Take dollars and cents out of the equation, and now ask yourself what’s the biggest reason a prominent NBA free agent might want to join the Wizards. I’ve got my answer. John Wall has his. Turns out they match.
“You’re playing with me, first of all,” Wall said with a grin this week. “A pass-first point guard that’s going to get you shots. Not to brag about it or talk about it, but shoot, I got a lot of guys paid since I’ve been here.”
Wall went on to list more selling points for D.C.: a core of young talent, a great city that loves basketball, a chance to represent the nation’s capital (and visit the White House), “and shoot, we’ve got a new coach,” Wall concluded. “So it ain’t just gonna be a new start for the person coming in. It’s a new start for all of us.”
That probably won’t be enough for a mega-star. Will it be enough to lure a strong Plan B?
This offseason was always going to be about selling: selling Kevin Durant on D.C. first of all, a sales pitch that apparently can be shipped straight to the Smithsonian for safekeeping. Now there’s more selling to be done: selling less prominent free agents on this wide-open roster with its big-name new coach; selling the eventual newcomers to a skeptical fan base already expecting the worst; and selling Wall on his new teammates.
Because this might be the most important offseason Washington has had since his arrival six years ago. The team’s modest approach last summer created this year’s opportunity: only five players under contract, plus a likely monster deal for Bradley Beal. Wall still has three years left on his own $80 million extension, which seemed gargantuan at the time but will be dwarfed by this summer’s silly money. How many more chances will the Wizards have to build him a true contender?
“What we did the last couple years — not re-signing a couple people, signing guys to one- or two-year deals — it all saved up for this,” Wall said Sunday afternoon at his annual basketball camp. “So I feel like this is the biggest summer.”
That’s why Wall’s been in touch with free agents, trying to figure out who’s going where and offering “my say-so” to team officials. He thinks the team needs more wings (“to win in the East, you’re going to need a lot of 3-men to go against LeBron,” he said), another center and a scoring 4 to come off the bench. He talked with admiration about the dirty work $82-million-man Tristan Thompson did in the playoffs — “those are the type of guys you need, that understand their role,” Wall said. And he knows this roster reconstruction will take not just a strong sales pitch, but also gobs of cash.
“To win in this new-era NBA, to try to have good pieces come, you might have to overpay people,” Wall said. “Us as a team and the organization’s got to be willing to step up to the plate and get what needs to be done, done.”
For years, Washington wasn’t seen as a premier destination for NBA free agents. That always felt odd for a huge East Coast market without the pressures of New York or Boston. Gilbert Arenas was the rare free-agent jackpot; Ernie Grunfeld’s other stars came either via trades or in the draft.
Paul Pierce’s decision to join the Wizards, lured in part by ex-assistant Sam Cassell, was supposed to change that. And Pierce’s one year here was a success; he was a team leader, a playoff dynamo and a fan favorite. It felt something like a Jayson Werth moment, a signal that Washington was a viable free-agent destination for bold-faced names. But last summer’s relative quiet never tested that proposition. This year will.
“I think bringing Paul was the reason why a lot of guys probably are considering us now, to be honest,” Wall said. “Just having a guy like Paul want to come play with us when he’s damn near his last two or three years in the NBA, that shows a lot of what we can be.”
Pierce’s three-point shooting percentage hit a five-year high in Washington, and then plummeted after his departure. That hints at the appeal of playing with Wall. Martell Webster, Trevor Ariza, Ramon Sessions, Gary Neal, Jared Dudley — they all saw their three-point shooting percentages spike in Washington. Can the team now use that, plus a bunch of zeroes, to land an attractive Plan B star, plus a supporting cast?
“I think about it a lot,” Wall said, when asked about this pending chance. “I’m going into my seventh year already. I’ve got three years left on my contract. You know, I’m going to have to deal with all those questions when those come up: Is he leaving, or is he staying? I’m not trying to have one of those big hoo-hoo-hooray things. If I have a good team here, in a great place, this is where I want to be.”
Look, I’m a mark for Wall. He’s far from a perfect player, but he radiates toughness and heart, and appears to have a genuine affection for this community. He suffered through some miserable early seasons because of mistakes made by others, and his chance to make a real mark on the league two years ago got torpedoed by a broken hand.
Last season, he played 77 games despite a bone spur in his knee that made it impossible for him to sit with his knee bent for more than 15 or 20 seconds; “I couldn’t jump off my left leg at all,” he said. And, thanks in part to a slew of injuries, the one-year patches the Wizards imported weren’t enough for a third straight postseason return.
Fans deserve an elite roster here, but Wall does, too. This is his prime, and this is the offseason Washington’s been hurtling toward for two years. It has to be a success. “Come play with John Wall” is a fine recruiting pitch, and among the best arguments the Wizards can make. For Wall’s sake, that argument better prove persuasive.