LAS VEGAS — On paper, the Washington Wizards unquestionably have gotten better this summer.
Trading Marcin Gortat for Austin Rivers not only improved the balance of Washington’s salary cap sheet, it also removed a personality conflict from the locker room. Subsequently adding Dwight Howard — his own issues aside — meant the Wizards not only moved on from Gortat but upgraded talent-wise. The one key contributor from last season who left in free agency, Mike Scott, was adequately replaced by Jeff Green, and first-round draft pick Troy Brown Jr. showed flashes of potential here during summer league play.
But even after all of those moves, something else will determine whether the Wizards can get back to where they were two years ago, when they nearly reached the Eastern Conference finals, or whether they remain where they were last year, when they were the eighth seed in the East and lost in the first round: the play of John Wall.
Two years ago, Wall was ascendant. He was a borderline MVP candidate. He was named to an all-NBA team for the first time. That meant he was eligible to sign a designated veteran player extension last summer — which Wall quickly agreed to, accepting a four-year deal worth roughly $170 million that will begin with the 2019-20 season.
Last year, Wall never got going — and neither did the Wizards. Knee issues limited him to 41 games and sapped his effectiveness when he did play. A public feud with Gortat, among others, turned Washington’s locker room into a running joke in league circles. Some even argued that the Wizards were better without Wall when they briefly played well with Tomas Satoransky starting in his place — but that perspective faded as they fell back to earth.
The first-round playoff loss to the Toronto Raptors in six games was a fitting end to a miserable season.
So what happens now? The Wizards appear to be all but done for the summer. With 14 roster spots filled, not counting players on two-way contracts, the Wizards seem to have the team they will bring to training camp — assuming they don’t waive Ian Mahinmi and stretch his salary over this next five seasons. Washington has until Sept. 1 to decide whether to do that, with the only benefit being to cut the team’s luxury tax bill — which, with full credit to owner Ted Leonsis, it appears the Wizards are set to pay for the second straight season. That includes paying Howard the full taxpayer’s mid-level exception — a bigger financial commitment than what Howard was initially expected to receive and one that also cost Leonsis more than twice Howard’s $5.3 million salary in luxury taxes.
All of this is to say the Wizards have done what their star point guard publicly asked of them when the season ended. He campaigned for Washington to get more athletic big men, which it did. Howard, even at this advanced stage of his career, is still far more athletic than Gortat. So is second-year center Thomas Bryant, whom Washington smartly grabbed after the Los Angeles Lakers waived him to clear cap space.
Now the Wizards need Wall to return the favor by returning to the player he was two years ago. That’s not only true because the Wizards want to return to the upper half of the East’s playoff picture — where they see an opening now that LeBron James has left for the West — but also because the Wizards need Wall to show he still can be the guy who put pen to paper on that massive contract extension last summer.
The Wizards have seen a lot of the competition soar past them over the past 12 months. The Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers look set to rule the East for the next several seasons. The Milwaukee Bucks have Giannis Antetokounmpo, who could take another leap forward now that Mike Budenholzer has taken over as coach. The Raptors probably will begin slipping down the standings but still should be formidable before virtually all of their contracts come off the books. The Indiana Pacers look as if they are here to stay after former DeMatha star Victor Oladipo’s breakout season.
A year ago, the Wizards were in the conversation with those teams. Now? They are nowhere to be seen. The difference is Wall’s play last season. Getting back to where he was two years ago would lift the Wizards right back into the mix — and give them a chance to make a deep playoff run.
If he fails to do so, Washington could be left facing some difficult choices going forward, with a capped-out and expensive roster and few ways to improve in the long term while risking the loss of someone such as Kelly Oubre Jr. in free agency if he gets a lucrative offer.
The Wizards have two paths to follow next season: a return to relevance or a harsh new reality. John Wall will determine which one they take.