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The Wizards Don’t Have a Future. Can They Start Rebuilding?

Washington has put its entire roster on the trading block after a demoralizing start to the season, but Ernie Grunfeld’s poor planning might have locked the franchise into its current dysfunctional core

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s time to cancel the Washington Wizards. With all due respect to my colleague John Gonzalez, the Wizards have ceased to be the NBA’s must-see soap opera; 16 games into this bummerific season, they’re much closer to Cop Rock/Viva Laughlin avoid-at-all-costs territory. As Thanksgiving approaches, let us count our blessings that Dwight Howard hasn’t spontaneously burst into song on the sidelines. (Yet.)

The latest episode of must-miss TV came Sunday in the form of a 119-109 home loss to the Portland Trail Blazers, who hit the court ready to move the ball, while Washington hardly appeared to realize that competition had begun. The result: a 32-12 Portland edge at the 3:54 mark of the opening quarter.

Washington finally woke up with a 13-0 run to end the first quarter and drew within two possessions a couple of times early in the second, but never got closer than that, thanks to Damian Lillard, who scored 31 of his game-high 40 points in the second and third quarters. Portland led wire-to-wire, moving into the top spot in the Western Conference by earning a win that was essentially secured in the game’s first eight minutes. The Wizards, meanwhile, dropped to 5-11, with just two games separating them from the league-worst Cleveland Cavaliers.

Any good vibes generated by the Wizards’ wins over Miami, Orlando, and Cleveland have disappeared after consecutive home losses to Portland and Brooklyn, two games where Washington never held a second-half lead. In some ways the flip side of the Blazers’ coin, the Wizards just keep landing on tails … although, to hear head coach Scott Brooks tell it, what plagues his team isn’t bad luck.

After calling his team’s Sunday effort “embarrassing,” Brooks dismissed the notion that Washington has a leadership issue.

“No,” he told reporters. “It’s a ‘play hard’ issue. We gotta play hard. All five guys on the court, regardless of who you are, you start or don’t start, you gotta play your minutes hard and you gotta do it for your team. And if you don’t wanna do that, I gotta find guys that are willing to do that.”

Considering that Washington’s sole spark Sunday came from its reserves—all-bench lineups led by Kelly Oubre Jr., Tomas Satoransky, Austin Rivers, and rookie Troy Brown Jr. chopped the deficit down to single digits in the game’s final minute—it’s hard not to view Brooks’s words as a direct indictment of the Wizards starters. More specifically, their stars.

The league’s only two-man pairing to share the floor more frequently this season than John Wall and Bradley Beal is the Blazers backcourt of Lillard and C.J. McCollum. But Portland has outscored opponents by 120 points in the pair’s 513 minutes together. Washington has been outscored by 75 in 487 minutes of Wall-Beal time, the worst mark for any duo on the team.

The quartet of Wall, Beal, Otto Porter Jr., and Markieff Morris—the heart of the starting lineup—is getting roasted by 4.5 points per 100 possessions. When Howard, who left Sunday’s contest early after aggravating the sore gluteal muscle that has already cost him seven games, has been on the floor, that group has gotten roasted to an even greater degree.

For the Wizards to have any prayer of turning things around, they’ll need to stop getting trampled with their All-Stars and highest-priced players on the court. Despite solid-enough surface-level stats, Wall’s assist percentage is lower than it’s been in seven years, Beal’s shooting a career-low 33.9 percent from 3-point range, and they’re the two leading minutes-getters for an abysmal defense that ranks 29th in points allowed per possession.

The Wizards are dismal across the board on defense. According to Cleaning the Glass, they’re 18th in points allowed per play in transition and an even-worse 25th in points conceded per play in the half court, when their defense is purportedly set. Some of that’s due to an early-season overreliance on switching, a defensive tactic that works only when players talk to one another and accept a teammate’s responsibilities. And communication and effort have been in short supply in D.C. this season.

After Sunday’s loss, Beal lauded Washington’s fourth-quarter reserve crew for having “played the way we’re supposed to play the whole game.” Wall, for his part, said he was running out of patience … with the referees. (In what is surely a completely unrelated story, Satoransky—Wall’s backup and one of the catalysts of last season’s “Everybody eats” resurgence while Wall was sidelined after left knee surgery—continues to receive praise for his unselfishness.)

Scarcely anything is going right in Washington, and the overall cheerlessness of the product on the floor offers precious little hope that anything’s going to turn around any time soon. And things might be getting even darker. ESPN reported Monday that the Wizards have “started to deliver teams an impression” that every player on their roster could be available in a trade.

That includes Wall and Beal, two top-three picks who were supposed to be the foundation of a championship-contending roster, but who have instead topped out at 49 wins and the second round of the playoffs, and now constitute the rotting maximum-salaried core of an exorbitantly expensive team going absolutely nowhere. Washington’s third max man has been on the market for a while. But Porter—who received a four-year, $106.5 million offer sheet from Brooklyn in restricted free agency in 2017, which the Wizards matched in part because they had no way to replace him given the bloated salary structure that general manager Ernie Grunfeld had constructed—has “fetched minimal interest” as he’s slogged through a season in which his production has dropped off across the board.

Beal is the prize of the group. He’s 25, owed a reasonable-enough $55.8 million over the next two seasons, and is a 39 percent career high-volume 3-point shooter. He has developed into credible pick-and-roll ball handler and playmaker, has the capacity to be a physical on-ball defender, and has proved capable of elevating his game come the postseason. He seems like a perfect fit for the decidedly all-in Philadelphia 76ers, who still have some trade chips to play. (Could something built around Wilson Chandler’s expiring contract, a Markelle Fultz reclamation project, and future draft considerations get things started?) He also seems like a much better version of what the Indiana Pacers hoped to get from Tyreke Evans and would be a dynamite running buddy next to Victor Oladipo.

There’s no such thing as an untradeable player in the NBA, but it feels like it’ll be awfully tough for Grunfeld to find a taker for Wall, even with his no. 1 pick pedigree and five straight All-Star appearances, because of his impending supermax contract extension. Wall’s salary will nearly double next season, to just under $38 million, and it will rise from there. He will hold a mind-boggling $47.3 million player option for 2022-23—the age-32 season of a player whose effectiveness depends heavily on speed and explosiveness and who already has a lengthy history of knee issues. Who would sign up to pay through the nose to take that kind of risk? Which teams would feel like they’re a John Wall away from contending, when a Wizards team built around him has never been close to the Finals?

The most frequently rumored trade partner is the point-guard-desperate Phoenix Suns, helmed by irascible owner Robert Sarver and first-time GM James Jones. But with the West’s worst record and all their energy devoted to a youth movement led by Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton, would even they be willing to take on such an enormous contract for a player who doesn’t fit their expected timetable?

Kevin O’Connor suggested the New Orleans Pelicans as a potential fit for Wall or Porter, depending on what sort of package Washington might like to pursue: a total rebuild, which would require offers led by expiring contracts, young talent, and/or draft picks, or an attempt to retool on the fly around whichever of their best players remain. If the Pelicans can add Wall without sending Jrue Holiday to D.C., they should entertain the idea. Especially with point guard Elfrid Payton now back on the shelf for a lengthy stretch, anything that augments their current supporting cast while also demonstrating to Anthony Davis that they’re serious about trying to surround him with elite talent has to be considered.

Other teams in now-or-never situations might make sense as trade partners too. The Miami Heat have one of the league’s most expensive rosters, both this season and beyond. They’re one game ahead of Washington in the standings, they missed out on Jimmy Butler, and it’s become clear, even within the organization, that they desperately need to make a trade. Miami can’t create the financial flexibility to bid for max-salaried free agents next summer, but it can mix and match its existing eight-figure deals to build packages for expensive superstars. Would an offer of someone like veteran Goran Dragic and enticing center prospect Bam Adebayo get a conversation started?

Elsewhere in the East, the Detroit Pistons head into the week at 7-6, in the thick of the playoff race thanks to a resurgent Blake Griffin. Trading for Griffin last season, just as he started his new five-year max deal, represented a giant gamble by then-coach-president of basketball operations Stan Van Gundy. Would the Pistons, under new management but already on the hook for massive money for the next three seasons, take a similar risk on Wall, hoping that a change of scenery and the chance to play alongside All-Star big men Griffin and Andre Drummond would invigorate his pick-and-roll playmaking? If so, would Washington accept a not-all-that-enticing package built around Reggie Jackson, wings like Stanley Johnson, Luke Kennard, or Reggie Bullock, and future first-rounders to offload Wall’s albatross contract?

Now that Washington is reportedly open for business, it will be difficult for Wizards fans to stomach that Grunfeld will be the one charting their path forward. In 15 years as steward of Washington’s basketball operations, Grunfeld has presided over more sub-30-win seasons (six) than 45-plus-win campaigns (three). He oversaw the disastrous Gilbert Arenas-Javaris Crittenton episode that cratered the franchise’s most promising stretch in years, and the period of Andray Blatche’s leadership that gave us Lapdance Tuesday. He traded away first-round draft picks in 2009 (which became Ricky Rubio, but could have also become Stephen Curry, for a year of Randy Foye and Mike Miller), in 2013 (as part of the Marcin Gortat deal), in 2016 (as part of the Markieff Morris trade), and in 2017 (to add Bojan Bogdanovic for a stretch run). He drafted Jan Vesely with the sixth overall pick in 2011 and masterminded the calamitous summer of 2016, which saw the Wizards give Ian Mahinmi, Andrew Nicholson, and Jason Smith a combined $106 million to be backup big men in a league skewing small. Taken together, Grunfeld’s moves have put the Wizards in this no-win situation; that he continues to pull the strings in Washington remains, from the outside, confounding.

Regardless of whatever deals Grunfeld might be able to make between now and the February 7, 2019 trade deadline, these first 16 games and Monday’s report make it clear that Washington is screwed and cannot be allowed to continue as presently constituted. There is no saving the Wizards, who—save for a couple of postseason series in which their best players put all the bullshit to the side and just played their asses off—have never been as good as they’ve thought and have never deserved to be regarded as highly as they’ve regarded themselves.

“The hardest thing is [to] keep the spirit,” first-year Wizard Austin Rivers said of Sunday’s run by the bench, though he might as well have been talking about the funereal vibe that has attended this dour team since before the season started. “Because once guys get down, it’s over, because teams smell it. You can smell it on a team.”

There’s no ignoring the stench now. It’s over in Washington. Change the channel. Change whatever you can.