WASHINGTON — Perhaps the most significant roster-construction question the Washington Wizards will face over the next nine months came in sharp relief Thursday night as the team recorded its most impressive victory so far this season.
Playing without Bradley Beal, Kristaps Porziņģis and Delon Wright, the undermanned Wizards defeated the Dallas Mavericks largely because of Kyle Kuzma and Rui Hachimura. Kuzma performed like a bona fide All-Star, scoring 36 points, grabbing 11 rebounds and dishing out six assists. Hachimura continued to show growth, making quick decisions, piling up 23 points and playing sound defense.
Which begs a question: Can Washington afford to retain both Kuzma and Hachimura when they hit free agency in July, or will the team need to choose one over the other?
If Kuzma declines his $13 million player option for the 2023-24 season (as he almost certainly will), he would become an unrestricted free agent and put himself in line for a potentially huge payday.
Meanwhile, Hachimura is on track to become a restricted free agent. Although the Wizards would have the right to match any offer sheet Hachimura might sign from another team, a new deal for Hachimura will become increasingly expensive if he continues to play like he did Thursday night.
Porziņģis’ contract situation makes the Wizards’ considerations more complex. If he declines his $36 million player option for the 2023-24 season — something he could consider if he has a superb year in the months ahead — he, too, would enter unrestricted free agency in July. But even if he exercises his 2023-24 player option, team officials would have to keep in mind his free-agent status in the summer of 2024 as they decide what they want to do with Kuzma and Hachimura.
Looming over everything is that the team already has a significant salary obligation to Beal, who, as of next summer, will still be owed $208 million over the final four years of his max contract.
With Beal’s gigantic year-by-year salaries on the books, would Washington even want to retain all three upcoming free agents — Kuzma, Hachimura and Porziņģis — simultaneously?
As if all of these considerations aren’t complicated enough, there’s yet another wild card: how quickly the league’s next broadcast rights deal, which almost certainly will provide a huge increase in revenue, will impact the salary cap. If the league and the players’ union do not agree to a cap-smoothing plan, the cap could spike as early as the 2025-26 season.
The one thing that can be said for certain right now is this: In the next nine months, how much Wizards officials truly value Kuzma and Hachimura will become clear.
The asking price from Kuzma’s camp no doubt will increase each time he plays like he did against the Mavericks. To be sure, Thursday’s circumstances offered Kuzma the perfect storm to seize the heavy-usage role he so obviously covets and believes he can handle. With Beal sidelined with COVID-19 and Porziņģis out because of a groin strain, Kuzma became the focal point of the offense. He hoisted 26 shot attempts, one shy of his single-game career high, which, not coincidentally, occurred last February, when both Beal and Porziņģis could not play because of injuries.
Of course, it’s OK to launch 26 shots if you make 14 of them and also create opportunities for teammates, as Kuzma did against the Mavericks.
Kuzma insisted afterwards he’s not thinking about his upcoming free agency.
“I just try to live in the moment,” he said when The Athletic broached the subject during his postgame media availability. “I mean, it’s cliché, but I had done a lot of soul searching this summer, and I do a lot of meditating, and whatever’s for me in life is for me. And it’s going to come eventually. I’m not tripping.”
He learned that lesson from how he felt during his third season with the Los Angeles Lakers, in 2019-20, when he, by his own admission, “was pressing every single game” because he knew he would have a window prior to the start of his fourth season to reach a contract extension.
“I put a lot of pressure on myself, and I thought every night I had to go out and I had to score 18 or 20 so I could look like I’m a ‘Big Three’ with LeBron and AD (Anthony Davis) and this and that. And that s— don’t matter. It’s all about, can you come in and accomplish what you need to do every day? Can you get better every day? Can you make others better every day? Because when you’re doing those things — the money, basketball, the success, it’s going to come. So I think I learned that from my first go-around with my first contract.”
In December 2020, just before the start of his fourth season, Kuzma signed a three-year, $39 million contract extension.
But while Kuzma’s attempting not to think about his contract status, Wizards officials will need to do so in relatively short order, if they haven’t already. This season’s trade deadline will fall on Feb. 9, and the front office will need to estimate what Kuzma will ask for in free agency, what their franchise will be willing to spend and whether they think Kuzma even will want to remain with the team.
If Wizards officials determine they will not agree to Kuzma’s asking price or that Kuzma would prefer to play elsewhere, they would have to consider trading him before the deadline instead of risk losing him for no one or nothing if he signs with another team.
The Wizards do not do quite the same urgency with Hachimura because in restricted free agency, the Wizards essentially would have the right of first refusal.
“Honestly, I’m just trying to win here,” Hachimura said Thursday night. “That’s the one thing I’m focused on. I’m trying to help this team to win and to make the playoffs, and all the contract stuff … comes after.”
As with Kuzma, the Wizards must start game-planning now for what will be an eventful nine months ahead for Hachimura.
(Top photo of Kyle Kuzma and Josh Green: Tommy Gilligan / USA Today)