Over the past couple of weeks, few teams did a better job turning lemons into lemonade than the Washington Wizards. After getting rebuffed by Paul Pierce and David West (two free agents who took less money to climb aboard championship contenders out west), Washington scrambled to grab a trio of unsexy yet capable veterans: Jared Dudley, Alan Anderson and Gary Neal.
This sounds bad, but it's not. One summer before Kevin Durant becomes an unrestricted free agent, Washington brought versatile outside shooters into the fold, complementary pieces to help modernize its roster and finally adjust to a sport that's racing out to the three-point line faster and faster every year.
Despite boasting John Wall -- maybe the best two-way point guard in basketball -- and Bradley Beal -- Luke Skywalker on his way to meet Yoda -- the Wizards were an eyesore on offense last season. They averaged fewer points per possession than the Kings, Pistons and Nets. Why? They played Cretaceous Era basketball. Only five teams attempted fewer spot-up threes. Only seven posted up more often. Only two earned a higher percentage of their points from mid-range jumpers.
Some restraints were because of their imperfect personnel, but some blame deserves to fall elsewhere. The regular season played out like Randy Wittman owned a Ferrari but refused to drive it over 20 miles per hour. Then the playoffs came around, and, for the most part, he quit handicapping his team with one of the most lethargic game plans in the league.
This was a definite step in the right direction. Wittman deployed Pierce at power forward, and the Wizards gobbled up Toronto in a four-game sweep. Washington then lost to the top-seeded Hawks in six games, but its offense still dominated whenever it went small and took a ton of threes.
This was notable progress. But where do the Wizards stand heading into next season? They lost Pierce but admirably replaced him with Dudley (Pierce lite), showing they know how to use a trade exception, all for a relatively negligible second-round pick. Dudley is glue that can shoot. He's 6-foot-7 and can pass and play shooting guard all the way up to power forward.
The beefy West chose San Antonio over D.C., so the Wizards gave part of their mid-level exception to the gritty Anderson instead. He's about the same size as Dudley, not as good a shooter but ferocious defending ball-handlers on the perimeter. (Imagine this lineup: Wall, Beal, Anderson, Dudley and Porter. It's five guys who can pass, shoot and drive. All are smart defenders. All can switch and harass -- it'd be mass mayhem.)
Then there's Neal, someone who's lit up the NBA Finals before and can do more than stand in the corner while Wall or Beal run a high pick-and-roll. There's a good chance he bounces back from an abysmal 2014-15 season, playing in a defined role with more talent by his side. Elsewhere, Porter just turned 22 and finally started making defenders who ignore him pay during Washington's playoff run by knocking down his outside shots. And Washington traded up in the draft to snag Kelly Oubre, an athletic swingman who can shoot and (eventually, maybe) do much more.
Again, the Wizards didn't enter the offseason with these signing and trades as Plan A. But neither Pierce nor West would prevent them from adopting the contemporary look that was a success during the playoffs on a full-time basis. It says something that the team didn't show any interest in locking up backup center Kevin Seraphin, and don't be surprised if Washington shops Nene's expiring contract around before the season starts. A trade is far from guaranteed, but the 32-year-old's minutes will get slashed if he sticks. The Wizards realize it's time to play a sleeker game. This is solid brick-laying for Durant's pitch meeting next summer.
Durant isn't leaving the Thunder, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and an annual trip to the Western Conference finals (let's not forget about Enes Kanter!) for a team that's running in mud, unable/willing to adapt on the floor or show they can fill out the margins with savvy signings and advantageous trades. Washington crossed those boxes off this summer. The team is built to run, out-shoot its competition and deploy a volatile brand of basketball on both ends of the floor.
Dudley (30 years old), Anderson (turning 33 in October) and Neal (turning 31 in October) all expire next summer, so even if they don't work out, the Durant dream won't die. But how can they not? These are smart basketball players who understand their role, know their strengths and avoid their weaknesses. They've all played for winners, to one degree or another. They're quality additions in a vacuum, but beside the playmaking genius of Wall and Beal's ever-growing gravity, all three should exceed their monetary value and statistical expectations this season.
(Only Wall and Marcin Gortat's contracts are guaranteed in 2016-17, though, barring a bizarre turn of events, you can throw Beal's next deal -- a possible max contract -- on the books alongside Porter's $5.8 million team option.)
As long as LeBron James is healthy and wrecking everything in his prime, a Finals appearance isn't happening for anybody else in the East in 2016. But Washington proved it isn't stuck in the Stone Age by embracing a flavorful, effective and enjoyable strategy that should result in more victories and a deeper run.
Size will always play a factor in who wins and who loses a basketball game. Atlanta got bigger, the Pacers are in for a rude awakening if they think Paul George is a constant bruiser and not even LeBron plays power forward on a full-time basis. But the degree in which height tilts the scales has noticeably lessened over the past few years, and there's no arguing the value of the three-point shot.
Going all in against the grain or riding a trendy wave to its completion are only smart strategies in theory, right until you get punched in the mouth or run off the floor. But the Wizards need to at least show free agents (like Durant!) they can be trusted, that signing on for the long haul isn't a mistake. So far they're on the right path. Unfortunately, the rest is out of their control.