Wizards finally offer some hope after years in purgatory

When I left the Washington area for college, the Bullets were a perennial playoff power that grew into a back-to-back NBA Finals team and won the first of those championships series.

Upon my return home 15 years ago, the now-Wizards began, quite unpredictably, a slow, painful march to a remarkable level of competitiveness buried below mediocrity. Sure, there were the five John Wall-Bradley Beal-Otto Porter Jr. teams that won 40-plus games. But they turned out to be an anomaly. Just three other franchises have won fewer games than the Wizards over the past 15 years.

So how can you not applaud this tear-down, blowup, controlled implosion or whatever you want to call what began last weekend when the Wizards traded their most decorated player, Beal, to Phoenix? The activity reached a fever pitch late Wednesday, the day before the NBA draft, when Washington shipped its other leading scorer, Kristaps Porzingis, to Boston. Where was the new regime taking this team?

Even a pair of teams that helped represent the absolute worst of the past 15 seasons — the Sacramento Kings and Minnesota Timberwolves — made the 2023 playoffs with winning records, something the Wizards haven’t achieved in five years. And more importantly, those two teams did so with young, exciting talent worth the price of admission. Sacramento’s De’Aaron Fox, the fifth pick in the 2017 draft, and Minnesota’s Anthony Edwards, the No. 1 pick in 2020, were first-time all-stars, averaging 25 and 24.6 points, respectively. Why can’t the Wizards have that? Their last draftee to put up numbers like Fox and Edwards was Beal, picked third in 2012. He made his first of what have been three all-star teams in his sixth season.

But I’m not upset about what Beal didn’t bring the Wizards upon being traded. Owner Ted Leonsis turned Beal into an albatross around the team’s neck by allowing him the right to decline any trade proposal. He turned the Wizards into beggars; they couldn’t afford to be choosy.

Buckner: The Bradley Beal trade is a complete and total surrender by the Wizards

And I’m not going to denounce the franchise for failing to get more for Porzingis, the 7-foot-3 center whose game is more like a small forward’s and who in a lot of ways epitomized the way the Wizards have run things for the past 15 years. He was acquired just a season and a half ago from the Dallas Mavericks, who bailed on him because of his inability to stay healthy. So who cares that he just had his best season since his sole all-star appearance five years ago with the New York Knicks, the first of his three employers? In the immortal words of the great philosopher Jay Jenkins, better known as Jeezy: “Scared money don’t make no money.”

You would think from monitoring social media and listening to sports radio nearly a decade and a half after Jeezy first dropped that line that far too many of us who want the Wizards to be relevant again are willing only to play the NBA game afraid. Fortunately, the franchise’s new Cerberus-configured front office — General Manager Will Dawkins, senior vice president of player personnel Travis Schlenk and Monumental Basketball President Michael Winger — is not.

Will Dawkins relishes pressure. As the Wizards’ GM, he’ll face plenty.

What they just did was unleash a much-welcomed slash-and-burn strategy in the name of reconstructing a framework for acquiring and maintaining a playoff-level NBA roster. No talent was off-limits if it meant acquiring draft picks. It didn’t matter that most are second-rounders, some were first-rounders that come with conditions and all were stretched out over the course of the next seven seasons. Draft picks are NBA currency. They can be cashed in to acquire players before their due date. That’s the way you climb out of a rut these days.

And a new roster was constructed after all the smoke cleared. Other people’s expendables wound up here. You have to field a team for next season. By rule.

Future Hall of Fame point guard Chris Paul, acquired for Beal, was never going to see the home locker room at Capital One Arena. So the Wizards brilliantly — or luckily — got Jordan Poole for Paul from Golden State, where Poole was supposed to be Stephen Curry’s heir apparent. Poole had a rough season, which began when supposed team leader Draymond Green punched him out. Yet he was tremendous during the Warriors’ 2022 title run at just 24. The 6-4, shoot-first point guard boosted his scoring from 8.8 points per game as a rookie in 2019-20 to 20.4 last season. At worst, he could attract another suitor sooner than later despite a newly signed four-year, $128 million contract.

The Wizards also got Patrick Baldwin Jr., a 2022 first-round pick by the Warriors; Ryan Rollins, a 2022 second-rounder with upside who is coming off February foot surgery; and, from Phoenix as part of the Paul deal, reserve guard Landry Shamet. In addition, they nabbed Tyus Jones — the best backup point guard in the league — from Memphis and Danilo Gallinari and Mike Muscala from the Celtics in the Porzingis deal.

Then some of those valuable picks popped up Thursday to swap players with Indiana and acquire 6-6 guard Bilal Coulibaly, the even younger sidekick of much-ballyhooed first overall pick Victor Wembanyama from France. My man R.C. Buford, the talent scout savant for San Antonio, and his coach, everyone’s favorite Gregg Popovich, coveted Coulibaly. That’s good enough for me.

Coulibaly will be ready in a couple of seasons. Maybe last summer’s top draft pick, Johnny Davis, will be, too. Maybe Kyle Kuzma will have a change of heart and hang around.

The product on the court next season won’t be pretty. But I can wait. Compared with the past 15 years, one or two more seems like tomorrow.

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