"Everybody eats," Bradley Beal said Thursday night. "Everybody eats. That's our motto, man. Everybody eats when we move the ball." He was smiling when he said it, because the Wizards had just beaten the Raptors for their third-straight win, all of which came without John Wall. Something strange is happening here.
This has been a Wizards season with many different low points. Back in October, they promised "no mercy" to Lonzo Ball and promptly lost to the Lakers. There was also that Cavs game, when Wall and Beal called themselves the best team in the East just hours before LeBron came in and dropped 60 on them. They lost by 35 to the Nets before Christmas, beat the Celtics on Christmas Day, and then went to Atlanta and lost by double–digits. They blew a 17–point fourth lead to the Blazers at one point, and they lost by double-digits to the Mavericks—twice. After that second Mavs loss, they got dunked on by J.J. Barea, publicly cursed Barea out, and then got run over by Russell Westbrook on national TV. Also, somewhere in the middle of this, the team held a players-only meeting that was described as "pointless."
Then, on Tuesday, we found out that John Wall was going to miss the next 6-8 weeks after surgery to clean out his knee. "We tried to maintain his workload," Scott Brooks explained this week, "And over the last week we saw that he was dragging a little bit. So we did that same thing–we met with [the doctors], and we decided that going forward it'd be best for him to get a little clean out." In a season full of dark moments, this should have been the darkest.
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But the Wall news really wasn't so bad. In a weird way, as a longtime Wizards fan slogging through this season, it was liberating to find out that nobody was imagining things. Wall hasn't looked right all year—per ESPN's Zach Lowe, he's spent 76% of the season either walking or standing, which makes him the most lethargic rotation player in the NBA. Even 40 year-old Dirk Nowitzki was running more than John Wall this season. Now we know why.
The Wizards entered this year with conference finals expectations, and after the past few months, and especially the past few weeks, they had become the least enjoyable Wizards team in years. After the OKC loss, Charles Barkley spoke for almost everyone who followed the team. "This Wizards team, man. Seriously, they stink," he said. "Like, I love my boy Scott Brooks, but this team, watching them play, they aren't good at all. ... Their half–court offense is awful."
And this is where it gets strange.
Wall's been gone for a week, and the half-court offense isn't awful anymore. The defense has been better. The Wizards have beaten bad teams (the Hawks), and they've beaten some very good teams—they won a rematch against the Thunder on Tuesday, and took down the Raptors on Thursday. I've heard a number of people warn against saying that the current version of the Wizards are better without Wall, but in the present moment, they very clearly are. How could anyone claim otherwise?
"We've played without John before," Otto Porter Jr. said this week. "So it's nothing new to us. We just gotta make sure we continue to execute our game plan. Playing together, ball movement, team defense." Those have been foreign concepts almost all year long, but for at least one week here, it's all fallen into place.
As Beal added: "You never take an All-Star like John for granted. What he brings to the team, and to the table. It's great that we're still able to function, and keep our chemistry high, and keep it rolling. That [OKC win] was just one game, though." The win against Toronto, including 25 second-half points from Beal, was another one.
There are mandatory qualifiers to any "Are they better without Wall?" conversation. First of all, it's been three games. Also, the Wizards are better without John Wall playing injured, but not necessarily better without a healthy Wall. Furthermore, the Wizards could be better because playing without their franchise player forces everyone else to be focused in ways they haven't been for long stretches of the season. And finally, it's pretty clear that even if the Wizards are better without Wall right now, they have a much higher ceiling if their superstar point guard returns to the lineup without forfeiting any of the ball movement and defensive progress that has emerged in his absence.
But if we're carefully qualifying the Wall conversation, we should also be honest: Wall played a central role in the first four months of dysfunction this season. He dominated the ball, he didn't move off it, and he made the Wizards easier to guard. He was mediocre (at best) on defense. He was settling for jumpers that defenses were all too happy to concede to a 41% shooter. And if some of those struggles can be explained by the injury, that's fine. But those are only some of the struggles.
News of that "pointless" team meeting only went public because Wall mentioned it on national television in an interview with Paul Pierce and Michelle Beadle. "Guys gotta put their pride to the side," he said. Then, in case anyone missed it on ESPN, he went back to the locker and reiterated that the team meeting was an ongoing source of friction. I'm not sure why he thought sharing any of this publicly would help solve the problems, but it did help remove all doubt that this year's Wizards had problems.
And most of the problems have been lurking for several years now. The Wizards talk too much and generally fail to deliver in big moments. Their defensive effort hasn't been consistent. Their offense gets bogged down. They struggle to do the little things that are generally the difference between 45-win teams and 55-win teams. And all of the criticisms of the team generally could apply to Wall just the same.
Of course, Wall has also been the most reliably excellent member of the organization for the past eight years. Despite bad coaches, shaky management, paper–thin rosters, and other stars who couldn't stay on the floor, Wall has been a constant. He played extremely hard, he played through injuries, and he got even better in the playoffs. He was the pulse of the franchise as it rose from the ashes of the Gilbert Arenas era. He's been awesome.
This summer he was rewarded for his efforts, and the combination of more money and greater expectations will complicate the story from here. Wall is due to make $170 million over the next four seasons. He approached this season casually and it trickled down to teammates, and that's been happening for too long in Washington. As Beal emerges as a full–blown star and Otto Porter continues to grow as a sidekick, the prevailing question of this era will be whether the franchise player can find a way to play that also optimizes the stars around him. The Wizards still need more help off the bench, and they need more cap room, and they need a lot of things, but more than anything, they need Wall to be a better leader and a smarter player if they ever want to win anything that matters.
We'll see if Wall gets there. For now, there are 6–8 weeks to learn about everyone else.
"I like the spirit of the group," Scott Brooks said as his team processed the Wall news this week. "We haven't played particularly consistent basketball all year, but we've had some good games, and we've had some good games without John. I know if you feel sorry yourself, you're missing the boat. Because no one in the league is feeling sorry for us. We have to embrace the challenge, and I think our guys will."
"We didn't get off to a great start," Beal said. "We're still not where we want to be. But I think the beauty of it is that everybody around the East is just neck-and-neck, so, it's just a few games out of third. We gotta take advantage of it."
In Wall's place there's Tomas Satoransky. He's got goofy size and he plays extremely hard. He's like a human knuckeball, the type of player who will be underestimated by every team he plays, only to annoy any point guard who's dealing with him. "I wish I was 6'7"," Beal said when asked about Satoransky's defense. "I didn't get blessed with that height. His length and athletic ability, it alters guys, it slowed Russ down the other night. Just using his size, and using his strength."
There's also Porter. After a summer that saw many NBA fans wondering how in the world he signed a $104 million contract, Porter had a fantastic start to the year, averaging 18.7 PPG and 7.5 RPG on 55% shooting. He's been slowed by a hip injury in recent weeks, and he's spent the past month struggling. In January, his stat line dipped to 11.1 PPG, 5.1 RPG and 43% shooting. This week he's regained his rhythm. With Wall out, he put up 25 and six against OKC and added 16, 11, and six assists against the Raptors on Thursday.
"Otto's gonna be good, man. We never take him for granted," Beal said, "Otto plays at his own pace. He has his own game. And he accepts the defensive challenges every night. He has the PGs, the DeRozans, and everybody else he has to match up with every night. Everybody has ups and downs throughout the year, I had ups and downs. We didn't panic when he wasn't playing great. He always bounces back when we need it."
Markieff Morris might be the most reliable bellwether for the team. When he plays well, the Wizards can hang with anyone. For most of the season he's struggled on defense and been streaky offensively, but in the past two weeks he's begun to play harder and better than we've seen all year. And then there's Beal, whose emergence as an All-Star this season has been a silver lining regardless of any of the other setbacks that have emerged along the way.
"I saw big growth during that time," Brooks said of Beal during Wall's initial injury this year. "He saw a lot of double teams and he was able to make plays. And to me, a double team is an honor. I think Brad really improved in that area. Even when John did come back, teams were still going that direction, and he was able to see it, execute, and we were able to score points because of that."
"He's been great for us," Porter said of Beal. "Turning that tempo up, especially defensively. That helps. Seeing him get after it, everybody else follows his lead. Offensively, he's doing everything for us."
Whether it's Beal's example or the general team-wide positive attitude that's emerged this week, something's different. The Wizards with Beal at the forefront aren't better than what this team was supposed to be this season, but they've been far more enjoyable than what the team has actually been.
"I don't know, I'm not gonna sit here and use it as an excuse," Beal said of Wall's injury and its role in the inconsistency of the past few months. "With John, if he's out there on the floor you know he's going to play and give it his all. Granted he wasn't 100%, but we'll take whatever effort he can give us, because his presence on the floor makes a big difference throughout the game. Inconsistency was all of our problem. I'm not gonna sit here and solely blame John's injury, or his pace, or how hard he was playing. It was all of us. And now that he's being smart and taking care of his body, we gotta ramp it up even more."
Everyone seems to be on the same page as far as Wall's value on the court. If recent Wizards success looks like proof of an internal rift, that's probably reading too far into it. It's more likely that players are more focused than they had been because that's the only chance they have to compete. And yes, running the offense through healthy Beal and Satoransky is probably better than relying on a balky version of John Wall.
Still, there are real questions that aren't going away. Wall's had several injuries that make the back-end of that $170M contract look increasingly ominous, and even if he's healthy, his shooting and defense are problems that will complicate his fit on an elite team. Beal's been better in both areas, and the team never really found a rhythm with both of them on the floor this year. The more success Washington has over the next two months, the trickier the long-term questions will get. Wall will eventually have to answer them on the court.
In the meantime, the weight of expectations are gone. Instead, Satoransky is catching alley-oops, Markieff is coming alive, Beal is taking over games, Otto is hitting weird floaters, and a season that was supposed to spiral is showing signs of life. It's probably not sustainable. It's definitely weird. But let's see what happens.
"People are doubting us," Beal said. "People think we're not gonna make the playoffs, and people think we're not gonna be the same without John. You know, yeah, we're not gonna be the same without John. But that's not gonna stop our progress, and us getting better, and moving forward. Nobody critiques ourselves harder than we do, so it's a challenge that we accept. We know what we need to do."