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Pain Management: How Will the Wizards Deal With John Wall’s Lost Season?

For a team in the throes of its most disappointing campaign in years, Wall’s season-ending heel surgery is another inflection point that the franchise chooses to ignore

Washington Wizards v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

NBA players are always dealing with something. Walk into a locker room, and the same players who minutes ago exhibited acts of awe-inspiring physicality will walk around gingerly, with tightly wrapped appendages. Because, for as long as games can feel, they are, in the grand scheme of things, small pockets of time with mostly fixed parameters and regulation. In that small pocket, entropy rules and the fickleness of the human body becomes a framing device. Three weeks ago, after a curiously vacant one-point performance from John Wall in a 15-point loss to the league-worst Cavaliers, Wall admitted that he’d been playing through pain stemming from a bone spur in his right heel. A week later, John Wall played one of the best games of his career: a 40-point, 14-assist eruption in a win against the Lakers.

Wall’s ailment, it seemed, was a matter of pain management. But on Saturday, after four disappointing follow-ups to his 40-point stunner and a couple DNPs, the Wizards announced that Wall would have season-ending surgery to remove damaged tissue around his left heel and Achilles tendon, the result of what NBC Sports’ Tom Haberstroh reported as a bone spur lodged in his Achilles (which honestly sounds like a predicament not unlike being caught in a Chinese finger trap studded with razor blades). The situation mirrors Mike Conley Jr.’s last season, who had a similar issue with his heel and Achilles. Surgery will include debridement and a procedure that will likely involve shaving down both the bone causing the aggravation and cutting into the tendon itself. Wall is expected to resume full basketball activity in six to eight months.

Pain management. What a strange and sterile term. It seems to suggest that pain is something that can be collated and compartmentalized in an office setting. (Wall’s 40-point night earlier this month appeared to have lent that notion some credence.) At worst, it comes off as a vague nonsolution. To manage something can mean one of two things: to cope with it, or to place it under one’s control—these two things might as well be complete opposites of one another on a passive/aggressive spectrum. The basic gist of pain management is that, under a specific set of circumstances, the pain can’t get any worse. But that’s not how life works. Pain can always get worse. Thus, Wall and the Wizards making the decision to end the star point guard’s season to solve a chronic problem isn’t just a sign of how much pain Wall had to manage (continued play through the pain could have increased the risk of a ruptured Achilles). It’s also arguably the first forward-thinking move the organization has made in years.

Wall has played a total of 73 games in the past two seasons, which is fewer than any single season in the previous four seasons of his career. At 28, Wall is undergoing surgery both on the right side of 30 and the right side of contract negotiations: He is slated to make an average of $42.3 million annually over the next four seasons, the last of which will pay him a staggering $46.9 million in 2022-23 at the age of 32. These are numbers that many Wizards fans have committed to memory: it is the reality check that blocks any fanciful notion of trading their point guard—and one that existed before the news of an Achilles-related surgery. (Wall’s contract itself might be a Chinese finger trap studded with razor blades.)

Even with Wall a nonstarter in trade discussions, the injury puts the Wizards back in the market. Newest acquisition Trevor Ariza has, unsurprisingly, changed nothing for a team lacking any semblance of direction or structure; Washington is 2-5 in the seven games he’s played. Ariza, of course, is eligible to be traded again, and would be much more valuable to a contending team—picking up any and all assets they can get for the 33-year-old wing ought to be a no-brainer. From there, it gets more complicated. This would appear to be an opportune time for a firesale to rev the engines of a full-blown tank, and the leaguewide lust for athletic, sharpshooting playmakers like Bradley Beal is high. But Beal is a coveted player just now entering his prime; there’s no need to be hasty with him. As my colleague Kevin O’Connor noted, interest in Beal will overflow into the summer, and as teams get a better sense of the NBA landscape with Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard (and perhaps Anthony Davis) all potentially in flux, his demand could grow for franchises that lose out on the megastar sweepstakes.

Saturday’s 130-126 win against the Hornets seemed to revive the “Everybody Eats” microera of last season with 35 assists on 48 made field goals. Last week, in a torturous triple-overtime win against the Suns without Wall, the team recorded 40 assists, a season high for both the team and the league. It was the most assists recorded in the eight-year John Wall era, tied with a game from (you guessed it!) last season, in which the team, sans Wall, logged 40 assists in regulation. The Wizards haven’t had more than 30 assists in the games Wall has played this season; of the five games they’ve played without him this season, the team had at least 35 assists in three of them. Through the past two seasons, Wall playing through injuries was often a detriment to the team’s flow at large. Because of his immutable style of play, the team was forced into playing with a knockoff Wall with a skewed internal clock and stunted elite drive-and-kick capabilities. The Wizards’ assist rate has been higher with Wall off the court during the past two seasons. Now, with their franchise player out of the picture, “Everybody Eats” can resume in earnest and the team can fight its way back into the playoff picture (which it is only four games out of) without the rude late interruption it faced last season.

But what exactly would that prove? That the Wizards made a mistake in offering Wall one of the richest contracts in league history? During the past two seasons, the Wizards have unintentionally discovered two vastly different teams encased within the rotting veneer of their organization, but continuing with the Jekyll-and-Hyde charade seems destined to alienate everyone involved. Washington is at a crossroads, and the right decision seems obvious to anyone outside of the organization. With the sixth-worst record in the NBA, the Wizards have a 9 percent chance of landing the no. 1 pick in the 2019 draft, but they are only two games ahead of the fifth-worst Hawks, who have been on a tear of late. Tossing a white flag on the 2018-19 campaign and securing a top-five pick would be the easiest way to provide clarity to the franchise’s future with Wall as a focal point; something tells me that won’t be the road they choose.