- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 30, 2016

The short-term is the start of the long-term for the Washington Wizards since the man everything was predicated on appears not to be coming.

This will still be the summer of Kevin Durant, though the Wizards reportedly will not be participating after Durant did not add them to the list of six suitors he will listen to.

Despite his open ears, Durant could take a path that crashes all the hoopla when the NBA free agent period starts at 12:01 a.m. Friday. This experience could be a dry run, before he signs a one-year deal to remain in Oklahoma City, then hit the market again next season when his contract would be larger and his knowledge of the process deeper. It would also make him an unrestricted free agent at the same time as his pal Russell Westbrook.

Which makes the Wizards ready to shop now. They have five players under contract. They expect to make it six as soon as possible by re-signing restricted free agent Bradley Beal to a maximum contract. Then, they have numerous decisions to make in a cash-flooded market which is sure to produce tumult and head scratches after circumstances demand players are overpaid. There’s just too much money available for it not to happen.

Durant’s non-participation in Washington’s summer plans is not its only problem. The next tier of free agent, guys like Al Horford and Nicolas Batum, can make more money by staying with their current teams, both of which are already in front of the Wizards. Horford’s age is also an issue. He’s 30. The power forward/center is likely to seek a four- or five-year deal since this will be his last chance at big contract numbers before his career ends. Batum is a solid player who has never been an All-Star, never been on the all-defensive team (though he is viewed as a skilled defender) and yet will cost huge dollars.

Assuming Beal is back — and every indication is that the Wizards will give him what he wants — Washington starts from a baseline of five players that will likely be around through 2019. Center Marcin Gortat can become an unrestricted free agent in 2019. So can John Wall. The Wizards can offer Beal five more years. Markieff Morris signed an extension in Phoenix that runs through the 2019 season. Kelly Oubre Jr. can become a restricted free agent in 2019. Only Otto Porter has a contract that ends before 2019. He could be a restricted free agent in 2017, which means the Wizards will have plenty of options to bring him back if they choose.

The question for Washington is how to build around them.

New coach Scott Brooks has overseen a developmental process before, though the Wizards are much farther along than the first time he had to mold a young group. When Durant was 19 years old and buying T-shirts in 30 packs from Wal-Mart, Brooks was an assistant for the Seattle Supersonics who was starting to know Durant. Soon, Brooks was the coach and Durant was joined by Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka. Durant was an elite scorer growing into his role. Westbrook was wild and ambitious. Harden was ball dominant. Ibaka barely spoke English.

“We were able to mold and develop all the players to be pros,” Brooks said. “To be true professionals. It was a great challenge, but very rewarding, but very demanding and difficult. You have to have a lot of patience. But, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I had a great group of guys to work with and a great group of guys to develop.”

In Washington, Brooks is back to unifying and rebooting.

“I have a great opportunity,” Brooks said. “We have six very talented, high-character, competitive athletes. And we have the flexibility to add a lot more players. [General manager] Ernie [Grunfeld has] done a great job of putting us in this position and I’m looking forward to the challenge of developing our players and the team like we’ve done in the past.”

Brooks, the Wizards like to note, is also part of this 2016-2020 period. They provided him with a five-year deal.

“I do believe that having a coach under contract for a long term is a very, very strong signal to the players,” owner Ted Leonsis said. “They know that we’re serious. We made a big investment. We got the coach we targeted and we were able to deliver on that.”

The Wizards‘ needs, as would be expected with nine open roster spots, are vast. Washington became one of the league’s worst defensive and rebounding teams last season. Batum would be an intriguing fit. Though Oubre and Porter both play on the wing, Brooks should be able to find several ways to mix and match the trio, which would also enable the Wizards to add two starting-quality players with their bench group as opposed to just bridging rest time with Beal and Wall solo on the floor. Among the four — Beal, Batum, Porter and Wall —Brooks would be able to keep at least two of them on the floor for most of the game. He could also play the entire group together at times.

A competent backup point guard is a must. Someone dedicated to rebounding — Bismack Biyombo comes to mind — would also be beneficial.

Instead of one massive singular decision, the Wizards will be making multiple ones to back what they feel is a competent core. Even within that, there are questions. Who is Beal, really? There have been two consistent things for Beal during his four seasons in the league: injuries and flat, but decent, production. His offensive ratings are 102, 103, 102, 103 since entering the league. He’s just 23 years old, but others have made leaps during their first four years.

Wall is going into his seventh season after having two minor knee surgeries. Porter had an awful first half and excellent second half last season. Oubre remains a high-ceiling project. Gortat is 32 years old.

There’s no Durant, but there are plenty of impactful decisions that start now and will mean a lot later.

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