The Washington Wizards have rattled off five straight victories without injured star point guard John Wall, making it a popular line of thought to wonder if the “Ewing Theory” — columnist Bill Simmons’s idea that a team can actually be better off when a prominent star is out of the mix — applies to Wall and the Wizards.
In truth, it isn’t the Ewing Theory that best fits this unexpected winning streak. It’s Occam’s razor, which states that the best explanation for any given situation is the simplest — and most obvious.
For the Wizards, the most straightforward explanation for their current hot streak is that after months of underachieving and acting like they had everything figured out, losing Wall has reminded them that they have no margin for error in his absence. That has caused them to play with the kind of focus they have needed all season. Now, despite losing Wall, they finally look like the team that was expected to challenge for a top spot in the Eastern Conference — not the one that has spent the past three months frustrating fans in Washington and confounding the NBA with inconsistency.
Much of the blame for this up and down season has to land at Wall’s feet. He is now a five-time all-star, and the unquestioned face of the franchise. And while his numbers this season are still impressive (19.4 points and 9.3 assists per game), his play hasn’t been to his usual standard.
That’s why this publication didn’t select him to be among the seven all-star reserve selections from the Eastern Conference this season, though the coaches felt otherwise.
Now that we know more details about Wall’s knee issues, his performance this season is at least partly explained. Everyone involved knew Wall was playing at less than 100 percent. This surgery should, in theory, allow him to return in mid-to-late March at or close to full health heading into the playoffs.
But what kind of team will Wall find upon his return? Much has been made of Washington’s ball movement with Wall sidelined; the Wizards have had at least 27 assists in all five games Wall has missed, topping 30 in three. It’s not as if they never moved the ball before his surgery, though. With Wall, the Wizards were 11th in the NBA in assists per game — and less than a full assist per game away from ranking fourth.
Again, there is an obvious explanation for the increased ball movement: The Wizards are sharing because they must. Bradley Beal is the sole Wizards player at the moment who can break down a defense and create his own shot. For the remaining players to score, they have to move the ball.
Compare that with when Wall and Beal are on the court together. There are few teams with two defenders good enough to slow down both of them simultaneously. As such, Wall and Beal became a crutch for the Wizards time and again this season.
There’s also the fact that the five games in this winning streak have come against the Atlanta Hawks (the NBA’s worst team); Oklahoma City Thunder (which has now lost four games in a row, and is 1-4 since Andre Roberson was lost for the season with a ruptured patellar tendon); Toronto Raptors (a great win, though against a team the Wizards have typically dominated); Orlando Magic (the NBA’s second-worst team); and Indiana Pacers (missing its starting backcourt of Darren Collison and all-star Victor Oladipo). Not exactly a murderers’ row of opponents.
So what should be taken from these first five games without Wall? For starters, the Wizards have to include Otto Porter Jr. more. Wall and Beal will get tunnel-vision at times, and Porter will be forgotten about as a result. Wall needs to make sure Porter gets involved on a regular basis.
Wall also needs to be more engaged, both when he has the ball and when he doesn’t. ESPN recently reported that according to tracking data by the company Second Spectrum, Wall stands for 76.5 percent of the time when he’s on the court — the most of any player in the NBA.
That needs to change. Undoubtedly Wall and the Wizards would point to his knee issues, as well as the significant offensive load he carries. But he doesn’t have to sprint around for 48 minutes a night; he just has to stay active enough for teams to respect his energy — and for him to be engaged defensively, which is the biggest impact that can be felt upon his return.
Simply put, the Wizards are not a better team without John Wall. Washington knows its schedule is going to get harder — beginning Tuesday night in Philadelphia, and continuing with a home game against the East-leading Celtics Thursday. The Wizards know there will be fallow periods between now and Wall’s scheduled return.
What the Wizards need is for their players to realize they have to play like this every game, even when Wall comes back. Teams around the league wonder if the Wizards are ever going to get their act together and play like a team that’s capable of consistently contending for the East crown, or if they’ll remain one that feels disappointing and confusing.
If the Wizards learn to address these issues without Wall, his absence will have been more than worth it. And if they do, perhaps this will be the postseason things finally work out differently for Washington.
For that to happen, the Wizards will need Wall on the court, not on the bench.
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