Free agents sometimes want a new start; players sometimes want to return closer to their hometowns; teams that are one superstar away from being legit contenders can sometimes get that superstar of their dreams.
That was the plan that drove the Wizards’ thinking for the past 12 months … if not longer. But now, as we near the Summer of Durant, the notion seems preposterous.
The Durant Dream is all but dead in Washington, and we are about to see the fallout commence. Randy Wittman is probably going to lose his job. Ernie Grunfeld might lose his. John Wall is going to be the best point guard in the NBA watching Game 1 of the playoffs on his sofa. And all that cap space the Wizards set aside … well, who knows what will happen there.
After losing in the Eastern Conference Semifinals in consecutive seasons, Washington has taken a step back and will miss the playoffs barring an unforeseen turn of events. The timing couldn’t be worse.
For Durant, following in the footsteps of LeBron James and re-signing with the Thunder on a two-year deal – including a player option after the first season – could be more appealing than joining another team this summer.
In doing so, Durant would have 10 years of service, putting him in position to earn a third tier maximum salary in the summer of 2017 — roughly 35 percent of the salary cap as his first-year salary.
Current teammates Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka will also become unrestricted free agents in the summer of 2017 giving them the option to collectively remain with the Thunder long-term or depart — perhaps in tandem.
A quick exit in the playoffs, however, could impact Durant’s decision. It would be a costly decision financially, but sometimes when a player feels enough is enough, he’s a goner.
So yes, it is fair to say the Thunder have more at stake this postseason than any team in the NBA. If they somehow come out of the West and win the championship, there’s no way Durant leaves. Anything short of that, and it’s anybody’s best guess.
At this point, it would take more than wizardry from Washington to land the top free agent on the market this summer. Yes, Washington has cap space and one of the top backcourts in Wall and Bradley Beal. However, with the salary cap spiking to $90 million or more, the majority of the league’s 30 teams have cap space for at least one maximum salary free agent. Meanwhile, Beal has struggled to stay on the court throughout his four-year career, missing 79 games combined, and faces a potential minutes restriction going forward.
So what happens next in Washington?
This is Grunfeld’s 13th season in Washington, and the Wizards have yet to advance past the Eastern Conference semifinals. Barring a miraculous turn of events down the stretch, the Wizards will miss the playoffs for the seventh time in his tenure. Overall, Grunfeld has produced mixed results.
Grunfeld signed Gilbert Arenas and acquired Antawn Jamison from the Dallas Mavericks in exchange for Devin Harris, Jerry Stackhouse and Christian Laettner. He traded Kwame Brown and Laron Profit to the Los Angeles Lakers for Caron Butler and Chucky Atkins. He also drafted one of the top backcourts in the league, selecting Wall first overall in 2010 and Beal third overall in 2012. These have been the highlights of his tenure in Washington.
The lowlight of Grunfeld’s tenure was selecting Jan Vesely sixth overall in 2011 – one of the league’s biggest busts ever at that spot. He also selected Jordan Clarkson 46th overall in 2014 and traded him to the Lakers for cash. Clarkson will be one of the top restricted free agents on the market this summer and is considered a core piece of the Lakers’ backcourt moving forward.
The jury remains out on Otto Porter, who was drafted third overall in 2014. Grunfeld also surrendered a top-nine protected draft pick in 2016 as part of the Markieff Morris trade in February.
With that in mind, there have been rumblings around the league for months that former Atlanta Hawks general manager Danny Ferry could be in the mix as a possible replacement. Ferry was also under consideration most recently with the Philadelphia 76ers and Brooklyn Nets. Also, Thunder assistant general manager Troy Weaver has been mentioned as a potential candidate.
Coach Randy Wittman is not expected to return next season.
After Wall acknowledged the Wizards needed to beat the Sacramento Kings on March 30 to keep the team’s playoff hopes realistically alive, Washington lost 120-111. After the game, Beal said, “To me, it felt like we gave up.”
One potential replacement on the market is Scott Brooks, Durant’s former coach with the Thunder. Brooks was the NBA’s Coach of the Year in 2010 and won a Western Conference title with the Thunder in 2012 before losing to the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals. Brooks holds a 338-207 record (.620) as a coach. A former point guard in the league for 10 seasons, Brooks would be an intriguing fit with Wall after helping to develop Westbrook in Oklahoma City.
Wittman is expected to be the primary scapegoat for an underwhelming season, which could potentially buy Grunfeld one more chance to turn things around.
But whoever is tasked with fixing the Wizards, Durant is unlikely to be part of the solution this summer. It wasn’t the worst idea in the history of ideas, but it isn’t happening.