It seems so long ago now. We have all but forgotten how great John Wall was during the 2017 playoffs, how he elevated from perennial all-star to stone-cold postseason terminator and how he exited the stage angry and unsatisfied after the Washington Wizards lost Game 7 in Boston, declaring to all that, despite the personal glory, the season felt like a failure to him.
The moment seemed to be the beginning of a star’s enlightenment. Wall was only 26 then and about to enter an impassioned prime. In pro sports, young stars first play to build a reputation, and once they mature, they play to win, to carve out a legacy. Wall had his chisel in hand. A season after recovering from surgery on both knees, he was thriving under a new coach, Scott Brooks. He had a fully developed co-star, Bradley Beal, at his side. The Wizards, while not perfect, had a respectable core of standouts and role players. For the first time in almost 40 years, their wildest dreams felt like practical aspirations.
Less than two years later, the Wizards are in a ditch. Again. And Wall, once their brightest star, has watched his image and body crumble. When the Wizards signed him to a four-year, $169.3 million supermax extension in July 2017, they thought they had solidified hope. Instead, it seems Wall and the franchise will be forever cursed by that massive contract.
By season’s end, Wall will have played in just 73 of a possible 164 games since signing the lucrative extension, which doesn’t even kick in until next season. A year ago, more knee problems limited him to 41 games. This year, he was done after 32 — and he’s still getting hurt. Wall had season-ending surgery in January to remove bone spurs in his left heel and possibly avoid a more serious injury. But then, after a freak accident at his home, the more serious injury occurred anyway: The Wizards announced Tuesday that Wall ruptured his left Achilles’ tendon after taking a fall at his residence. He needs surgery and will be out for about a year after that, which means the 2019-20 campaign already could be a lost cause for Washington.
It’s a devastating blow for a franchise in a tenuous position. To the Wizards, the highs of 2017 aren’t such a distant memory. They think they can regain their status as a rising team. They think they can avoid a roster detonation and rebuilding process. So far, they have resisted the temptation to break up the trio of Wall, Beal and Otto Porter Jr., even though they have limited options with three max contracts clogging the payroll. And when asked about tanking recently, owner Ted Leonsis practically scolded anyone who thought that way and declared his team would push for the playoffs. Beal, the all-star guard, backed him up. But for all their defiance, for as well as the Wizards have functioned at times without Wall, the effort will be in vain. They’re not going to the playoffs unless they make a foolish short-term move before Thursday’s trade deadline just to earn the right to lose in the first round.
Furthermore, with Wall almost guaranteed to miss at least 50 games next season, the Wizards will need more than a draft lottery miracle to work around the $37.8 million salary cap hole that Wall’s salary will represent. It doesn’t matter if they earn enough ping-pong balls to form the face of Zion Williamson. In the short term, the Wizards are stuck. Wall’s misfortune should force them to start thinking more long term.
It’s over, sadly, this era. The Wizards have finished .500 or better for five straight seasons, made the playoffs four times and advanced to the second round three times. It’s a solid run, nothing glamorous, but this was supposed to be only the beginning. The door slammed quickly, though. Looking back, Wall probably peaked soon after his game-winning three-pointer in Game 6 against Boston two years ago. He jumped on that scorer’s table and shouted about Capital One Arena, then the Verizon Center, being his house. He barked and pounded his chest and saved the season. Then, for three quarters in Game 7, he seemed capable of doing something legendary: closing out the Celtics in a for-it-all game in Boston.
You may recall that he ran out of gas during a horrendous fourth quarter, and the Wizards went home sullen. Still, for a 13-game postseason run, Wall was everything you imagined he would become when the Wizards drafted him No. 1 overall in 2010. He averaged 27.2 points and 10.3 assists that postseason. He annihilated the Atlanta Hawks in the first round, opening with a 32-point, 14-assist masterpiece and then closing out the series with a 42-point performance on the road in Game 6. In the next round against Boston, he forced Game 7 with that clutch shot. In one of the great games of that postseason, Wall scored 40 in a Game 2 shootout against an emotional Isaiah Thomas, who countered with 53 on his late sister’s birthday.
The national opinion of Wall had never been greater. He still needed to improve in a few areas, including leadership and defense. But he was an all-NBA third team selection for the first time, and he left you expecting more because he was talking like he ached to win. Playoff pain often lifts stars and their teams to greatness. Was this Wall’s time? Was it the Wizards’ time, at last?
Wall hasn’t been the same since then. As a result, the Wizards haven’t taken another step forward. Team chemistry has been a problem. Wall’s leadership and inconsistent practice habits have come under scrutiny. He was fined for confronting Brooks during a heated workout earlier this season. And while Wall is still good for 20 points and nine assists a game, injuries and Father Time have robbed him of much of the electricity he used to display.
When Wall returns, you must wonder if he’ll still be special. For certain, he will be capable of putting up numbers, but his speed and athleticism separate him. He’s the best run-and-jump point guard this side of Russell Westbrook. Will he be able to impact games with his energy? It was becoming an issue before he ruptured his Achilles’ tendon.
Before the injury, it was believed that Wall would be untradeable because of his contract and signs of decline. Now, the Wizards couldn’t give him away. It’s unfortunate because, just two years ago, everything was coming together at the right time. Wall was on the verge of becoming a superstar. He will come back to a team building around Beal as the centerpiece.
There is no question now that Beal stays, barring some ridiculously lopsided trade offer. The rest of the Wizards? Instead of trying to stabilize just enough to make the playoffs, the team had better get proactive in reducing future payroll commitments (already on the hook for about $117 million for next season), finding space under the luxury tax for promising free agents-to-be Tomas Satoransky and Thomas Bryant and reshaping the roster. They need to formulate and commit to an aggressive three-year restructuring plan, but team President Ernie Grunfeld’s uncertain future complicates such maneuvering.
It’s on Leonsis to start acting and thinking like this is a crisis. His $169.3 million franchise player just fell down, and when he gets up, he might not be the same. Forget the 2019 playoffs. Forget patience. This era is over. It’s best to tackle the enormous problem in front of them: How, under the weight of Wall’s misfortune and contract, to shape something new.