For the second straight year, the basketball landscape shifted just days before the start of the regular season.
It might not have the blockbuster flair of the trade that sent James Harden to the Houston Rockets just days before the start of last season, but the five-player deal between the Washington Wizards and Phoenix Suns holds ramifications for 2013-14 and beyond.
The success-starved Wizards added double-double machine Marcin Gortat for the injured Emeka Okafor and a top-12, protected 2014 first-round draft pick. Reserves Kendall Marshall, Shannon Brown and Malcolm Lee were also sent to the nation's capital; although, TNT's David Aldridge reports that none of these three will stick with the Wizards.
This looks like a win for both of the trade partners. The Wizards added a productive piece to aid in their playoff push, while the rebuilding Suns added another piece for the future and appear to have improved their lottery odds for the stocked 2014 draft class.
But there are more winners than just these two franchises. And there were losers, too—plenty of them, actually.
*Unless noted otherwise, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.
It seemed like everyone knew Gortat was going to be dealt at some point this season.
The 29-year-old enters 2013-14 with just one year and $7.7 million left on his contract. His playing time (30.8 minutes a night) and involvement in the offense (17.2 percent usage rate) were both on the decline last season (32.0 and 20.8, respectively, in 2011-12), and that was before the franchise invested the No. 5 pick in a player at his position (Alex Len).
Finding his next home was the tricky part, but the Wizards have to rank as a best-case scenario.
For one, he was rescued from the pits of the Western Conference standings and immediately thrust into the postseason race out East. If he needed more motivation than that lack of financial security, he's now found it in the meaningful games he'll play this season.
He's also joining a Wizards team that has the athletes to play the uptempo system that complements the big man's mobility. Washington finished with just the 15th fastest pace in 2012-13 (92.2), but the team didn't have track star point guard John Wall in 33 of its games.
New frontcourt mate Nene can create offense away from the basket, so Gortat's free to roam where he works best (70.4 percent at the rim last season). The offseason additions of perimeter marksmen Al Harrington and Glen Rice Jr. should give Gortat even more real estate in the middle.
And the fact that this deal happened now as opposed to midseason? Gortat himself saw that as icing on the cake.
As fun as this must be for Gortat, it's equally frustrating for Okafor.
This was already going to be a long season for the 10-year veteran. A herniated disc was discovered back in September, putting him on the shelf indefinitely.
Still, he had something to fuel his recovery. The Wizards showed playoff form when they were at full strength last season—23-18 between John Wall's return on Jan. 12 and Bradley Beal's leg injury on April 2—and Okafor anchored Washington's suffocating defense (103.0 defensive rating, fourth best in the league).
Now, he's moved on to a Suns team that looks years away from playoff contention. Player development takes precedence over wins and losses in the desert, and getting Len comfortable is undoubtedly a high priority for new coach Jeff Hornacek.
If Len finds his footing early on, where will Okafor find any meaningful minutes?
From a competitive standpoint, things are going to be rough. But on the business side, they'll be even worse.
Like Gortat, Okafor's also working on an expiring deal ($14.4 million). His career numbers (12.3 points, 9.9 rebounds and 1.7 blocks) suggest he was going to have a hard time finding a similar salary on the open market, but he could be in line for a basement season.
Between diminishing returns on the stat sheet and lingering medical concerns (he missed 39 games in 2011-12), Okafor isn't going to like what he finds in free agency.
There were a number of compelling NBA storylines this summer, but few could match the intrigue of the future of John Wall.
The first selection in the 2010 draft, he'd made modest strides in each of his three NBA seasons. His shooting percentages leave plenty to be desired (.441/.267/.804 last season), but the rest of his stat sheet bordered on elite (18.5 points, 7.6 assists, 4.0 rebounds and 1.3 steals).
Analysts wondered whether he was worthy of a max contract before the Wizards answered in the affirmative.
If expectations weren't high enough, Wall upped the ante himself. He told B/R's own Howard Beck that the Wizards were ready for a breakout season and went so far as to scribble the word "playoffs" on his game shoes.
It's not that Okafor couldn't help this franchise get over that hump, but his injury put a massive cloud over Washington. His defensive ability might have been worth the wait had the Wizards known just how long that wait would be.
Gortat's not necessarily an upgrade—he's better on offense, but a downgrade at the other end. But, he brings certainty to this roster. His post scoring brings an added punch to this attack, and he'll be a wildly productive pick-and-roll partner for Wall.
All eyes might be on Wall, but at least he knows now what he'll see underneath.
Look, Kendall Marshall didn't have the best situation in Phoenix.
He had the misfortune of landing with this franchise the same summer that Steve Nash left. As a lottery pick who played Nash's position, Marshall was the heir apparent whether he wanted that pressure or not.
Not only did he seem incapable of ever filling that void during his rookie season, he struggled to just stay on the floor (3.0 points and 3.0 assists in 14.6 minutes a night, 37.1 field-goal percentage). The fact that the Suns' best player, Goran Dragic, played the same position didn't help and neither did the fact another point guard, Eric Bledsoe, joined the franchise this summer.
For as bad as it was, though, at least Marshall had a situation there.
With Wall and Eric Maynor already in Washington, there's no reason for the Wizards to keep Marshall around. Assuming he's waived, where can he go from here?
He's 22 years old, so to suggest that he can't get any better would be foolish.
But, what's the market for a pass-only point guard who's neither a good athlete nor shooter, let alone one who's more liability than asset defensively? Does it even exist?
Phoenix Suns general manager Ryan McDonough's only held this position since early May, but already, his fingerprints are all over this organization.
He found a possible franchise centerpiece in Alex Len with the No. 5 pick in June's draft. Then, he plucked low-risk, high-reward athlete Archie Goodwin with the second-to-last pick of the first round. Len, Goodwin and Eric Bledsoe (another offseason addition from McDonough) could all play significant roles in the Suns' rebuild.
Okafor isn't a part of that plan, but his expiring contract absolutely is. Phoenix has less than $17 million committed to next season's payroll, via Hoopsworld.com, so McDonough's imprint is only going to get bigger.
But, the real weapons at his disposal are the four first-round picks he possibly holds for next summer.
The Suns have two for sure—theirs and the Indiana Pacers'—but could have two more if the Wizards (top-12 protected) and Minnesota Timberwolves (top-13 protected) take their expected leaps this season.
While the 2014 rookie class gets most of its publicity for the players near the top (Andrew Wiggins, Julius Randle, Jabari Parker), it could also be one of the deepest in recent years.
McDonough has plenty of holes that need filling on this roster, but he also has a number of ways to fill those voids.
The Eastern Conference is top-heavy.
The two-time defending champion Miami Heat are the class of the East until proven otherwise, but they'll still have a furious fight to hold onto that title.
The Indiana Pacers, Chicago Bulls and Brooklyn Nets each made significant upgrades to already solid cores this summer. The New York Knicks lacked the sexy acquisitions, but they still employ the reigning scoring champion, Carmelo Anthony.
In other words, the rest of the playoff hopefuls figure to be battling for just three remaining spots.
Even with a hobbled Okafor, the Wizards were viewed as having at least a decent chance at the postseason. Gortat only strengthens those odds.
If the Wizards have enough weapons to snap their five-year playoff drought, that's one less spot up for grabs.
The Cleveland Cavaliers, Toronto Raptors, Detroit Pistons, Atlanta Hawks and Milwaukee Bucks all have their eyes on one of those three golden tickets. But, this dance was already near capacity and just got a little more crowded.
It's hard to say how many minutes Alex Len and Miles Plumlee were due to receive this season.
Despite registering only 25 regular-season wins in 2012-13, the Suns still trotted out Gortat for 30.8 minutes a night (second-most on the roster).
But, things were different back then.
Phoenix fought, for whatever reason, to avoid the reality of a massive rebuild. The Suns were a brutal mix of bad and old; of the 11 players at the top of the rotation, only two were under 25 years old.
That wasn't going to be the case this season. The Suns went all-in on a youth movement this summer.
Keeping Gortat around would only stunt this team's development. Had he been swapped for someone actually healthy enough to play, though, there would have been more question marks around Hornacek's rotation.
By adding the hobbled Okafor, the Suns have opened the door for Alex Len and Miles Plumlee to see as much playing time as they can handle.
Plumlee might have been a forgettable throw-in to the trade that sent Luis Scola to the Pacers, but the sophomore appears to be the Suns' likely opening night starting center. Len's still working his way back from offseason ankle surgery and has played less than 16 minutes per game in the preseason.
This pair won't strike fear in the hearts of opposing frontcourts now and may never elicit that emotion. But at least they'll have the chance to sink or swim in NBA waters, which is all anything a young player could ask for.
Maybe it was overly optimistic. Perhaps it was impossible.
When Okafor went down, there was a fleeting hope that one of the Wizards' frontcourt reserves could hold the spot in his absence. Whether that player was Kevin Seraphin, Jan Vesely or Trevor Booker didn't matter; as long as one of them was ready for the moment, then Washington's playoff flame could keep burning.
All three were already entering this season with something to prove.
Seraphin and Booker were each first-round selections in 2010, and neither had done enough to secure contract extensions beyond their rookie deals. Vesely was the sixth overall pick the following year, but he's been such a disappointment (career 10.1 player efficiency rating) Michael Lee of The Washington Post reports that the franchise declined his fourth-year team option.
The trio had enjoyed prolonged looks this preseason, making a combined nine starts between them. But just as was the case when they were trapped behind Okafor, none has the NBA resume to compete with Gortat's.
If any of them can create mild interest in the free-agent market next summer, they'll have to do it from the same situation that's plagued their production so far—off the Wizards bench.
While the Suns can't afford to risk the development of their young bigs, the Wizards couldn't afford to gamble on theirs. Maybe some playoff wins will help ease the sting of this loss for Washington's youngsters.