The Washington Wizards' trade for Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza -- two proven vets who are undeniably overpaid, derive their value from hard-to-measure defense and are good enough to demand major minutes -- completes the club's shift from one rebuilding completely through the NBA draft to one ready to start winning some games. The Wizards have been bad for a long time. Back in 2009, the Wizards, Clippers and Kings were the three worst teams in the league. Only the Clips, thanks to the weirdest trade saga ever, have climbed out. Washington won't be picking in the top five next year after this trade.
But it's certainly not a trade that mandates a playoff berth, either. The Wizards didn't trade for an All-Star, and this erases a lot of planned cap space that could have been used in attempts to pry younger, better players away from their clubs. Our Mike Prada broke down the salary cap implications of the deal over at Bullets Forever, SB Nation's Wizards blog. Essentially, this trade combined with the Nene deal consummated in March erases any major cap space that Washington would have had heading into the 2012 or 2013 free agency periods. (This is the case even if the club uses the amnesty clause on Andray Blatche, as expected.)
This trade was a concession, an admission that the likelihood of a team like the Wizards could not use that cap space for players better than Nene, Okafor and Ariza. What a sober determination to make at this point. But if any team needs to be sober about the way out of the cellar, it's Washington. (Sacramento, too. But please don't get me started on that.)
With these two trades, the Wizards have basically acquired three players signed under the NBA's old salary system. (Even though Nene signed his deal after the NBA lockout, the primary impacts of the new collective bargaining agreement -- the ones designed to tamp down salary -- won't be felt until 2013.) With the specter of a remade league just a year away, Washington GM Ernie Grunfeld and owner Ted Leonsis decided that, at least initially, it wouldn't do them much good. The new system was designed to help teams like the Wizards. Under the old system, bad teams couldn't land good free agents because all the best players want to win, which requires great teammates, which bad teams don't have. So the best players began collecting on teams that could afford to pay multiple great players and the luxury tax that goes along with having multiple great players. To land any free agents of note, bad and even good teams had to overpay. That's how you end up with Rashard Lewis signing a $120 million contract.
David Stern's new deal was supposed to fix this with one key provision: the (far) more punitive luxury tax. It would become incredibly expensive for teams to stockpile high-salary players. But to give teams an opportunity to transition, the new penalties wouldn't go into effect until 2013-14. The best teams had two years to clean up their books before being hit with massive new taxes.
But what of those two years for the bad teams? That's pretty much a two-year sentence in purgatory. Markets take time to develop, so the buffer on when the new penalties actually serve as a damper on player salaries could be even longer. What's a team like the Wizards supposed to do in the interim ... wait? Spend two to three more years trying in vain to pull Roy Hibbert in restricted free agency, or making wild bids on top free agents like Ersan Ilyasova? Are they supposed to continue to stockpile draft picks, wasting John Wall's entire rookie deal?
Instead, the Wizards decided to play under the old rules for the first three years into Stern's new deal. The contracts for Okafor and Ariza expire in 2014, a year after the new luxury tax penalties kick in. By then, perhaps the desired effects of the new penalties -- lower salaries for sub-max players, a more even distribution of talent -- will begin to manifest. Maybe then Wall, Jan Vesely, Nene, Bradley Beal and whoever survives in the interim (Trevor Booker, Kevin Seraphin, Jordan Crawford, etc.) will be formed enough as a unit that it will be clear exactly what Washington needs to rise up and became a real contender.
So many bad teams are content to put their faith in the luck of the NBA Draft Lottery and ridiculous, almost consistently fruitless free agent or trade plots. The Wizards are instead trying to incrementally improve with eyes toward the future. What Washington completed on Wednesday is, frankly, the most sober deal we've seen since the lockout: it's an admission that Stern's plan was weaker than advertised, that it's going to take time to change the league and that bad teams are still doomed to overpaying for talent in the interim. Given that the trade was made by a team owned by Leonsis, reported to be one of the league's biggest labor hawks during the lockout, is all the more telling. The labor hawks pushed for a more punitive deal, one that would make it all but impossible for teams to go well above the cap. The two-year deal and, in the end, not completely insane new luxury tax, cut into the labor hawks' dreams. This is the manifestation of that reality.
The lack of faith in Stern's new deal that this Wizards trade shows is balanced by a remarkable level of faith showed in John Wall (which is good) and Randy Wittman (which is not). But that's a topic for another time.
The Hook is an NBA column by Tom Ziller. See the archives.