What the Wizards should be playing for

By: Joe Pohoryles

As of the publishing of this post, the Wizards sit ahead of just the New York Knicks and Atlanta Hawks at the bottom of the Eastern Conference, and will likely enter the offseason with decent odds to land a top three pick in the 2020 NBA draft.

While making the playoffs is still theoretically possible, it would take a turnaround of Washington Nationals-sized proportions, and even then it may not be enough. With star point guard John Wall sidelined for the season, there were never expectations this Wizards team would achieve much, but even though the playoffs seem out of reach, there are still important things the team should be playing for:

Development of young players

This applies to pretty much every team in the league, but it’s of even higher importance for the Wizards. The team is currently in an awkward limbo state. They are no where close to being a contender. Even if Wall was healthy and they made the playoffs, there just is not enough talent to go far against Eastern powers like the Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics.

They have not totally blown things up either. Instead of starting fresh and stockpiling a bunch of young talent as the Hawks are trying to do, the Wizards have extended both Wall and Bradley Beal to mega-extensions (signs of a team wanting to contend), but do not have much talent behind them to elevate the team further. Even if they wanted to rebuild, there’s practically no way to move Wall’s contract, as teams are not exactly lining up for soon-to-be 30-year-old point guards coming off an Achilles tear.

With other injuries whittling down the roster, it’s important to use the rest of this season to get the team’s future major contributors more comfortable with playing at the NBA level. 2019 first-rounder Rui Hachimura has been one of the few bright spots on the roster, averaging 13.9 points and a team-leading 5.8 rebounds per game. He’s been sidelined by a groin injury since Dec. 17, but when he returns, the team should be doing all they can to develop his game for the future.

2018 first-rounder Troy Brown Jr. was a raw prospect when the team selected him, but he’s made a solid step forward in his second professional season. His ceiling is not as high as Hachimura’s, but he still has potential to carve out an important role with the team down the line.

Third-year center Thomas Bryant had nailed down the starting center job before suffering an injury of his own after 18 games, and guys like Mo Wagner, Isaac Bonga, and Admiral Schofield are all 22 years old or younger (as are Hachimura, Brown Jr. and Bryant). The team has also called several players up from the G League to fill in for all the injuries, so maybe one or two of those guys will be able to break in as well.

Beal is just 26, and sharp-shooter Davis Bertans is 27. The bottom line is there’s a lot of youth on this roster, and while most appear to be key bench players at best, their development is crucial as they will either serve as much-needed roster depth, or as potential trade assets to improve the team.

The completion of Ian Mahinmi’s contract

Ok, this is not exactly what the team will be playing for, but the contract does expire at the end of this season, which is fantastic news for the franchise. All due respect to Mahinmi as a person, I’m sure he’s a good guy, but his contract has been nothing short of awful. He’s been making between $15-16 million per season, and has played more than 35 games in a single season just once so far, in 2017-18 where he played 77 games, starting none, and averaging just 15 minutes per game.

He has actually been forced into the starting center role with Bryant’s injury, but otherwise never contributed much off the bench, especially compared to his pay. He’s the third-highest paid player on the team by a wide margin, and once his deal is off the books, the team will have more freedom in the salary cap that is already so dominated by Wall and Beal. Whether it’s re-signing the younger players to bigger deals or bringing in a solid starter to elevate the roster, the extra $16 million this offseason should be very nice.

Building a new culture

As I mentioned before, the team is in limbo, and has been for quite some time. They have never taken enough steps to become a legit contender, and they have never fully blown up the roster to start new. The current state of the roster certainly looks like a rebuilding team, but with Wall and Beal locked down for another four years, it will be tough to totally break things down.

Since the team appears to be stuck in the bottom-middle tier for the foreseeable future, the rest of this season should be focused on forming a strong culture the team can build off of in the years ahead. The locker room is not a mess by any means, but it just seems like a random assortment of individuals and not a team. Just Beal, some youngsters, and some older vets. Before the team can win, a better culture needs to be in place.

A better culture does not include tanking. Tanking is not a viable option for improvement anymore. Not only is it much harder to successfully pull off thanks to the lottery rule changes, but it just sends a poor message to the players and the fans.

Looking at this year alone, there are several intriguing talents who will be available at the top of the draft, but they come with a lot of question marks. There is not really one player worth tanking for, in my opinion. The Wizards are bad enough, they don’t need to try to lose, they’ll end up with a decent pick anyway. If they can develop a winning attitude despite the losing, it will become a more attractive place to play in the near future.

There is not much to be excited about in the 2019-20 season for Wizards fans, but by focusing on these three things, they should be in better shape for 2020-21.

(Cover photo credit: The Athletic; Scott Taetsch, Getty Images)

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