They’re a time bomb, yet they’re afraid to acknowledge the ticking sound. After a shoot-around late Tuesday morning, they tried to extinguish their latest controversy — a series of expletive-laced verbal confrontations during a practice last week — by trying to make the squabbles seem like normal family disagreements. They tried to characterize the incidents as old news that the media found out about after the wounds had healed. Perhaps they would have been more persuasive if their words weren’t delivered in such a flat manner.
“It’s something we’ve put past us,” said guard John Wall, who was fined an undisclosed amount after yelling a profanity at Coach Scott Brooks during the heated practice. “We talked about it, apologized about it, kept it at that.”
Said Brooks, “This has happened many times, in all of sports and even the championship teams.”
Of course, teams fight. Sometimes it’s good that they fight because it allows the air to clear. But the Wizards aren’t some dominant squad that just got tangled up in their best intentions. They are a leaderless crew with a long history of chemistry problems, and now that they’re playing lifeless basketball on the court, this was bound to happen. Their problems represent issues with status, privilege, trust and inequitable player management. Nothing galvanizes this team. There is simply no belief.
While Brooks and the Wizards’ maximum-contract trio of Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter Jr. attempted damage control, other people anonymously indicated that little has been resolved. Several people painted it as an issue of Wall against the rest of the locker room. There’s a belief that Wall has been coddled for too long and that neither the coaching staff nor the front office can properly manage him.
In that context, it’s interesting to revisit a previous Washington Post report in which multiple people recalled Beal saying during the infamous practice that he’s “sick of this s---” before telling team President Ernie Grunfeld, “It starts at the top.”
On Tuesday, Beal was asked about the Wizards’ culture. He hesitated at first before letting loose with a series of loose thoughts.
“I feel like our culture is what we created it to be,” he said. “We basically tore the team apart and created a new team, starting with John as the foundation, and we created it into what we are now. We’re a team that’s a playoff team. You know, but we’ve struggled. We’ve had our fair share of struggles.
“I wouldn’t say we’re a team that’s not in unison. I wouldn’t say that we’re a team that hates each other. I say it every game: We’re in the locker room, it’s positive energy. It’s not like I hate the next man and the next man hates that man. It’s none of that. It’s just figuring it out on the floor. We just can’t seem to put it together right now.”
Break Beal’s comments into two parts. At first, in a nice way, he’s saying the Wizards built the team around Wall, and the results are the results. Then he starts to generalize and smooth things over. Still, there’s a strong insinuation from Beal that the Wizards have been intentional in everything they’ve done, right and wrong, and that includes building around Wall without accounting for some of his shortcomings.
Simply put, the Wizards have created a monster. Wall is not a bad guy. He should not be blamed for all of the team’s flaws. But he suffers from entitlement. He thinks he can do whatever he wants, and when his four-year, $170 million “supermax” contract kicks in next season, he will be virtually untradeable. This is his team, which is great when he’s playing like a top 15 NBA talent. But at his worst, it feels like Wall is squatting as the franchise player. He won’t go. You can’t make him go. You will do things his way.
And that’s part of why the Wizards are so inconsistent. Wall’s focus and intensity wavers. He dominates the ball, and he is not as good as he once was at making other players better. Even as the Wizards try to adjust their style and encourage more ball movement, Wall, 28, is going to play his way. That was fine a few years ago when he was carrying some extremely limited squads. But right now, the Wizards are as deep and balanced as they’ve been during his nine seasons. Nevertheless, Wall has yet to fully adjust.
The most troubling part of all the arguing last week is that it started with Wall being challenged, and what was his reaction? To recoil and curse out his coach. Until Brooks coaches him harder — until the front office creates an atmosphere of accountability in which it is easier to coach Wall harder — the Wizards won’t excel. They might get out of their early-season hole and catch the last train to the playoffs with a .500 record. But considering that Wall, Beal and Porter have been together for six seasons, that’s not worth celebrating. That’s not even holding steady. That’s nothing more than stagnant and shameful.
There should be more to the Wizards. There isn’t. They are dead inside. They can wake up temporarily and mount an incredible comeback like they did during a 125-118 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers on Tuesday night. They can win a few games on talent, but when it gets hard, they show how empty they are.
So it would be foolish not to shake up this dynamic in a major way. It would be foolish not to make multiple deals between now and the February trade deadline. But with a roster full of big and undesirable contracts, it won’t be easy without having a fire sale. And for as disappointing as the Wizards have been, they aren’t in such a dire place that they should throw away two all-stars and a team that has made four playoff appearances in the past five seasons without establishing some kind of new direction.
To his credit, Wall wants to be a part of the solution.
“I love being a Wizard,” he said. “I’ve been here for nine years. It’s where I want to finish my career.”
In a league in which stars prematurely force their way out of difficult situations, it matters that Wall wants to remain in the District. It shows his character. Then again, he also likes being king. But his goal shouldn’t be just to wear the crown. He needs to wear it with distinction. He needs to realize he rules a kingdom that no one currently respects.
Will Wall do something about it? Or will something have to be done about him?
Wall still has a choice because the Wizards are wary of detonating this team. But listen to the ticking sound. One way or another, they’re going to explode.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.