In a strange and controversial way, J.J. Barea did the Washington Wizards a favor. His petty retort to John Wall’s petty instigation may have united the Wizards in a manner that their infamous boomerang of a team meeting could not. Nothing forces a team to act like a team better than over-the-top criticism from an opponent.
Barea is the bad guy now because he made the breathless declaration that the Wizards don’t like Wall. Out of vengeance, Barea offered the ignorant guess Monday night after the Dallas Mavericks guard learned Wall had called him a “little midget.” Predictably, the Wizards defended Wall and condemned the pesky Barea because that’s what good teammates do, even when they’re going through difficult times. So there’s proof that basic team chemistry still exists.
The conversation shouldn’t be over, though. It’s easy to shred Barea for making an outrageous claim while talking trash, but now that the hot take has been extinguished, there remains a nuanced issue: Why is the Wizards’ disjointed vibe so detectable that an opposing player can easily weaponize it?
That question alludes to the Wizards’ greatest dilemma and the biggest change that must occur for them to salvage this season. And it starts with Wall, their best player, their most vocal leader and the Pied Piper of nearly everything right and wrong about them.
Wall just made his fifth straight all-star team despite missing 11 games and grinding through a knee injury. Even when limited, he’s one of the game’s best players. Eight seasons into his Hall of Fame-caliber career, you can write three things in ink about Wall: He will be highly productive. He will execute at least one superhuman feat per game. And he will play with remarkable effort. Etch those things in stone if you wish. Those are earmarks of his game. He’s a star, and because the Wizards have him, they will be in the playoff discussion from now until the end of Wall’s prime.
But that’s not good enough anymore.
For the Wizards to be better, Wall has to be better. His all-star backcourt mate, Bradley Beal, has to be better, too. But it starts with Wall because he remains the team’s great influencer. And contrary to the natural assumption, better isn’t necessarily about doing more. Wall is already doing things that only a handful of point guards have ever done. For him, better involves playing smarter, channeling his energy in the right places, competing with consistent focus and having greater awareness of how he influences the team.
To attack Wall, Barea said: “I don’t think his teammates like him, either.” It came from his mouth as effortlessly as Wall’s “midget” comment. Since then, Wall has shrugged it off, and the Wizards have reassured him it’s not true. But we’ve all lived long enough to know that relationships are complicated, especially with star athletes, and it’s possible to like a person overall but find fault in some of his characteristics.
Wall is the most respected player in the Wizards’ locker room. He is also the most watched. His teammates notice everything, good and bad. They love Wall’s court vision and ability to create for them, but they also must tolerate some of his bad shots and reckless decisions. They love his energy, but they endure some nights when he plays too fast and wild on offense and too loose on defense. They are comfortable with Wall being The Man, but they need him to be more inclusive at times and think of them not as side dishes that play supporting roles in success but then receive excessive blame during failure.
Wall doesn’t need to get dramatically better as a player. He must improve as a leader, and to do so, he has to be more cognizant of the full range of his influence. When he’s at his best, he has been able to inspire and will his team. When he’s off, he can lower the spirit with his actions because, like most stars, the game is so natural and almost easy to him that he doesn’t always grasp how to elevate complementary players.
Ultimately, it’s not about being liked or disliked. It’s about Wall, Beal and the Wizards understanding one another and functioning fluidly. The onus is on Wall, who is blessed with the ability to alternate between attacking scorer and make-others-better passer, to become an all-star chameleon: He needs to be whatever the Wizards need him to be on any given night because he’s the one player versatile enough to do that.
It’s a challenge that Wall welcomes, but it’s made difficult by his pride. Wall has felt underrated for most of his NBA career. There’s so much he wants to prove, and it leads to him following some rigid and antiquated beliefs about stardom. His once-rocky relationship with Beal is solid now, but Wall still needs to be the alpha. He wants to take the last shot. He’s a pure point guard, but he would like to be a 20-point scorer, too, in case the haters doubt his scoring ability.
Wall has good intentions. But while he says the right things and aspires to be greater, he’s a 27-year-old still learning how to lead, and the Wizards don’t have a Paul Pierce-type veteran to teach him.
“Brad has been our MVP this year,” Wall said during a recent interview. “People say, ‘Well, you fell back.’ I didn’t fall back. I dealt with injuries early on, which I can deal with. And if he has it rolling, I’m going to find him. That’s my dog. He’s an all-star. There’s no doubt about it. He’s proven he can do a lot of things when I’m not there. When I came back, I didn’t want to take away from his shine. Just let him still play his game and me still be aggressive and try to get everybody else in a flow because he can get his at any time.”
Later in our conversation, Wall went back to barking at the mysterious “people.”
“People get mad that I’m not getting 20 [points] and 10 [assists],” said Wall, who is averaging 19.3 and 9.2. “I’ll end up averaging 20 and 10 at the end of the year. I’m averaging a lot more than what I was now that I’m healthy.”
As a five-time all-star, Wall should be able to ignore these faceless “people.” The only people he needs to please are his teammates. Perception doesn’t matter anymore, only winning.
As the season progresses and the struggles continue, Wall is becoming more introspective. Thinking about team chemistry, he wondered this week: “What changed so much in a short period of time?”
It’s a question for Coach Scott Brooks and the entire team to mull. But it’s a question that Wall must answer. The expectations have changed. The pressure has risen. Everyone must adjust, starting with the player who announced before the year that this would be “wolf season.”
Wall doesn’t need to do more. But he can do better. The Wizards will reach their potential only when their wolf determines the most responsible way to use his influence.