It isn’t tough to decipher when the true dog days of summer have hit, at least for die-hard NBA fans. Now that the meat-and-potatoes portion of free agency is over, talking heads have turned their attention to over-analyzing meaningless summer league games and irrelevant sign-and-trades by equally middling franchises. As rosters are beginning to take full form, people around the league can begin to map out projections and predictions for the upcoming season; who are the title contenders, who might sneak into the playoffs, and who is proving to be the best candidates for the “We’re sitting our star player(s) for all of March and April due to an undisclosed injury” strategy. Specifically for Wizards Nation (can that be a thing now?), earning a top-8 seed is again the goal.Despite anyone and everyone preaching that NBA purgatory is defined by finishing between 6th and 10th in your conference, Washington is determined to make up for 5 years of basketball atrocity and return to the glory years of a 1st round playoff exit. Would it be a good time to say that I am shamelessly all-in on that plan? Look – I understand the drawbacks of being mediocre, especially with an all-world draft class looming in 2014. But how long can the same players lose 50-60 games a season and not have that become habit?
The team has already hit the draft lottery three times in five years, and has John Wall, Bradley Beal, and Otto Porter to show for it. They’ve added veterans at almost every position to guide this team forward. At some point, these impressionable players have to be taught how to win. Looking around the league, similar attitudes have been employed in places like Cleveland, Minnesota, New Orleans, and Detroit, where either ownership or front office mandates have been placed on winning. For better or worse, these teams want to get better, and want it to happen now. In Washington, that means accepting that the roster that is constructed will be the core moving forward. With that said, it really means accepting the keys to success will be held predominantly by one man.
Entering his fourth year out of the University of Kentucky, John Wall has enjoyed the fruits of being a former No.1 pick, by receiving accolades and adulation before ever playing a game and crowned franchise savior before ever achieving that type of success. He’s been the face of the Wizards since June 2010 by representing the light at the end of the tunnel of horror sponsored by Andray Blatche, Nick Young, JaVale McGee & Associates LLP.
Since his rookie year however, Washington has only managed to compile a record of 72-158. Wall has only appeared in 184 of those 230 contests, fighting various foot and knee injuries in Year 1 and Year 3 (there are, of course several explanatory factors to the team’s performance. Though some blame does fall on his shoulders). After reports surfaced earlier in the season that Wall was looking for a maximum contract and the Wizards did in fact intend to offer that much money, yesterday marked the official start of negotiations between Ernie Grunfeld and his agent, Dan Fegan. This article isn’t intended to argue for or against the merits of handing that kind of deal to Wall (currently expected to be approximately 5 years, $84.6 million), because it is essentially a forgone conclusion. Rather, the goal is to understand how this contract (and more importantly, this commitment) will dictate the future of the Washington Wizards.
John Wall has said and done all the right things since his season ended disappointingly this past April. He claimed he was tired of losing, wanted to make the playoffs, and even hinted at taking less than what was offered if it meant placing better pieces around him. He has been training in Los Angeles all summer with none other than Kevin Durant, a DC product who has used a ferocious work ethic to produce a highly successful career thus far. After last season saw Wall potentially take the leap from above replacement-level player to mini-Russell Westbrook, it’s great to see him continue to refine his game and add to an already dynamic skillset.
He improved his numbers across the board, both from a production as well as efficiency standpoint. He finished in the top-7 amongst point guards in PER, and had impressive per-36 minutes statistics of 20.4 ppg., 8.4 apg., 4.4 rpg., and 1.5 spg. His shooting splits were at career highs, and despite only shooting a league-average 37% from 16-23 feet this season, found a niche at the right elbow as the season progressed. Wall’s court vision was on full display as well, finishing 3rd in the league in Assist Percentage. His lackluster defense effort even improved from past years, finishing with a Defensive Rating of 103 points allowed per 100 possessions.
Despite all these positives, the issue with Wall has always been consistency. One game or one week or even a month, he’ll look like the heir to the PG throne in the league. And on the flip side of that coin, he’ll be clanking jumpers, recklessly turning the ball over, and treating defense as optional. For the Wizards to be truly good, or even (gulp) great, it will have to start with #2.
Yes, there are other players on the team who were brought in to ease the burden and take some pressure of the franchise player. But just like Derrick Rose in Chicago, Kyrie Irving in Cleveland, Chris Paul in Los Angeles, and Mario Chalmers in Miami (just kidding), the show will have to go through John Wall. Last month, Jason Reid from the Washington Post wrote an ignorant piece about how Wall’s recent tattoo splurge causes concern about his decision making after he came into the league saying he would stay away from the ink. And although his argument holds no basis, the reason it was made in the first place is because the jury is still out at Wall. By performance alone, he’s not deserving of the max deal Washington will offer. He hasn’t produced $40 million more in basketball value than other accomplished point guards who received much smaller deals (Steph Curry, Ty Lawson, and Jrue Holiday). But his upside and potential give him the ability to take his game to a higher level than those – and many other – players can. But the time for waiting is up. This is the season that must happen if the Wizards want to be the team they think they can be. He should no longer be treated as an up-and-coming point guard, but rather a bonafide star in the league. To receive the praise that other top guys get, Wall will have to work under those same high standards. And while it’s great that he’s getting some public recognition, whether it is in Adidas’ Crazy Quick campaign or the Jimmy Kimmel Show, Wall’s work at the Verizon Center will be the main factor in driving both his legacy on and off the court.
The last point guard to lead his team to an NBA championship as the definitive alpha dog was Isaiah Thomas with the Pistons championship in 1990. With Wall in a similar role on the Wizards, no one is expecting the Larry O’Brien trophy to be housed in Chinatown any time in the near future. But becoming a viable contender and a team that plays hard and focused every night should be an objective for this franchise. With the faith and trust put behind John Wall, he’ll be the guy to get the team over the hump. Yes, there will be help, but franchise dollars and expectations loom for the man at the helm of the ship. Time to see what he’s got.