Basketball, Team Brass And Tough Breaks: A John Wall Boomerang Story
In brief, a history of the Washington Wizards in the so-called “John Wall era.” At length, an exposition of the team’s front office and why the time for change is now.
“Point guards are not made, they’re delivered from heaven—and I believe he was delivered from heaven,” Flip Saunders said on “John Wall Day.” That’s what then-Washington, D.C. mayor Adrian Fenty dubbed the day after the NBA Draft when Wall was chosen first overall—June 25, 2010. Team brass wasted no time in welcoming highly-touted rookie to the city. Wall, who one day earlier signed a shoe deal with Reebok, was treated to door-to-Verizon Center limo service, red carpets, and had his mug posted on a billboard outside the arena. He even received an officially endorsed nickname, “The Game Changer.”
The Rebuild, Year One
“This is a very important and special day for this organization,” Team President Ernie Grunfeld said. “This is a new era … and what better way to start a new era than by having a No. 1 pick.”
“We found out that he has outstanding character, obviously his physical attributes are off the charts. … He has a real competitive nature. Winning and losing is very important to him, and those are the kind of players we want to build this team with, players that care about winning and losing, and have pride, and have great character and a great work ethic.
“[John Wall] is gonna be here for 10, 12 years … and he’s gonna bring a lot of electricity to this building.”
Wall’s stock couldn’t have been valued much higher (even while advanced statisticians like Dave Berri pegged DeMarcus Cousins as the top player in the draft, and others preferred the rangy Evan Turner). In November, six games into his rookie season, Wall became the fourth-youngest player in NBA history to record a triple-double with 19 points, 10 rebounds and 13 assists. He was 65 days into his 20th year.
He did it in a 98-91 win against Yao Ming, Kevin Martin, Luis Scola and the rest of Rick Adelman’s Houston Rockets. Andray Blatche, fighting fatigue from signing his three-year, $35 million extension, double-doubled with 20 points and 11 boards; “Cowboy” Al Thornton (as he was known around these parts) contributed 20 points; and Yi Jianlian broke out with 13 points.
“I knew after the first couple of games I could play in the league. I think I did good for my year,” said Wall after the season. However… “I wasn’t fully healthy and being myself, but I can’t hold nobody accountable for that. Things just happened. I just fought through it and helped my team out as much as possible.” Wall, an opening-day starter, appeared in 69 games (64 starts) but missed time in November, December and January. A sprained left foot slowed the rookie, then he was sidelined by a bone bruise in his right knee, which he picked up in his first game back in action. Wall admittedly played injured over the final four months of the year because he “didn’t want to disappoint anybody.”
“I want to be known as a player that’s very talented but also willing to work,” Wall said. “Like Derrick [Rose], he got better every year. Like [Russell] Westbrook, he got better every year. Those type of guys, I want to be in a category with those types of guys in the next two or three years, and I think if I just sit back and study the game like those guys did and work as hard as they did, as I should, and I am, I think I can be up there.”
Even with Wall’s impressive contributions to both the team culture (he wants to win, bad) and the player talent pool (pundits named him the second-best rookie, behind Blake Griffin), the losing continued. Flip Saunders, taking the fall for Grunfeld, was fired in January 2012 after a 2-15 start. The Wizards won just 23 games by the end of the season.
The Rebuild, Year Two
Wizards team management has traditionally found a way to advertise high expectations before, during and after disastrous regular season campaigns. Arguably more impressive, they’re able to find buyers. While the Wizards embarked on their worst start in franchise history during Wall’s sophomore season, winning just one game out of their first 10, Leonsis expressed optimism for the on-court product: “Our season ticket sales are up over 70 percent year over year.”
So, money was being made. That’s something for every franchise to celebrate. Arguably more important, the franchise player, Wall, stayed healthy during his sophomore campaign, playing all 66 games in a lockout-shortened season. Things were on the upswing, right? Not quite. Wall’s game regressed—he showed incremental improvement from his rookie season, at best, and he confessed as much to the media: “I think I’m kind of the same,” Wall said. “A little better, but not too much.” By the numbers, Wall shot worse from every distance (though he improved at the rim by 2 percent). His assist rate was down, slightly, and his turnover rate was up.
More salesmanship was in order: See, Despite Wall’s star power being noticeably tarnished in April 2012 after a 20-44 season, by summer there was talk of a postseason run in 2013. Blatche, McGee and Young: gone. Nene and Brian Cook: game. All the tough talk was surprising, especially for a team that hadn’t sniffed the playoffs since 2007-08. But it didn’t last long. Dreams of the roundball promised land were interrupted, and the Wizards’ chances at a playoff berth were again derailed when Wall suffered a stress-related injury to his kneecap in late September 2012.
“We’re all disappointed for John after how hard he worked this summer and how excited he was to begin training camp, but we feel fortunate that we caught the injury early and that he will be able to return with the vast majority of the season still in front of us,” Grunfeld said in a statement at the time. “In the meantime, we’re confident that the versatility and depth of our team will help us move forward and continue the positive momentum that we’ve seen over the past several months.”
Doctors said Wall would be sidelined for eight weeks, but the timetable for his return kept stretching. It wasn’t until mid-January 2013 that Wall was back on the floor for the Wiz … 15 weeks later.
The Rebuild: Year Three
Meanwhile, the “versatility and depth” Grunfeld endorsed produced just five wins to 28 losses—taking the accolade for the worst start in franchise history from the 2011-12 team. While Grufeld’s supposed playoff caliber supporting cast didn’t hold up its end of the bargain, Wall’s return helped—significantly. He powered the Wizards to a 10-point win in his debut and averaged 14.1 points, 6.5 assists and 2.5 rebounds in 26 minutes over 11 games (four starts) during the month of January to start the new year.
The Wizards put together a 6-5 run with Wall, winning more games in 11 tries than they had in the 33 before his return. Despite Wall’s heroics—and heroics they were—Wall’s impact was more or less forgotten by the mainstream media. Perhaps it wasn’t enough to catch their attention. People like big point totals—sizzle, hot sauce, highlights.
On January 22, 2013 Washington, D.C. had officially become a basketball dead zone.
ESPN.com ran a story ranking the top 25 players under the age of 25. To be eligible, players had to be born after January 22, 1988.
Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Blake Griffin, and James Harden made the cut. So did role players Ryan Anderson, Larry Sanders and DeAndre Jordan. The list also included flashy young potential in Brandon Jennings, Steph Curry, Eric Bledsoe, Nic Batum, Kyrie Irving, Paul George, and Brook Lopez. Damian Lillard, Anthony Davis, and Kenneth Faried, even younger but making almost as much noise, represented the rookie class. Injured stars Kevin Love and Derrick Rose made the top 10.
“To be clear,” explained authors David Thorpe and Kevin Pelton in their disclaimer, “this is a ranking of how we would order these players if we were starting a franchise and would have them for the next several years, not just this season.”
But John Wall? Despite meeting the age qualifier by more than two years, Wall, born September 6, 1990, was left off the list. Forgotten.
Some supporters began to miss the slapstick humor that had been reliably present in the team’s rotations over the years—the self-centered talent, if nothing else, made the losing more palatable. Brooklyn’s Deron Williams, in April 2012, described Wall’s help on the court as a “tough cast.”
“I don’t want to put anybody down but he’s not playing with the smartest guys in the world. That’s tough, man. That’s tough. They’re not smart. I’ve been watching. JaVale McGee was on the Not So Top 10, like, 50 times this year.”
But Wall, ignoring both his numerous, outspoken critics and indifference from others, continued to be a steadying presence for the franchise. The Wizards went 7-5 in February and finished 9-8 in March.
Slowly, pundits began to change their tune.
“John Wall might be the best player in the NBA right now not named Kevin or LeBron,” Grantland’s Chris Ryan wrote after Wall’s career-high 47-point explosion against the Memphis Grizzlies on March 25. “That should actually be an award: The M.V.P.N.N.K.L. Give that award to John Wall. Also, Ted Leonsis, fellow blogger, here’s a note: Pay John Wall. As someone who cheers for a team that just paid Jrue Holiday, that might pay a one-legged bowling enthusiast, that might pay Evan Turner, let me repeat: Pay John Wall.”
OK, cool. Wall found his jumper, and his legs, lost the weight (slowly got in game shape), and, yes, won a handful of games. Things were looking up! They were! At a guided flick of a wrist, the Wizards were somehow relevant, finally.
Days later, on March 28, 2013, Ted Leonsis offered some perspective, blogging about his team’s shot at a postseason berth without ever mentioning the “P” word (the P, of course, stands for playoffs):
“Since our exciting victory at home over Oklahoma City on January 7th, we have performed especially well over the ensuing 39-game stretch. During that two and half month run, we emerged with a 22-17 record including an impressive 16-4 mark at home.
“Prior to last night’s game, we sustained an average margin of victory of 2.9 points per game in a 38-game span, which would translate to roughly 49 wins if maintained over a full season. We are one of only 12 teams this season to hold a margin of victory of 2.9 points per game or better during a 38-game stretch. Every other team on that list is currently in a playoff position, and we have defeated each of those teams except for San Antonio and Indiana. (Teams with at least a 2.9 point-per-game margin of victory over [the previous] 38 games this season: Brooklyn, Chicago, Denver, Houston, Indiana, Los Angeles Clippers, Memphis, Miami, New York, Oklahoma City, San Antonio and Washington.)
“I realize we have to exhibit this type of play throughout an entire season, but this is a sample size that is worth noting.”
The Wizards finished the season 24-25 with Wall—29-53 overall—which was good enough to tie the Detroit Pistons (who swept the Wizards 4-0 this season) for the 10th seed in the East. Wall agreed with his employer, Leonsis, as he cleaned out his locker at the end of the season: “We’re healthy, we’re easily a playoff team—that’s the main thing, we’re healthy,” he said, confident that his worst days were behind him.
“If you’re realistic and see what happened and when we had our team, we had a team that could compete with anyone if had our pieces for the whole year—which we didn’t,” said Grunfeld during his season-ending media session.
“I think that the number one thing is that we need to get our players’ health right. We have to rest up this summer, get our health right, and come back next year with all our players.”
Grunfeld, the man Wall’s fate has been tied to, parroting a broken record, then said that his goal for next season is to “put a team out there that can make the playoffs.”
No excuses this time.
Like Wall, Grunfeld’s stock was sky-high when he became the head honcho in D.C. in 2003—he had led the Milwaukee Bucks to three playoff appearances in four years. His stock stayed afloat after acquiring talent like Gilbert Arenas through free agency and Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler after a series of trades—trades made in true Grunfeld fashion. His stock, however, took a dip after kneecapping the franchise by collecting $100 million contracts and erudite knuckleheads (what beautiful irony).
Now, with Wall commanding attention around the league, Grunfeld’s stock is back up again, boosted by talks of max-contract extensions for former lottery picks and pipe-dream playoff projections based on the hope that the team’s starting five can actually start 82 games … or at least 70. 65 even. 60?
Despite finishing with fewer than 30 wins for the fifth straight season, the Wizards’ most recent 29-53 campaign was seen by some as “a big win” for Grunfeld. So it seems that both Wall and Grunfeld’s time in D.C. tell boomerang stories.
What’s a boomerang story? I’ll let Stephen J. Dubner of Freaknomics take it away.
“So, back in the 19th century, when cities around the world began to grow like crazy, they were mostly powered by horse, more than 200,000 horses in New York City alone. Now, all those horses produced about five million pounds of manure a day. When the cities were smaller, there had been a healthy market for manure, because farmers from the surrounding area would buy it as fertilizer. But as cities grew, and took on more and more horses, there came to be a manure glut. The price of manure fell from strong positive to zero and then to negative—you actually had to pay somebody to get rid of the manure. Now, not surprisingly, most people weren’t willing to pay to have their manure taken away, so it piled up on the streets. It was a nightmare, in every way: it was a health hazard, it stank, it made it hard to get around. Thankfully, the automobile and the electric streetcar came along and replaced the horse as the engine of cities. Decades passed. The horse population declined. So therefore did the supply of horse manure. What rose, however, was a boom in home gardening, and, among a certain type of connoisseur, a demand for primo fertilizer. Like horse manure. So, today, a twenty-five-pound bag of manure mulch can sell for about fifteen dollars. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a boomerang story. Something that starts out in one place, and then goes far away, and then ends up right back where it began.”
Evaluating the player is relatively easy. Most would agree that the Wizards have, indeed, struck it rich with Wall. He’s less the straight-line burner he once was and is now more of a creative, pacey floor general who somehow manages to turn the limited talent around him into serious producers. The Wizards with Wall on the floor, for example, transformed themselves from brickmasons into one of the best 3-point shooting teams in the NBA. From Wall’s return on January 12 till the end of the season, only Golden State (41.5%) and Miami (39.9%) shot better than the Wiz did (39.7%) from beyond the arc. Peak John Wall is still years away.
As for the general manager … well, that’s not so easy. But perhaps Grunfeld should no longer be given the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps Leonsis should be more critical. Grunfeld’s winning percentage in Washington (.390) would be enough to dissuade many from re-upping after a decade of mediocrity, but he continues to rule as if by divine authority.
“I’m just surprised that when everybody acknowledges it’s a player’s league—everybody would agree with that,” said former NBA head coach and current ESPN broadcaster Jeff Van Gundy in a radio interview in April, defending Lawrence Frank who’d been fired as coach of the Pistons.
“Then the most important player or person in any organization is the person that picks the players,” Van Gundy continued. “But we don’t, as organizations, examine them. We just take the easy way out time and time again. You lose, the G.M. convinces the owner, ‘We got good players. It’s the coach’s fault.’ We fire the coach; we bring a new coach in; we continue to lose. We fire that coach, saying that ‘We have better players.’ It just goes on and on.”
It’s Grunfeld’s responsibility, as the skipper of the ship, to make sure the crew can handle heavy seas. That involves drafting—and developing—the right players outside of the lottery, signing role players for depth, and acquiring veteran talent for positive team culture. With the exception of Wall and Beal, two players who fell into the team’s lap, Grunfeld has struck out in the draft.
It has taken the better part of a decade for the team to field mature, professional ball players, which is in part why the raw young talent never got cooking. At least the team has some blue-collar attitudes on it—fulfilling Leonsis’ vision of “a culture and a locker room and a style of play that is hard-working and effort matters and coach-ability matters”—but it’s still short of NBA experience. The draft picks still around are often chained to Wittman’s doghouse, hoping to be thrown a bone.
“Grunfeld sticks to ‘plans’ so diligently that he doesn’t fulfill his other duties as a general manager,” SB Nation’s Mike Prada wrote in a ranking of the NBA’s GMs. Those other duties include finding talent in the draft and getting good return value on trades. “In the end,” Prada continued, “Grunfeld certainly knows what he’s doing, but loses a lot of points for his shaky execution of his boss’ visions.”
That means Grunfeld moves parts around, tries to make tweaks, but has rarely succeeded in building much. That’s the principal indictment of the Wizards team president. It’s true, Grunfeld has remodeled the team to suit Leonsis’ vision, turning the roster over completely, and appeased the “star” talent in the process—Wall, reserved when speaking to the media, said that the Wizards “have enough young players” and that “management knows what’s best for us and the organization.” The reality is that team’s top rotation continues to be as thin as a coffee filter and as unfamiliar as the smell of a neighbor’s refrigerator.
Injuries are the easy excuse this past year, as they have been in the past, but an excuse nonetheless. It’s a cop out. Just about every team in the NBA was hurt by injuries. The Lakers, for example, seemed to go under the knife more often than the real housewives of Orange County, but they finished with a winning record and entered the playoffs as the seventh seed—in the Western Conference! Unfair? Fine. Other teams—including the Spurs, Clippers, Pacers, Warriors, Celtics, Nets, and, of course, the Chicago Bulls—found ways to persevere. The Wizards, on the contrary, just rolled over.
The other looming failure with Grunfeld is that his M.O. is to trade veteran talent for other veteran talent. But that is no longer possible with this squad. He could trade youth, but what would be the return on investment? Jan Vesely, Chris Singleton and Trevor Booker’s combined PERs (29.3) was lower than LeBron’s (31.67). Only Kevin Seraphin has a ceiling higher than that of a role player off the bench. Grunfeld dealt Jordan Crawford to the Celtics and all he got back was Leandro Barbosa, sans ACL, and Jason Collins. Put that on a T-shirt.
Shoot, suppose the stars align and the team makes the playoffs next season, history won’t be on their side. Grunfeld managed to carve his way into the postseason with near .500 records in four straight seasons in the mid-2000s, but the Wizards were swept in two series and thrice K.O.’d out in the first round. Problem is, .500 records may get you into the fight (on the East Coast anyway), but they don’t make you a contender for anything worthwhile, unless your goal is to get run off the big stage with a broom.
Let’s not forget that Leonsis in his pre-draft press conference called another appearance to the NBA Draft Lottery “unacceptable.” If that were so, where are the repercussions? The 2013 Draft Lottery is next Tuesday, May 21; the Wizards will be in attendance, their fourth appearance in as many years.
So, is Leonsis’ plan really working? What’s the strategy to right the ship? And why the unwavering trust in Grunfeld to lead the way? Progress … has been … painfully slow. And John Wall’s emergence likely covered up a lot of the team’s shortcomings, including personnel mismanagement.
What we do know for sure is that the front office continues to overpromise and underdeliver. Another certainty: The Wizards haven’t won the executive of the year award since Bob Ferry last did it more than 30 years ago in 1981-82.
All that said, here’s what former ESPN analyst and current CSN Bay Area NBA insider Ric Bucher reported during a Warriors broadcast in late March:
“Everything that I’m hearing is that because of what they have shown down the stretch here now once healthy, that Ernie Grunfeld, Tommy Sheppard and that whole front office will be back next year and get a chance to show that they’ve put together a team that can be a playoff team in the postseason.”
[Note: Both Wittman and Grunfeld are in the last year of their contracts (both signed extensions last summer). Ted Leonsis has never hired—or fired—a general manager, excluding the Washington Mystics.]
The Wizards will run it back like they always do. A 29-53 season was good enough. It’s playoffs or bust, again. Boomerang. That same pile of horse shit that’s been piling up is now labeled “primo fertilizer” and being sold at a premium.
We’re expected to believe that things will be different.