Normally a headline like the one above wouldn’t be a cause for concern to any team heading into NBA All-Star Weekend. February is a particularly exciting month for fans, front offices, and players for two reasons. First, players are looking forward to time off after inevitably being injured or in e cases, flat out exhausted after enduring 50+ games of the regular season. All the nagging hamstrings and ankle sprains begin to pile up and players welcome the chance to rest, reset, and let loose, before embarking on the most crucial stretch of games leading up to the playoffs. Second, February 8th is when the infamous trade deadline starts to rear its head. Front offices everywhere start to pound the phones in a Wolf of Wall Street fashion with hopes of landing a last minute acquisition that could push them over the hump for title contention. Whether it’s a blockbuster trade for a perennial all-star, or securing depth on the bench for deeper rotations, the trade deadline is always a steady source of drama and speculation. Locker room gossip and differing agendas seem to surface around this time which gives writers like myself a steady diet of headlines to pull from.
This week, the Washington Wizards have earned the title of the most perplexing team heading into the break. They are without their star point guard John Wall and his teammates appear to be having more fun without him. Not only that, they’re winning and starting to gel as a unit during arguably the most important stretch of the season.
Wall has had problems with how the media has portrayed his accolades and past play. Last year the 2010 first overall pick was very vocal about the lack of attention he felt he was receiving for his stellar play. Other star point guards such as Steph Curry and Russell Westbrook were stealing headline after headline on their way to MVP seasons while Wall was averaging a career high in points and assists with 19.4 and 9.3 respectively. Even after a 207 million dollar contract extension that establishes Wall as a franchise cornerstone until 2023, there’s definitely some head scratching behavior from his teammates that can’t be ignored.
Wall is undergoing his second knee procedure of the season that will leave him sidelined for 6-8 weeks and the Wizards are thriving in his absence. They’ve won four games in a row while averaging a team high in assist rates with new rotations that include Markieff Morris, Otto Porter Jr, Tomas Satoransky, and a cast of other players playing together in perfect harmony. I won’t go as far to attribute any of the Wizard’s recent success to Scott Brooks for various reasons that I won’t get into in this piece, but the uptick in ball movement and field goal percentage since Wall’s injury is definitely a cause for concern. Especially for a team fighting for a fourth place seed in the East one game behind the Cavaliers. The Wizards have gone from 3-6 record in late January with Wall starting, to 5-0 with him sidelined. His backcourt running mate Bradley Beal had some interesting remarks after their 115-98 win over the Orlando Magic.
“It’s fun basketball,”Everybody gets a touch, everybody gets shots. It makes life easier. It keeps the locker room close, it keeps the camaraderie going. At the same time, that’s the type of team we need to be in order for us to be successful.”
Beal later confirmed that the quote was taken out of context and that there’s no way any sane person could believe that the Wizards are better without Wall. However, Marcin Gortat took to twitter to put his own spin on the Wizard’s new found playing style.
Unbelievable win tonight ! Great "team" victory!
— Marcin Gortat🇵🇱 (@MGortat) February 2, 2018
No one really knows what Gortat was actually getting at with the air quotes, but the prevailing theme here is that the team morale is higher when Wall is out of the lineup. Even though he’s averaging 9.3 assists per game the Wizards are having more fun without Wall, which could have dire implications come playoff time. Mavericks point guard JJ Barea also chimed in with his opinion on Wall after they dragged the Wizards by a score of 95-78 on January 23rd. Barea stated:
“Now I have somebody in the NBA that I don’t like. That’s my first. I don’t like him at all now. But I don’t think his teammates like him, either. So it’s nothing new for him.”
Whether the accusations against Wall are true don’t really matter at this point. it does look like said accusations are having a snowball type effect on the Wizard’s chemistry. Washington is one of three potential threats that could come out of the eastern conference and give the Warriors a run for their money alongside Boston and Toronto. However, until they can incorporate their star guard with their new found success, Wall could find himself in a different situation come February of next year. Perhaps a UK reunion with Demarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis?