John Wall showed up to the NBA’s inaugural awards show Monday night in Lower Manhattan in a resplendent red suit. It was a loud announcement of Wall’s presence at the event, where he was presenting an award, and a bold statement that this was the kind of environment in which Wall feels he belongs.
This season marked Wall’s first all-NBA honor — an distinction he believes he deserved previously, and one he expects to earn again. In doing so, it sets him up to be eligible to receive an extension from the Washington Wizards via the Designated Player Exception, a four-year deal that would start after the 2019 season and pay him at the highest dollar amount possible.
That is a deal, sources say, that the Wizards are going to offer their star point guard sometime after free agency starts at 12:01 a.m. Saturday. It’s a deal the Wizards have to offer, as any team in their situation would. But when asked about his willingness to sign his name to such an offer Monday, Wall made something very clear: before he’s willing to sign on for the long-term to remain in Washington, he needs to see proof the franchise is going in the direction he wants.
“I just want to kind of see what they do throughout free agency, talk to my family, talk to my agency and my managers and see what we want to do,” Wall told The Washington Post after walking the red carpet Monday night. “It’s definitely a place I want to be … I’ve just got to make sure things are going in the right direction, and make sure we are building the team in the way we want to be, and don’t get locked up in a situation where you might not feel comfortable.
“But I love being in Washington, I love playing there, and there’s not another city I’d really want to play for.”
By every account, Wall does love playing in Washington. He has made the second round of the playoffs three times in the past four years, something the team hasn’t done since the 1970s. He and Bradley Beal teamed up to form one of the league’s most exciting guard tandems — the envy of just about any team this side of Golden State (Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson) and Houston (Chris Paul and James Harden).
But it’s that last line — about wanting to make sure the team is building in the correct direction, and not being locked into an uncomfortable situation — that should have the Wizards on notice as free agency begins. In other words: Washington is on the clock. And, if it wants Wall to stick around, the Wizards are going to have to deliver.
They know it, too. This is a pivotal summer for Washington, a team that looks around and sees its foes around the East in a state of flux. The Cleveland Cavaliers still have LeBron James — but perhaps for only one more season, before he hits free agency and potentially leaves Northeast Ohio a second time. The Boston Celtics have all the assets in the world but still have to land a big fish. This summer, though, they could easily land two, like Utah Jazz forward Gordon Hayward via free agency and Indiana Pacers forward Paul George via trade.
And, remember, they already beat the Wizards in a seven-game series this spring without them.
The Toronto Raptors, meanwhile, could lose Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka in free agency, and the Atlanta Hawks are about to blow up the roster. In short, the path to the upper echelon of the Eastern Conference remains open, and this is Washington’s chance to secure a space in that tier for the foreseeable future.
Doing so, however, is going to require deft work by the front office, and a willingness by owner Ted Leonsis to do something he never has before: pay the luxury tax. The Wizards are one of only three teams in the NBA that has never paid the tax. If they are ever going to, now is the time.
This is Washington’s chance to prove to Wall, and to the rest of the league, the Wizards mean business. As star players from around the league consolidate themselves into a handful of teams, one thing links all of them together: quality management and ownership.
“Top salaries are now high enough for everyone,” said one league executive, “that chance of success and personal satisfaction are becoming as important as getting every last dollar.”
And that is what the Wizards have to prove this summer: that the chance of success and personal satisfaction in Washington are high enough that Wall won’t need to follow in the footsteps of Kevin Durant and Paul and look elsewhere when his contract winds down two years from now.
Doing so will likely mean a heavy financial commitment this summer — specifically to Otto Porter Jr., the No. 3 pick in the 2013 NBA draft, and arguably the top restricted free agent on the market this summer. There’s little doubt Porter looks better playing next to Wall, arguably the best creator of open three-point looks of any point guard in the NBA, than he would elsewhere — including Brooklyn, where the Nets are expected, both by the Wizards and other teams around the league, to potentially throw a max offer at Porter once free agency begins.
It would be a high price to pay for Porter, and would almost certainly push Washington into luxury tax territory. Choosing not to, however, comes with other concerns — most notably, how to replace Porter when the Wizards are already over the salary cap. The same goes for retaining fellow restricted free agent Bojan Bogdanovic, as well as potentially using the team’s mid-level exception to continue to round out the bench after a savvy acquisition of backup point guard Tim Frazier — fixing arguably Washington’s biggest weakness last season — for a late second-round draft pick.
None of these are easy questions to answer. But these are the kinds of questions teams are forced to answer when they have success, and when they have to make hard choices about their path forward.
That’s the situation Washington finds itself in as free agency begins. How those questions are answered could determine how Wall feels about his future with the Wizards — and, ultimately, whether he’s willing to remain in Washington for years to come.
No pressure, though.