If you want to strip what’s left of the Titanic, call the Washington Wizards front office. No one is better at salvage operations.
There was no way the Wizards could let everyone come back to DC on the team charter from their five-game road trip, which starts Tuesday in Dallas. At least one significant trade before the Feb. 9 deadline was necessary to better set up things both in the short and long term. Tommy Sheppard started the ball rolling Monday afternoon by dealing 2019 first-round pick Rui Hachimura to the Los Angeles Lakers, one of Sheppard’s favorite trading partners, for guard Kendrick Nunn and three future second-round picks.
If that seems kind of meh for the ninth overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, Sheppard’s first as Washington’s general manager, and a player in whom the franchise spent an inordinate amount of time and resources marketing to the Japanese basketball market, as well as the team itself, that’s … accurate.
(Apropos of nothing: Were the 2020-21 Wizards, which went a COVID-19-shortened 34-38 in Scott Brooks’ last season as coach and lost a gentleman’s sweep to Philly in the first round, some kind of special group or something The Lakers now have four players from that team — Russell Westbrook, Hachimura, Thomas Bryant and Troy Brown Jr. — on their roster. I watched and covered a lot of that season’s games. Westbrook had a great, historic close to lead them to the play-in round. And that was about all. If you told LeBron last summer, ‘Hey, you can have a third of the 2020-21 Wizards to play with next season, and absolutely none of them are Bradley Beal,’ I wonder what his response would have been.)
This is, though, not a win for Sheppard. This is getting out while the getting is good. And while there’s certainly intelligence at work in not throwing good money after bad picks, it doesn’t change the fact that a top-10 selection from less than four years ago was given away, having done very little while he was here.
“Not impactful, but better than letting your #9 pick walk for nothing,” a league executive texted when asked for his opinion of the deal Monday. “Not a championship move. Not a playoff move. Maybe a play-in move.”
The potential value in this deal for Washington is not likely Nunn. Yes, he’s still just 27, but he hasn’t recaptured the explosive offensive potential he showed in two seasons (2019-21) in Miami. A bad bone bruise in his knee cost him the entire 2021-22 season. But whose minutes would Nunn take here? There’s a log jam in front of him at both guard positions with Beal, Monte Morris, Delon Wright and Jordan Goodwin, even with Will Barton out of the rotation at present.
Goodwin is on a two-way deal with the G League’s Capital City Go-Go and the Wizards, but his spirited, defense-first play is likely to earn him an upgrade to a full NBA contract soon before his 50-game limit with the parent team. The Wizards will need to clear a roster spot to be able to convert Goodwin’s contract.
The pluses on this one, such as they are/might be, are in the weeds.
Washington’s hopes of re-signing Kyle Kuzma necessarily involved not extending Hachimura. There was no way to do both, along with possibly needing to give Kristaps Porziņģis a new deal, and escape the luxury tax that Ted Leonsis has only paid once in his decade-plus tenure as majority owner. The Wizards showed their hand last fall when they didn’t give Hachimura an extension, making him a rising restricted free agent next summer. Kuzma has his own situation, but the Wizards’ intent/hope was and is to splurge on him, not Hachimura.
Of course, it’s an indictment of Hachimura’s play while in DC that that was such an easy call. And that falls on management.
I’m not going to go all “they should have taken Cam Johnson or PJ Washington.” That’s easy and unfair revisionism, performed by so many in these insipid “re-drafts,” cherry-picking the good players a team missed on after the fact.
Washington did take Hachimura, though, and while he certainly has shown this season that he can score at a high clip, he fell far short of becoming a star. Too often unavailable, too often indifferent to defence. (Hachimura did perk up during Westbrook’s one season here, at least giving increased two-way effort, often at Westbrook’s pressing. Maybe the Lakers believe a similar renaissance is possible with the duo now reunited in Los Angeles.)
The Wizards can, credibly, at least spin this as “Kuzma’s a better player than Rui, and he’s only a couple of years older (27; Hachimura turns 25 next month), and we’d rather go forward with him.” (Of course, Kuzma can also do some spinning: “Oh, so y’all really want to keep me? My price just went up a few mil.”)
Also, moving Hachimura opens up the too-crowded forward room, which should now result in more small-ball point forward minutes for Deni Avdija.
Also, the three seconds — a 2023 second from LA (via Chicago), a 2028 second from the Lakers and the less favorable of Washington’s or LA’s 2029 second-round picks — have potential currency.
Milwaukee offered four future seconds, along with players, in a potential three-team deal with Houston and Phoenix in December that would have brought veteran Jae Crowder to the Bucks. If multiple second-rounders provide an accelerant to Washington getting a plug-and-play, 3-and-D wing, whether the 32-year-old Crowder or someone similar, the trade makes more sense.
Or maybe the three seconds could lead to one first.
After this trade, Washington now has two 2023 seconds: the second from LA, and a protected second (picks 31-45) from Boston via Charlotte that could roll over to 2024 (Washington owes its own ’23 second to Oklahoma City). If the Wizards wanted to package those seconds with the 2028 seconds it just picked up, and potentially flip all of them for another 2023 first, that would make moving Hachimura a little more palatable.
For the Wizards need to figure out some way to get a second 2023 first-rounder from someone, to get out of draft hell.
To recap, Washington owes New York a future first from the John Wall-Westbrook deal with the Rockets in 2019. (No, New York wasn’t in that trade. Keep reading.) The Wizards put a bunch of protections on the pick when they made the initial trade with Houston, so they’ve been able to keep the first-rounders the last three years. But that pick still has to be conveyed. After Houston, and then Oklahoma City, each traded the still-owed pick, it now belongs to the Knicks. And the pick is still protected 1-14 this year, meaning if Washington doesn’t make the playoffs, and is in the lottery, it keeps the pick.
But the Wizards can’t include any future first-round picks in trades until two years after they convey a first to the Knicks.
If never conveyed, the first-round obligation to New York extinguishes in 2026 to second-round picks. So, currently, until Washington sends a first to New York, it can’t, because of the Stepien Rule, send a first anywhere else until 2028. It thus behooves Washington to settle up with the Knicks as soon as possible, so it could potentially package earlier future firsts with players to trade for a difference-making talent to package with Beal (and, presumably, Kuzma and Porziņģis). Getting a late 2023 first now would allow Washington to potentially satisfy its obligation to New York, and move on.
Which the Wizards did from Hachimura. And Wall. And Westbrook. And Brown, Jr. And Spencer Dinwiddie. And Davis Bertans. And Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
Washington’s drafts under Sheppard have been far from scintillating, but what he has done well is make these kinds of trades along the margins.
This is team incrementalism, making gradual moves to slightly improve the overall roster from one season to the next, flipping pieces for better talent. We don’t know yet if this season’s version is a better team because the Wizards’ top three still have not played 30 games together. Porziņģis is the latest casualty; he’s out at least a couple of games with a sprained ankle, which he suffered Saturday against Orlando.
But this can’t be the end of it. For Washington to make any kind of meaningful move up the standings in the Eastern Conference, the Wizards probably need to jettison another young body or two, along with at least some of their new draft bounty, for someone who can get in a stance and keep someone in front of him and knock down 3-pointers.
Whether that’s now or in July, there’s another shoe that needs to drop. A whole rack of footwear, actually.
buha: How this move helps Los Angeles now and later
Harper: Lakers, Wizards swing trade for Rui Hachimura: Grades and reaction
Leroux: In Rui Hachimura trade, $18.8 million cap hold looms large for Lakers
Charania and Aldridge: Wizards trade Rui Hachimura to Lakers: Why deal makes sense for him
(Photo of Rui Hachimura: Adam Pantozzi / NBAE via Getty Images)