When the Washington Wizards traded for Nene back at the trade deadline, they did so because of their cap flexibility. They used this flexibility (akin to, but not synonymous with, cap space) to take on the massive contract of a decent player, thereby saving themselves the effort of having to overpay a decent player via the cap space route later on.
This cutting out of the middle man has now happened again. Out of nowhere, Washington traded Rashard Lewis’s big, redundant contract to New Orleans in exchange for the big, slightly less redundant contracts of Trevor Ariza and Emeka Okafor. Seemingly, then, this is Washington’s modus operandi now. If they knew they weren’t going to sign anyone anyway, losing the ability to sign someone is no real loss.
Since disbanding the Arenas/Jamison/Butler first round caliber team of a few years ago, the Wizards have gone from having incredibly little cap flexibility to having quite a lot of it. They have also been very bad, which has not made them an attractive free agent destination, if ever they were one, thus rather undermining said leverage. Perhaps cognizant of this, the Wizards haven’t attempted the big name cap space route — they haven’t signed another team’s FA to a multiyear contract since overpaying for Darius Songaila six summers ago, and, even prior to the Nene move, have burned millions in theoretically lucrative cap space acquiring Kirk Hinrich and Ronny Turiaf by trade. This move is a clear continuation of that strategy. Right or wrong, it’s a strategy.
Trading someone you didn’t want for two decent players is rarely a bad thing. Warts and all, Okafor and Ariza are undeniably just that. Ariza will bring his usual brand of league average, sporadic, effective-but-infuriating ball to a team who really need stability and mentorship on a roster already overladen with young forwards. Nevertheless, he is good enough to help the team on both ends. And the Wizards certainly need help on both ends. This trade, in theory, gets them into the playoffs.
Any success derived from the trade, however, is ultimately contingent not on Ariza, but upon Okafor’s coexistence with Nene. Other than brief stretches — including at the start of this season — Nene has exclusively played the center spot in his NBA career, whereas Okafor has spent all his time there. Okafor has always been slightly undersized for the position, yet his skill set and lack of athleticism prevents him from playing anywhere else. Nene’s skill set rather straddles the two big positions, yet, with Okafor’s inability to play outside of the paint on either end, the two are either going to awkwardly try and make it work (Yao Ming/Kelvin Cato, 2004) or sub in for each other (Eddy Curry/Tyson Chandler, 2005). Since the latter isn’t going to happen, Randy Wittman has a summer’s worth of tape in his future. Considering the relative costs involved, it’s just going to have to work.
(And if it doesn’t work, trade one of them for Kevin Martin. Simple as!)
Whether Washington could have sourced such decent veterans for cheaper — by acquiring, say, the comparable Sam Dalembert, or just seeing where they were at with Nene in the middle and using their assets elsewhere — is debatable. This may not have been an optimum appropriation of resources. How they plan to build a team around John Wall and yet surround him with absolutely no shooters is also a perfectly valid question. This move still leaves plenty to do. Nonetheless, they were returned decent players who will help.
New Orleans didn’t. They saved money. And that’s all they did.
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