In professional sports, free agents can make a world of difference for a team. Building through the draft is important, but being able to bring in an established player who can immediately bolster the roster can turn a playoff team into a championship contender. In other cases, teams just need a less expensive veteran to add some depth.
Washington is not considered a major spot for free agents, as it doesn’t boast the same type of weather and nightlife as Los Angeles and Miami, nor does it have the same market opportunities as New York or Chicago, but that has not stopped the team from bringing in major additions over the years.
Some have worked out great, like London Fletcher, who signed a five-year deal with the Redskins in 2007 and immediately became a major presence for the defense. Others have been disastrous, like Albert Haynesworth, who signed a seven-year/$100 million deal in 2009 but barely lasted two seasons.
Looking from 2010 to 2019, I will be breaking down the best and worst free agency signings from each of the four major Washington teams, concluding with the Wizards. These signings do NOT include contract extensions for players already on the team or players who came in from a trade. These are only for players who came to DC from another team through free agency.
Best: Paul Pierce (2014)
Initial deal: Two years, $11 million
Subsequent deal(s): N/A (opted out of second year)
An argument can be made for Thomas Bryant, the third-year center out of Indiana whom the Wizards signed in 2018 off waivers and has since developed into the team’s starting center, but with no postseason success to speak of, Pierce edges him out.
The then-36-year-old forward was well-past his prime when the Wizards signed him in 2014, but with the young backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal coming off their first playoff appearance, the team needed a veteran with postseason experience to help usher the team into an era of consistent playoff contention. Pierce, having won NBA Finals MVP just six years earlier, fit the bill.
Pierce started 73 games in his lone season with Washington, averaging 11.9 points, 4.0 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game as Wall, Beal and center Marcin Gortat allowed Pierce to settle into a complementary role.
Pierce will be remembered for his clutch shots in the team’s second round series against the top-seeded Atlanta Hawks in the 2015 playoffs. He hit the buzzer-beating game-winner in Game 3, while his would-be game-tying three at the end of Game 6 would have kept the Wizards’ season alive had the shot gotten off just a fraction of a second earlier.
The Wizards haven’t advanced past the second round in the John Wall era, so Pierce got the team as far as anybody else on the Wizards recently. Perhaps even more importantly, his impact has lasted longer than his tenure with the team. Wall and Beal have credited Pierce as a great influence in their development as leaders of this team, and while that has not manifested in any postseason success (the front office deserves the brunt of the blame for that), it still led to several strong seasons after Pierce left.
From a dollars-and-cents standpoint, Pierce’s production was a bargain for the size of his contract, but it’s his overall impact on the current core that makes him the greatest signing of the decade.
Worst: Ian Mahinmi (2016)
Initial deal: Four years, $64 million
Subsequent deal(s): N/A
He’s making how much?! That’s right, behind Wall and Beal, Mahinmi is the third-highest paid player on the team. Mahinmi was signed in 2016 after posting career-highs in points (9.3), rebounds (7.1) and blocks (1.1) per game with the Indiana Pacers. Even with his progress, the size and length of the contract was inexplicably large for a 30-year-old center who, at best, was expected to form a tandem with Gortat at the five.
A torn meniscus in his knee that he suffered in October of that first season hampered his entire year, limiting him to just 31 games (no starts) in which he averaged 5.6 points and 4.8 rebounds in about 15 minutes per game. He managed to play 77 games in 2017-18, but he didn’t make any starts and his numbers actually regressed slightly.
Mahinmi was limited again the following year, playing just 34 games in 2018-19. His point and rebound averages dropped again to around four per game in each category. His $16 million salary continued to eat up cap space as injuries and age took their toll.
With Bryant’s injury this season, Mahinmi had the opportunity to be the main starter at center. He started 35 of the 38 games that he played. With limited options around him and an uptick in minutes per game, Mahinmi averaged 7.4 points, 5.7 rebounds and 1.2 blocks this season in what is the final year of his contract.
A disaster from the start, Mahinmi’s contract may be the crown jewel of Ernie Grunfeld’s mistakes as general manager, at least in the past five years. Paying out big money to starters who then underperform is common, and missing on draft picks happens all the time, but splurging on a mediocre-at-best center on the wrong side of 30 to play off the bench just boggled my mind at the time; I still have trouble finding the reasoning today.
Even if Mahinmi had reached his ceiling with the team, it would have been an overpayment, but the injury troubles and limited playing time has made this deal a trainwreck. With Wall already commanding one of the largest contracts in the league and Beal having a max contract of his own, the team literally can’t afford to waste cap space elsewhere, but Mahinmi does anything but help.
The team’s struggles won’t be cured once his deal comes off the books in 2020-21, but having that extra $16 million to invest in more impactful players shouldn’t hurt.