That was May 12, 2017, more than three years ago. Wall had made a season-saving, Game 6 three-pointer against Boston in the Eastern Conference semifinals. It felt like a prelude, a 26-year-old entering the mastery phase of stardom. But there was more finality to it than anyone realized.
Wall never played a full season for the Wizards again. In fact, he lasted just 73 more games and one first-round playoff loss to Toronto. He suffered through an avalanche of despair: injuries, surgeries and the crushing death of his mother. He signed a $170 million extension in July 2017 and declared he wanted his jersey hanging in the rafters one day. But that contract became an insurmountable anchor that necessitated a messy departure.
Wall is gone now, off to Houston via trade, walking away on a surgically repaired left Achilles’ tendon, leaving behind the only NBA team he has known. At his peak, he led a franchise allergic to consistency to four playoff appearances in a five-year span. He was named an all-star five times. In the community, he set a standard for engagement and benevolence. Few have represented D.C. with so much determination, enthusiasm and pride. Yet it all feels sadly unfulfilling right now.
Somehow, it’s a goodbye that seems both premature and overdue. The trade also defines bittersweet: It’s hard to watch a franchise icon exit unceremoniously, in the middle of a pandemic, after a two-year, injury-marred absence. But it’s a gift that, in this swap of aging, disgruntled point guards on supermax contracts, the Wizards acquired an upgrade in Russell Westbrook, who is a former MVP and a nine-time all-NBA selection (Wall has just one) with, most importantly, a solid record of durability.
For the Wizards, the trade doesn’t solve all their problems. But in the short term, it makes them a solid playoff contender again. They won’t be wondering what Wall has left after a difficult rehabilitation, and they don’t have to mend a fraying relationship. If Westbrook and Bradley Beal are at their best, this backcourt pairing has the potential to be the finest in the NBA.
They form a duo that could combine to average 55 points a game if necessary. How the rest of the pieces fit — and whether Westbrook’s ball-dominant style will allow for more than a two-man game — is a more complicated question. But the Wizards’ clear goal is to retool and not rebuild despite missing the playoffs in back-to-back seasons. If Westbrook and Beal can coexist, this is a situation that gives them a better chance of keeping their 27-year-old shooting guard happy and motivated.
What a strange way for Wall to go, though. He is almost an afterthought. Westbrook is the superstar. Wall is the player who was really good a couple of years ago, but now people refer more to the $132 million remaining on his contract than his talent. It’s unfair how quickly we move on, but it’s standard operating procedure for professional sports.
Despite all his good work, Wall’s body never allowed him to show everything that was in his heart as a basketball player. And it messed with his head. It frustrated and angered him. It contributed to his erratic behavior. When he tried to play through knee and Achilles’ problems, he strayed from an attacking, pass-first style and became more enamored with scoring and shooting jumpers. His defense vanished. His scowl intensified.
Wall is a full-speed dude, a blur, who has been forced to slow down, be patient, evolve. And he is still figuring out what that means, how that looks. He may get there, but it is likely he won’t before crashing a few more times. He requested a trade recently, but he did so after realizing his time as the alpha star was over.
Never forget how much Wall wanted to win for the Wizards, for the city. And never forget that the franchise squandered his best years because of roster mismanagement and bad luck. As the first draft pick of Ted Leonsis’s tenure as managing partner, Wall brought stability and a higher level of competitiveness to Washington, but there were too many ifs, maybes and flat-out mistakes. The Wizards had a chance to create something special, something similar to the run the Toronto Raptors have enjoyed. Looking back, they failed at key moments, such as drafting Jan Vesely in 2011 or sticking with Randy Wittman and Ernie Grunfeld for too long or dreaming of a Kevin Durant homecoming.
It’s hardly a crime for a star to fail to lift the Wizards to championship heights. The franchise has endured limited relevance for more than 40 years. Wall lifted the ceiling a little. Beal has done the same. Still, it’s not very high. And no matter how many triple-doubles Westbrook has left in him, he is unlikely, at 32 years old, to elevate the Wizards’ status much higher.
This is why a teardown makes more sense than a return to low-end contention. The Wizards just traded Wall and a protected future first-round draft pick for a better, healthier (and older) version of Wall. It means that, in their desperate attempt to avoid rebuilding, they missed the playoffs for two straight seasons just to re-create the model of a team that never advanced past the second round.
To his credit, General Manager Tommy Sheppard has accumulated more intriguing young talent for this current version. But while Westbrook is an intense competitor and a respected teammate, he has seldom been a point guard who passes ahead and inspires an offense of exceptional ball movement. So his style, coupled with Coach Scott Brooks’s affinity for Westbrook, could hinder some of the offensive development of forwards Deni Avdija and Rui Hachimura.
Perhaps right now it’s more valuable for the kids to learn from Westbrook’s fire and work habits than to showcase their versatility. However, it sure seems that the Wizards are renovating a house in two dissimilar ways — win now and youth movement — and hoping each wing will match. You can consider it a fascinating, unconventional project or the disastrous team-building cop-out of a franchise uncertain about choosing a direction.
More than three years later, Wall isn’t the only one frozen in a moment. That Game 6 shot was also the Wizards’ last great memory. It was cool and all, but it merely staved off elimination, tied the series at 3 and delayed the pain until the Wizards fell apart in Game 7. The moment was a mirage of the kind of glory that Wall and the Wizards wanted to achieve.
They beat the buzzer, but it still meant they were out of time.