The Washington Wizards recovered Sunday against a very bad New York Knicks team — a home game they had to have, and one that had the organization on edge — behind better effort, welcome rebounding from Dwight Howard and a nearly peak John Wall performance. Good thing, because the Wizards have almost no method beyond those of extricating themselves from whatever self-imposed morass they have plunged into. They must continue digging; their next six games all come against sub.-500 teams before the schedule turns hellacious again.
It’s hard to remember now, amid the melodrama and backbiting, but the past half-decade has been a boom time for one of the league’s saddest franchises.
Between 1982 and 2014, the Bullets/Wizards won one playoff series. In 2014, they bullied the Tom Thibodeau Chicago Bulls in the first round before falling to the Indiana Pacers in a spirited six games.
That playoff run served as a coming-out party for Bradley Beal. He looked comfortable running the pick-and-roll and siphoned much of the crunch-time offense from Wall. The young guards seemed to welcome postseason pressure — to thrive under it. It was exciting.
Trevor Ariza smothered Chicago in that first-round series. Seven weeks later, the Wizards signed-and-traded Ariza to the Houston Rockets on a four-year, $32 million deal. Washington could have outbid Houston; Ariza had emerged as an indispensable 3-and-D player. But it had Otto Porter Jr. waiting as a cheaper replacement. It was hoarding cap space for a run at Kevin Durant. #KDtoDC was a thing, and it didn’t seem that ridiculous.
Washington signed Paul Pierce as a stopgap. After a desultory 2014-15 regular season, everything came together in the playoffs. The Eastern Conference has a way of facilitating well-timed cohesion.
Washington swept the dinged-up Toronto Raptors, nearly costing Dwane Casey his job and kicking off four years of debate within the team about busting up its core.
Washington split the first two games against the 60-win Atlanta Hawks in the second round, even though Wall broke five bones in his left wrist at the end of Game 1. Pierce later “called game,” and the Wizards led Atlanta 2-1 before sputtering without a healthy Wall.
They might have advanced to the conference finals if not for Wall’s injury. The Hawks absolutely feared, or at least respected, the Beal-Wall duo. Those playoffs served as Porter’s coming-out party. He enveloped DeMar DeRozan and scavenged open 3-pointers and baseline garbage buckets — the perfect third banana.
Washington missed the playoffs the next season, before rebounding in 2016-17 with 49 wins — its most since 1979. When the Wizards clinched the Southeast Division title — the franchise’s first division crown in 38 years — with a win over the Los Angeles Lakers, the players dumped bottles of water on each other in the Staples Center locker room.
They took Boston the distance in the conference semifinals, but by then, the sheen of 2014 and 2015 had worn off some. Durant had signed in Golden State without granting Washington a meeting. The Wall/Beal/Porter core was about to get expensive, leaving the Wizards few methods of improving their roster.
This reality will look more like a crisis if the Wiz, now 2-7, can’t lurch back over .500. Wall’s supermax extension kicks in next season, with a starting salary of $38 million. The Wizards will owe the Wall, Beal and Porter trio almost $93 million combined — 85 percent of the salary cap.
They have few trade assets beyond Beal, who has surpassed the slower, crankier, indifferent version of Wall we see too often now as the team’s best player. A decade of win-now moves, all justifiable and almost innocent at the time, has left the Wizards cornered.
Only two big moves since they selected Wall No. 1 in 2010 look objectionable in hindsight: drafting Jan Vesely No. 6 in 2012; and signing Ian Mahinmi to a ludicrous-on-its-face four-year, $64 million deal during the orgiastic summer of the 2016 salary-cap spike.
Everyone mocked the Wizards in 2012 when they flipped Rashard Lewis’ massive nonguaranteed deal — a trade chip in the pre-spike era — for Ariza and Emeka Okafor, but Ariza became essential, and Washington spun Okafor’s expiring contract into Marcin Gortat.
The Wizards sacrificed the No. 18 pick in the 2014 draft (Tyler Ennis) in the Gortat deal, but given the typical return on middling picks, that is an acceptable cost for three-plus seasons of solid play in the middle. (Another young-for-old big man deal — JaVale McGee for Nene Hilario — turned out as Washington expected.)
When Gortat’s presence became untenable, the Wizards spun him for Austin Rivers on an expiring contract. No harm, no foul.
That the pick they dealt for Gortat could have been Gary Harris, Clint Capela or Nikola Jokic shouldn’t really change our evaluation of the deal. It just as easily could have ended up Bruno Caboclo, Mitch McGary or Jordan Adams. Ernie Grunfeld, the team’s general manager since time immemorial, was in the final year of his contract at the time, with an urgent win-now mandate. It could have been worse.
Same goes for the pick — No. 13 in 2016 (Georgios Papagiannis) — the team traded for Markieff Morris.
Their next annual win-now move — Andrew Nicholson and their 2017 first-round pick (No. 21) to rent Bojan Bogdanovic — hurts more. The last 10 picks of the first round in 2017 provided a bounty: Jarrett Allen (selected with Washington’s pick), OG Anunoby, Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart and Derrick White.
Still: The No. 21 pick has a paltry average return, and the Wizards escaped the final three years of their $26 million obligation to Nicholson.
But taken together, the moves show a lack of imagination and planning that has come to roost. They were reactive — “Crap, Ted Leonsis is mad and we need a big man!” — instead of forward-looking. They are the moves of a one-player-away team, though the Wizards were never one-player-away from title contention — at least considering the type of players typically available for picks outside the lottery.
Title contention isn’t the measuring stick for every organization. There is nobility in competing for mid-rung playoff spots every season. The Wizards should have been able to do that without sloughing away so many picks.
The pick-sloughing predates Wall. At the 2009 draft, the Wizards traded the No. 5 pick — Ricky Rubio, but also potentially Stephen Curry — for Mike Miller and Randy Foye to fortify the Gilbert Arenas/Caron Butler/Antawn Jamison core for one more run. That, umm, didn’t end well. That might seem like ancient history, but every move from the past ripples into the future. Foye and Miller left for nothing.
All these moves piled up a sort of cumulative opportunity cost. Washington didn’t maximize any of its most important assets. It didn’t hit a home run on any fringe trades or save its powder for one megadeal. Think of how little Boston gave up for Isaiah Thomas, for instance, and then what Thomas helped them get. Fringe wins can build to something bigger, if you approach team-building with that kind of long lens. A bunch of shortsighted “B-/C+” moves can coalesce into a big-picture “D.”
As the Wizards were trading away first-round picks, they made a habit of selling another fringe asset — second-rounders — for cash. The hit rate on second-rounders is famously low. But there are hits. (Tomas Satoransky is one.) You find them only if you, like, make picks.
Even letting Ariza walk for nothing but a trade exception — used later on Kris Humphries and Ramon Sessions — stings. His Houston contract ended up a bargain, one Washington could have easily traded had Durant come. Washington now faces the same fate with Kelly Oubre Jr.; it has no means to pay him without vaulting way into the luxury tax.
Putting some eggs into the Durant basket wasn’t dumb. Wall and Beal were ascending; it wasn’t crazy to think Durant might crave a return home and view himself as the missing piece. The Wizards have almost no history as a free-agency power player, but neither did the Celtics before they started winning and plundering the Nets at the same time.
Free agency is a zero-sum game. You either get Durant or you lose. The Wizards lost. It happens. They just didn’t fortify themselves for that possibility.
None of this would feel so dire if not for the one development that explains more than any other why the Wizards look broken or at least stalled out: Wall’s game has plateaued, and perhaps even dropped off, since the end of the 2016-17 season.
He never evolved into a 3-point threat. His speed — the thing that makes Wall special — manifests only here and there. Last season, only Dirk Nowitzki and DeMarcus Cousins spent a higher percentage of court time than Wall standing still or walking, per Second Spectrum tracking data — a stat that set off alarm bells throughout the league and within the Wizards.
Nothing has changed this season; Wall has the third-highest such share among all rotation players, behind only James Harden and Marc Gasol. Isolate offense and Wall leads the league in slow time.
It is tempting to see Harden’s name and raise a defense for Wall: See, another ball-dominant star! But it’s more of an indictment. Harden is a lethal isolation player. His step-back 3 has been more accurate over the past two seasons than Wall’s catch-and-shoot treys, per NBA.com. He gets to the line more. He’s a more creative passer within the half court.
You can run a hyper-efficient offense with Harden dribbling the air out of the ball or standing around while Chris Paul (also high on the “walking” list) does. You can’t do that with Wall on this Washington roster. Even if he scoots by his own guy — something that has been harder for him in the half-court early this season — help defenders abandon Washington’s so-so shooters to barricade the paint. The Wizards with Wall, Morris and a traditional center suffer from an overall lack of shooting. They run spread pick-and-rolls without the spread.
Wall chilling out away from the ball, hands on knees, is a second-by-second drag on Washington’s expected points per possession. The NBA overall has evolved away from predictable high pick-and-roll attacks centered around below-average shooters. Washington really hasn’t. The Thunder haven’t, either, and Wall is a lot like Russell Westbrook: explosive, lacking a reliable jumper, with a bad habit of turning into a statue off the ball. Westbrook is just way better.
A useful contrast: Damian Lillard, two months older than Wall. Lillard’s shooting keeps him dangerous even when CJ McCollum and Evan Turner take over ballhandling duties. He has improved while Wall has stagnated.
Collective discontent has sapped the Wizards’ offense of their rhythm. They move through their paces with a blase aimlessness. They are 21st in assist rate, down from third last season. They are tossing about 20 fewer passes per game. They fling up some ugly long 2s early in the shot clock. Cutters zip into the wrong place at the wrong time. Extra passes don’t come.
With about 2:50 left in the second quarter of Washington’s humiliating loss against Oklahoma City on Friday, Wall streaked up the floor with Beal filling the left corner. We have seen that so many times. But Oubre suddenly cut into the lane between Wall and Beal. Wall dropped the ball to Oubre, who had an easy kickout to Beal staring him in the face. He flung up a hopeless runner instead.
They are not happy. You see shoulders sagging, arms raised in pleas to the basketball gods.
Perhaps age and knee surgeries have chipped away at Wall’s speed. The Wizards have long been concerned about his conditioning. The same issues have infected his defense. Three years ago, Wall made a deserving appearance on the league’s second All-Defense team. We have not seen much of that player since.
He is not alone. The Wizards ranks 25th in points allowed per possession. They have shown little grit or cohesion. When players switch on the fly, they fail to communicate — opening gashes everywhere:
They have allowed 1.15 points per possession on opponent transition chances, fifth worst, per Cleaning The Glass. Until Monday, they had the slowest offense-to-defense first step in the league. Calling it a step might be generous, as it implies motion. They are a team of watchers. That tendency has contributed to their embarrassing defensive rebounding rate.
Their half-court defense has been just as bad. Washington has allowed an unthinkable 1.12 points per possession after its own baskets, second worst in the league, per the tracking site Inpredictable.
The Wizards’ problems go way beyond Wall. He didn’t trade all those picks. Porter has been a nonentity through nine games. They have gotten nothing from their centers outside of Howard. Scott Brooks isn’t at the root of any of this, but he hasn’t been able to shake Washington out of it yet, either.
But Wall is the Wizards’ franchise player, about to cycle onto the largest allowable contract in the NBA. A player in even slight decline — and time will tell if Wall is such a player — on that kind of deal is an albatross. You cannot build a team around an underperforming star soaking up 40 percent of the cap.
Trading Wall might be Washington’s only get-out-of-jail card. Trading Beal would hurt the team. Porter wouldn’t bring enough return to make a difference.
A Wall deal before July 1 is unlikely in part due to complexities surrounding his 15 percent trade kicker — believed to be the first trade kicker that would be spread over the length of a supermax contract. Trade kickers cannot lift a player’s salary above his maximum in the year he is traded, meaning Wall’s payout could shrink if the Wizards trade him in 2019-20 once he shifts onto his supermax deal — and perhaps close to $0 in that 2019-20 season, sources say.
If they trade him before then, they might owe him a giant lump sum, sources say. (Wall’s 2018-19 salary of $19.2 million is well below his eligible maximum because he signed his current deal under a lower salary-cap figure.) None of this is 100 percent clear in the collective bargaining agreement, and it will need to be studied further if it proves relevant. Rises in salary cap at some point during the length of Wall’s supermax could trigger further trade kicker payments to him.
We might be down to one plausible candidate to send Washington real value for Wall at some point over the next year-plus: Phoenix, run by an impatient owner, Robert Sarver, without a seasoned GM to check his most dangerous impulses.
The Luka Doncic-Trae Young trade filled point guard holes in two franchises. Orlando still has a hole, but chasing Wall — even on the cheap — would violate the patient approach Jeff Weltman and John Hammond have taken. De’Aaron Fox looks like the answer in Sacramento. Brooklyn is too smart, even if the Nets decide neither Spencer Dinwiddie nor D’Angelo Russell is their answer. (Caris LeVert might be.)
The Knicks appear to have gotten religion, though we should never underestimate the damage James Dolan might inflict if they whiff on free-agent stars.
Mystery suitors might emerge. Free agents will leave, opening vacancies. Desperate teams do desperate things.
But Wall is 28. He doesn’t fit the timetable of most rebuilding teams.
The Wizards have time to right things. They seem to start slowly every season. Wall can play himself into shape. Their passing numbers have ticked up over the past week. Howard will help their rebounding. Their opponents are shooting preposterously well on open 3s; the Wiz will stumble into better luck. They have too much talent to fall far out of the race for the last two Eastern Conference playoffs spots.
But that talent doesn’t appear to have the ceiling it did two seasons ago. If the losing continues, Washington faces hard questions that might not have any appealing answers.
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