The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

John Wall is in the prime of his career; the Wizards are wasting a year of it

(Aaron Gash/Associated Press)
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Of all the sad numbers from this melted ice cream cone of a Wizards season, this may be the saddest: 0.95. That’s Washington’s average local TV rating, fourth-lowest among the 27 teams whose ratings were available. And that’s as dispiriting as the team’s league-leading man-games lost to injury, or its worst-in-the-NBA three-point defense, or its games-out-of-the-playoffs counter (three, as of this writing).

Local TV ratings are down 34 percent from last season — the second-sharpest decline in the league. The NBA franchise is again last in viewership among Washington’s four biggest teams. That means the Wizards are somehow making an up-tempo team led by a three-time all-star point guard unappealing to watch.

A year ago, this franchise seemed ready to snuggle up with genuine regional relevance for the first time in at least a decade — or maybe three. Instead, it fell back into the rotten realm of February NFL draft talk and three-years-early Bryce Harper contract talk. Think about which Wizards games have generated the most local chatter this season. In no particular order, I’d pick Steph Curry’s visit to Verizon Center, Kobe Bryant’s visit to Verizon Center and Kevin Durant’s visit to Verizon Center. All we need is the Cap Centre and Kornheiser, and we’d be in the ’80s again.

Tim Bontemps, The Washington Post's NBA writer, looks at teams that could make moves before the Feb. 18 trade deadline (Video: Thomas Johnson/The Washington Post)

(Worth noting: I complained in the fall that the Wizards weren’t given enough national TV dates. Whoops! Here’s my new advice for TV execs: Less Trump on the debate stage, and more Santorum. Trust me: ratings gold. Also, that O.J. miniseries seems cool, but the real money is in dramatic reenactments of the Sacco and Vanzetti trial.)

(And in the interest of fairness, Wizards television ratings are about even with where they were two years ago. After two straight trips to the Eastern Conference semifinals, that still counts as a significant disappointment.)

I weep not just for the missing pageviews. (Well, mostly for that, but not just for that.) The saddest thing here is that the Wizards might be in the process of sacrificing a year of John Wall’s prime. Whether that’s because of unluckiness with injuries, not enough good players, a turbulent change in philosophy or a risky-but-possibly-necessary bid for an offseason superstar, Wall’s sixth season is in danger of evaporating, leaving behind a few six-second highlight clips and an oversize hat.

And that would leave the best homegrown Washington player since Wes Unseld dangling in the middle of his career, while his organization keeps one eye (and most of its other retina) on the future.

Wall, to be sure, has had his struggles this season, especially in its early weeks. But at 25 and squarely in his prime, he’s putting up rare numbers for this middling team. Look at the list of players who have averaged at least 20 points, 9 assists, 4 rebounds and 2 steals in a season, as Wall has done through the all-star break: Isiah Thomas did it. So did Tim Hardaway. Chris Paul did it twice. Russell Westbrook is there right now. That’s it.

Wall has hit double-digits in points and assists 30 times already this season, behind only Westbrook. He hasn’t missed a game, and as a result is on pace to set career highs in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. He’s the second Washington player in 35 years to play in three straight all-star games, and he could threaten the franchise career mark for assists before this season ends. (Unseld currently holds the record, which tells you a bit about Unseld, and also about Washington’s history with point guards.)

And yet it also feels like some of Wall’s other stats — such as smiles per 36 minutes and shimmies per game — have declined this season. That’s probably not a coincidence.

“I haven’t been having fun, laughing, joking, [with] a smile on my face when I’m playing basketball,” he said in November.

“We end up getting beat by 15, 20 points, and they’re booing us, which they should do,” he said in January, when asked about the home fans.

Even at the all-star break, Wall told The Post’s Jorge Castillo, “you get asked questions about why y’all’s season is not going so well. … It kind of takes away from some of the fun.”

Wall’s establishment as an all-star comes with Wizards languishing

For a fan whose rooting career might last 50 or 60 years, there’s no great harm in ripping up one season, or leeching it of joy. That’s just more hours for skimming “Making a Murderer” conspiracy theories and following the first-place Caps. The chances of landing a franchise-altering free agent like Durant might only be 5 or 10 percent, but that could be worth the risk for a long-suffering D.C. fan who cares only about parades.

For Wall, though, this season could represent 7 or 8 percent of his NBA career, and an even greater portion of his prime. The typical NBA player reaches his peak around 25 or 26, and begins to decline four or five years later. Can you imagine spending 20 percent of your best years scuffling in 10th place in front of blase crowds? That’s like spending 20 percent of your career scrubbing floors, or transcribing sports-radio interviews.

For some, this is a warning as much for the franchise as for its best player: Wall, at the pinnacle of his powers, can’t single-handedly turn his team into a contender. But six seasons into his career, why should he have to try? Bradley Beal and Otto Porter Jr. are solid homegrown pieces, but there’s a reason Wall’s three all-star berths are three more than the rest of this roster combined.

This season has unhappy echoes of Alex Ovechkin scoring 51 goals for a Caps team that missed the playoffs, or of Bryce Harper winning the MVP on a Nats team that did the same. Those, too, felt like wasted chances.

If the Wizards heal up, take advantage of their soft upcoming schedule (or this week’s trade deadline) and rally for a playoff berth, we could still remember this season as something other than a discarded fast-food wrapper. Or if they hit their runner-runner-runner-runner-runner straight and find Wall a championship-caliber partner during the offseason, maybe a forgettable 2016 will have been a defensible sacrifice.

Only now you’re not gambling with a year of Andray Blatche’s prime; you’re gambling with what should be Washington’s best NBA career in a generation. And frittering away a year of Wall’s prime might leave lasting marks: on his feelings about his employer, and on a fan base that’s again finding other things to do than watch the Wizards flirt with .500.