These two seemingly contradictory things are both true in the wake of John Wall’s season-ending surgery to remove bone spurs from his heel, and especially true now that the injury has turned into a ruptured Achilles that’ll keep him out for most of next season, too.
Rebuilding the Wizards over the next couple of years was going to be really hard — maybe impossible — due to Wall’s on-court regression and massive contract, but his injuries also makes a quick retool unavoidable as the Wizards lose hope of making a run in the Eastern Conference.
Wall begins his four-year, $170 million supermax contract on July 1. Even if he were healthy, he wouldn’t be an All-Star this season in a shallow pool of high-end Eastern Conference players. That’s just an absolute disaster. His lack of on-court improvement mixed with that hefty contract has made it really difficult to find a suitable trade for the Wizards. Add in another major surgery — and then another on top of that — for a player who relies heavily on his youthful athleticism and speed, and that depressed value gets even lower.
How can the Wizards rebuild, if they decide to follow that path, when their biggest albatross is this hard to trade? And if you can’t trade Wall this summer or next season, why bother with a full rebuild?
With Otto Porter’s value iffy due to his huge contract, Bradley Beal is the only asset you’d be peddling from a position of strength. That’s really no way to get a rebuild going unless you plan to Process it out and use your own high draft picks as the top assets over multiple years of losing.
At the same time, the Wizards are currently out of the playoff picture, though owner Ted Leonsis insisted the goal is still the postseason. If all goes well and the lottery balls bounce in Washington’s favor, this new Wizard could end up being the team’s new best asset. It could then behoove the Wizards to rebuild around that player instead of the Wall-Beal-Porter trio.
But how do you do that when you can’t move Wall?
In December, NBC Sports’ smart Tom Haberstroh aptly compared this situation to what the Grizzlies faced last season when Mike Conley’s (strikingly similar) injury caused an impromptu tank job and the No. 4 pick in the NBA Draft. Memphis aced their pick by selecting Jaren Jackson Jr. At that point, Triple J had integrated pretty smoothly into the Marc Gasol and Conley-led franchise, and Memphis was in the playoff picture.
Since then, though, Memphis has nosedived and has put Conley and Gasol on the market. Because this had been a positive short-term development, and because small-market teams like the Grizzlies usually dismiss multi-year tank jobs as incompatible with their business plans, we forgot that Memphis was merely back in no
man’s bear’s land, even if they had stayed on the fringes of the postseason.
Gasol is 33, Conley is 31, and the Grizzlies will be too good to add another top-5 pick. Gasol and Conley have been quite good this season, but the combination of age, contract size, and injury risk means that those players would be unlikely to return big bounties on the trade market. (Gasol can also opt out of his contract this summer, which is increasingly possible as he continues to thrive).
As such, Memphis decided to play it out for as long as Gasol and Conley produce. That means that Jackson’s rookie contract will likely be over before the Grizzlies are able to add any additional top-line young talent.
That’s perhaps an overly morose read of a good Grizzlies’ uncertain-but-hardly-doomed future. (It’s still 2018, let me feast on cynicism one last time.) Just consider that in some ways, the Wizards’ future is bleaker given the sheer size of Wall and Porter’s contracts.
As Haberstroh suggests, the Wizards could limp out the season and pick up a blue-chip prospect to join a rejuvenated, healthy lineup next October, outside of Wall of course. We know that when things go right, this core is a playoff team in the East, and they are playing at that level after Wall went down. Add a talented kid, and maybe that boosts the Wizards up a notch.
But does that get the Wizards where they want to be, competing for a title? Unless the kid is someone like Luka Doncic, it probably doesn’t.
If there is any silver lining from this disaster, maybe Wall’s depressing injury saga will make modest success in the future feel like progress. Maybe this will allow the Wizards to trick themselves into happiness and hope.