While there may be some valid criticisms of how Wall has managed things both on the court and in the locker room this season, the issues Washington is facing this season are not about his shortcomings. To understand the heart of the issue, it’s important to understand the unprecedented amount of pressure the Wizards put on him to shape the culture of the franchise as soon as he was drafted.
Washington was desperate for a breath of fresh air when they won the 2010 Draft Lottery. They were a few months removed from #Gungate, the biggest black eye in the history of the franchise. The Wizards needed a great player, and a great person who could change the perception of a franchise mired by decades of irrelevance and tomfoolery.
Fair or not, Wall was expected to be a franchise savior from day one. The day after he was drafted, the team threw a glitzy event at the Verizon Center to welcome their new hero. They literally gave him the red carpet treatment. There were banners outside the arena that said: “WALL: Game Changer”. Then-mayor Adrian Fenty even declared June 25th was “John Wall Day” in the District. All of this for a player who hadn’t played a single minute in the NBA.
In spite of enormous challenges, Wall has succeeded in Washington. The team has enjoyed more success with him at the helm than at any other time since Wes Unseld retired. Over the summer, the team rewarded him with a $170 million supermax deal after earning All-NBA honors which will keep him under contract through the 2022-23 season. The team has drafted young stars like Bradley Beal, Otto Porter, and Kelly Oubre and brought in veteran talent like Marcin Gortat and Markieff Morris to complement his strengths.
Despite all this, Washington has either been stagnant or taken a step backward this season. It looks like the team, as currently constructed, is not quite ready to take the next step into contention. They’ve spent most of the season giving lackluster efforts against marginal teams and put themselves in the middle of a crowded, mediocre Eastern Conference playoff race, in which there is very little separation between the third and seventh-best teams. Their struggles have caused many to question Wall’s leadership and chemistry with his teammates.
But why does this team continue to feel that they can take nights off and simply not play with a full effort against bad teams? The answer is the same now as it was the day that John Wall was drafted: The Washington Wizards lack an identity.
Think about all the teams who have won the NBA Finals over the past ten years (Warriors, Cavaliers, Spurs, Heat, Mavericks, Lakers, Celtics). Other than one team (which we’ll discuss in a moment), they all established very clear identities as a franchise from the top of the organization down. For example, when we watch the Golden State Warriors, we know we’re going to see a team that shares the ball, takes efficient shots and clamps down on defense against most lineups. They build their roster around players who understand those concepts, fit their style of play, and buy in. Just look at how Kevin Durant, arguably the second-best basketball on the planet, adapted to Golden State’s style, rather than try to get the rest of the team to adapt to him.
The only team in recent memory who was able to win a title without a strong identity was Cleveland, and they’re the exception which proves the rule. They had the best player of this generation, an owner who had enough money to pay his way out of the team’s missteps, and they still needed everything to break their way over the final three games of the 2016 NBA Finals to get a title.
The contrast is even more glaring when you take a look at how well his old team is managing without him. Miami’s identity didn’t change when LeBron left. They still find diamonds in the rough who develop into useful contributors and play with a strong defensive presence that has been the hallmark of their franchise all through Pat Riley’s tenure in Miami. It’s the biggest reason why Miami is currently within striking distance of the Cavaliers in the standings, in spite of everything they lost when LeBron decided to go back home.
Unfortunately, the Wizards have built their franchise more like the Cavaliers than the Heat. They have built a team around players who they believe can transform them into contenders just based on their abilities alone without consideration of anything else. That’s a problem. If we are honest, John Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter are not franchise players on the level of a LeBron James or Kevin Durant, despite getting paid like them. They are all very talented and certainly can be key contributors to a championship team, but if you took any of them and traded them for someone else, would they be any closer to finding an identity? What characteristics would this team and franchise have?
That’s where the issues start. When you see the Wizards this year, there isn’t anything they do at an elite level. They haven’t consistently done anything at an elite level since Wall has been here. The offense has been up and down through the years, the defense hasn’t been able to maintain their peak levels under Randy Wittman, even though they have better defensive talent for the modern NBA.
If the Wizards want to be an elite team, they need an identity that not only resonates from the front office, but also with the leaders on the team and the coaching staff. Without an identity, you don’t build expectations and you don’t give your team a clear direction. Is this going to be a defensive-minded team? If so, then the leaders of the team have to buy in. If they can’t, then you have to remove them or at least sit them down. When was the last time you seen a player sat down on this team for not committing to the team’s concept? That’s what Pat Riley demands, that’s what R.C. Buford and Gregg Popovich demand, and that’s what the Wizards need. Without it, there is no accountability for these players and no standard for them to meet.
The team’s struggles this season should not be blamed solely on John Wall or Bradley Beal’s flaws. They’re not the ‘problem’, if you will, but a symptom of the team’s inability to develop a winning culture and the unrealistic expectations they place on their stars to overcome all the team’s issues through their talents. Until the franchise can establish an identity from the top down, it’s going to be difficult for the team to go any further than it already has with Wall or anyone else in his place.