Wizards’ trade of Rui Hachimura likely about trade flexibility, Kyle Kuzma

Kuzma looms large in Hachimura trade originally appeared on NBC SportsWashington

WASHINGTON — Some moves are made in the NBA to improve a roster in the short term and others are designed as precursors to decisions down the road. The Wizards’ trade of Rui Hachimura on Monday seems very likely to be the latter, as they shipped out the 2019 first-round pick for Kendrick Nunn and three second round selections.

The most important name affected by that trade may not have been directly involved at all. That would be Kyle Kuzma, whom the Wizards sent strong signals to as their power forward of the future. Kuzma, 27, can opt out of his contract for the 2023-24 season this summer and earn a substantial raise on his next deal.

It had become popular to refer to the Wizards’ roster as having a logjam of forwards. Whatever the language, that’s not the case anymore, at least to the same degree. Nunn, a guard, is on an expiring contract worth $5.3 million and the Wizards no longer have Hachimura’s restricted free agency on their to-do list, a dilemma that would have carried a cap hold in the offseason.

Hachimura, 24, departing this way is certainly not how Washington expected things to go when he was drafted in 2019, but a series of events made this outcome less surprising. The two sides did not reach a contract extension by the deadline in October and Hachimura was mentioned in a series of trade rumors in recent months. That culminated with Hachimura acknowledging the trade rumors to reporters after Saturday’s win over the Magic.

Hachimura was then excused from Monday’s practice due to a personal matter. When asked if the reason dealt with Hachimura’s comments, head coach Wes Unseld Jr. said it did not. Turns out it was much bigger than that.

Now that Hachimura is gone, it bears watching what subsequent trades the Wizards have in store. While the Wizards deemed Hachimura tradeable, his value in him in the rotation was evident. He was their best bench scorer and this season they went 14-8 when he scored at least 10 points. They are 6-18 in their other games.

Nunn likely can’t be expected to fill that void. He was an excellent secondary scorer just two years ago, but hasn’t regained his form following a knee injury that kept him out for the entire 2021-22 season. If he can get back to what he was in 2020-21 with the Heat – 14.6 points per game shooting 38.5% from three – that would be great. But for now, his 39-game sample size this season of averaging 6.7 points shooting 32.5% from deep is where the bar can more safely be set.

That’s another reason why analysis of this move will likely require a ‘to be determined’ disclaimer. Surely the Wizards aren’t done reworking their roster with the trade deadline still two-and-a-half weeks away. And surely they are well aware of the void Hachimura has now left on their bench, which ranks 26th in the NBA in net rating (-1.9) and 24th in offensive rating.

Hachimura has his limitations, namely as a passer and on the defensive end, but he gave them volume scoring in their second unit. Hachimura has more 20-point games off the bench for the Wizards this season than everyone else on the combined roster. The only other guy with any of them, Will Barton, is out of the rotation altogether.

The second-round picks could give the Wizards more flexibility as they negotiate further deals approaching the deadline. With Hachimura elsewhere, perhaps they can backfill his production of him in another move. They also need 3-point shooting and could use additional help on the defensive end. More draft capital is always a good thing this time of year.

While clearing the way to keep Kuzma stands out most with this deal, the trade of Hachimura also changes the dynamic of the Wizards’ efforts to develop young talent. Deni Avdija, Corey Kispert and Johnny Davis are now the three recent first-round picks remaining on the roster and their development becomes even more important to the Wizards’ future.

In just a few months, Avdija will be in a similar spot Hachimura was in last October as the deadline for his rookie extension arrives. Avdija and Kispert could stand to benefit from more minutes now that Hachimura is out of the rotation. Davis, meanwhile, now has more depth at his position to navigate with the arrival of Nunn.

With a top heavy salary cap headlined by Bradley Beal’s supermax deal, young players on inexpensive rookie contracts help the Wizards offset those numbers while also giving their program long-term upside. Their value will only increase if the core players get even more costly, which would be the case if the Wizards re-sign Kuzma. Kristaps Porzingis also has a player option for next season, his at $36 million and less a certainty to be declined.

In terms of salary ramifications, this trade gives the Wizards a little extra breathing room under the luxury tax threshold. They were about $346,000 under the line, but now sit about $1.4 million below. That could free up money to convert Jordan Goodwin’s two-way contract into an NBA deal, which Unseld Jr. alluded to on Monday. In order to give Goodwin such a contract, however, they would need to free up a roster spot.

The Wizards are currently on track to have a first-round pick this summer, as their 2023 selection is top-14 protected and they would be in the lottery if the season ended today. They rank 12th in the Eastern Conference at 20-26, 1 1/2 games out of the final spot for the play-in tournament.

The fact the Wizards added three draft picks also offers the possibility this was the first step towards becoming sellers at the Feb. 9 deadline. More draft picks could come in handy for trades, or they could represent future assets in a retooling of the roster. Instead of adding pieces for a playoff push, the Wizards could opt for draft position in a year that is by all accounts loaded with top prospects, headlined by French phenom Victor Wembanyama and G-League Ignite star Scoot Henderson.

Which direction the Wizards choose will be clear by how they handle the deadline. They are set to begin a five-game road trip in Dallas on Tuesday. It will also be the first of a multiple-game absence for Porzingis due to a left ankle sprain.

Trading Hachimura was a step towards that crossroads, whether it was to the left or the right remains to be seen.

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