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A Deconstruction: Wizards Sell “Low” On Rui Hachimura

The operative word is sell.

It’s not encouraging. But the direction is. The Lakers are a desperate team, and all the Wizards could get for former 9th overall pick Rui Hachimura was three picks after 30. Two of them are over half a decade away. That return feels underwhelming. 

It’s still a win. The last four Wizards first-round picks all come off the bench (Rui, Deni Avdija, Corey Kispert, and Johnny Davis). Avdija and Kispert play forward like Hachimura, as does new star Kyle Kuzma.

Acknowledging a miss and accepting addition by subtraction is a net positive. Three second-round picks and stronger investments on the young guys with better chances to succeed than Hachimura is something the team is better off for having.

Honestly, cutting Rui straight up would be beneficial to the team because of the positive impact it would have on Avdija and Kispert’s development. He was not worth retaining in restricted free agency for a team so cap strapped. It also removes his redundancy with Kyle Kuzma, which likely makes Kuz freer and thus happier in his situation. Appeasing the 22-8-4 man is a high priority for a Wizards front office that appears deadset on re-signing him. 

The Lakers were desperate.

The Lakers have just three players under contract for next season. LeBron James ($53 million), Anthony Davis ($41 million), and 19-year-old second-rounder Max Christie ($1.7 million). Franchise changer and famous needle mover Damian Jones has a player option for $2.6 million – so it could be four.

Enter Rui Hachimura. A former top-ten pick whose number one attribute is scoring. Scoring is the most important thing in basketball. Empty teams need that more than anything else. 

The return was so little because any team trading for Hachimura was either getting a rental or committing to sign him – a player that has yet to prove he’s worth it – to a 2+ year extension. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported shortly after trade news broke that the Lakers already have plans to extend Rui.

While only getting three seconds and a flier on expiring Kendrick Nunn feels small for a recent top-ten pick to a desperate team, it represents asset accumulation. That is the most important thing for a Wizards team in contention flux.

Kendrick Nunn (center) enjoys a post-game interview following Wednesday’s victory over the Houston Rockets with former Laker Kyle Kuzma (center). Image courtesy of NBC Sports Washington.

The Wiz don’t want to lose games to get better. They want to get better the hard way. So if getting your own draft pick high enough to have value doesn’t work, you have to accrue value elsewhere. This is not to suggest they are loading up for a star swing. The team believes Bradley Beal, Kyle Kuzma, and Kristaps Porzingis are the star talent. They are hammering home the idea that they have a Big Three already.

Stars are the hardest thing to acquire, and can’t always be bought. Once you’ve gotten them to the table, you have to spend to get guys that will help them succeed. A bare cupboard can’t set the table for a feast.

That hunch is not entirely disillusioned. Look at the Grizzlies, Kings, and Mavericks – the West’s 2, 3, and 5 seeds. 

The three best players on the Sacramento Kings are De’Aaron Fox, Domantas Sabonis, and Indiscernible. Kevin Huerter, Malik Monk, Keegan Murray, Harrison Barnes, take your pick on any given night. 

The three best players on the Memphis Grizzlies are Ja Morant, Desmond Bane, and Jaren Jackson, Jr.

The three best players on the Dallas Mavericks are Luka Doncic, Indiscernible, and Indiscernible. Christian Wood, Tim Hardaway, Jr., Spencer Dinwiddie, Dorian Finney-Smith, Maxi Kleber, take your pick on any given night.

And rightfully, you can’t tell the Wizards FO that their trio can’t match those ones when healthy. They definitely have the edge on Sac and Dallas; for Memphis it depends who you ask, but I take the Grizz. 

The difference is that the Wizards are about to be paying their three guys some $30 million-plus each, every season. And all their contracts will be aligned within one year. They alone conservatively add up to $100 million in cap space. The salary cap in 2023-24 projects at $134 million. That’s just $34 million in space for nine more players.

Memphis’ big three: $44 million this year, $65 million next year

Sacramento’s big three: $63 million this year, $68 million next year (Huerter as three)

Dallas’ big three: $71 million this year, $79 million next year (Dinwiddie, Wood/THJ as three)

Those gaps measure 21 million to 35 million in space, an immeasurable difference. Some players in that range: Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic, Jayson Tatum, James Harden, Donovan Mitchell, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Karl-Anthony Towns, Devin Booker, De’Aaron Fox, Brandon Ingram, Jrue Holiday, DeMar DeRozan, CJ McCollum, Bam Adebayo, Chris Paul, Jalen Brunson, Deandre Ayton. That’s just some.

Or three legit role players! Or two awesome ones!

Outside of raw cap space, whether it be trades or free agency, we all know you have to win with good players still on rookie deals. The only problem with that is how terrible the Wizards are at drafting. Sure, they can get better. Anyone can get lucky! Can’t they? And Washington is DUE due (doo-doo amirite?) to hit a draft home run. 

But those rookie deal performers are hard to acquire because no one wants to trade those dudes. If you get their rights before restricted free agency, you control the first nine seasons of their career. That’s valuable. And if you’re sending good players back to get them, most good players are making more than the $4-10 million a rookie deal guy is. So you have to take poor salaries to match, and then you have overpaid vets on your team.

This article started out positively. The Wizards have cleared money by letting Rui Hachimura out the door. They gained assets by doing so before free agency. That is a positive move. 

They are taking steps that will improve the development of Deni Avdija and Corey Kispert. Johnny Davis still looms. They have a pick that’s currently slated 6th overall in a class loaded with top-end talent (that overdue home run potential). So maybe those rookie deal performers are in the building already.

Only one player outside of the Big Three makes eight figures next season (Daniel Gafford at $12m). They are on track to have the full mid-level exception this free agency, which will be good to sign a player at up to $11.4m a year. They hit on last year’s MLE with Delon Wright. Jordan Goodwin was also a hit, giving them perhaps the best defending backup backcourt in the NBA. Seriously, no homerism. And Will Barton won’t be on the team next year. 

Gafford, Avdija, Kispert, No. 6, Delon, and Goodwin add to Beal, Porzingis, and Kuzma to give the team nine sufficient/ho-hum rotation players. The MLE makes a 10-man rotation. Johnny Davis question mark? Anthony Gill is a good 12th player.

They’ll have great continuity. The first three guys will continue to improve, 6 could be a budding star, and the Big 3 will have maintained chemistry and hopefully a year of full health and security. Their head coach will be in year three of implementing a supposedly very complex system. They just added three whole second-round picks.

That paragraph wasn’t inspiring, but…

Three 20 ppg scorers that will get better, and fitting role players. Four rookie deal guys that can improve. System and stability. That’s working for three teams out West. It really is a great formula. Will it work for the Wizards?

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