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Why the Wizards Failed to Maximize Their Offseason Opportunities


Yesterday, I vented about the Washington Wizards meh offseason. Presented with the opportunity to build the team's young core and potentially compete for championships in a couple seasons, GM Ernie Grunfeld and owner Ted Leonsis opted for the security of mediocrity.

As Grunfeld told reporters yesterday, the Wizards are in better shape for this season than they have been in previous years. Barring a cascade of injuries to key players, the team should have a better winning percentage and should be in contention for the 8th playoff spot in the East. Or, if everything goes well, maybe the 6th or 7th seed. Lather-rinse-repeat the following season and then...well, the team's going to have to be reshuffled. But I'm going off topic now.

Grunfeld and Leonsis are feeling good about their offseason moves because they executed their plan. That plan was explicitly to add "veterans" -- something they accomplished by trading for Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza, coupled with the deadline deal they made to acquire Nene. They also added marginal veterans with PG AJ Price and SF/SG Martell Webster.

While Okafor and Nene are decent players (Nene, better than decent), Ariza has been up and down while Price and Webster have been down, period. Let's leave Price and Webster aside for the moment because they both figure to be reserves, not front-line players like the first three.

The problem with their moves is not necessarily in the players they acquired, it's in the premise that served as the foundation upon which they constructed their plan. Specifically, Grunfeld and Leonsis decided that the team needed "veterans." But this prescription was the wrong medicine because their diagnosis was fundamentally wrong.

The fundamental issue that doomed the Wizards to losing records the past few seasons was not youth, but rather the lack of good players. Yes, they were well-stocked with immaturity and laziness, but there are immature and lazy veterans just as there are immature and lazy young players.

For example, the Wizards could have signed Antoine Walker this offseason. He's older, he's experienced, he's played on good teams in Boston and a championship team in Miami. Does he solve the team's issues with maturity and work ethic?

This misdiagnosis of what ailed the team led them to do things like effectively punt on their second round picks. Their goal was to avoid bringing in more young players because -- in their minds -- the problem was youth. And, the team already has a bunch of players on rookie contracts, so (again in their minds) they already have "enough" young players. Plus, they're bringing in Bradley Beal, who's also young.

Fans and media have pretty much gone along with the "we need veterans" plan because it has the veneer of logic. The team was filled with immature, goofball kids, so it makes sense to bring in some solid vets to set a new tone. Look at the guys they've dumped -- Nick Young, Javale McGee, Andray Blatche -- young, immature, unproductive.

But let me change the wording a bit to highlight the error of this thinking. Imagine for a moment that Grunfeld came out and said that the team's problem was too many black players. Nick Young, Javale McGee, Andray Blatche -- black, immature, unproductive. Stupid, right?

Passing on opportunities to acquire "young players" is exactly that kind of thinking. It's dismissing a group of players based on a superficial criterion rather than individual characteristics like how well they play, and what kind of person they are. It means the team is missing out on chances to get better because they've already decided to exclude a certain group of players.

If the Wizards wanted to add maturity, toughness, and professionalism this offseason, they could have used their second round picks on Jae Crowder (great kid who competes like crazy, plays hard at both ends, was a leader both vocally and by example, and possessed with a first-rate basketball IQ) and Marcus Denmon (another tough competitor with a great shot).

Had they released Rashard Lewis and amnestied Blatche early in the offseason (note: they did amnesty Blatche on the last day they could make that move), they'd have had sufficient cap space to pick up Elton Brand in the amnesty draft, AND sign a young veteran free agent or two -- guys like Brandon Rush, Danny Green, or Lou Williams. And they would have likely had $8-9 million in cap room next offseason to continue building.

Those opportunities are gone now. Cap flexibility is gone for the foreseeable future because of when contracts expire. As Okafor and Ariza finish up their time with the Wiz in a couple years, the team will be faced with the likelihood of needing to re-sign John Wall and other young players they're hoping pan out. The only way they'll have cap room is if they let some guys depart. "Some guys" in this case means (most likely) Wall.

I'm obviously disappointed with what they've done. They could have taken the chancier route of attempting to build a team that could contend for a championship within the next 2-3 years. Instead they've constructed a team that will be mediocre for the next two years and then require another rebuild.

Enough kvetching. Next time I write about the Wizards, I'm going to start looking at the individual players and what we might be able to expect from them this season.

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