Everything seems to be coming together for the Washington Wizards this postseason, but that might only further complicate the decisions that need to be made this offseason.
That's not to say that Washington's early success in the first round isn't greatly appreciated or desired. It's important for the players on such a young team to get these playoff wins under their belts, and it's important to build momentum towards something greater.
The only issue is that as Trevor Ariza and Marcin Gortat play instrumental roles in the success, their respective value around the league only increases.
Both Ariza and Gortat are slated to be unrestricted free agents in a free-agent class that could be great, but more likely than not will be deprived of top-level talent.
That probably means two things. The first is that Washington will likely look to keep this core group together, particularly if the alternative is losing either player and replacing him with someone less talented in free agency.
The second is that because of the lack of big talent in free agency, both players will likely need to be overpaid to be retained. That's just the nature of free agency, and it's hard to say how much of a discount Gortat or Ariza would be willing to take to stay in Washington as opposed to going elsewhere. Here's David Aldridge at NBA.com breaking down the issues at hand:
They've already committed $80 million to Wall in a new extension, and Beal will be in line for his in a couple of years. And they can't let unrestricted free-agent center Marcin Gortat walk. Gortat, acquired from Phoenix after Okafor suffered a season-ending neck injury, has infused the locker room with his goofiness and tough play inside.
But they can't pay Ariza, who also pines to return to the West coast, what he'll likely ask for as a free agent. Ariza recently hired Rob Pelinka as his agent, a man not known for taking 70 cents on the dollar. It's a tough, tough call for a team that desperately needed a perimeter defender like Ariza. Yet if the Wizards let both Ariza and Gortat walk in July, they'd have enough cap room to go after a major free agent to pair with Wall, Beal, Nene and first-rounder Otto Porter, Jr., for at least two years.
The Wizards have a little over $43 million in guaranteed salary next year, which means they'll enter the offseason with somewhere around $20 million in cap space, based on what the actual cap number ends up being, who receives qualifying offers (Kevin Seraphin, Trevor Booker) and what happens with Andre Miller's partially guaranteed deal.
Because of the looming extension for Bradley Beal, this could be one of the last offseasons the Wizards actually have the room to sign a max player outright. While the Wizards can put together an awfully compelling sales pitch for Carmelo Anthony based on their young talent, there may not be another unrestricted max player worth going after short of him.
As for Gortat and Ariza, it wouldn't be a surprise to see both players sign deals starting in the range of $10 million per year. Gortat should get that rather easily, as big men usually earn bigger contracts in free agency than wing players. Ariza may realistically get a deal closer to $8 million a year, but his length, three-point shooting and defense will certainly be in high demand. A bidding war could certainly break out.
If the Wizards were to re-sign both players, they'd essentially be locking in a core that's currently in place. Is that a team good enough to win a title? A lot will depend on the health of Nene and the development of players like John Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter, but it's not out of the realm of possibility.
On the note of future development, it's important to factor in the roles both Ariza and Gortat have played in that process. Here's what Wall told David Aldridge of NBA.com:
"One thing that Trevor has brought to me, and helped me out as much is, that extra effort," Wall said. "If you gamble [defensively] and don't get it, the extra effort to get back into the play. I think Coach lets us get by once or twice in a game if we're willing to come back and contest [shots], and that's something I learned from Trevor."
As far as team needs go, it's hard to say whether Washington needs Ariza or Gortat more. From a positional standpoint, Gortat is more important as solid big men don't grow on trees. When you factor in Nene's health and contract, the Wizards simply can't afford not to have a dependable big on the roster, and that's exactly what Gortat is.
Ariza brings in an important set of skills to the table that have helped define Washington on both ends, but the Wizards are better equipped to handle his departure. Martell Webster is a capable substitute, particularly when it comes to shooting, and you'd like to think that Porter will eventually grow to be a high-caliber starting 3 given his draft status.
Of course, it's important to remember that the Wizards might not have the choice of bringing back both players due to their unrestricted status. Here's what Gortat told Kyle Weidie at TrueHoop about his pending free agency:
All I know is that I’m going to be a free agent. I don’t know how it is to be a player that actually is going to be able to pick the team he wants to play for, you know what I’m saying? I’m hoping that at the end of the day I’m going to be able to pick the team where I will play. I hope there will be a team, let’s put it this way first.
Between Ariza's reported desire to return to the West Coast and Gortat's excitement to be a free agent and pick a team of his choosing, it certainly seems possible that the Wizards lose one or both players, even if they would ideally like to keep both. No team wants to lose assets for nothing, particularly since the Wizards traded a first-round pick in this year's draft in order to get Gortat. With that in mind, losing him would be a pretty big blow.
Washington general manager Ernie Grunfeld will have to navigate the waters carefully this offseason. Recruit a player like Anthony too hard, and it might turn off Ariza and Gortat from re-signing. Overpaying both players on long-term deals could be harmful, though, as it could lower the ceiling of what this team could potentially accomplish.
There are no easy answers here, and the increasing value of Ariza and Gortat could very well complicate matters further. With so much uncertainty headed into the offseason, the Wizards will have to prepare for multiple scenarios and hope they can pull off the rare feat of getting fair value for their money in free agency.