Mark R. Bacon—Main Event Sports DC
The John Wall injury is devastating. For him. For the team. For fans. The recovery time all but guarantees that next season in D.C. will be as pointless as this one, and whenever Wall returns, it’s a good bet that the injury will dramatically handicap the explosion that once made Wall special. Granted, there had already been all kinds of slippage in Wall’s game, and he’d shown up out of shape in each of the past two seasons. But even as the Wall story changed these past two seasons, some of what was missing from his game was hard to explain to anyone who wasn’t watching this team every night. Going forward, those conversations will be much simpler. Everyone understands the implications of this injury, and he’s going to be all-but-impossible to trade without attaching multiple first-round picks.
This is also a note-for-note sequel to everything this team went through with Gilbert Arenas. Cult hero, catalyst for a new era, magnetic personality, a handful of signature moments that people of a certain age will remember forever, a few notable failures to break through and win anything meaningful, and then a drop-off that’s so immediate and violently unhappy that it sort of undermines everything we thought we’d been watching all along. The Arenas era was undone by injuries and then officially ended with guns in the locker room; the Wall era was undone by injuries and then officially ended with “he suffered the rupture after slipping and falling in his home.” There have been some who question the Wall story, but here’s the thing: it does not matter what really happened. If Wall injured himself doing something illicit or irresponsible, that might be preferable. There could be nothing more depressing than Wall stumbling in his house and accidentally ending his career as a viable NBA star.
There have been some who have noted that this is the sort of bad luck that can’t even be blamed on this team’s historically inept management. To that I say… Maybe. The Arenas years unraveled in part because he returned from a torn meniscus injury too quickly and refused to stay on the sidelines while he was recovering. The Wall situation is harder to gauge because we literally have no idea what happened, but clearly the bone spur recovery did not go as planned. Was that Wall’s fault? The team? The medical staff? Some cosmic force that has condemned this franchise to both chronic irrelevance and permanent mediocrity that will punish any fans who dare to pay attention? It’s may be that last factor more than anything else, but don’t underplay the first three.
The players charged with leading the Wizards have failed on myriad fronts, and the team has never helped them grow by holding them accountable along the way. Meanwhile, as far as luck is concerned… this is a team that gave Arenas a max deal after he’d blown out his knee. They also gave Wall his $190 million extension despite injury red flags that would have given plenty of smarter front offices pause, and they paid Ian Mahinmi $16 million-a-year despite similar medical red flags (and career numbers that are truly shocking when juxtaposed with his contract). There are dozen of other examples of contracts that were questionable ideas even on the day they were signed, and the medical staff hasn’t always inspired confidence, but you get the idea. If anyone is asking “How does this keep happening to the Wizards?” it’s important that we all acknowledge this is not entirely a coincidence. Yes, Dwight Howard showed up for the first day of the season with an injured butt and then disappeared without a trace for the next six months. But it was Ernie Grunfeld who inexplicably gave him a $5 million player-option, guaranteeing that Dwight will somehow still be here next season, too.
There is only one way forward over the next few years. The Wizards have to tank, and tank aggressively. They probably need a new GM who can execute that vision, but agreeing on the vision will be the first hurdle to clear. A month ago, of course, Ted Leonsis said “We will never, ever tank.” I believe him. Leonsis has proven that he’s not interested in being told how to run his business, and the more he’s lectured by outsiders, the more steadfast his resolve becomes. That’s fine. The rest of this is purely for the sake of argument.
In another world, there might be real merit to the idea that the best way to build an NBA team is by competing year after year and hoping to get lucky from there. Every title team needs once-in-a-generation luck; it’s not crazy to try winning games and landing in the middle of the playoff field while you wait for that luck. The problem for the Wizards is that even “middle of the playoff field” seems laughably far-fetched right now. They probably can’t trade Wall for the next four seasons after this one, and Wall’s contract will probably preclude them from ever building a team that can win. Tanking is the only way to take these next few seasons and make them productive. The team should wait to trade Beal until this June, but then they should auction him off for as many draft picks as they can find. If the Knicks don’t land at number one and miss out on Anthony Davis, offer them Beal and try to steal New York’s top five pick. Do the same with the Mavericks if they land in the top five. And if not Dallas or New York, target teams with multiple firsts and start stockpiling assets. Then, once Beal is gone, continue seeking out first and second rounders. To accomplish the former, take on bad money from around the league while you lose. Then, with the second round picks, take shots on high-upside projects, and over the next few seasons, see what you can build. (The Wizards, incidentally, don’t have their second round picks in 2019, 2020, 2021, 2022, or 2023, four of which have been traded this season; Adam Silver may have to institute a new Stepien rule, if only to prevent any future Grunfeld stats as sad as this one).
Tanking and building entire seasons around second rounders and 19-year-old lottery picks may sound depressing, but if anyone is wary, please let the record reflect that the two most enjoyable stories of this Wizards season have been the emergence of Tomas Satoransky (a second round pick) and the progress Thomas Bryant (a G-Leaguer claimed off waivers in July). And as for depressing: the current season in Washington has been the bleakest basketball season of my life. In November, the best player on the team yelled at the general manager and said, “I’ve been dealing with this s**t for seven years” and it’s only gotten darker from there. Fans understand that the current team has peaked and an era is over and a new approach is required; the question is how long it will take management to recognize what’s obvious.
Will the Wizards tank? Will they get aggressive about building something that matters and giving fans a real reason to care about the future? Will they trade Trevor Ariza and Jeff Green to add second round picks and bolster their own lottery chances? Probably not. And why would they? Trevor Ariza is reportedly interested in re-signing, and there’s always room for a run to eighth place and a first round series against a Bucks team that beat the Wizards by a combined 45 points in two games over the past five days.