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John Wall and the Wizards are once again at a crossroads

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NBA: Washington Wizards at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The 2-9 Washington Wizards are at crossroads and that means one again John Wall too, is at a crossroads. In his ninth NBA season, Wall is facing a moment in his career, a fork in the road that could lead him down the path of high-paid irrelevance as a national punching bag, or another opportunity to kick down the door and reassert himself into the conversation of one the best players in the Eastern Conference and best point guards in the league.

It didn’t take much for this season to take a quickly unravel. After a disappointing campaign last season which saw the Wizards go from a Conference Finals contender to the eighth seed, there was an anxiousness about this season. They needed a fast start to ditch the drama which plagued last season and change the narrative around the team.

That didn’t happen. The Wizards lost a bitterly disappointing opener to the Miami Heat on a Kelly Olynyk tip-in and then quickly turned around and lost to the Kawhi-less Toronto Raptors. Things have only gotten worse since then. Let’s quickly review some of the lowlights:

  • John Wall responding to a question about Otto Porter’s 3-point shooting (or lack thereof) by saying this would be the last time he answers questions about Otto’s shot attempts.
  • Bradley Beal opined after a disappointing loss to the Sacramento Kings “Sometimes we have our own agendas on the floor whether it’s complaining about shots, complaining about playing time, complaining about whatever it may be. We’re worried about the wrong [expletive] . . . Wall followed that up with “We got guys who’s worried about who’s getting shots, where the ball is going on the offensive end. We should never worry about that.”
  • Zach Lowe wrote a piece for ESPN this week suggesting that “Trading Wall might be Washington’s only get-out-of-jail card.”
  • Stephen A Smith, the star of First Take has now set his eyes on the Wizards calling them an abomination and insinuating that John Wall’s frequenting of Rosebar was having a negative effect on the team.
  • John Wall responded to the criticism with what you could call, an honest session on Instagram Live.

WE ARE ONLY ELEVEN GAMES INTO THE SEASON!

The season has been a huge disappointment, but it would have been hard to imagine things going south as quickly as they have. That is, unless the Wizards never moved on from issues that floated to the surface last season.

Even though Marcin Gortat is longer here, some of the tension from the “Everybody Eats” era lingers. Although that iteration of this team sputtered to the finish line, the ball movement and ”team” (pun intended) basketball that best described their early stretch of play was enjoyable to watch and allowed multiple players to thrive in what looked like a sustainable style of quality basketball. The hope was that re-incorporating a special talent like Wall to an improving cast around him and with slight tweaks to his approach would pay off the Wizards. That hasn’t happened and chemistry has been an issue on both ends of the floor.

The max contract trio of Wall-Beal-Porter have a -6.7 rating in 240 minutes on the court together. That same trio has a +9 net rating last season and a +7.1 net rating in the Wizards’ 49-win 2016-2017 season.

More often than not, they just look joyless on the floor (although to be fair, there’s little to smile about when you’re 2-9). Instead of pointing fingers, maybe each needs to take a look in the mirror. Below is each of the max trio’s per 36 numbers in their best season compared to the current season.

John Wall per 36 minutes

BY YEAR PTS FG% 3P% FT% REB AST TOV STL BLK
BY YEAR PTS FG% 3P% FT% REB AST TOV STL BLK
2016-17 22.9 45.1 32.7 80.1 4.1 10.6 4.1 2 0.6
2018-19 21.5 45.7 26.9 70.6 3.5 8.1 3.9 2.5 1
DIFF -1.4 0.6 -5.8 -9.5 -0.6 -2.5 -0.2 0.5 0.4

Otto Porter per 36 minutes

BY YEAR PTS FG% 3P% FT% REB AST TOV STL BLK
BY YEAR PTS FG% 3P% FT% REB AST TOV STL BLK
2017-18 14.7 50.3 44.1 82.8 6.4 2 1 1.5 0.5
2018-19 11 45.3 38.1 80 4.8 1.6 0.7 1.6 0.7
DIFF -3.7 -5 -6 -2.8 -1.6 -0.4 -0.3 0.1 0.2

Bradley Beal per 36 minutes

BY YEAR PTS FG% 3P% FT% REB AST TOV STL BLK
BY YEAR PTS FG% 3P% FT% REB AST TOV STL BLK
2016-17 23.9 48.2 40.4 82.5 3.2 3.6 2.1 1.1 0.3
2018-19 23.8 46.7 34.8 78.7 4.7 4 2.5 1 1.2
DIFF -0.1 -1.5 -5.6 -3.8 1.5 0.4 0.4 -0.1 0.9

Each player, given their age and where they are in their career should be in the midst of the prime of their careers, yet each is underachieving and unable to stop the slide the team is on. When a team has multiple max players, there’s an understanding that it can lead to some deficiencies at the end of the bench, due to the cap constraints, but those should be mitigated by the fact that you have three max players. Problem is, the three haven’t been able to overcome their own flaws this season, much less the issues of the surrounding roster.

Bradley Beal, the player once compared to Ray Allen coming out of college is shooting has shot under 30 percent over the last eight games, despite averaging over eight threes per game. This, after already taking a step back from behind the arc last season. Even worse, he is averaging 3.4 “open” threes per game, and only shooting 29.7 percent on them. That’s just not good enough, especially for someone who wanted to talk about agendas after going 6-of-19 in their loss to the Kings.

Otto Porter, beyond the slow shooting start is not consistently making an impact in games. Every year we wonder if he will add more to his repertoire, become more of a threat off the dribble and have a consistent, aggressive mentality. Porter proponents will argue his lack of aggressiveness should be addressed by the scheme and is also a result of point guard play, and maybe there’s some truth to that, but it is also possible this is just who he is, a very good player whose usage and attack mentality will fluctuate from game to game.

Moving past that, this year alone, Otto has not shot a free throw since the Wizards played Portland in the third game of the season. In the eight games since, Porter is only averaging 3.7 rebounds per game. Yes, it is a small sample size, but that’s all it took for this team to once again become a national punching bag.

Despite that, all eyes are now on John Wall. Right or wrong, as the self-described “head of the snake” he is taking the brunt of the blows for the team’s slow start. Everybody Eats changed the narrative around Wall in ways that are more honest about some of his shortcomings but also exaggerate some of his weaknesses.

Should Wall carry the burden for the entire team? Of course not. Is it John’s fault that Otto Porter isn’t rebounding or that Brad is shooting more like Tony Allen than Ray Allen? NO! The problems here extend beyond the players to the front office and ownership but that’s a story for a different day.

The Wizards have $115 million in salary allocated this year to players not named John Wall and where this team ends up has as much to do with them as it does with him. They also have a coach who is in the middle of a five-year guaranteed contract who hasn’t been able to get the team out of its rut.

Unfortunately, that’s not how things work in the court of public opinion. Wall’s supermax contract doesn’t start until next season, but that’s the scale he will be measured against until it’s over. While it isn’t always fair, Wall has to assume some responsibility for Washington’s poor start. He can’t have two good games versus Miami and Toronto and then follow it up with poor outings versus Portland and Golden State. He can’t follow up a strong game versus Sacramento with a turnover-riddled eyesore versus the Memphis Grizzlies.

It’s on him to play with the contagious energy level like he did in their win over New York Knicks. For an athlete blessed with elite speed, his average offensive speed has gone from 4.43 to 3.92 in the past four years. When he doesn’t play downhill and then refuses to move without the ball in half-court sets, in a league where pace continues to climb, he’s putting his team at a competitive disadvantage.

These are correctable things but in year nine of his career, maybe this is who he is, an all-star with poor habits that make him more good than great. He can decide to approach every game like he’s approached the playoffs the past two seasons or he can decide that with a guaranteed supermax contract, he’s okay with how things are going and its everyone else’s fault but his own.

It’s remarkable that before his contract extension even kicks in, we are at another crossroads. For the first time since John was drafted in 2010, we can legitimately wonder if the wall that has been a constant for this team for nine years is going to weather the storm or crumble under this deluge of scrutiny.