The injury to John Wall was devastating to him personally and to the Wizards franchise, which had committed a supermax contract to their five-time all-star. While there’s nothing good about a torn Achilles, one possible somewhat silver lining was that when Wall rehabbed the team could take a break from lower seed playoff purgatory and remake itself.
The previous version of the Wizards hit its ceiling and had begun to regress. Injuries, payroll limitations, diminished play, poor roster moves, etc. took a toll. It turns out, game seven versus the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Semifinals was the pinnacle for that group, not the start of something bigger.
With Wall out of action, the front office was free to lower expectations and infuse the roster with young and cost-efficient talent. Bradley Beal could become the unquestioned team leader instead of the co-lead. A retooled roster allowed for a fresh start and the possibility that a healthy Wall could return to a roster with a higher ceiling than the one he left.
Under the direction of Tommy Sheppard, the Wizards did at least some of that. They’ve replaced a veteran group of players by casting a wide, inexpensive net to bring in a group of young players who have had some tantalizing moments in their first real NBA minutes. Beal elevated his play and had his best season. And the Wizards are going to add a second consecutive lottery pick in the upcoming draft.
If everything seems to be going to plan, why am I more worried now than I was before this plan was laid out?
From the start, I was intrigued by the idea of a Wizards retool. I didn’t think it was necessary to embark on a full-blown rebuild that included trading Beal, and I still don’t. They transitioned to a younger roster built around Beal and those young players have seen time on the floor with opportunities to start.
But there’s a nagging feeling that they haven’t done enough. Beal has been remarkable offensively, without a doubt. The Wizards need for him to be an All-NBA level performer, if not a top-ten player for the retool strategy to work. The NBA is a star league — just look at the list of recent champions and the players on those teams. The problem: one star isn’t enough, and that is no slight to Beal, the NBA’s second leading scorer.
So, while Beal has been scoring at will this season, it’s fair to ask whether the Wizards spent their developmental year doing the work necessary to prepare the team to win in future seasons. For example, what if they’d tasked Beal with channeling his scoring skills into more of a playmaking role? What if he could have made things easier for the youngsters around him? What if he’d helped shorten their learning curves by keeping them consistently involved in the offense and helped provide them with opportunities to apply their skills to NBA games?
Instead, they chose to build a system where Beal is their sun. He guzzles possessions and shoots his way into productivity while the other players around him fit in where they can. If that’s the plan, how will they reincorporate Wall, who himself has always been the center of the Wizards universe when he’s been on the floor? Aren’t they just going back to the future with a guard-centric approach? And if so, have the Wizards really recreated themselves?
I’ve been wrestling all season with whether or not this matters. Maybe the players on the roster are just okay and got the development they need to fill roles over the next season or two. Perhaps no one outside the guards warrants significant usage. Those are all very real possibilities. And maybe what’s most important for the Wizards is that Beal ascends to star status – after all, this is a star-driven league.
Maybe the smartest thing is for the Wizards to follow Rockets model, where James Harden and previously Chris Paul, followed by Russell Westbrook are the center and everyone else has has a simple job – shoot threes and play defense. Re-signing Davis Bertans would follow that model (minus the defense).
Or perhaps they’re trying to recapture what they were when last healthy in 2017. Emulate the group that included Otto Porter, Markieff Morris, and Marcin Gortat through a combination of trades and draft picks (Bertans, Rui Hachimura, and Thomas Bryant amongst others).
As fun as that team was, they leaned heavily on their guards. In that series vs Boston, the Wizards starting backcourt took 290 of the team’s 619 field goal attempts – a whopping 47%. This isn’t to take away from either Wall or Beal. Under intense scrutiny versus a tough defensive team, they each rose to the occasion more than once in that seven-game series. But the Wizards ultimately lost.
The problem in trying to recapture what they were is that while Beal has grown, Wall will be coming off a long layoff due to injuries — three consecutive seasons missing at least half his team’s games. In addition, the benefit of hindsight might reveal that the real lesson to be learned from that team is that it failed to maximize the talent they had on the roster.
Porter, Kelly Oubre, and Bojan Bogdanovic were on the roster. Those three players are averaging a combined 50.5 points per game for their respective teams. And that doesn’t include Tomas Satoransky, who struggled in limited minutes as a rookie, but less than a year later was more than ready for solid starter minutes when Wall missed time due to an injury.
The narrative was that those teams didn’t have the necessary complimentary talent but...they did — it just wasn’t allowed to, or ready to, flourish. Maybe the talent just isn’t here to have this dialogue right now and I’m jumping to the wrong conclusion. But, maybe it does, and it’s difficult to argue they’ve done enough to know.
There are no definitive answers, but what I do know is for all their limitations, the Wizards have found players who have something to offer. Hachimura, a rookie with 41 games of experience had a 22-game stretch where he averaged 15.4ppg on 57.5% true shooting, scoring in double figures in 20 of those 22 games…and yet they consistently struggled to keep him involved in the second half of games. Sound familiar?
Thomas Bryant hasn’t made the leap many were hoping for, but he’s still a hyper-efficient finisher near the basket and improved three-point shooter. I’ve been skeptical about Bryant’s long-term fit here, but he’s undeniably good at putting the ball in the basket. What has the team done to maximize that ability?
Troy Brown, the organization’s 2018 first round pick, played his best basketball as a secondary ball handler off the bench. The big reason he struggled as a starter was being forced into a more limited role off the ball.
If these young players can’t get a consistent role in the offense in a year of development, then what’s the point of a year of development? Sure, a seven-game series versus Boston wasn’t the right spot to put the ball in Oubre’s hands or get Bogdanovic more looks, but in the midst of a 24-40 season?
More importantly, where is the payoff for this high usage guard-dominant approach?
After trading Porter at the deadline last year, the Wizards allowed other players to be a bigger part of the offense. Over those 28 games, Beal had a 27.9% usage rate. Jabari Parker and Bobby Portis usage rates above 20% and Bryant was at 18.1%. The team’s offensive rating (points scored per 100 possessions) over that stretch was 111.9 and their record was 10-18 (.357 win percentage). The team’s ortg this season is 111.1 with a 24-40 record (.375 win percentage).
This is not a criticism of Beal either. He was still the biggest planet in the Wizards universe in that post-trade deadline stretch last season and played at an all-NBA type level. He averaged 27.0 pts, 6.3 assist, and 4.8 rebounds over those 28 games on 60% true shooting – the kind of production any team would be lucky to have and the type of production that made Beal the focus of trade talk throughout the summer.
However instead of building on that more balanced approach with better players, they’ve placed a heavy load on Beal to essentially run in place. Swapping out veterans for youngsters and shifting to an all-Beal all the time offense has them right where they were last season.
Of the top four teams in each conference, Beal’s current 33.8% usage trails only that of Giannis Antetokounmpo, the reigning MVP and MVP favorite this season. In the eight games together as starters, Beal and Shabazz Napier had a combined usage of 56.1%. That number is only going higher when Wall, who’s averaged a 28% usage rate the past five seasons, returns to the court. It also runs contrary to the more balanced approaches being used by the top teams this season.
Wall for years has said the team needs a third star, and that’s one way the team could go. But, maybe they could find success the way Toronto did this season by building a deep, solid roster where multiple players get the opportunity to maximize their talents.
A Beal-centric approach in a developmental year portends a guard-centric approach next season, and that doesn’t inspire confidence that the Wizards are heading in a different direction.
“I love seeing the ball move,” Tommy Sheppard said shortly after becoming the permanent general manager. “I love seeing athletic players come to play the game uninhibited. I don’t like guys who jam up the game. I don’t like the ball sticking. I love guys that play both ends, high intensity but that are great teammates and have high character. And I think that’s something that resonates. That helps you recruit. Every year, I think it keeps you relevant.”
Am I wrong for thinking that the logical path forward is for Sheppard and the organization to actually listen to what he said? Let Beal be the star he continues to grow into. Let Wall ease into his return to the court. Continue to add talent. But, let the players on the roster make life easier for Wall and Beal by letting them eat.