How the Washington Wizards became an afterthought

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 27: John Wall #2 of the Washington Wizards looks on against the Toronto Raptors in the second half during Game Six of Round One of the 2018 NBA Playoffs at Capital One Arena on April 27, 2018 in Washington, DC. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 27: John Wall #2 of the Washington Wizards looks on against the Toronto Raptors in the second half during Game Six of Round One of the 2018 NBA Playoffs at Capital One Arena on April 27, 2018 in Washington, DC. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images) /

Not long ago, the Washington Wizards were the rising power in the East. Now, they’re an afterthought, no matter what John Wall says.

Three years ago, John Wall may have had a point. The Washington Wizards had just fallen to the 60-win Atlanta Hawks in six games during the second round of Eastern Conference  playoffs. But man, was it a close six.

The Hawks avoided overtime in Game 6 only after a game-tying (near) buzzer-beater from mercenary-stage Paul Pierce was waved off.

And the Hawks were unspeakably lucky to have a chance to win in six anyway, pulling ahead in the series only when Wall broke his hand in Game 1 and proceeded to miss Games 2, 3, and 4.

The Wizards lost, but they had legitimate reason to believe they were the better team. They had legitimate reason to believe that next year, they would be the Eastern Conference runner-up.

Heck, they had legitimate reason to believe they had next after LeBron James’ reign in the East came to an end.

Three years later, Washington is yet to elevate itself above runner-up to the runner-up status. The King has fled West, his reign in the East mercifully over. New powers loom in Boston and Philadelphia and the North.

Yet Wall’s world has remained stagnant:

Now, when Wall asserts his Wizards are among the East’s finest, he’s rejecting reality; the East has passed Washington by. Given how quickly it happened, it’s worth investigating how Washington skirted the inevitable and found itself mired in mediocrity.


It would be unfair to assign the blanket label of “bad” to the large contracts Washington’s inked in the last three years.

Bradley Beal’s max contract looks fine, ditto Otto Porter’s. Wall’s Designated Veteran Player Extension, set to kick in 2019-20, will pay the point guard $169.3 million over four years.

I have my doubts about that one aging as well as the Beal and Porter deals, but Washington probably didn’t have another option.

None of those contracts is necessarily bad, but they are all enormous and that’s an essential piece of context. Washington will pay Beal, Porter and Wall a hair under $92.5 million in 2019-20. The team has fairly-compensated star talent.

There’s nothing wrong with that, but it makes your margin for error extraordinarily thin.

Washington’s made quite a few errors.

As was the case for many teams, the summer of 2016 was really bad for Washington. Jason Smith signed on for $15.675 million across three seasons. Andrew Nicholson got $26 million over four years. Ian Mahinmi secured the bag, landing $64 million for four years.

A total of $105.675 million for Jason Smith, Andrew Nicholson, and Ian Mahinmi. From a team-building perspective, that’s not ideal.

Miraculously, the Wizards avoided debilitating contracts for a couple years after that, but Ernie Grunfeld and Co. struck again this summer with Dwight Howard’s two-year, $10.94 million contract.

I take umbrage with the Howard deal for primarily two reasons (though Howard’s character concerns don’t help): why give him two years and why on earth give him a player option on the second year?

It seems highly unlikely, given how messy Howard’s splits with his last three franchises have been, that any team had a two-year offer out there. Certainly, no other suitors offered Howard the full Taxpayer Mid-Level Exception for two years. Then add the player option to that.

If Howard removes the malcontent label, if he’s finally worth the trouble again, he’s gone. There’s no upside for Washington, yet the team gave Howard every sweetener possible.

Keeping in mind that Howard’s deal extends into 2019-20, let’s tie all these contracts together. Between the acceptable ones, the bad ones, the inexplicable ones, that’s when the real implications start.

As of today, the Wizards have six players (the big three, Mahinmi, Howard, and 2018 No. 15 pick Troy Brown) under contract in 2019-20 for a guaranteed total of $116.8 million. The salary cap is projected to come in at $109 million.

With barely a third of a team under contract, the Wizards are well over the cap in 2019-20.

I’d expect Mahinmi to eventually be waived and stretched, which will knock about $10.3 million off Washington’s commitments in 2019-20.

Of course, Kelly Oubre and possibly Tomas Satoransky, Markieff Morris and Austin Rivers will need to be re-upped then. That means Washington has no flexibility going forward. More or less, this is the Washington Wizards for the next few years (barring a trade of Beal, Porter, or Wall).

The team will fill out its future roster using only minimums, draft picks and exceptions.

The Wizards have no financial flexibility in the future. When they’ve had it over the last three years, they’ve squandered it.


To compensate for flops in free agency, Washington’s had no choice but to consummate sizable in-season trades.

As the Wizards underwhelmed during the season following their playoff defeat at the talons of the Hawks (see what I did there?), they needed an impetus to vault back into the playoff picture.

That was supposed to be Markieff Morris, who the Wizards acquired in February 2016 for a top-nine protected first-round pick, Kris Humphries and DeJuan Blair.

Alas, Washington finished the year 41-41 and missed the postseason. The pick conveyed at No. 13 and eventually became the most Sacramento Kings of Sacramento Kings picks in Georgios Papagiannis.

Over two years later, it’s hard to fault the Wizards for the Morris trade. Morris isn’t a superstar, but he’s been a passable cost-controlled starter. Yet, the Morris trade does speak to how the Grunfeld administration has valued draft assets.

Since 2015, the Wizards have been more cavalier with draft picks than Ted Stepien (last one, I promise). In 2016 and 2017, the Wizards made zero selections in either round of the NBA draft (and they’re already out second-round picks in 2019 and 2021).

They’ve made small trades, like Tim Frazier for the 52nd pick in the 2017 draft, and significantly larger ones, like a first-round pick, Andrew Nicholson and Marcus Thornton for Bojan Bogdanovic and Chris McCullough.

That the Wizards must use draft capital to correct mistakes like Nicholson is bad in its own right, but the willingness to do so is almost more damning. NBA teams have finally gained a proper appreciation for the draft, for the ability to replenish talent for a long time on the cheap.

Washington remains stuck in the past, handing out draft picks like Oprah.

Anywhere but the top

In the NBA, you don’t get to keep doing stupid stuff and continue on a positive trajectory. You can’t get worse and expect to maintain your standing in the league. The Wizards are unwilling to accept that.

Beal refuses to acknowledge it. Morris stubbornly rejects it:

Less than a month ago, Wall pledged to be more measured and realistic. Now, he’s back to spewing nonsense, strutting with confidence that hasn’t been warranted in two or three years.

There’s plenty of blame to go around. The Wizards are a genuinely poorly run franchise with incompetent management that ownership enables.

Some of it’s circumstance: in the last few years, it’s become harder to build a team around the big men and non-shooting ball-handlers Washington’s prized.

It should at least be mentioned that the face of the franchise’s on-court impact has declined as his once-vaunted defense has become a punch line.

No matter how hard Beal and Morris and Wall try to speak it into existence, the Wizards will not find themselves among the East’s elite in 2018-19, or any time soon.

In the NBA, nothing is forever. When you do everything right, opportunity vanishes in a split second. Dynasties fall, players decline, 100 teams join the annals of “what could’ve been” for every one to etch its name into history.

Wall can stick to his plan from a month ago; he can keep talking. It won’t change anything. In a league that rarely rewards even the most competent franchises, consistently reckless behavior will doom you.

Next. Complete 2018 offseason grades for all 30 NBA teams. dark

It’ll demote you from next in line to the throne to squarely in the middle of the pack, whether you acknowledge it or not.