Traditionally, point guard and center have been the two most important positions in basketball. Each position had defined duties—one to distribute, the other to anchor the team in the post. Today, the players playing those positions defy all traditions associated with it—except the two in Washington, D.C.
Once considered the archetypes for their respective positions, John Wall and Dwight Howard are watching others develop out of the casts they helped create in the “modern era.” As a pass-first, ball-dominant, below-average 3-point shooter, Wall’s game has somehow withstood basketball’s overnight evolution and he’s maintained his status as an elite guard against his peers that rely heavily on scoring, particularly from the perimeter.
As a perennial All-Star—and one of the best point guards in the NBA—it’s easy for Wall to hide the traits he lacks. He can get away with not being a Stephen Curry or Damian Lillard-type of perimeter scorer because his ability to score inside is uncanny. In 2016-17, Wall was fourth among guards in points scored in the paint per game, trailing only Russell Westbrook, DeMar DeRozan and… Derrick Rose.
Unlike other elite point guards, as our own Osman Baig has opined, Wall does not move much without the ball. Per Zach Lowe, at one point last season, Wall spent nearly 77 percent of his time on the floor standing still or walking. Sure—that sounds awful, because it is, but he mitigates the awfulness with passing. Last season, he trailed only Westbrook in assists per game, secondary assists and assists adjusted, which also measures passes that lead to free throws. Wall needs to be more involved in the offense when the ball isn’t in his hands, but for the sake of positive pixels, at least he makes sure his teammates benefit from him controlling the rock.
Howard’s game—and reputation—has not advanced during the evolution either. Despite putting up 17 points and 13 rebounds per game last season, the eye-popping numbers have done little to quiet his doubters. Once an All-NBA center, Howard dominated the game with his presence inside. He demanded touches in the paint—and still does. Howard got 9.3 paint touches per game last season and was fifth in post-ups. The game has changed, though. The modern big can step outside, shoot from deep and pass outside the restricted area. Howard might want to become that player, but with age and history against him, it’s hard to realistically imagine him successfully transitioning into that role.
The two are meeting at a peculiar time. While the rest of the league is trying to keep up with the Warriors’ shooting and versatility, the Wizards are rocking a different look—leading a counterrevolution of sorts. So far, no one has come close to matching the Warriors. Trying to replicate their style without the talent has proven to be a surefire way to fail.
Howard is past his prime—and even if he wasn’t, pundits would still question whether he and Wall would work as a pair in today’s league. They’ve been labeled as hard to work with – as weak leaders. And on top of the questions surrounding with their character, they’re playing in a league that’s looking past their respective skill-sets.
If it’s going to work—if Wall is going to remain elite and if Howard is going to retake control of his career in Washington—both need to embrace the unusualness of the team’s situation and lead the unique retrogressive approach.