Less than 12 months ago, with his left knee in pain, John Wall sought an out-of-town specialist for advice. Surgery was recommended — never a positive diagnosis for a franchise point guard in the middle of an NBA season — as he planned to miss significant time.
Fast forward to December, and not much has changed for the Washington Wizards. Wall is in pain again, though this time it’s his left heel. He has sought the opinion of a distant specialist and the result again will be surgery — never a positive discovery for a franchise point guard with a massive contract extension about to kick in. Unlike last January, however, Wall won’t just sit for weeks. He will be sidelined for the rest of the 2018-19 season.
In 2018, the Wizards followed a cycle, ending in the same precarious position in which they started. Their year looked like a merry-go-round of melodrama and sounded like an oldies station playing all the hits. Though the start of this season presented its own challenges, not much has changed from January to December.
“It’s two different seasons. Two totally different teams but uh, they’re similar, I guess, in a lot of ways,” all-star guard Bradley Beal said.
Since the start of the 2018-19 season, the Wizards have absorbed body blows of bad luck. Reality never matched the restrained hope brought by the Dwight Howard signing after the 33-year-old center showed up to training camp injured and months away from spinal surgery. The team will end this calendar year with Otto Porter Jr. still recovering from a strained muscle and Markieff Morris on his way to see a specialist about nagging pain in his neck and upper back.
There have been plenty of self-inflicted wounds, too. Wall and Bradley Beal called out teammates after the fifth game of the season. Details of a stormy November practice leaked. The Wizards leveled a rare fine at Wall for directing an expletive at Coach Scott Brooks. After ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith read a juicy quote from an unnamed Wizards player, teammates tried to sniff out a snitch.
While they appealed to broader audiences mostly for their off-court dysfunction, the Wizards were just as flawed on the floor. They will end 2018 ranked 28th in the NBA in three-point percentage, 28th in defensive rating and last in rebounding percentage, the statistic that measures the available rebounds a team grabs over the course of a game. Washington has already lost to three of the four worst teams in the Eastern Conference (Atlanta, Cleveland and Chicago).
“We had some ups and downs and we will try to turn things around,” said Tomas Satoransky, the new starting point guard.
This mantra has carried through the organization, as the Wizards front office has doubled down on the core of the roster in an attempt to save this season.
This month, the team packaged Jason Smith in a three-team deal to acquire Sam Dekker — a move that weakened the locker room but aided the books for a team with three maximum contracts catapulting it into the luxury tax for a second straight year. Dekker, a fourth-year player, has proved useful with Porter missing the last 10 games.
Washington made another move with a short-term view by trading away Kelly Oubre Jr., its last homegrown prospect, to rent 33-year-old veteran Trevor Ariza before he hits free agency in July. While no one was aware that Wall was heading to season-ending surgery, the Wizards did know that Wall had been troubled by the injury, and even missed the Dec. 10 game against the Indiana Pacers because of pain. Even so, by executing the Oubre-Ariza swap, the Wizards still felt it best to make a move that will potentially only impact the next few months.
Despite 2018 not living up to expectations, there have been highlights. Satoransky has grown in confidence; he capably plays as a regular in the rotation and has resumed his role from earlier in 2018 as Wall’s stand-in. During the Wizards' final game of 2018, a 130-126 win over the Charlotte Hornets, Satoransky scored 20 points and dished out six assists.
Thomas Bryant, who the Wizards picked up off waivers, continues to blossom as the starting center in place of Howard. On Dec. 22, Bryant tied a franchise mark by going 14 for 14 from the floor. He also became the fourth player in NBA history to hit at least 14 field goals without a miss. On Saturday night, Bryant collected his second career double-double (21 points, 10 rebounds).
Satoransky and Bryant’s big performances led to the Wizards’ first win with Wall back on the sideline. Washington also won its first game without Wall last January. Not much has changed since.