John Wall had followed doctor’s orders, but nature was calling.
In the weeks after his early January surgery to remove the debilitating bone spurs in his left heel, Wall, the blur of a point guard, had been slowed to a crawl. If he wanted to get somewhere fast, Wall needed to use a weight-bearing scooter to take him there. Otherwise, he remained strapped in a bulky boot he had been instructed to wear at all times outside of showering. The Aircast was necessary for a tendon that was so sensitive, cushion was required for every step he’d take.
But on the morning of Jan. 29, team officials said Wall told them, he simply needed to use the bathroom. He didn’t strap on the boot he had been given. Instead, he put on slippers. As he walked toward relief, his left foot, unprotected, slid across the tile floor, he said.
What happened next would dramatically alter the Washington Wizards. The team that once boasted of drafting and developing three max-contract players and whose majority owner, Ted Leonsis, had declared as recently as last week that none of these players would be traded, made a complete about-face. All because Wall slipped and fell inside his Potomac mansion.
“The John Wall news was deeply devastating," Leonsis said Thursday evening, “and it just sort of reverberated in a very, very deep way for us."
His stumble was forgettable. So unremarkable, that when Wall reported it to his doctor, who would later hold a news conference, the player couldn’t recall the details. He never even heard a pop, he said. Even so, the slight spill had severed 95 percent of his left Achilles’ tendon. On Monday morning, less than a week following the fall, while performing a separate procedure to clean out the wound from the original surgical site, Dr. Wiemi Douoguih, the team’s director of medical services, noticed the torn tissue around his foot.
The discovery had stark ramifications: Wall had already expected to miss the rest of the 2018-19 season, but he would require yet another surgery to repair his Achilles’ tendon. Now he was staring at a year of therapy, immobility and all the frustrations that come along with possibly losing a year of his prime. The Wizards were facing a future without their franchise point guard, who is scheduled to make nearly $38 million next season for a team that was projected to be over the luxury tax, until at least February 2020.
Douoguih reached for a phone to call Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld. In turn, Grunfeld had to interrupt Leonsis on his business trip to break the news. Soon, word spread through the organization.
Wizards players grieved in their own ways. One teammate passed on his condolences as though Wall had lost more than a tendon. Another young player posted his prayers on Instagram. Others texted while Bradley Beal told his backcourt partner to just focus on taking care of his 2-month-old son, Ace. Enjoy your family, Beal said. Appreciate life. Beal couldn’t offer much more than that; the shock of the injury was too much to take in.
“I haven’t talked to him in depth about it because that’s tough," Beal said Wednesday. "I just let him kind of get in his own thoughts.”
Beal knew life with the Wizards, as he knew it, would never be the same.
“It actually adjusted a lot, not just a little bit," Beal said of how Wall’s injury impacts his mind-set. "That changes the whole everything moving forward, in terms of — hell, if we make a move the next day and a half, in the summer, or onto next year. It definitely plays a factor.”
Less than seven hours after Beal said these words, his prediction came true.
On Jan. 31, Leonsis was unaware of the magnitude of the bathroom slipper incident when he told WTOP radio: “I love when [fans] go, ‘Trade Bradley Beal, trade John Wall, trade Otto Porter. And I go, ‘Okay, for who?!' We’re not trading any of those players.”
At the time of Leonsis’s interview, the Wizards had already budgeted, planned for Thursday’s trade deadline and imagined what next year would look like. But one phone call wrecked everything.
“We really felt terrible for him, and knowing that he would not be back at the beginning of the season,” Grunfeld said, “it made us change our approach to how we were going to proceed."
After informing Leonsis about Wall on Monday night, Grunfeld started dialing other teams. Wall’s big contract was looming and because of the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement and insurance, the Wizards would receive no relief in the salary cap for his injury. Suddenly, not repeating as a luxury tax team this season became the top priority. The Wizards transitioned into sellers ahead of the trade deadline.
Washington’s front office devised a new game plan consisting of three major goals:
1. Get out of the luxury tax, which meant shedding one of the three maximum contracts.
2. Land young talent that could be part of the team’s future while staying competitive in the present.
3. Continue developing the team’s breakout players, Tomas Satoransky and Thomas Bryant, who now form part of a new starting lineup.
By Tuesday, when the Wizards announced Wall’s injury, more trade discussions were happening. All involved Otto Porter Jr., the team’s talented third option on a hotly debated maximum contract. While the Wizards heard several pitches, including with a first-round pick attached, they did not bite on an offer that would force the team to take back the same amount of salary, according to several people with knowledge of the organization’s thinking. Washington wanted financial flexibility and on Wednesday night found it in Chicago. The team traded Porter and a second-round draft pick to the Bulls for Bobby Portis and Jabari Parker.
The Wizards were already a fan of Portis, having pegged him high on their draft board in 2015. A versatile big who can play the four or five, score inside and out as well as rebound the ball, Portis will be a restricted free agent at the end of the year.
Parker, who spent much of the offseason healing his body and showed up to Bulls training camp out of shape, longed for a fresh start and a chance to play the three spot. He has a $20 million team option at year’s end. The Wizards want to evaluate the pair before making a decision in free agency and with the deal, the team moved closer to being out of luxury tax territory. Later that night, they passed that threshold: The team traded Markieff Morris to New Orleans Pelicans for Wesley Johnson, and the deal dropped Washington to $267,000 under the tax.
Ahead of the Wizards’ Friday night game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, only three active players remain from the team that won 49 games and advanced to Game 7 of the 2017 Eastern Conference semifinals.
Just over three months ago, the Wizards were content with their core. The team started the season with the belief it had one of the best starting fives in the Eastern Conference. Morris was healthy and motivated in a contract year. Beal was on track to further establish himself as one of the best shooters in the league. Porter was a year wiser and expected to make a big leap. And Wall finally had his athletic big man in Dwight Howard.
This projected starting five would play fewer than 130 minutes together.
Only one remains from this group: Beal — the newly appointed alpha dog of a franchise seeking a new direction. On Friday before the game, Beal and Leonsis plan to meet. The majority owner wants to thank him for his leadership, congratulate him on being an all-star again and gauge his head space on making the playoffs. The Wizards, however, do not believe they have to gauge where Beal’s heart is during this pivotal moment in Wizards history. Does Beal want to remain on board?
“Yes,” Grunfeld said. “[Beal’s representatives] have indicated he wants to be here. He wants to be part of what we’re building.”
Though one slip changed everything this season, the Wizards still believe they have their footing.