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It’s Do-or-Die Time for the Wizards

Washington’s season is on the ropes. The Wiz have to make a move at the deadline, but will they make the right one? If they don’t, this could be the end of their current Big Three era.

John Wall and Bradley Beal in full color, and Marcin Gortat in black and white Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Wizards should be better than they are. John Wall, Bradley Beal, and Otto Porter Jr. have been together for five years, yet have never led Washington to a 50-win season. A team with a trio of top-three picks in the prime of their careers should not be stuck in the middle of the pack in the Eastern Conference. They have a 26–21 record and a net rating of only plus-1.3 this season. The only consistent thing about them is their inconsistency. The Wizards went from scoring 122 points against the Pistons last Friday to netting only 75 against the Mavs on Monday.

It’s no wonder frustration is building in the locker room. The Wizards recently held a players-only meeting that Beal essentially called pointless. They are running in place and capped out for the indefinite future without any obvious paths to improve beyond breaking up their Big Three. Assuming Porter opts into the final year of his contract, Washington will be paying $98.1 million to those three alone in the 2020–21 season. Before the Wizards blow up their most successful core in 40 years, though, they should give the trio one more chance to make a run in the playoffs. Their inability to take the next step is not entirely their fault.

There have long been rumors about the friction between Beal and Wall, but those issues have not translated to the court. For all the negativity surrounding the Wizards, their Big Three have been dominant when they share the floor: They have a net rating of plus-10.2 in 839 minutes together. But the team falls apart when plugging in its reserves, which has been the case for years. Washington has not spent wisely in free agency, nor has it drafted well enough to make up for disappointing offseasons. The Wizards churn the bottom of their rotation every season without ever managing to find good players.

The Wizards have the fourth-highest payroll in the NBA, but they don’t have a particularly talented roster. The problem is not spending $66.6 million on Wall, Beal, and Porter. It’s spending $34.7 million on Marcin Gortat, Ian Mahinmi, and Jason Smith. A team with three players on max contracts doesn’t have much money for its supporting cast. Washington sinking almost all of it on three traditional big men doesn’t make much sense. Gortat and Mahinmi both make more this season than all six of Golden State’s centers combined.

Gortat is nearing the end. He has even said he’s thinking about retirement, telling the media in Orlando, his first NBA stop, that he wants to end his career there. He’s a 33-year old who is starting to slow down, and he was never that fast to begin with. There’s not much he can do against teams that spread the floor and force him to guard in space. He can’t punish smaller teams on offense, either: He’s scoring the fewest points (9.0) on his lowest field percentage (53.5 percent) in his five seasons in Washington. The team’s net rating of plus-1.4 with him on the floor this season is particularly bad when you consider that he has played more than half of his minutes with Wall, Beal, and Porter.

The Wizards’ center-heavy roster is also preventing them from using their most dangerous lineups. A five-man unit with Kelly Oubre Jr. next to the Big Three and Markieff Morris at the 5 has all the features of a killer small-ball group. The four perimeter players have the length and athleticism to switch screens and provide defensive resistance in the lane, while Morris has the versatility to play on the perimeter on both sides of the ball. Wall is the worst shooter of the five, and he’s shooting 34.8 percent from 3 on 3.8 attempts per game this season. It’s unclear how good they can be together: They have played only 124 minutes over the past two seasons, and just five minutes in last season’s playoffs.

“I’m a strong guy, so playing the 5 doesn’t bother me. I just got to turn my grimey up,” Morris told me before Washington’s loss to Dallas on Monday. “[Going small] is a great look for us. We don’t want to expose our hand too early [in the regular season]. We know when the playoffs come we have to play small ball. Not too many teams at that level will allow you to play a traditional center all game. You almost got to be like the best to beat the best.”

Wizards head coach Scott Brooks didn’t trust Oubre last year. The second-year player wasn’t ready for the moment. He disappeared after his altercation with Kelly Olynyk in Game 3 of their second-round series with the Celtics. But he has come into his own this season, averaging a career-high 27.4 minutes per game, while his per-minute averages have increased in almost every category. His growth raises their ceiling as a team. At 6-foot-7 and 205 pounds with a 7-foot-2 wingspan, Oubre has always had the physical tools to be a high-level NBA wing. Now he has the game to go with them.

“He’s really worked on his game. I didn’t think he would be able to show as much improvement with his ballhandling as he has. I thought that might be another year or two away. His ability to finish with either hand has improved,” Brooks said. “He has a great work ethic, and he has the skill set and the talent. We don’t know how good he will be, but he’s really improved over the last year.”

Oubre is Washington’s only player outside of its Big Three who has any trade value, but the team can’t afford to give him up. The Wizards need to add perimeter players, not subtract them. Their goal at the trade deadline should be to trade one of their centers for a wing. The domino effect of such a move would change their rotation dramatically. Morris could play 15 to 20 minutes a game at the 5, while Oubre and Porter could fill the hole that would create at the 4, and the wing Washington would acquire in the deal could take their minutes at the 3. Finding another big body for a few spare minutes up front would not be hard. Andrew Bogut, who showed signs of his life with the Lakers this season before they waived him, is sitting on his couch.

The problem with pulling off a trade like that is that just about every team in the NBA is trying to make it. No one needs centers, and everyone needs wings. Neither Gortat nor Mahinmi has any trade value, especially given how much money is left on their contracts. Gortat will make $13.6 million next season, and Mahinmi will make $31.4 million over the next two. The Wizards would need to attach an asset to trade either. Trading Gortat would require including one first-round pick. Mahinmi might need two, though his contract makes him seem worse than he is. The Frenchman has recovered from the knee injury he suffered last season, and he’s more capable of playing above the rim than Gortat is. Washington will be fine if Mahinmi is starting at center and splitting time with Morris.

Moving yet another first-round pick would not be an easy decision. The Wizards have traded three of their past four: one for Gortat, one for Morris, and one for Bojan Bogdanovic. The Bogdanovic trade was particularly bad. They sent away the no. 22 pick in last year’s draft (which Brooklyn used on center Jarrett Allen) for a player who lasted only half a season with them. Their willingness to trade away picks, and their poor hit rate on the ones they have kept, is why they are in this situation. The Raptors, their longtime rival in the East, have used the draft to retool on the fly, and it’s helped them hold their standing as a conference elite. It’s not as rosy for the Wizards. Washington’s salary situation will only grow tighter in the future, so any trade involving a future pick would have to bring back a young player on a cost-controlled contract who can fill out its rotation.

The Wizards need to find a rebuilding team willing to give up at least one NBA-caliber wing, if not two, for Gortat and a first-round pick. There aren’t many potential trade partners who fit the bill. The most interesting one by far is Utah. The Jazz hit the jackpot with rookie guard Donovan Mitchell, and his emergence has changed their timetable as a franchise. They can afford to carry Gortat on their books next season if it allows them to add more young players next to Mitchell. The Jazz have shown the ability to find talent late in the draft, selecting Rudy Gobert and Rodney Hood in the same range where the Wizards’ pick will be.

Alec Burks is the type of player Washington should target. The former lottery pick can barely crack the rotation in Utah, but he’s a high-level talent who never clicked with Quin Snyder and needs a fresh start. At 6-foot-6 and 215 pounds with a 6-foot-11 wingspan, he can defend multiple positions, create his own shot off the dribble, and threaten the defense as a shooter when he’s off the ball. Burks has been productive this season, with per-36 minute averages of 18.5 points, 6.4 rebounds, 2.1 assists, and 1.5 steals on 41.5 percent shooting, and he’s still only 26 years old. He will make $10.6 million this season and $11.3 million next season, so swapping him and Gortat would not change the long-term financial picture for either team.

If the two teams exchange bad contracts and the Wizards give up a pick, they might be able to convince the Jazz to throw a young player like Royce O’Neale in the deal. O’Neale is the type of player that Washington has never found in the Wall-and-Beal era. He’s a 24-year-old rookie wing who has emerged over the past month as a reliable 3-and-D player. O’Neale can defend multiple positions, space the floor, and move the ball, and he’s locked into a three-year contract at the league minimum. Insert Burks and O’Neale into the rotation instead of Gortat, and the Wizards would instantly become a more versatile team.

Washington would have six two-way perimeter players between 6-foot-4 and 6-foot-8. Instead of keeping a traditional center in the entire game, it could open up the floor with Morris at the 5 and put waves of wings around him. Wall and Beal would be finally be able to play uninhibited. They have spent their entire NBA career playing with big men who clog the lane. Look at how much better Al Horford made Isaiah Thomas and Kyrie Irving in Boston. There may still be another level for the Wizards stars to reach.

Other trade candidates at the wing aren’t quite as attractive. Tyreke Evans has resurrected his career in Memphis, but he needs the ball in his hands and he’s not much of a defensive player. Evan Fournier, Nic Batum, and Kent Bazemore are all signed to massive long-term contracts that would be hard for Washington to absorb and still afford Oubre down the road. The Wizards may need to break up their Big Three just to avoid the salary armageddon headed their way, but not yet. This season is the time to go all in.

There is a unique opportunity to make a move in the East. The old guard is fading, and the new guard hasn’t quite arrived. Indiana and Atlanta, two teams who eliminated Washington in previous postseasons, look completely different. Cleveland looks as vulnerable as it ever has in its second stint with LeBron James. Boston, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia are all counting on young players who have only scratched the surface of their potential. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid are 23, Ben Simmons and Jaylen Brown are 21, and Jayson Tatum is 19. The path to the NBA Finals will never be as open as it is now.

It’s hard to be too optimistic. The Wizards will need to be creative to get out of their rut, something their front office has not shown it can do. Whatever success it has had is more the result of luck than skill. The reason Washington has Wall, Beal, and Porter in the first place is because ping-pong balls bounced its way. In the four seasons from 2009–10 to 2012–13, the Wizards won 98 games. Over that same span, the Kings won 99. The difference between the two teams? The Wizards moved up into the top three of the lottery in three of the four seasons. The Kings did not move up once. Trading up in the 2015 draft to acquire Oubre is the only inspired move Washington has made in the past decade. It will need to make another to make its first conference finals in 39 years, much less advance further.

When a franchise has been that bad for that long, you have to look beyond the players, the coaches, and even the front office. Ownership sets the tone for everything, and Ted Leonsis has made Ernie Grunfeld one of the longest-tenured GMs in the NBA despite an unimpressive track record. If the Wizards do blow up this team, there’s no reason to let Grunfeld do it. Washington is a long-suffering franchise that was given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity in the draft. If the Wizards don’t make the right move at the deadline, they will be well on their way to wasting it.