The Washington Wizards were one game — and one unlikely Kelly Olynyk explosion — from the Eastern Conference finals last season, but the disappointment of being so close was quickly outweighed by optimism that they were building toward a home among the league’s elite. Owner Ted Leonsis went all in on the optimisim, opening his wallet to hand out a max contract to Otto Porter and a super-max extension to Wall, and prepared to write his first ever luxury tax payment. Money ain’t a thing when you’re winning, and the Wizards were ready to be the team they hadn’t been since Michael Jackson dropped his first solo album. They had familiarity with coach Scott Brooks’ system and continuity at a time when the rest of the East was experiencing upheaval.
But the further removed they are from that Game 7 in Boston, the more that season feels like the peak for this version of the Wizards. All that seemed to work in their favor last season — relative good health for the starting five, impeccable chemistry, home dominance and a next-level Wall — has abandoned them during what has been a flustering encore. And that was before the Wizards were greeted with the news Tuesday that Wall, their five-time All-Star and franchise cornerstone, was going to have his third knee procedure in two years. Wall is expected to miss at least six weeks, possibly eight, and the Wizards are encouraged that he’ll return before this season ends. But Bradley Beal stresses that despite the setback the Wizards are far from finished.
“I laugh,” Beal told Yahoo Sports in response to a question about the Wizards’ fortunes running out. “We haven’t done anything yet. I feel like we still haven’t played our best basketball. How could we have peaked already?
“Everybody doubts us,” Beal told Yahoo Sports after the Wizards won their second game since Wall was a shut down, a 102-96 victory Tuesday night that snapped Oklahoma City’s eight-game winning streak. “Granted, I’m not doing it by myself, but I’m still capable of leading the charge as best as I can. I feel like that is a challenge that I accept. Because they’re saying now we’re not a playoff team. That’s a challenge to not only me, but also my teammates in here. We’re going to be locked in and do whatever it takes to make sure we are.”
Whether Wall is able to return to a team that is still in playoff contention depends on what the Wizards are able to accomplish in his absence. They Wizards won’t find a hero at the trade deadline, with the team unlikely to move a core player or a first-round pick just to tread water. If they manage to avoid a precipitous fall and get back a semi-healthy Wall in late March, the Wizards would be one of the more intriguing lower seeds and a dangerous out, considering the experience of a young team that has made three second-round appearances in the past four seasons. But the goal for this season wasn’t to just get in. They were supposed to contend. And the heightened expectations contributed to what has been a rather joyless campaign in which the Wizards await for something to work out in their favor.
The Wizards have been woefully inconsistent. They recently had a failed team meeting in which players left with bruised egos and hurt feelings. They’ve been punished for their hubris with some disappointing losses against some of the dregs of the league. Former Wizards coach Eddie Jordan once spoke of the need for teams to be like squirrels and “harvest their nuts” by collecting wins against inferior foes in anticipation of those inevitable rough patches. These Wizards rarely displayed the necessary urgency and often seemed “too cool for school,” as Leonsis recently told The Washington Post.
Those stinkers against Dallas, Brooklyn, Utah and Phoenix look even worse now that the Wizards have such a limited margin for error without Wall. Had they taken care of business, they’d have a much more secure cushion while missing Wall for possibly 20-plus games. The most disappointing aspect of that ambivalence goes beyond the challenge they now face, because the Wizards may have also squandered their best opportunity to reach the conference finals — or go further.
LeBron James has never led a more vulnerable team since his return to Cleveland. Boston has had no trouble adjusting with an almost completely different team from last season, but that regrouping remains untested in the postseason. Toronto has found success with a completely different playing style but don’t exactly invoke fear. The Wizards were supposed to take advantage of that opening, but it could close sooner than later.
Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and the Philadelphia 76ers are coming. Milwaukee has a potential, perennial MVP candidate in Giannis Antetokounmpo and won’t have any trouble attracting a coach who could take that franchise to another level next season. The Celtics will only get better with the continued growth of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown and the addition of a healthy Gordon Hayward. While Washington remains confident in the potential of a core that includes Wall, 27; Beal and Porter, both 24; Kelly Oubre Jr., 22; Tomas Satoransky, 25; and Morris, 28, this league doesn’t make guarantees. And their rivals won’t sit around waiting for them to complete a takeover.
Wall had a great summer, routinely posting his workouts and bike rides on Instagram to show everyone how motivated he was to elevate the Wizards. But he hasn’t been the same since banging knees on Nov. 7 during a home loss against Dallas. He had a platelet-rich plasma procedure and had fluid drained from his knees a couple of times. After a road loss in Oklahoma City on Jan. 25, the knee had ballooned to the point of unbearable. Though his playmaking and shot-creating are elements the Wizards will surely miss over the next few weeks, Wall’s infectious energy — which can be both uplifting and a detriment — will be most difficult to replace. Wall is such a dynamic force on the floor, but he wasn’t able to summon that player enough.
His teammates knew he was laboring, which contributed to this slog. Brooks said he was “dragging a little bit.” Morris usually sits next to Wall on the team plane and was well aware that his teammate was “uncomfortable” for much of this season. Satoransky, who will get the opportunity to start, said the need for surgery “proves he wasn’t the John that we knew” on the floor this season. He was settling for jumpers instead of attacking the rim. He picked his spots when exerting energy. He made the All-Star Game for the fifth straight year, but it came at the expense of him actually participating in the game. “He will fight through anything,” Brooks said of Wall, who famously returned to a playoff series against Atlanta in 2015 despite a broken non-shooting hand.
Before Wall’s injury, the Wizards were going to approach the second half of the season like a procrastinating student cramming before the final exam. But now, their books have been stolen and the laptop has crashed, making it difficult to pass. Aside from Wall’s physical struggles, Morris missed all of training camp with a sports hernia and was slow to regain his form, and Porter has been fighting through a hip ailment. Beal has stepped up to secure his first All-Star appearance, but he will have to assume more responsibility without the backcourt mate who makes everyone around him better.
The Wizards made this harder than it had to be, and the basketball gods rarely forgive teams that take opportunity for granted. “Everybody had high hopes for us, but nobody critiques us like ourselves,” Beal told Yahoo Sports. “We want to be better. We know we should be better. So, we come in with that mindset. We know we haven’t been playing up to our potential, but we know we don’t have a choice right now.”
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