Sometimes it’s not just the fans and the media who tell you when it’s time to make a change. Often it’s the basketball gods who jump in and force your stubborn hand. This explains what happened to John Wall and what should happen as a result to the Washington Wizards.
For years, the Wizards resisted any urge to break up a group that couldn’t crack the Eastern Conference elite and showed signs of tapping out. Now, they finally have their chance to push reset. With heel surgery looming, Wall is out for the season. The Wizards are currently a few games better than the starting-from-scratch Atlanta Hawks and therefore headed nowhere special. What more of a hint do they need?
Bothered by bone spurs jabbing his Achilles tendon, Wall opted for surgery instead of risking a potential rupture to the tendon.
"This is something that’s been there for years,” Wall said. “I’ve played through it, and now it’s to the point where you can’t play through it no more unless you want to tear your whole Achilles. That’s not what I’m trying to do. I’m taking the shorter process of taking six to eight months instead of taking 15 to 20 months.
“Last year, I had it but it wasn’t bad. It wasn’t bad but this year, it just got to the point where it was hot a lot of times. You see the Cleveland game, it’d be terrible. I could barely run. And one game it would be good, like the Lakers and those games. I tried as much as I could and to the point where it was getting hotter and hotter. And then if I miss two games and be back a game, then miss two more games, that’s not beneficial to those guys, and it’s not giving my teammates everything I have.”
Changing the makeup of this franchise will send hope to the fan base, may put the Wizards in contention for a top pick in a top-heavy 2019 draft, clean up the salary cap if their moves are done properly, and set the table for a new beginning once Wall returns next season.
Changes are long overdue anyway and the Wizards now have their opening, their excuse, their chance to do something with minimal blowback. The only real question is whether this should be done by current management or if it’s more of a job for replacements.
Ernie Grunfeld is the longest-tenured general manager who hasn’t led his team to at least the conference finals. He was hired in 2003, the same year as Danny Ainge in Boston, and the gap between them is roughly as massive as Wall’s upcoming contract extension (which kicks in next season). Like all GMs, Grunfeld has had decent hits and costly misses in personnel decisions, except his misses seem more pronounced.
Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter Jr. were all solid lottery picks, but Jan Vesely (No. 6 in 2011) never had a chance. And even with those good picks, the Wizards gave Wall, Beal and Porter massive contracts, with Wall scheduled to make $147 million for the next four seasons as he creeps toward his 30s. (His starting salary next season: $38 million.) The Wizards have the sixth-highest payroll yet entered Monday with the sixth-fewest victories, 14.
Grunfeld essentially traded Kelly Oubre Jr. weeks ago because the Wizards were unlikely to pay him next summer. The player they got from the Suns for Oubre, Trevor Ariza, hasn’t been a significant factor yet.
The Wall-Beal-Porter core, still young and in its prime, are all good assets on the surface. Wall is an elite point guard with improved outside shooting and has some of the best hands and instincts in the game. Beal is a classic catch-and-shoot player who carries premium value in today’s NBA. Both are All-Stars, while Porter ranked third in 3-point percentage last season.
But after advancing to the East semifinals in 2014, '15 and '17, the Wizards lost to the Raptors in the first round last season and still haven’t won 50-plus games with this core. They're 28th in defensive rating (they were 15th in that department last season) and the stench of faulty chemistry seems to linger with this team.
With a bleak chance of going deep in the playoffs (if they even reach the postseason), the Wizards can audible and regroup. Here’s what they can explore:
Keep Beal: He’s their most marketable player and dozens of teams would be interested in him, but for the Wizards' sake he's probably better in their uniform, barring an unexpected blockbuster deal that’s in their favor.
Beal is averaging 23.6 points per game on 47.1 percent shooting, and he's just 25 years old. He’s also signed for two more seasons. While he and Wall were often on the wrong page early in their careers, they’ve developed a workable relationship. When healthy, they’re still among the top backcourts in basketball.
Shop Porter: Yes, he has two more years at roughly $55 million total and isn’t having a good year (11.7 ppg). But his touches are likely to increase with Wall out and he still stretches defense.
Between now and the trade deadline, Porter could play his way into reasonably decent value, especially to a contender. The only issue is what Washington must take back in return.
Part with Ariza: Yes, the Wizards acquired him last month to help stabilize a team in the dumps, but the situation has changed without Wall. The Wizards can't deal him until Feb. 14, a week after the trade deadline. That could leave a buyout as an option, but will the Wizards pursue that?
Find out what Troy Brown Jr. can do: For some reason the swingman-heavy Wizards drafted a swingman in the first round last June. Sure, it's reasonable to take the best player available, but in the process Brown has fallen through the cracks and hardly plays. With Oubre gone and Ariza perhaps not far behind, the Wizards can begin developing Brown and allowing him to make his mistakes now.
Another young player who should see more time is 6-foot-11 Thomas Bryant, who dropped 31 points on the Suns and 21 on the Hornets. The Wizards are better off in the short term by allowing their young players to audition for rotational roles next season.
Finally, keep Wall: Not that they have much of a choice. Wall is both injured and pricey, not a great combination for a team holding any visions of seeing what he can fetch.
Wall’s injury is similar to the one Mike Conley suffered, and Conley has returned to form with the Grizzlies after missing virtually all last season. So Wall’s issue isn’t career-threatening.
Because the Wizards are too financially tied to Wall, Beal, Porter (if he’s not dealt) and Ian Mahinmi (yes) next season, their free-agent options for next summer are slim to none. Their best bet to add help is through the Draft, which makes it more important for them to put themselves in position for a high Draft pick. Which means, losing games.
But what better choice do they have? The Draft is expected to bring four or five NBA-ready players, meaning 2019 is the right time to choose high.
Wall’s injury gives the Wizards the perfect alibi and opportunity to begin working on 2019-20. If they blow the chance, then their problems and dire outlook will simply rollover to next season.
The basketball gods are giving them a warning.
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