The near future of the Wizards will be a story of internal development, which is a polite way of saying that Washington has boxed itself in. Re-upping all three of John Wall, Bradley Beal, and Otto Porter to max contracts came at considerable expense.
Beyond that, the Wizards committed themselves to a significant overlap in salary at the least tradeable position in the league. Marcin Gortat and Ian Mahinmi are fine players in their own right. The rub is the nearly $30 million in combined annual salary between them, a small fortune considering the two ought to never play a minute together. That they might, regularly, is an indictment in itself.
What resources should have brought balance to Washington’s bench instead tilted the depth chart in a way the Wizards couldn’t really afford. Mahinmi was one of the better players still available when Washington moved to use its cap space last summer—as volatile a free agent market as the NBA has ever seen.
The instinct for the Wizards to grab hold of the best player they could while they still had any cap room at all (a ticking clock given their plans to re-sign Porter the following year, vaporizing any possibility of cap space) was wholly understandable. It simply played out in a way that imposed a ceiling on one of the East’s more compelling teams. Beal and Porter are 24 years old with Wall nearly 27, and together they won 49 games last season. Their ascension through the East is underway, and yet it isn’t clear how that core will be able to push past Cleveland or Boston so long as the bench is this unreliable.
Depth, conceptually speaking, isn’t as valuable in a postseason setting, where players like Wall and Beal will log close to 40 minutes a game. But there also isn’t any way to shield a crummy reserve from playoff scrutiny. Bad bench players can be targeted and played out of a series entirely, robbing their team of needed flexibility. This is where Washington finds itself: overly dependent on Wall, Beal, Porter, and Markieff Morris for the simple fact that its other non-centers can’t yet be trusted. Even if those core starters continue to improve on their career-best seasons, none of them can afford to play a poor series or even to run into an unfavorable matchup.
Kelly Oubre, 21, and Tomas Satoransky, 25, represent Washington’s best relative chance of cultivating rotation minutes. The offseason additions of Tim Frazier, Mike Scott, and Jodie Meeks were all suitable given Washington’s financial reality and completely uninspiring. Any of those three could chip in on the right night, but they do little to buttress the structure of the team.
Scott Brooks needs contributors he can plan around. Oubre could become that sort of player if his shooting ever stabilized; there’s a lot to like about Oubre’s defense and activity, but opponents will happily live with a 30% three-point shooter firing away rather than get torched by Wall.
There could be some encouragement in that Porter started from a similar place, developmentally. In four years, Porter went from shooting 19% from beyond the arc to finishing top-five in the league in three-point percentage—growth enough to earn him a four-year, $107 million contract. Porter has always had more ancillary skills than Oubre, though within their respective roles that’s fine. Simplicity would suit Oubre if he could only make himself more of a threat.
Satoransky’s optimal role is a bit more muddled. The Czech guard digests the game as a playmaker—probing off the dribble with his head up, eager to set up his teammates for even the slightest advantage. There are limits to that kind of approach when the player in question can’t beat his man off the dribble, doesn’t have much juice behind his pump fake, and lacks next-level court vision. The fact that Satoransky is 6'7" at least gives the Wizards options. Point guard might not be his best NBA position, even if it is his most comfortable. There are conceivable paths forward where Satoransky establishes himself as more of a facilitating wing; Garrett Temple played four seasons for the Wizards in just that sort of role with even less of a natural passing feel.
The trick is getting Satoransky comfortable with the rhythms of playing off the ball and growing his game as a scorer. Among players to log at least 700 minutes last season, Satoransky finished with the sixth-lowest scoring rate (7.7 points per 36 minutes)—sharing company with defensive specialists like Andre Roberson, Dorian Finney-Smith, and DeAndre Liggins. That won’t fly for a player of lesser defensive standing, much less one who won’t have quite as much playmaking opportunity as he did last season. Scoring will have to become a bigger part of Satoransky’s game else he might not contribute enough to justify regular minutes.
So it goes with the Wizards, whose fate hinges in part on Oubre finding a skill he’s never really had and Satoransky rewiring his game on the fly. And even if they do, those role players will improve just in time for their restricted free agency in 2019—at which point Washington won’t have many options to replace them.
Come that summer, the Wizards will have almost $108 million committed to just four players (Wall, Beal, Porter, and Mahinmi). Morris will be in line for a significant raise and free to sign with a team of his choosing. Gortat will likely be gone. Inertia is the default state of many NBA franchises, but in two years the Wizards might not have that luxury. Washington will be faced with bringing back a lesser version of the same team at incredible cost, trading away some valued player, or repopulating its roster under severe financial constraint.
The cruel twist in all of this is that Wall will first finish out the final two years of one of the better value contracts in the league with the Wizards almost powerless to capitalize on it. Washington’s payroll is more palatable when Wall is making $18.1 million in 2017–18 and $19.2 million in 2018–19, before his newly signed supermax extension kicks in the following season. Yet due to the unfortunate timing of some of the Wizards’ commitments and expirations, there isn’t much opportunity for Washington to mechanically do anything with those savings. There is no room to add meaningful talent without fundamentally changing the makeup of the team.
Continuity is expensive. It adds up to concurrently pay Wall, Beal, and Porter what their market demands, particularly when the team is in constant search of bench talent to make ends meet. Washington’s great sin, if there is one, was reacting in haste to a cap spike market that most of the league didn’t fully understand. Mahinmi is a good (if oft-injured) player. He was simply signed to the wrong deal at the wrong time, the implications of which will nag at the Wizards for years.