Are the Wizards an Open and Shut Case?

By Chris Reichert

A lot of times in life, we have great things going for us and I believe our human assumption is that those things will stay positive and keep moving in the right direction. On the flip side, when bad things happen, we think to ourselves, “this time will pass” and our assumption is that they will pass faster than the great things will take to dwindle. Hope is the quintessential feeling being discussed here and the 2013/14 Washington Wizards have provided just that to a D.C. fan base that has been waiting five years for relevance in the NBA.

The Wizards have enjoyed a resurrection of sorts, going 44-38 this season, finishing with the fifth seed in the (L)Eastern Conference and surprising some with a first round playoff victory over the Chicago Bulls — their first playoff series win since the 2004/05 season. Yet after Sunday’s loss, they are in danger of losing in the second round of these playoffs to the Indiana Pacers. (The series could just as easily be 3-1 in favor of the Wizards if not for some late-game collapses).

Being down 1-3 in a seven-game series is a difficult proposition to come back from, but there is still that hope that the Wizards can pull it off due to the close nature of the first four games. However, if they lose — what next? The Wizards will enter a delicate offseason where re-signing or not re-signing key players will have a huge affect on their future outlook and hope of their fans.

John Wall & Co. are far from a finished product and that’s the scary thing for the rest of the Eastern Conference. They have a great mix of young and veteran players throughout their roster. The starters average age is 26.4 years old, with their two best players still under the age of 24, so in no way would I categorize them as a team on the decline or back-end of their reign. However, Trevor Ariza and Marcin Gortat are both set to be free agents this offseason and those looming decision will play large in future success.

Marc Stein of ESPN already reported back in January that re-signing Gortat will be a top priority come free agency. Gortat is coming off a deal he signed back in 2009 for 5 years, $33.9 million. Early reports would suggest that Gortat could garner anywhere from three to five years for around $8-10 million per.

As coincidence has it, Ariza is coming off of the exact same deal which was also signed back in 2009 (Ariza is one year younger than Gortat at 29). Ariza had a career year in 2013/14 and with a relatively dry free agent class, he will get a lot of interest once free agency starts. Washington has said they want to re-sign Ariza as well, but we will see if they will be willing to shell out his asking price, which could be around the same as Gortat’s.

The good news is that the Washington front office has plenty of cap space to sign both of these guys come free agency — barring that they like the asking price of course. The Wizards have $36,553,480 in guaranteed salaries on the books for next season, and according to a report by Matt Moore of CBS, the cap is projected to increase up to $63,200,000 next year, leaving the Wiz roughly $26-27 million to spend if they choose to.

The Wizards have to re-sign both of these guys to keep their upward momentum going and if you think it’s a given that the Wizards will now be playoff contenders for years to come, then consider this: Before this season, their last playoff appearance was in 2007/08 where they lost in the first round. In the five years following they never even sniffed a playoff berth and their cumulative record was 117-277 (.297 win %)! Full disclosure, that 2007/08 season was the last of a good run of playoff berths from 2004 to 2008, but the point is nothing should be absolute.

Playing with chemistry is a testy situation — ask the Pacers how that worked out for them, and they only lost one veteran presence off of the bench in Danny Granger. Imagine the Wizards losing both Gortat and Ariza and I think you would be hard-pressed to also imagine them finishing fifth in the East again, barring amazing replacements. Teams around the Wiz are not going to get worse next year. Derrick Rose will presumably be back and this whole tanking epidemic that plagued the 2013/14 season will be gone — teams are going to get better.

The Wizards cannot stand to lose two pivotal pieces in a valiant rebuilding effort that involved hitting two home runs on lottery picks with Wall and Beal. I think we will quickly find out this offseason what direction the Wizards trajectory will be going in 2014/15 — will they keep it firmly going upwards, or will they drop the ball and disappear into the night; time will tell.

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