The New Orleans Hornets won the draft lottery and the rights to Anthony Davis just three weeks ago. But after agreeing to trade small forward Trevor Ariza and center Emeka Okafor to the Wizards in a massive salary dump on Wednesday, the Hornets may spend next season in the heart of the NBA’s tanking discussion — even though their management team and coach, Monty Williams, hate losing.
Okafor and Ariza are overpaid and both have two years left on their deals, with a combined salary of $20.8 million next season and $22.2 million in 2013-14. But they are very good defenders and generally useful veterans (more than useful, in Okafor’s case), and the Hornets have traded them to Washington for Rashard Lewis, who may never play a game for them. New Orleans is expected to buy out the 32-year-old forward’s partially guaranteed expiring deal (worth about $23 million) for huge cap savings.
The move doesn’t quite leave the Hornets room to make a max-level offer to point guard Deron Williams this summer — not once you factor in a cap hold for Eric Gordon, a restricted free agent, and salary slots for Davis and the No. 10 pick in next week’s draft. Using the amnesty provision on point guard Jarrett Jack would get them right on the border, but the real savings kicks in a year from now, when Gordon (presuming he is re-signed) and the incoming rookies will have the only significant guaranteed money on the Hornets’ books. Next year’s free-agent class could include Williams, Dwight Howard, Andrew Bynum and a certain point guard who plays now for the Clippers.
In the meantime, the Hornets will be short on proven talent next season, even if they match any competing offer for Gordon. But they will play hard for Monty Williams, one of the league’s rising coaching stars, and land another lottery pick for their troubles. The Hornets will get long looks at Davis, forward Gustavo Ayon (an interesting piece), Jason Smith (a solid pick-and-pop backup big man) and forward Al-Farouq Aminu (erratic so far) as a result of this trade. Really, it’s hard to argue on a practical level with what the Hornets have done here.
The Wizards, in one swoop, have wiped out what could have been more than $10 million in cap space this summer and potential max-level room next summer by taking on Ariza’s and Okafor’s deals in what is clearly an attempt to earn a lower-rung playoff spot and placate point guard John Wall. They still have the amnesty provision to use on forward Andray Blatche, but they have put themselves in a strange position in which doing so no longer makes much of a difference to their cap sheet in either of the next two free agency periods — at least as things stand now. Slashing Blatche’s salary this summer would leave the Wizards with about $5 million in cap space, not really a meaningful amount, considering it’s equivalent to the mid-level exception that teams over the cap can offer free agents. The 2013-14 bill is now so high that getting rid of Blatche would still leave the Wizards over the projected cap for that season, or perhaps under it by such a small amount as to be meaningless. Ditching Blatche would at least provide some luxury-tax breathing room two seasons from now, though.
Still, there aren’t many unrestricted free agents this summer who fit the Wizards, and chasing next summer’s stars may result in cap room that goes unspent.
A team is never “set” in the NBA; as cap guru Larry Coon joked on Twitter, Lewis’ “untradable” contract has now been traded twice. But the Wizards will have to do work to move in any direction other than the Wall/Nene/Ariza/Okafor/Interesting Young Projects core over the next two seasons.
That is not an uninteresting core, though Washington will badly need outside shooting — one reason (along with the acquisition of Ariza) this deal has draftniks speculating that the Wizards are eyeing shooting guard Bradley Beal with the third pick. But was it worth taking on this kind of salary? Remember: It took a solid 35-31 record to make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference this season. The conference’s days as a punch line are over. The Wizards finished 15 games behind that pace, and though they were much better after jettisoning Nick Young and JaVale McGee for Nene at the trade deadline, that 9-7 finish to a compressed season may not mean all that much.
The Wizards did show positive signs down the stretch, and the best way for a team to play above its ceiling night-to-night is to defend hard — something Okafor and Ariza will do. Wall is always adding polish at both ends, if not a jumper. Nene is a stable low-post presence who can do a bit of everything: defend in space, rebound, score with his back to the basket, hit jumpers out to 18 or 20 feet and move the ball. That shooting and passing are going to be important with the addition of Okafor, who is not much of a threat from outside the immediate basket area. Okafor isn’t the most dynamic pick-and-roll player, either, and the Wizards will have to work hard to space the floor. That’s something Ariza can’t do; he has been one of the league’s worst shooters over the last two seasons, and it’s clear now that he works best as a more modern Bruce Bowen — someone who plays defense, takes wide-open, spot-up looks and cuts to the rim. Dribbling and off-the-dribble shots are to be discouraged.
Back to the incumbent Wizards: Kevin Seraphin played like a beast down the stretch after languishing on the fringes of the rotation for most of the season; Jan Vesely and Chris Singleton showed glimpses at the forward spots; Trevor Booker is clearly a rotation player; and Jordan Crawford enjoys shooting the basketball. Adding Okafor and Ariza gives coach Randy Wittman two veteran starters with whom he can (try to) win now, and it will be up to him to find the balance between leaning on the veterans and making sure that the Washington brass gets a good look at the kids. The Wizards will have team options on every young player after next season, though they will surely exercise a few ahead of time.
But what’s the ceiling on this team? What are we playing for here? The Bulls, Heat and Pacers aren’t going anywhere. Howard is still on the Magic, for now. The Hawks are always there. The Celtics may rebuild, but even if they go that route, they’ll still have Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo, Avery Bradley and cap space (or Kevin Garnett). The Knicks’ roster figures to look largely the same. The Sixers and Bucks are in a bit of flux, but Detroit and Toronto will continue to get better.
This Washington roster could well make the playoffs next season — and lose in the first round. Is that worth the sacrifice of easy cap flexibility and another lottery pick next year? The easy answer is that the Wizards should do whatever it takes to make Wall happy, but Wall isn’t exactly in the All-NBA third team conversation yet, and players coming off rookie deals don’t change teams as free agents. That’s the entire point of restricted free agency: to remove that kind of leverage from the system.
The Wizards, of course, will keep working the phones. This isn’t the end game, but it will be interesting to see if they can manufacture a better one than this.