While it was quite the bumpy ride, the Washington Wizards clinched a playoff berth in the 2020-21 season despite starting the year at 17-32. It required big moves at the trade deadline, a 17-6 run to close out the regular season and a Play-In Tournament win but the Wizards managed to make the playoffs and steal a game from the top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers.
Despite the tremendous finish to the season, an ever-important question looms over the franchise — what’s next?
The first path, banking on internal growth, is the easiest for the front office to do but could leave the franchise stuck with a first-round exit ceiling for the foreseeable future. Don’t be mistaken, the Wizards’ second-half run was phenomenal. Of the team’s six losses after starting 17-32, only one was by more than four points. Three of those losses were by one point. Even more impressive is the fact that it all happened without Thomas Bryant or Deni Avdija, two key contributors for the team that went down for the season.
Washington’s front office may decide that it liked what it saw from this group and run it back. There’s no denying that the team’s center conundrum would be resolved by Bryant’s return and Avdija showed enough flashes to be a starting-caliber player on a playoff team. Add Rui Hachimura and Daniel Gafford’s next steps to the equation, and there’s a formidable team in the making.
“We’re young,” said Russell Westbrook. “It’s important that [the young players] understand what it’s like in the playoffs. Understand what it’s like to be in the fight. Understand what it’s like to not take nights off. And that’s a part of my job, to make sure that I’m here to make sure that that’s instilled in them… With that, we still fought through and got ourselves in the playoffs. But understanding the importance of coming back each year better…is important for our group.”
The Wizards also have the 15th overall pick in the upcoming draft, which is supposed to be one of the deepest in recent years. Pick No. 15 has a complicated history itself. In recent years, that selection has seen players like Adreian Payne, who is no longer in the league, or Troy Brown Jr., who the Wizards traded this year. On the other hand, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard were 15th overall picks in the last decade; and the Wizards might land an instant contributor that could add to an already stacked young core.
But the logic of running largely the same team back is flawed for several reasons. For one, there’s no guarantee that any of the talented young players that this roster boasts will develop into a tertiary star for Washington. Hachimura is the closest thing, and he did have a dominant playoff series averaging 14.8 points and 7.2 rebounds per game while shooting 61.7 percent from the floor, but that’s never a given.
Furthermore, Washington’s run saw nearly every veteran player on the roster playing at their best and it still wasn’t enough to come close to upsetting the Sixers. There’s a sizable gap between the Wizards and the upper playoff teams.
For reference on why running back the same squad is a bad idea, look no further than the 2016-17 Miami HEAT. After losing franchise icon Dwyane Wade, the team started 11-30 but finished the year at 41-41 and had the ninth seed. That summer, the HEAT strapped itself with huge contracts handed out to James Johnson, Dion Waiters and Kelly Olynyk. The team proceeded to miss the playoffs the following season. While the HEAT returned to playoff form shortly thereafter, Washington doesn’t have the luxury of being a big market team.
While the Wizards have limited cap space anyways, rewarding players like Robin Lopez, Raul Neto and Ish Smith with pay raises following their strong campaigns could lead to mediocrity. Pair that with a looming rookie-scale extension for Hachimura and long-term decisions on Bryant and emerging role player Anthony Gill, and there’s a bloated cap sheet on the horizon.
And even though Washington fought admirably to get into the playoffs and the front office was aggressive in adding talent for Bradley Beal this season, it might not be enough to keep the star around much longer. In fact, Beal didn’t want to talk about the subject following the team’s first-round exit.
“I’m not even going to think about that or talk about that right now,” Beal said when asked if Washington did enough to convince him to stay. “The biggest thing for me is we battled the whole year. We didn’t start off the year the way we wanted to. It was frustrating all around for everyone… I’m very optimistic and I persevere through a lot of adversity and I think we did that as a team.
“So for me, I think we just put ourselves in the best position to win… For the most part, I was happy with that. I was excited with the fact that we competed and we gave ourselves a chance at the end of the year. We obviously still need to get better. We have a lot of room for improvement across the board. But as of now, I haven’t thought about any of that.”
Beal has given it his all for Washington over the course of his career but hasn’t exactly been rewarded for his loyalty. The additions of Westbrook and Gafford were steps in the right direction, but the front office cannot afford to be complacent this offseason. Keep in mind that both Beal and Westbrook have player options for the 2022-23 season. That means that Washington has, at most, one more season to prove to its stars that it can compete.
That means changes will be necessary this offseason, which could start with the coaching staff. There have been rumors all season about a potential Scott Brooks departure. However, the players seem to be happy to have him around.
“Man, it was amazing,” Westbrook said. “You know, Scotty has always been close to me throughout my career. To be reconnected with him was a blessing overall and this year made it a hell of a job. He did a job that I’m pretty sure people didn’t think he was able to do. He kept us together. He kept us encouraged. He kept us fighting. He doesn’t get a lot of credit for it but he deserves a lot of credit for putting us in a position to be successful… I’m so thankful to have a coach that believes and trusts in my abilities.”
Brooks seemed to be filled with nothing but pride following Washington’s 4-1 loss to the Sixers in the playoffs.
“I love it here,” Brooks said. “There’s no decision in my mind. I love it here. I’ve gotten to know Ted [Leonsis] and his family and the ownership group. And what I saw in the first three and a half years was incredible. When COVID-19 suspended play, that’s when I saw what great ownership is about. I saw firsthand, he made every decision based on our team, our employees, our people. And that is what a good organization is about… I wouldn’t want to move on. I love it here. I love this city.”
There’s also a chance that the Wizards get in on star chasing, which they absolutely have the ability to do via trade. If there’s a disgruntled star that fits with Beal and Westbrook, Washington has larger contracts for some of its role players, along with several young assets to include in potential trades. General manager Tommy Sheppard reportedly isn’t afraid to swing for the fences.
“We’ve gotta continue to add talent everywhere we can, and I think we’ve shown that I’m not afraid to take big swings,” Sheppard told Chase Hughes of NBC Sports Washington. “We’re not afraid to go out and acquire players in trades, to do whatever it takes.”
Normally, Washington wouldn’t sound like a great destination for a disgruntled star looking to win, but the franchise proved that it could with its surging second half of the regular season.
Fortunately for Washington, this season appears to be the year of the small market. Of teams left in the playoffs, five have never won the finals. Out of the three others, the most recent champion is Philly, who last won in 1983. Add to that the ability to play with two bonafide stars in Beal and Westbrook and Washington looks far more appealing than most might think.
Of the remaining teams in the NBA Playoffs, here are the last time each franchise won a championship.
— Brett Siegel (@BrettSiegelNBA) June 6, 2021
Even if the team doesn’t swing for another star, it has multiple avenues to work and build around the edges. Players like Davis Bertans and Bryant are on tradeable contracts if need be, and more moves around the edges like the one that brought Gafford to the Wizards could be fruitful. However, making these types of moves won’t be the end-all, be-all for the team.
For most of the last two seasons, even during the playoff run, it felt like Washington’s rotation was constantly in flux. Including players that the team traded, the Wizards had roughly 18 rotation players in total. This was evident in the playoffs more than anywhere else when the team used four different starting lineups in just five games. If the Wizards hope to take a step forward, injuries permitting, this cannot happen again.
As previously stated, this looks like it might be the final opportunity for Washington to prove itself to Beal. With several critical decisions to make before the end of July, the pressure is officially on for Sheppard and the Wizards.