Everyone has a take on John Wall and the Washington Wizards these days. Some say they’re better off without him and point to the 10-4 record the Wizards have compiled since he underwent knee surgery in January. Others scoff at the idea and point to the fairly obvious fact that Wall, a five-time all-star, is better than Tomas Satoransky, his second-year understudy.
The truth is somewhere in between. And the undeniable fact is that the Wizards signed Wall to a four-year, $170 million contract extension that doesn’t kick in until July 2019. And they did this for a reason. Whether these Wizards will be the team that finally advances to a conference final or again falls flat in the playoffs, it will be with Wall — assuming he returns from his recent surgery — on the court and heavily involved.
Still, the Wizards have been surprisingly successful without him — Wednesday night’s 109-101 loss to the defending champion Golden State Warriors aside — and have managed to do so by employing a different style of play. Their recent run raises the question: What will happen when Wall comes back?
“There’s no question that we can add some of the things that we’ve done,” Wizards Coach Scott Brooks said before Wednesday’s game. “But we also want to make sure he brings what he brings. The guy is the fastest guy in the league going basket-to-basket. He generates four or five easy buckets for himself, and he generates six or seven easy three-point shots for our perimeter shooters, let alone our bigs for layups. We need that.”
That is the conundrum when trying to decipher what to make of this Wizards surge without their star. The Wizards have fundamentally changed who they are without Wall. They averaged 23.2 assists (11th in the NBA) and 281.7 passes per game (27th) before Wall left the lineup. Entering Wednesday night’s game, Washington was leading the NBA in assists (30.2) and ranked 10th with 310.2 passes per game over the previous 13 without him.
But in playing that way, the Wizards have sacrificed in other areas — and, notably, in areas in which Wall thrives. They are attempting more than two fewer drives per game and five fewer free throws, and they’re drawing three fewer fouls.
The stats, indeed, back up the eye test. Sure, the Wizards are moving the ball more with Wall watching from the bench. But that’s because Wall’s absence leaves just one player — Bradley Beal — capable of consistently breaking down the defense. That ball movement is necessary for the Wizards to have any chance at consistent offensive production.
“We have changed a little bit how we play,” Brooks said. “We’ve had to. I’m not taking away anything from Tomas, but he doesn’t have the abilities that John does. So we had to change to have the success we are having.”
So will the team look the same when Wall returns? While Satoransky has more than capably filled in for him — averaging 11.2 points and 6.1 assists in this stretch entering Wednesday’s game — Wall isn’t going to return and take seven shots per game as Satoransky has been. And Brooks is quite aware that the Wizards need Wall to do the things that make him great for them to have a chance to advance in the playoffs.
But the key to figuring out how to reinsert Wall effectively could be Otto Porter Jr. A quick look at Porter’s numbers before Wall’s surgery (13.5 points and 1.8 assists while taking 11 shots per game) and after (19.4 points and 3.1 assists while taking 14 shots per game) again confirms what the eye test would: When Wall and Beal are doing their thing, Porter often becomes the forgotten man.
When he’s active and engaged — as he was in scoring 29 points on 10-for-17 shooting against the Warriors — the Wizards are a far different team.
“There’s no question it’s a combination of myself, Otto and the team getting Otto more opportunities,” Brooks said. “I have to do a better job, and Otto has to be more aggressive and put him in better positions to get more looks. But what makes us a good team, when we’re whole, is that everybody is a live player on the court. I think Otto has really stepped up these last 15 or 20 games, and I think it can help us when John gets back.”
When the Wizards are at their best, every player on the court is a threat — and that lies at the heart of what Washington needs to be when Wall eventually returns. As fun as the Wizards have been lately, the playoffs expose all weaknesses. The crucible of a seven-game series against the same opponent — and the extensive scouting that comes with it — would reveal the limitations of a Wizards team without Wall.
What the Wizards need is for Wall to come back and be the best version of himself — something he clearly wasn’t for large stretches of this season when his knee slowed him. To beat the elite teams in this league, elite talent is required. And Wall remains an elite talent.
But it is combining that elite talent with Beal, with an incorporated and invigorated Porter, with an emerging role player in Kelly Oubre Jr., that finally could lift the Wizards to the place they have spent four decades hoping to reach.
“We don’t want [Wall] to change,” Brooks said. “Tomas has played better because he’s gotten more confident. When John comes back, Tomas isn’t going to play those minutes, but the 15 to 20 minutes is going to be better because he knows he can do the things he’s been able to do with John out.
“But John is elite. We don’t want to take his pick-and-roll game away. We don’t want to take his speed coast-to-coast away. We want to make sure he understands we want that and we need that. But the other guys are still going to have continue to play well and continue to grow as well.”