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Another patchwork trade keeps the Wizards stuck in cycle of false hope

Trading for Trevor Ariza is short-sighted, but that’s business as usual for this franchise.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Washington Wizards Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Here are two incongruous realities.

Almost every season, the Washington Wizards make some sort of move to boost their chances of making trouble in the playoffs, much like this weekend’s trade to acquire Trevor Ariza from the Suns for Kelly Oubre and Austin Rivers. Yet despite a litany of moves like this, the Wizards have won three total playoff series in the John Wall era, never getting past the second round.

How can you constantly try to win now and then never actually win?

One surmises this will be the eventual result of this second episode with Ariza, who Washington had in 2013 and 2014 before working out a sign-and-trade with the Rockets that summer that netted the Wiz basically nothing. Ariza, then 28, was a good fit with the young and rising Zards, providing key shooting and defense in the team’s first playoff series win of the Wall era.

But he’s now 33, having spent the bulk of his prime with James Harden in Houston. Based on his total lack of impact in Phoenix, he’s not the same player he was once.

And regardless, he’s signed only for this season and the Wizards can’t afford to keep him around without incurring a large luxury-tax bill. That’s why the Wizards were happy to trade Oubre, a young, inconsistent wing with upside. Oubre will be a restricted free agent this summer and the Wizards can’t afford to keep him without incurring a large luxury-tax bill. Ariza, in theory, gives the Wizards a nominally better chance to win in the playoffs this season, so what the hell?

This is the theory almost every year, and it almost never works.

There’s a school of thought that thinks it’s smart nonetheless, because it could work in a weird year. In 2015, until Wall suffered a hand injury, the Wizards looked like they could and would beat the Hawks to make the East finals. In 2017, the ‘Zards were one game away from the East finals. The argument is that if you’re in the mix, you should go for it. Ariza is a better piece for right this second than Oubre and Rivers. Ariza boosts whatever minimal hopes the Wizards have to get farther.

But this is a nasty cycle with the wrong goals and shoddy execution.

The goal shouldn’t be to go from a 45-win team who sometimes flames out in the second round to a 48-win team who makes a shocking run to the East finals. The difference between those teams is largely luck — not big-picture, macro luck, but running into injured teams in the first two rounds, or being healthy yourself, or a role player going on a shooting streak.

The goal should be to be so good that the East finals are a real target every year. You don’t get there by trading young assets for 33-year-old rentals.

In a real way, the Ariza-ish moves the Wizards have made over the past seven years have prevented Washington from building a better team and forced them into this short-sighted deals just to stay afloat. It’s a terrible cycle of false hope. You think trading for Ariza gets you to the next level, and in the end it prevents you from ever building upon real growth. You’re building a hill by digging the earth out from under your own feet.

The discounting of Oubre’s value is a classic of the genre. Yes, Oubre will be more expensive than the Wizards can really handle this summer as a restricted free agent, but that is because the unwise deals the Wizards have already signed. This isn’t just about John Wall’s supermax deal, either: it’s about Ian Mahinmi for $16 million a season and Otto Porter for $27 million a year, too. Having dug themselves a salary cap hole with those moves, the Wizards have to then sell low on young players.

The Wizards could have really played hardball in restricted free agency with Oubre, having a structural advantage to keep him if the eventual price looked tenable. That game doesn’t always work out — the Porter saga, in which Washington had to match a four-year max offer from Brooklyn to keep him, is a perfect example — but Oubre being less essential would have lowered the stakes.

Meanwhile, there’s very little chance the Wizards can keep Ariza if he seeks a multi-year, market value deal. Washington won’t have his Bird rights since he’s on a one-year deal, and as such will be competing with everyone else in the league on even footing. Except, they’ll be the Wizards, and teams like the Lakers, Rockets, and others will likely be after him.

So in all likelihood, the Wizards will enter next season without Ariza or Oubre, regardless of whether they win a playoff series this spring or even make the the playoffs at all — they are seven games under .500 and three games out right now.

The Wizards could go on a nice little streak soon — they are better than their record, and regressing to the mean would mean winning a bunch of games. But that can’t justify the Ariza trade, because we know Washington’s goals are (and should be) set higher than simply making the playoffs or winning a series. Not only won’t the Ariza trade help them reach those goals, but it, and its predecessors, actively prevent the Wizards from ever getting there.