After a long summer of topless championship parades, free-agency meetings in the Hamptons, Snapchat mishaps, and gold medals, the NBA is finally, truly, really, almost back. The start of training camp marks the beginning of our NBA Preview.
This is Squad Goals Week. We’re looking at a bunch of teams and asking one question: What constitutes success for this franchise?
The last six years for the Washington Wizards allowed for very few constants: Paul Pierce came and left, Andray Blatche changed both teams and nationalities, and president Ernie Grunfeld … remained president. But as the Wizards have gone from pitiful to decent, there has been only one notable, unchanging presence on the court: John Wall.
One of Grunfeld’s very rare draft successes, Wall immediately became the team’s centerpiece after his one year at Kentucky. He was spectacular in college, the obvious no. 1 pick in the 2010 draft. When the Wizards won the lottery, the franchise saw a surefire superstar who would pull them out of the league’s doldrums. After three sub-30-win seasons, the hyped guard became the hope for a new, better Wizards squad.
Now it’s 2016, and we’re about to enter the seventh year of the John Wall experiment. While the player has made good on all of his pre-draft promise, the Wizards are still nowhere close to contending for a championship. After three years as one of the Eastern Conference’s worst teams, Wall’s Wizards reeled off consecutive seasons with 40-plus wins and trips to the conference semifinals. Last year, Washington won 41 games, but missed the playoffs. This past offseason, the team made a long-overdue coaching change, but replaced the overmatched Randy Wittman with the tactically impaired Scott Brooks. After whiffing on Kevin Durant, Grunfeld and Co. settled with a four-year, $64 million deal for Ian Mahinmi (now the team’s third-highest-paid player) as their big offseason prize. Bradley Beal, who played only 55 games last season, was given the NBA’s fourth-richest contract. And now, despite being almost $10 million over the cap, Washington is stuck with a team that is, on paper, only marginally better than last season’s .500 squad.
Barring unforeseen (ahem) wizardry, there’s no obvious path for things to get much better. Of players on the current roster who will see significant minutes, only Trey Burke and Otto Porter Jr.’s contracts will expire before 2019.
When franchises reach this plateau of mediocrity, conventional wisdom would dictate that they either find a new piece to help the team jump to contender status or dismantle the roster for parts. But the Wizards have the always-fun problem of having a roster made up of unexceptional players on expensive, long-term deals. What favorable returns will Marcin Gortat and his $12 million–a-year contract fetch as he moves deeper into his 30s?
Even with the rising cap, there will be few free agents of Durant’s or even Al Horford’s caliber available in the coming years, and fewer who would have interest in coming to play alongside Wall, Beal (if — a big if — he can ever stay healthy), and um … Andrew Nicholson? With most deals extending through at least the next three seasons, the team’s supporting cast likely won’t expand far beyond talents like Gortat and Mahinmi, who recently drew this high praise from an NBA scout: “The combination of Gortat and Mahinmi, if they were one player, would be pretty good.” In the best-case scenario, Beal’s injury problems would end up a nonfactor and he’d become a player worthy of his contract, Otto Porter and Kelly Oubre would continue to develop into reliable wings, and the team would grow to become a 2015 Atlanta Hawks–like foil for the Cavaliers. But that’s an optimistic projection, and one that still won’t lead to a Finals appearance. This is all to say that the Wizards have almost no clear way to construct a championship roster around Wall because he is their only valuable asset. The way forward is clear: Free John Wall.
Of course, a Wall trade is extremely unlikely. Despite what win shares may tell us, Wall is the team’s best player, and Grunfeld, championship-less and entering his 14th season likely on his last strike, is smart enough to not trade away his franchise player with his job on the line. But what is best for Grunfeld isn’t what’s best for a franchise long removed from its last Larry O’Brien Trophy, or a shot at the trophy … or a shot at a shot at the trophy. So let’s imagine a world where the Wizards actually try to become a contender.
Wall has reliably hovered around 19 points, 10 assists, and four boards per game in recent seasons, enduring plays like this all the while.
Except, while players like Wall aren’t common, they aren’t Jordanesque. When struggling teams acquire a top-20 player, they become intoxicated. Franchises act as if they’ve discovered a LeBron-like keep-at-all-costs asset, when, really, John Walls are somewhere in every draft. Wall may have been the top pick in 2010, but DeMarcus Cousins and Paul George were also available to the Wizards that night. When you have an All-Star like Wall, the thought of giving him up and rebuilding is scary, but with enough draft picks, most teams will eventually find a player of the same caliber.
Wall is a top-flight pass-first point guard, a rare commodity, and he’s exactly the type of Big Three–level player that would slot in effectively with a contender like Boston. The Celtics already have a handful of reliable scorers (and a mountain of trade-worthy assets). If the Wizards were able to deal Wall to Boston in return for one of the future Brooklyn picks and, say, Avery Bradley and Jonas Jerebko (both of whom have deals that expire within the next two years and combine to approximately match Wall’s salary), the Celtics would have a roster that could more plausibly combat the Cavaliers, while the Wizards would be able to put themselves on an upward trajectory. With the Brooklyn pick and the team’s diminished win-loss record without Wall, the Wizards would have plenty of chances to fill the roster with lottery-level talent and find their next Wall.
Plus, Wall’s trade value may never be higher: The 26-year-old is entering the third year of a five-year deal that looks like a steal: his $17 million per year comes in below the rates of players like Evan Fournier, Kent Bazemore, and Evan Turner. Every game that Wall plays brings him closer to a pay rate that will be closer to $30 million than $17 million.
In the current reality, the Wizards will likely ride out three more seasons in the bottom half of the playoff picture before Wall, who is rumored to be less than happy with the way things are going, bolts in 2019 and the rebuild begins shortly after anyway. Of all teams, the Wizards should know that if you don’t hit eject on a franchise player in time, there’s a decent chance that you (or Orlando) will come to regret it.
Granted, it’s not a zero-sum game, and this question has become an existential issue for all but the richest sports franchises: Is there a reason to win games if a title isn’t in the cards? Is it better to have Wall, Beal, and Porter and win 41 games than to be the Sixers? Each situation carries its own answer, but Washington has already been through the cycle of middling-to-good seasons multiple times and the franchise hasn’t legitimately competed for a title since the ’70s. Finding a way to build a contender should be the priority — even if it requires a few years without a rudder.