The Trials and Tribulations of a Middleclass NBA Star — John Wall and the Wizards | Wizards Blog Truth About It.net

The Trials and Tribulations of a Middleclass NBA Star — John Wall and the Wizards

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Updated: December 8, 2016

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The Washington Wizards are John Wall.

John Wall is the Washington Wizards.

Perhaps, within these statements lies the baseline problem with a moribund NBA franchise.

Over the course of one week, the Washington Wizards played (and lost) to the Oklahoma City Thunder and the San Antonio Spurs, won a game against the Brooklyn Nets, and lost another game to the Orlando Magic despite a career-high 52 points from Wall. The first two teams the Wizards faced occupy the upper echelon of the NBA’s Western conference. The latter two represent members of the NBA’s middle class—teams that prior to the start of the 2016-17 season were marked as “wins” on the Wizards calendar.

If you disregard the Nets and Magic (which maybe you should not as the Wizards should disregard no opponent) as teams in the same state of flux as the Wizards, you look to the Western Conference bullies to light a path forward in terms of roster construction and for some hope for a brighter future.

The Thunder and Spurs are diametrically opposed in team construct, with the Thunder entirely reliant on the play of superstar Russell Westbrook, while the Spurs (despite the complement of great players like Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge) continue to dismantle opposing teams in large part due to Coach Gregg Popovich’s ability to insert players into his system (or remove them) at will and still remain effective.

Both team’s mark aspirational points for Washington, but the method for achieving either construction appears to disappear further into the horizon as another Wizards season sinks into irrelevance. The question thus becomes, what transformational process needs to take place to put the Wizards back of the roadmap of relevance? Which brings us back to the assumed statement that, “the Washington Wizards are John Wall.”

If we take the first team that the Wizards lost to, the Thunder, the weakness of that statement is apparent. Russell Westbrook IS the Oklahoma City Thunder and embodies the style of play and the hopes of a city in the way that John Wall cannot. During his time in OKC, Westbrook had undergone more than his fair share of drama, having watched great players depart (James Harden, Kevin Durant) for greener or more lucrative pastures, and having to raise his game after every defection to compensate for the losses. The transformation after each departure has been revelatory. After the Thunder penny-pinched and traded James Harden to the Rockets, Westbrook became a more complete scorer—unveiling an improved jump shot to accompany his bullrushes to the basket. Following the loss of Durant, Westbrook has become more of a playmaker, yet has not sacrificed one iota of his scoring ability. In the Thunder’s Wednesday night win against the Wizards, Westbrook shot a Kobe Bryant-esque 12-for-35 from the field, yet the ball was still in his hands with the Thunder down three points and seconds left to play—and he buried a 3-pointer to force OT, then scored 14 more points for the win.

Westbrook’s transformation into a league-wide superstar—one with the marquee of “come watch Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder”—began with his ability to score. But given the loss of other superstars, it’s been a forced evolution, but one that now benefits both Westbrook and the Thunder franchise as a whole. Having Westbrook’s game rise has allowed the remaining Thunder players to improve their games within the scope of their limited capabilities. This is why there are now soft-focus profiles of Thunder teammates like Enes Kanter and Steven Adams, because even the slightest contribution that aids Westbrook’s quest to keep his team amongst the Western Conference elite is looked on with praise.

John Wall entered the league will a skill set almost diametrically opposed to that of Westbrook’s, and that has been his curse and burden to carry. Blessed with a preternatural playmaking ability, Wall’s offensive game has undergone a slower development process, but was kicked into overdrive during the 2015-16 season after a rash of injuries forced Wall to carry a majority of the offensive load. However, unlike Westbrook, Wall’s primary talent (playmaking) atrophied when forced into the role of primary scorer. His assists per 100 possessions has declined by year from 14.3 to 13.8 to 13.5, and his turnovers have ballooned upward at a tick of 5.5 to 5.6 to 6.3. Criticism of Wall’s starpower began to mount as he became more myopic on offense. The narrative that has played out for six seasons—that John Wall makes everyone around him better—became a shackle, as Wall was both unable to work his magic with hobbled supporting casts and criticized for attempting to take on the offensive responsibilities for which Russell Westbrook is appreciated and lauded.

This is the cruel reality that John Wall faces each season with the Washington Wizards. His value is directly correlated to making his teammates better and his reward is to see those same teammates cash in on a season of playing with John Wall, either with the Wizards or another club with truckloads of cash. Such is the case of almost every wing who has blown through town during Wall tenure—whether they are named Ariza or Webster or had their value momentarily inflated, in the case of the Jordan Crawfords of the world. Wall, due to his very prowess in the act of ‘being a good teammate,’ negates himself as the singularity that Westbrook has become. This turn is the tragedy of Wall’s career arc and why his frustrations have started to bubble toward the surface on a weekly basis. Fans pay for the shoes (1) of the player who behaves and scores as a one-man wrecking crew, but they are less inclined to part with their money to watch a player’s genius go unrealized.

If the Wizards are wed to Wall (which many outlets argue they should not be), they can not stake their hopes in modelling their franchise after OKC. You could turn then to the second team that the Washington Wizards fell to, the San Antonio Spurs, and attempt to model their success, which is not based as much on the acts of one transcendent superstar (though they have had many) and is instead based around a culture of drafting and developing talent and identifying which players fit into Gregg Popovich’s system, or which players can be molded to perfection.

This, of course, is a laughable plan for success as long as the current Wizards regime is in place. Having held the reigns since 2003, Team President (and acting GM) Ernie Grunfeld has shown an inability to draft and develop talent, a litany of failure which has been detailed ad nauseum in other pieces on TAI. More concerning has been the repeated failure to obtain players who complement the skill set of the player whose abilities they hope to maximize: John Wall. The constant shuffling of rental wing players under the Grunfeld regime is frustrating but it is also the inability of the front office to find any athletes besides Bradley Beal who can match Wall’s frenetic athleticism. Perhaps even more galling than Wall being third in the league in POTENTIAL assists (thanks, Markieff Morris!) is the fact that he is continually hampered by the mastodons he is surrounded by. Year after year, viewers are presented with two options: a) watch Wall hold up due to slower and plodding teammates who fail to get out and run with him, or b) see Wall almost get decapitated on careening drives to the basket.

The choice between Wall and management is not binary, but it is interesting that chatter has picked up this season as to his future on the Washington Wizards. Everyone and everything on the Wizards appears to be for sale, including Wall himself, a reality that would have been unthinkable a year ago. For Wall’s part, his demeanor could be described as vacillating between frustration and wistfulness. After the Wizards earned a rare win against the Sacramento Kings, Wall openly speculated about what it would be like to be reunited with his old Kentucky buddy DeMarcus Cousins, who currently plies his trade with the Kings. What was fascinating about the exchange was that both Cousins and Wall preferred that the other come to their team, either unwilling to give up their status as “the man” or both having full knowledge that the other’s front office was inept at best (2).

It seems strange to advocate for a disgruntled superstar, but now might be the proper time for Wall to drop his veneer of professionalism in regards to management. Thus far, Wall’s frustrations have been relegated to sniping about point guards of lesser abilities or teammates getting paid more or daydreams about acquiring players who would cost the Wizards and handsome ransom. Instead, Wall needs to be less circumspect and act like the superstar he believes himself to be. The truth is that in Year 7 of his NBA career, Wall should not be making comments like these after games:

“Not even just defense, just playing hard. Our job is to wake up and just play hard. Before you made it to the NBA or got any college scholarships, you played hard everyday to get to where you wanted to. To still be talking about playing hard, that’s something that you should be able to just do waking up.”

Seven years is a long-ass time to wait for management to get their shit together. Wall is coming perilously close to entering the Kevin Garnett (3) stage of his career, where is is continually surrounded by inferior talent but management expects his singular talent to raise all boats. Wall needs to go full Kobe Bryant/Carmelo Anthony on his current situation. Call out the lack of talent surrounding him, demand total change, or force his way out the door. Only when he truly embraces the spoiled brat aspect of the modern NBA superstar is Wall likely to achieve the acclaim and recognition he so desperately craves.

 

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  1. Wall currently has no shoe deal. The effort put into his marketing campaign by Reebok was lackluster at best.
  2. Ironically, the Director of Player Development in Sacramento in Lafayette “Fat” Lever, a player who many have forgotten about but was the one and only bright spot on the late ’80s Denver Nuggets. Lever led the team in rebounds (as a PG) but was never surrounded by enough talent to truly unlock his unique skillset.
  3. This would take another narrative shift. By the time Boston made the trade for Garnett, fans across the league were begging for it to happen to give Garnett at least one shot at competitive viability.
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Sean Fagan
Reporter / Writer/Gadfly at TAI
Based in Brooklyn, NY, Sean has contributed to TAI since the the dawn of Jan Vesely and has been on the Wizards beat since 2008. His work has been featured on ESPN, Yahoo and SI.com. He still believes that Mike Miller never got a fair shot.