The Washington Wizards pop up often in trade rumors for star players: Why?

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Why do the Washington Wizards always seem to pop up in trade rumors involving star players?

How much time will Johnny Davis spend in the G League?

Which three players on the Washington roster are the ones I, as a beat writer, find most fascinating?

What are the chances of the Wizards and the New York Knicks agreeing to drop the protections on the first-round pick the Wizards now owe the Knicks?

Why did Washington sign Taj Gibson?

Those are just a few of the questions I’ll answer in the newest edition of The Athletic’s Wizards Mailbag.

(Editor’s note: Questions have been lightly edited for clarity and grammar.)

The Wizards seem an unlikely candidate (due to lack of assets) for all of these stars. Why are we continually getting reports about their “interest?” Are teams just using them to drive up prices? —@nickchin0

Let me first issue the disclaimer that I don’t know how my colleague Shams Charania learned of the Wizards’ interest in Donovan Mitchell. So anything I say after this is a general statement.

But I tend to agree with you: Teams that want to trade a player often try to drive up the asking price. Leaks of this kind are unlikely to stem from the Wizards because it’s not in their interest to be named as trade suitors for specific players. For one thing, it’s unsettling to players on Washington’s current roster.

That said, I think one of the hallmarks of Tommy Sheppard’s tenure heading the Wizards’ basketball operations department has been his enthusiasm for creative trades. He’s been voraciously opportunistic in that area, and that’s exactly how he should be approaching things. Will Barton, Vernon Carey Jr., Daniel Gafford, Kyle Kuzma, Monté Morris, Kristaps Porziņģis and Isaiah Todd all arrived via trades. (By the way, officials from other teams told me in Las Vegas they loved the Wizards’ trade for Morris and Barton.)

The Wizards’ front office knows that the team needs to raise its talent level overall and knows it needs to pair Beal with at least one star-quality running mate. So given Sheppard’s track record, it should be no surprise that he and his front office are trying to turn over every rock in attempts to make smart additions.

Not every rumor is accurate, of course.

But while other teams may be leaking Washington’s interest in specific players, there often is some fire behind all that smoke.

There is one area where I disagree with you: that Washington has a “lack of assets.” To be sure, the current protections on the 2023 first-round pick the team now owes New York limits Washington’s ability to trade its own future firsts. (More on that in a few moments.)

But the Wizards have plenty of solid young players one would consider “assets,” such as Deni Avdija, Johnny Davis, Gafford, Rui Hachimura and Corey Kispert. But none of them has the ceiling that, say, Boston’s Jaylen Brown has. While Washington has good young players, they’re not necessarily players whom other teams covet enough to move the needle to trade away a star.

A willingness to make trades has been one of the hallmarks of the tenure of Tommy Sheppard (right) (Ned Dishman / NBAE via Getty Images)

Which three players on the roster excite you the most personally? —@DCSports_Talk

I think about the upcoming season all the time, but typically not through this prism.

This is going to sound like a cliché, but I’m truly fascinated to see how every player performs. Everyone on this roster, from the player with the least NBA experience (Davis) to the player with the most NBA experience (Taj Gibson), has a role to play.

But through a journalistic lens, I’m most interested in players who have the most to prove. Among the 15 players currently on the conventional roster, no three players have more to prove than Beal, Porziņģis and Davis.

Beal is the most accomplished player within this trio in terms of All-Star appearances and gaudy stats, but he has the most to prove. Can he regain his form after last year’s down season — and do so after he missed the final half of the season following a wrist injury? As a team’s primary focal point, can he lead that team to a playoff berth and then beyond the first round? Beal played a critical role on the 2016-17 team that reached the second round, but John Wall was that team’s key player. Beal averaged a whopping 31.3 points per game for the 2020-21 Wizards, but Russell Westbrook willed that team to wins just as much as Beal did.

This team is Beal’s team. I’m eager to see how far he can take it.

Porziņģis is a unique player with enormous talent, but he hasn’t made an All-Star team since his third year in the league. The Dallas Mavericks essentially gave up on him. Can he avoid injuries and approach his potential in Washington? He should have plenty of motivation to do so, and not just because he could become a free agent as early as next summer. His pride is at stake, too.

Almost all rookies need to prove they belong in the NBA, and Davis is no exception. I want to see how he bounces back from his summer-league performance.

Bradley Beal may be a veteran with a well-defined upside, but he arguably is the Wizards’ most intriguing player for the season ahead. (Tommy Gilligan / USA Today)

What does unprotecting the pick that is owed to the Knicks actually mean, and in what ways does it really increase trade ammo? –@FromGould

Any clue as to their thinking about the ’23 pick that the Knicks own? Would they need to give up assets to remove the protections, or could they expect to receive something back? –@davidmclary

The pick in question is the Wizards’ own 2023 first-round pick. Two years ago, Washington traded Wall and that pick to Houston for Russell Westbrook. In that deal, Washington and Houston agreed to place protections on that pick. Those protections, which extend from 2023 through 2026, ensure that the Wizards will retain that pick if it falls in certain ranges that would be favorable to the Wizards. (The specific protections: top 14 in 2023, top 12 in 2024, top 10 in 2025, and top eight in 2026; otherwise it becomes two second-round picks in 2026 and 2027).

In the months since, that pick was traded to Oklahoma City and then traded again to New York. But the protections remain in place.

The Wizards could convey the pick to the Knicks as early as 2023. But Washington also could convey the pick in 2024, 2025 or as late as 2026. The exact year is uncertain. That’s a challenge for the Wizards because the league has a rule that prevents a team from trading its own first-round picks in consecutive years. Because of that rule, Washington must first fulfill its obligation to pass that pick on to New York before it can trade any other first-round picks.

Here’s an example.  In 2023, the pick is lottery protected. So if it falls anywhere from first to 14th, the Wizards keep that pick. But since the Wizards wouldn’t have fulfilled their obligation to the Knicks, the Wizards would then owe New York a 2024 first-round pick (top-12 protected).

Since the pick owed to New York might be conveyed in 2024, Washington currently can’t trade its 2025 first-round pick because it would put Washington in danger of trading away its own first-round picks in consecutive years.

Since the pick owed to New York might be conveyed in 2025, Washington currently can’t trade its 2026 first-round pick to anyone else. And so on: Washington currently cannot trade its 2027 first-round pick because of the possibility it will send its 2026 pick to New York.

To solve that problem, the Wizards and Knicks could agree to drop the protections on the pick in 2023. That would set the 2023 NBA Draft as the firm year in which Washington would fulfill its obligation to New York, thus allowing the Wizards to then surrender first-round picks in 2025, 2027 and 2029 (or its first-round picks in 2026 and 2028) in another trade. (A team cannot trade a first-round pick more than seven years in advance.)

The downside of the Wizards eliminating pick protections in 2023 is if they underperform badly during the 2022-23 season and wind up with a pick early in the lottery. In a scenario in which both teams agree to erase a pick’s protections, the Knicks get the Wizards’ pick wherever it lands, even if it’s first overall.

I think the Wizards would be reluctant to eliminate the protections unless they absolutely need to free up a future first-round pick to complete a deal that excites them. I also think the Knicks would welcome the Wizards offering to eliminate the protections, because that would give the Knicks a chance at a better pick sooner, especially if the Wizards falter in the season ahead. Washington probably won’t have to sweeten the deal.

The one caveat I would make, however, is if the Knicks think that removing the protections puts the Wizards in play to trade for Donovan Mitchell or another star whom the Knicks covet. New York desperately wants Mitchell, and the team wouldn’t knowingly give a competitor a pathway to outbid them in a potential deal with the Jazz.

For coach Wes Unseld Jr: How do you plan to balance the allocation of minutes between so many veterans and promising young players, especially forwards, and construct a solid 8-9 man rotation? –@dasTurbo

I don’t see any circumstance in which Unseld Jr. begins a season with an eight-man rotation. No group of players in today’s NBA can withstand that workload over the course of an 82-game season.

Last season, Unseld often said he ultimately wanted a nine- or 9 1/2-man rotation (he got 9 1/2 by acknowledging there would be some nights when he’d have to use 10 players). The team’s injuries and COVID-19 woes played a role in the inconsistent rotations.

I will write a detailed rotation analysis as the preseason approaches. But right now, I forecast Morris, Delon Wright, Beal, Barton, Kuzma, Avdija, Hachimura, Porziņģis and Gafford as locked-in to play game to game, barring injuries. Those are nine players. And I envision Corey Kispert and Davis competing for minutes for the 10th spot.

What are the odds of Johnny Davis spending his whole season in the G League this season? –@Spendstir

There’s a zero percent chance of Davis spending the entire season in the G League.

True, I was not impressed with his results in the NBA Summer League, and at least one of my colleagues wasn’t impressed either. Davis’ effort and toughness were good, though.

For now, let’s not get too carried away, especially since Davis was suffering from back tightness that diminished his speed and athleticism. I think he has a good feel for the game, and I also think he’ll fare better when he’s surrounded by better teammates who can space the floor.

If he goes a long time without playing for the Wizards, I suppose there’s a possibility he’d play occasionally for the G League’s Capital City Go-Go just to gain some sharpness and stay in game shape. But I think the benefits of an extended G League stay would be minimal compared with the benefits of learning by being around the Wizards.

The Wizards selected Johnny Davis (right) 10th overall in June’s draft. (Daniel Kucin Jr. / USA Today)

Taj Gibson. WHY??? –@B_i_G

You don’t like the Wizards’ addition of Gibson?

I have to say I like the move from an X’s and O’s perspective and love the move from an intangibles perspective.

I expect Gibson to enter the season as the third-string center, behind Porziņģis and Gafford, and ahead of Carey. Gafford will receive the bulk of the minutes as Porziņģis’ backup. But when Porziņģis misses games — and Porziņģis’ track record indicates he’ll miss at least a few games — I think Gibson will move into the starting lineup in order to provide continuity for Gafford in his role and for the second unit. True, Gibson is 37 years old, but he can play capably in a well-defined role.

Where the Gibson addition goes to the next level, though, is with the intangibles. Gibson is one of the most well-respected veterans in the league, and his blue-collar approach and professionalism will provide a great example for the young players. I also think the Wizards need a veteran who can command a locker room and give his teammates a kick in the butt when necessary. Gibson should help in that area. Preferably, a team’s best player would be a vocal leader who holds everyone accountable, but I don’t think that’s in Beal’s comfort zone.

It also should be noted that adding Gibson did nothing to hurt Washington’s cap. The team signed him using the veteran’s minimum exception, and only $1.8 million of Gibson’s $2.9 million salary will count against the Wizards’ cap figure.

Do you miss covering the Magic (the D.C. location notwithstanding because I know it’s your hometown), particularly now that Paolo Banchero has given the Magic some national attention? –@Mwe1214

I love covering the Wizards and I love living in Washington. I wouldn’t change my decision to move back home and try a new journalistic challenge. I’m happy here.

But I am sentimental. I miss covering the Magic, and I especially miss the people who read my work for so many years and the people I interacted with daily. And I also miss Orlando, which as I realize now, had become a second home.

I’ve never been concerned whether a team I cover wins big, loses big or is somewhere in the middle, even back when the Magic faced their most dismal days.

I think Game 44 of a regular season should be covered like Game 7 of a playoff series whether the team enters the game with a 38-5 record, 22-21 record or a 5-38 record. Some of the journalists I admire most in this industry approach each day on their beats with curiosity. I could name lots of people who qualify.

Journalists should always be able to find something fascinating about their beats no matter the circumstance. A team’s record should have no bearing on beat writers’ sense of fulfillment or self-worth. Serving the readers honestly should provide all the satisfaction and energy in the world.

(Top photo of Donovan Mitchell and Deni Avdija: Rob Gray)