CLEVELAND — John Wall was getting dressed in front of his locker room stall after a recent home victory for the Washington Wizards when a reporter complimented him on his clothing. Wall nodded, joked that he was trying, and as he stood up to throw on his sports coat, someone suggested that Wall should top off his outfit with a pair of alligator shoes.
“I can’t afford that,” Wall said with a smile. “We’ve got a lockout coming. I’ve got to save my money.”
The Wizards (23-58) are set to close out the regular season on Wednesday in Cleveland, feeling so good about the progress that they have made in winning five of their past seven games that Wall has said the team will make the playoffs next season “for sure.” But there is some concern about when the team will again step on the court once the buzzer sounds at Quicken Loans Arena.
Barring a surprising shift in the stances of the owners and players, the NBA will have a lockout when the collective bargaining agreement expires July 1. With NBA Commissioner David Stern claiming that the league lost more than $350 million last season, owners seeking a hard salary cap, players unwilling to sacrifice such gains as guaranteed contracts, and neither side making a formal proposal since last summer, the players’ union has warned its members all season to prepare for the worst and spend wisely.
The league has not locked out its players since 1998, and the parties didn’t reach an agreement until January 1999, leading to a 50-game season instead of the normal 82.
Maurice Evans, a vice president of the NBA Players Association executive committee, said he hopes there won’t be repeat — or worse. “I think it’s inevitable in the sense that we won’t have a deal done by July 1,” Evans said of the lockout, “but I think it’s optimistic to think that we can get a deal done by Oct. 27, when it really counts.”
The season finale against the Cavaliers “could, possibly, be the last game, for us anyways, for a while. But I’m optimistic we’re going to go in and get a deal. It’s too much at stake, too much for the fans. People, they love basketball, it’s part of our culture, football is part of our culture, so for us to not have those sports for issues that could be ironed out, that would be reckless.”
The looming lockout appears to have already affected the Wizards’ rebuilding plans. They have another lottery pick, a mid-round pick after a trade-deadline deal with Atlanta, and another high second-round pick. However, the pool of talent for the NBA draft could be smaller, as several of the top college underclassmen — some slated as top-five picks — might return to school rather than sit out during a protracted lockout.
But Coach Flip Saunders said he believes the Wizards are prepared, either way, to make improvements whenever a deal is struck. “That’s up to the league to figure out. The only thing I do know is we’ve put ourselves in a great position, from a standpoint of having two first-round picks, a high first-round pick and a lot of flexibility from a money standpoint, so we’ve put ourselves in a position to really build our team around John and some of our young players and really solidify that.”
Andray Blatche said the Wizards have been playing with an increased urgency, with the realization that a lengthy break from the game is possible. “I’m going to miss basketball if it’s a lockout. I hope it’s not one, if it is, I hope it’s straight and to the point and we get over it and get back to basketball. This is our lives and this is what we do. Main thing is, continue to play basketball throughout the summer and throughout the lockout, so whenever it ends, we’ll be ready.”
Saunders has pointed to the progression of rookies Wall, Jordan Crawford, Trevor Booker and Kevin Seraphin, and of carryovers JaVale McGee and Nick Young as reason to feel enthused about next season. For Crawford, who had to wait for several months — and for a trade from Atlanta — to finally get an opportunity, the season finale has special meaning.
“I definitely don’t want it to end,” Crawford said. The pending lockout is “a thing to look into after the season. Right now, we’re just focused on going out winning and not worrying about that. We’ll deal with that during the summer. I think it’s very important just to show that you’re not going to back down and see for yourself that you can play at this level. That’s the main thing.”
But Wall said it is difficult to get too excited without a favorable deal in place. “That’s the toughest thing. We don’t know when we’re going to play again.”