NBA Notebook: Why Wizards fire sale is coming in wake of John Wall’s season-ending surgery

(Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Despite being one of the eight teams on track to pay the luxury tax this season, the 14-23 Wizards were almost as close to the worst record in the NBA (six games) than to a playoff spot in the East (four games) as of Saturday evening. What looked to be a lost season officially became as much on Saturday when Scott Brooks confirmed to reporters that John Wall planned to undergo season-ending surgery on his left heel.

With several other members of the roster (Markieff Morris, Otto Porter Jr.) already sidelined indefinitely, the Wizards now resemble a squad that has every reason to hit the rest button for the remainder of 2018-19 campaign. However, putting together a competent future is going to be a lot tougher than it looks for this group, especially in the wake of the horrific contracts general manager Ernie Grunfeld has given out over the three years.

The problem begins with Wall, who was handed an extension that was worth nearly $170 million over four years in the summer of 2017. The point guard had never even made it out of the second round of the postseason at that stage of his career (after losing to Isaiah Thomas and the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Semifinals), making that type of a commitment questionable at best at the time. Now? Wall looks like an immovable contract for the next couple years with a starting salary beginning at $37 million per year when the extension kicks in next year. For a guy that is nearly completely reliant on his speed in his offensive game, this new deal looks like a candidate for the worst contract in the NBA over the next four seasons.

The payroll problems don’t stop there. Otto Porter Jr. is overpaid as a role player earning nearly $55 million over the next two seasons. After whiffing on Al Horford in the summer of 2016, Ian Mahinmi was handed a $60 million deal that runs through next season, even though he’s been a DNP-CD for most of the year. Bradley Beal is the only chip on the roster with significant value on his current deal, while everyone else is on expiring contracts or will take extra picks to unload.

So what path will the Wizards take in the wake of the Wall injury? A fire sale seems like the smartest route for a variety of reasons.

1. Luxury tax implications: The Wizards are current $5 million above the tax threshold, even after a pair of cost-cutting trades last month (Jason Smith, Austin Rivers, Kelly Oubre). It makes no sense for ownership to pay that kind of a bill for a team that is a very long shot to make the postseason with their current talent level. They don’t have the future young assets on the team to upgrade the team (unless they foolishly want to trade away their current first round pick) so the easiest path to cutting some money is dumping some of their useful pieces on expiring deals. Markieff Morris, Trevor Ariza and Jeff Green are all clear-cut candidates on that front.

The other option for the Wizards via this route is to try to dump a bigger piece. Porter Jr. is a candidate to go if some emerging team with cap room (i.e. Sacramento Kings) wants to gamble that he will pan out better in a different uniform. Beal is probably too good to consider moving in a salary dump type situation (i.e. packaging him with Mahinmi) for some assets but there’s no question here that the front office priority between now and the end of the season will be to get under that threshold.

2. A clearer path to tanking: This is where the early season struggles come in handy for Washington. With the influx of talent in the top-5 of this year’s draft combined with a lack of true tankers (six teams have a winning percentage below .600) the path is clear for the Wizards to sink to the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings in the coming months. There’s enough talent on this roster to fight for a playoff spot in a mediocre East for the time being, but moving on from a couple of supporting pieces will make this squad quickly look like one of the worst ones in the league.

The challenge on this front will be getting buy-in from the front office and the coaching staff. Scott Brooks and Grunfeld may be fighting for their jobs at the end of the season, so they may not be eager to wave the white flag on the season so quickly unless they get the blessing from ownership. If that comes though, the odds of snagging a Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett or Cam Reddish suddenly becomes realistic and that may be the only path this team has to turning in a formidable force in the East for future seasons.

Their future cap situation leaves them with no meaningful cap room until the summer of 2020 at the earliest. Bringing in a blue chip prospect at least gives them a chance to add a third star to put next to Beal and Wall over the next decade. Otherwise, there really isn’t much hope to contend against the young cores of Boston, Milwaukee and Philadelphia for the foreseeable future.

What can they get in a fire sale?

If everything must go here, a look at a few of the more popular names out there that could be had.

Trevor Ariza: A win-now move that the Wizards probably wish they could have back. They will be able to deal him in a 1-for-1 move ahead of the deadline. They won’t get a first round pick for the swap, but a high second is a possibility.

Jeff Green: The veteran forward is actually having one of the best seasons of his career. While the days of him fetching a first round pick are over, he could certainly bring in a second round pick and will be easy to deal thanks to his minimum salary.

Markieff Morris: He’s been widely assumed to be the better of the Morris twins for the length of his career, but a nagging neck issue has him sidelined indefinitely in the midst of some worst numbers in five seasons. He’s only making $8.6 million this year on an expiring contract so some team will happily take a chance on him for that price. His ability to fetch a first round pick though is probably not there now in the midst of a down year.

Moving any and all of these pieces will clear the path to a potential top-five pick for the Wizards, following the blueprint the Grizzlies set nearly ten years ago when they nabbed Mike Conley Jr. during what was a down year for a usual playoff team. With no future cap room in sight, a fire sale is the only way to a major upgrade next year. Otherwise, this group might win just enough games to keep themselves out of a top-10 pick.

Other NBA News and Notes

  • A bit comical to see the NBA to send out a warning on tampering after the LeBron James dinner with Anthony Davis this week. Given how hard it is to police this kind of behavior, it mostly just seemed like a favor to other teams that complained about it. Hard to imagine any player will be fined for this type of behavior.
  • Interesting situation playing out with restricted free agent Patrick McCaw, who has sat out this entire year prior to signing a two-year, $6 million offer sheet with the Cavs. He cost himself nearly half a season’s salary by sitting out and the Warriors never upped their offer due to luxury tax penalities. McCaw must really want to a bigger opportunity to avoid suiting up for the defending champions, who could have used his depth this year with all of their injuries. Look for the Warriors to avoid matching.
  • Tough break for Rajon Rondo, who has to have another surgery on his hand that will keep him out for the next month after returning for just three games this past week.
    With LeBron James (strained groin) out for a few games as well, it will be a tall ask for the Lakers youngsters to keep themselves firmly in the playoff mix in a loaded Western Conference. With the Rockets and Spurs both righting the ship in recent weeks, the margin for error has become thin.
  • Austin Rivers has provided a nice boost for the Rockets as a free agent addition this week, something Celtics fans saw firsthand on Thursday night. Look for him to be just one piece added to a playoff team in what should be a busy buyout season over the next two-plus months.