Beyond Wall's aches and the team's rampant underachieving, this season of letdowns comes with terrible timing. The door was open for the Wizards to become a true East power, but instead of exploiting Cleveland's dysfunction and the conference's star exodus, they've created their own trouble and regressed to mediocrity. A year after winning 49 games and restoring hope, the Wizards have choked on enhanced expectations, and now that Wall is expected to miss six to eight weeks, they're left wishing they hadn't lost so many sleepy games to sub-.500 opponents.
They began Tuesday tied with Milwaukee for fifth place in the East, but they were only 4½ games from being out of the playoffs. That playoff cushion seems even smaller after you consider that Wall could miss more than 20 games while recovering. Can the Wizards, who were .500 during the 12 games Wall missed earlier this season, tread water for that long? It's doubtful considering the difficulty of their schedule upon first glance and how shaky they've been all season.
So what do they do?
In a word: nothing.
Nothing significant, at least. The Wizards are inclined to stand pat in reaction to Wall's latest surgery, and even though this roster is imperfect and possibly in need of substantial alterations, they are right to resist making a panic move. They should attempt to make a low-risk improvement or two before the Feb. 8 trade deadline. They figure to be quite aggressive if any notable veterans receive contract buyouts. But it's likely that their core — the Wall/Bradley Beal/Otto Porter Jr. max trio, along with Markieff Morris, Marcin Gortat and Kelly Oubre Jr. — will remain intact. And contrary to the disappointment and frustration of this season, it's best to remain patient.
The calls for change are getting louder, and it's only natural to react that way. There's a very legitimate fear that the Wizards may have built a team destined to stay in the 44-49 win range. It's reasonable to wonder whether last season's 49-33 mark and second-round Game 7 playoff run will represent this team's peak instead of its potential. But it's too soon to make a definitive judgment just 50 games into the next season, especially since the Wizards have a young core with only one member (Gortat) older than 28.
No one likes to wait, but the Wizards have benefited from patience during the development of Wall, Beal and Porter. They also aren't negotiating from a position of strength because Wall is injured, several players are performing below their normal level, and, for a team with nearly a $124 million payroll, they don't have many movable assets. Wall and Beal are all-stars. Porter has a no-trade clause for this season. They can always make a deal using their complementary pieces, but will it make them better? And at what cost?
The team has traded a first-round pick in three of the past four drafts and wants to keep its top selection this year. Oubre, their 22-year-old 2015 first-round pick, is having a breakthrough third year, and with Porter's hip issues, Oubre is valuable insurance. The Wizards are burdened by center Ian Mahinmi's contract; he's in only the second season of a four-year, $64 million deal. They've made some team-building miscalculations, with Mahinmi being the most troublesome, that limit their flexibility. But they also still like their team — despite the bouts of lost focus and deflating losses — and believe it's too young to blow up. The Wizards are optimistic because they've fared well against marquee competition and shown an ability to elevate their play. It makes them believe that the team hasn't stopped growing. They want to see more and keep evaluating.
In truth, they've invested too much not to be patient. Beal is only in the second year of a five-year, $128 million deal. Porter is in the first year of his $106.5 million contract. Wall signed a $170 million supermax extension last summer that doesn't even kick in until 2019. Those decisions weren't made lightly. The same can be said for the Wizards' decision to use more than $30 million in cap space in the summer of 2016. Once a team spends to the cap and maxes out its top players, it surrenders flexibility for several years.
This is the team the Wizards wanted. They put great value in continuity, so much that owner Ted Leonsis is about to pay the luxury tax. It's not good, strategic business to make such a long-term decision and then punt by January of the ensuing season.
"If we see something that's going to make us better, this year and long term, we'll look at things," Coach Scott Brooks said of the Wizards' trade deadline thinking. "This is a minor setback. And [John] will be back."
When Wall returns, Brooks and the front office must do a better job of helping the point guard maintain his body. They can't change his playing style, and why would they? Wall is a five-time all-star. He puts extraordinary pressure on defenses with his attacking style, and he's a solid all-around contributor. But even while letting Wall be Wall, the franchise must be smarter about his minutes, his workload and his practice time. In addition, Wall must be willing to play a simple game more often and eliminate some flash to maximize his longevity. The body can only handle so many jumps and reckless forays to the basket. If the Wizards, who had 40 assists without Wall in a victory over Atlanta last week, can improve upon their recent trend of better ball movement, perhaps Wall will see the positive results and share some of the playmaking burden when he comes back.
"That's another challenge, obviously," said point guard Tomas Satoransky, who is gradually developing into a core player. "When you're making all of those shots, it's easier to move the ball because you believe in one another . . . Another challenge is to keep passing the ball when we don't have a good shooting night. I think we just have to do that because it creates open looks. All of us can move the ball, and like I say, it's now the challenge to keep doing those things and find an easier offense for us."
Even if the Wizards have a losing record without Wall, there's a chance that they could grow. It kind of happened earlier in the season, when Wall missed two weeks and the team went 9-3 — their most consistent performance all season — upon his return. Then they fell apart again, and Wall quietly dealt with an amount of pain that he couldn't tolerate anymore.
This time, holding it together will be more difficult. But if the Wizards can manage, say, an 8-12 record during this stretch, they could still make the playoffs as a low seed. It's not ideal. It's not progress. But even without home-court advantage, the Wizards have enough playoff experience to be a difficult opponent.
So wolf season has become a familiar underdog season. It makes you want to tear your hair out. For now, that's better than tearing up the roster.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.
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