February 22, 2024

Why were the Wizards quieter than expected ahead of the NBA trade deadline?

The Washington Wizards defied external expectations at the 2023-24 NBA trade deadline.

Many executives from rival teams expected the rebuilding Wizards, in search of draft picks and young players, to jettison point guard Tyus Jones, combo guard Delon Wright and perhaps forward Kyle Kuzma.

Instead, Washington remained relatively silent. Thursday yielded just one trade for the Wizards, who sent 25-year-old starting center Daniel Gafford to the Dallas Mavericks for a 2024 late first-round pick and 30-year-old backup center Richaun Holmes.

Jones and Wright remain on the Wizards’ roster and will become unrestricted free agents this summer, leaving open the possibility they will sign elsewhere without the Wizards receiving any picks or any players in return.

What happened?

Washington was unable to coax a first-round pick for Jones from potential suitors, a team source said, which is not a surprise. If you run through the rosters of the league’s other 29 teams, only a small handful would slot Jones into their starting lineup. The contenders who might have coveted Jones wanted him in backup roles and were willing only to give up second-round picks.

The Wizards, on the other hand, are one of the few teams that can envision Jones, who will turn 28 in May, starting for them next season. Team executives value Jones’ professionalism, leadership and offensive skill enough that, as The Athletic reported last week, they will strongly consider re-signing him this summer in free agency. By not trading Jones, the Wizards will retain Jones’ Bird rights this offseason and would allow the Wizards to re-sign him even though they would be over the salary cap. Wizards executives regarded keeping Jones’ Bird rights and re-signing Jones as more useful than adding second-round picks. In free agency, Washington can offer Jones something that few other teams will be able to offer: a starting job.

At first glance, keeping Wright, 31, seems more difficult to fathom given how he’s likely to leave in unrestricted free agency this summer.

But a team source said the potential trade packages offered for Wright were underwhelming — a late second-round pick, perhaps — and would have required the Wizards to take on salary for the 2024-25 season. Adding salary for next season would have limited Washington’s flexibility relative to the league’s tax threshold.

Wizards executives chose to keep their options open for the upcoming offseason. Washington holds a traded-player exception worth $12.4 million from last June’s Kristaps Porziņģis trade and a $9.8 million traded-player exception from last July’s Monté Morris trade. It’s conceivable that another team will be willing to give up a valuable draft pick by trading a contract into one of those exceptions. Not adding a 2024-25 salary Thursday in exchange for Wright makes it more likely that Washington will be able to use one of those exceptions without approaching the tax.

The Wizards came “close” to accepting one offer for Kuzma, team sources said, but although the Wizards sources would not reveal the identity of the potential trade partner, additional reporting by The Athletic revealed that the suitor almost certainly was the Mavericks and not the Sacramento Kings. The offer for Kuzma from the Mavericks was not compelling enough to the Wizards, who sought a home-run offer and not just a fair offer. Washington’s asking price was said to be at least two first-round picks.

Wizards officials value Kuzma’s play and off-court intangibles — seemingly far more than most other teams, according to The Athletic’s reporting heading into the trade deadline. By keeping Kuzma now, the Wizards can, of course, entertain offers for him again this offseason, when the return might be higher. It helps that the guaranteed salaries for the final three seasons of Kuzma’s contract will descend each year, dropping from $23.5 million for 2024-25 to $21.5 million in 2025-26 to $19.4 million in 2026-27.

Washington did receive the unencumbered first-round pick it coveted in the trade with Dallas for Gafford, who has made strides on both ends this season. In that deal, the Wizards obtained Holmes and, more importantly, also will receive the more favorable of the LA Clippers’ 2024 first-round pick and the Oklahoma City Thunder’s 2024 first-round pick. If the league’s current standings hold, that first-round pick will be the Clippers’ pick at No. 26.

Daniel Gafford is expected to be the Dallas Mavericks’ backup center after Thursday’s trade from the Wizards. (Geoff Burke / USA Today)

Why would the Wizards part with a starting center on a relatively team-friendly contract in exchange for a late first-round pick in a draft considered to be relatively weak?

While team officials would agree that the upcoming draft likely will not include anyone as talented as the 2023 NBA Draft’s top-three picks — Victor Wembanyama, Brandon Miller and Scoot Henderson — they also think the talent levels of players who will be available late in 2024’s first round will be relatively close to the talent levels of players available at, say, 10th overall.

In essence, the Wizards are betting on general manager Will Dawkins, senior vice president of player personnel Travis Schlenk and their evaluators to find a diamond in the rough late in the first round.

And having two first-round picks would give Washington the option of attempting to package those picks to move up in the draft if there’s someone whom Dawkins and Schlenk feel is worthy.

Gafford had improved this season as a defensive rebounder and interior scorer, prompting interim coach Brian Keefe on Wednesday to refer to Gafford as “an anchor” for the Wizards all season. But even though Gafford is averaging career highs in points (10.9 per game), rebounds (8.0 per game) and blocks (2.0 per game), most rival scouts and talent evaluators have regarded his ceiling as that of a backup center on a contending team. While Gafford is a good shot-blocker, he’s not an elite shot-blocker who deters opposing drivers in the way that Rudy Gobert, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Anthony Davis do.

Washington’s only other trade of this deadline cycle occurred in January, when the team sent veteran bigs Danilo Gallinari and Mike Muscula to Detroit for center Marvin Bagley III, forward Isaiah Livers, a 2025 second-round pick and a 2026 second-round pick.

Bagley now will slot into the Wizards’ starting lineup in Gafford’s place.

Gafford’s contract, which the Wizards extended during Tommy Sheppard’s tenure as team president and general manager, runs through the 2025-26 season. Holmes’ contract ends with a player option for 2024-25 worth $12.9 million.

By removing Gafford’s 2025-26 salary of $14.4 million from their books, the Wizards will create more room relative to the tax for a likely contract extension for Corey Kispert. That contract extension would go into effect for the 2025-26 season.

(Top photo of Jordan Poole, Tyus Jones and Kyle Kuzma: Brett Davis / USA Today)