or cripple them for years to come. Many decisions take time to evaluate, as a move may seem reasonable when made but quickly morphs into a brilliant heist or gross incompetence. With All-Star festivities complete and two-thirds of the Wizards’ season in the books, enough time has elapsed to evaluate the Wizards’ 2016 off-season.
Leading up to the 2016 off-season, many Wizards’ faithful fans held onto the dream that Kevin Durant would return to hometown Washington. After this plan abruptly failed, the Wizards entered — and almost won — the Al Horford sweepstakes, losing narrowly to the Boston Celtics. Despite these misses, the Wizards had an active off-season and made three significant moves:
1. Firing head coach Randy Wittman and hiring Scott Brooks
2. Giving Bradley Beal a five-year, $128 million contract
3. Remolding their bench unit by acquiring Ian Mahinmi, Andrew Nicholson, Jason Smith and Trey Burke through free agency and trade
Brooks has quickly demonstrated that he is a significant upgrade over Wittman. Wittman, an interim coach in 2011-12, overstayed his welcome by coaching four additional seasons, compiling a record of 178-199. While the Wizards reached the Eastern Conference semifinals twice under Wittman’s leadership, the lack of an offensive plan placed the Wizards in the bottom half of offensive efficiency in all five of his seasons.
Enter Brooks, also criticized for his offensive schemes in Oklahoma City but a clear talent for player development. The Wizards paid Brooks handsomely, offering a five-year, $35 million contract. Because non-player salaries do not count towards a team’s salary cap, teams willing to spend money can and should gain an advantage by attracting top coaches and managers. This season under Brooks, the Wizards rank in the top ten in offensive and defensive efficiency and currently sit in third place in the Eastern Conference. Furthermore, young players like Otto Porter and Kelly Oubre Jr. have improved significantly. While it remains to be seen whether Brooks can lead the Wizards to postseason success, his hiring was a strong move for the present and future direction of the franchise.
On the first day that players were eligible to sign a new contract, the Wizards awarded Beal the fifth-largest contract in NBA history. While the Wizards acted assertively in offering him this new contract, the decision was contentious. Beal’s detractors argued that his extensive history of injuries made a long-term commitment foolhardy. In his first four seasons, Beal averaged only 62 games per season due to shoulder issues, a concussion and serial stress fractures in his right fibula. When Beal falls to the ground, he falls hard and often gets up slowly. Ultimately, the Wizards decided that a long-term deal for an immensely talented 23-year-old with one of the purest shots in the NBA was a no-brainer. So far, Beal has lived up to his contract and is finally providing a sustained audition of the potential he flashed during his rookie contract. He has remained healthy and is putting up career highs in points (22.6) and assists (3.6), while shooting a career best of 48 percent from the field. Together with John Wall, Beal forms the best backcourt in the NBA, east of Oakland.
With Brooks and Beal locked into long-term contracts, the Wizards’ remaining off-season task was assembling a bench unit. The Wizards first signed Mahinmi to a four-year deal worth $64 million. The next day they added Nicholson to a four-year, $26 million deal. Two days later the Wizards signed Smith to a contract worth $16 million over three years, allocating a significant portion of their salary cap to the center position. Additionally, the Wizards traded a second round pick for Burke, in the hopes that the former lottery pick would provide stability at backup point guard after years of rotating through the likes of Shelvin Mack, Eric Maynor, and Ramon Sessions.
These free agent signings have been a resounding failure. Only Smith, with precision perimeter shooting and constant hustle, has been a useful rotation player. Mahinmi promptly hurt his knee and struggled upon return, only recently showing glimpses of productivity. Nicholson couldn’t find a role, playing poorly in the few games that Brooks released him from his courtside seat on the Wizards’ bench. Meanwhile, Burke has shot unsatisfactorily, as his size makes it difficult to get his shot off, and appears to be incapable of running the second unit offense.
The Wizards’ poor free agent signings have hampered the team this year and harmed future prospects. The team’s bench ranks second to last in the league in scoring, and poor play has forced the starters to log heavy minutes. Mahinmi’s large contract reduces the Wizards’ ability to add future free agents. Nicholson’s contract was so bad that the Wizards packaged a first-round pick to the Brooklyn Nets, just to get out of it. Burke’s lack of production caused teams to steer clear when the Wizards dangled him at the trade deadline, reportedly seeking to couple him and a second-round draft pick for a bench upgrade.
If the Wizards re-sign Porter this off-season, they will have a young core set in place for the foreseeable future. Wall, Beal, and Porter, along with head coach Scott Brooks, provide a blueprint for repeated playoff appearances. While the Wizards did the big things right — re-signing Beal and hiring Brooks — small miscues impact the team’s chances this season and in the future. The Wizards’ success over the last few months has created genuine excitement in Washington However, there is a fine line between building a good team and a championship team, and mistakes this past free agency period make the ultimate goal of winning a title more difficult.