John Wall Says East 'Wide-Open' Without LeBron James in Cleveland

Yaron Weitzman@YaronWeitzmanFeatured ColumnistJuly 31, 2018

Washington Wizards guard John Wall (2) looks a the Toronto Raptors bench in the second half of Game 6 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series, Friday, April 27, 2018, in Washington. The Raptors won 102-92. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Alex Brandon/Associated Press

LAS VEGAS — It was Day 2 of Team USA's minicamp at the Mendenhall Center at the University of Nevada, and so John Wall put on his reversible blue-and-white jersey and was back at work. He ran the point in weave drills. He tossed lobs to Blake Griffin. He shared laughs with Kevin Durant.

It's a good time to be John Wall. Last summer, Wall inked a four-year, $170 million extension that will take him into his 30s. And now, he finds himself in a conference without a clear-cut favorite, on a team that could sport Washington's most capable roster since it drafted Wall first overall in 2010.

"I think we have a better team now, and the East is more wide-open now that [LeBron James is] out of the picture," Wall said Friday.

But is LeBron's migration to Los Angeles and a few tweaks of their roster enough for the Wizards to avoid yet another early postseason exit?

Wall is still a 20-point, 10-assist-per-night guy. His backcourt mate, Bradley Beal, is a knockdown shooter and fluid scorer who's also evolved as a creator. They're two of the best 30 players in the league. But both have been clipped by injuries over the past three years, a fact that Wall pointed to when asked if he thought his Wizards had plateaued.

"I think we could have competed the last two years if we didn't have to deal with injuries," Wall said. But he missed half the season last year after a January surgical procedure on his left knee. "Falling to the eight seed, playing Toronto, a heck of a team, I felt like we should have beaten those guys, but they came out the better team at that time," Wall said.

And what about the year before, when the Wizards fell to the Isaiah Thomas-led Celtics in seven games? That was the closest Wall's Wizards have ever come to advancing out of the playoffs' second round. 

"I felt like we should have won that series," Wall said. "But they were the better team."

WASHINGTON, DC -  MAY 12: John Wall #2 of the Washington Wizards plays defense against Isaiah Thomas #4 of the Boston Celtics during Game Six of the Eastern Conference Semifinals of the 2017 NBA Playoffs on May 12, 2017 at Verizon Center in Washington, DC
Ned Dishman/Getty Images

Wall said he physically feels "great." He added, "I think we have a better team now." In April, after the Raptors had eliminated the Wizards in six games, Wall used the pulpit of a press conference to plead for his team's management to bolster the roster surrounding him.

"I think the way the league is going, you need athletic bigs, you need scoring off the bench, you need all of those types of things," Wall told reporters then. It seems as if Wizards general manager Ernie Grunfeld was listening.

First, Grunfeld swapped Marcin Gortat—whose relationship with Wall had become strained—for Austin Rivers in June. He then replaced Gortat with Dwight Howard. He also signed Jeff Green.

For the past two years, the Wizards have cratered whenever Wall or Beal was off the floor. The emergence of Tomas Satoransky last season helped mitigate Wall's absence, and Washington even went on a run of 10 wins in 13 games when Wall was first sidelined. But the team finished the season 23-18 with Wall in the lineup compared to just 20-21 with him out, and the team's bench units have been routinely outscored.

One solution could be staggering more of Wall's and Beal's minutes. Wizards head coach Scott Brooks has been hesitant to do so since taking over two years ago. Beal has become superbly efficient as a primary ball-handler, so Brooks would be wise to start deploying him more frequently in that role. The addition of Rivers could change the rotation too. 

Bradley Beal and John Wall
Bradley Beal and John WallNick Wass/Associated Press

Rivers—who scored 15.1 points per game last year along with a strong assist rate of 17.5, according to Basketball Reference—could spearhead the offense for spurts and keep the Wizards afloat when Wall and Beal sit. Between Rivers, Satoransky and the likely continued growth of swingman Kelly Oubre Jr.—still just 22—there's a chance that the bench will become a strength as opposed to a weakness. Wall even said he was happy with the signing of Green.

"[He's] athletic and versatile," Wall said of the journeyman. "He can switch out 1 through 4. He guarded me when we played Cleveland."

And what about Howard? The Wizards will be the fourth team he's played for in four years, and that's not because GMs are crawling over one another to acquire him. Wall acknowledged during the postseason press conference in April that team chemistry had become an issue in 2017-18. 

"When things are going well, everybody's happy, everybody wants to be here. But when things get rough, that's when you really figure out who's your brother, who's really in the war with you, who's really in the fight with you," he told reporters. "So, I think anybody can see from the outside or the inside looking in who really wanted to be here when things wasn't going great for us, but when it's all happy-go-jolly and we're winning, it's all fun and games."

Is Howard, a player not known for his popularity among his peers, a good fit for the Wizards?

"You know, he's played on a lot of teams. [His former teammates] have certain things they say, some good, some bad," Wall said. "Everybody [has] got something they have to improve on, but it's my job as the point guard now, with him being on my team and [me] being the leader, to get him settled in with our team and be comfortable and getting him to play the way we want him to play, and if he does that, we'll be fine with it."

John Raoux/Associated Press

On the court, there are ways that Howard could elevate the Wizards. The Hornets were better on both ends of the floor last year when Howard played, according to Cleaning the Glass. His presence as a rim protector—not what it once was but still a deterrent—might help Washington plug the holes that allowed opponents to convert a ridiculous 65.9 percent of their layups against them, the fourth-worst number in the league.

Howard is also a more dangerous weapon than Gortat off screens, which could provide Wall with more daylight on pick-and-rolls. 

Still, the Wizards are going to need Wall to make one more leap. Signing an aging big man like Howard, 32, and trading for a reserve like Rivers are nice moves but not the sort of additions that catapult a static team past the Philadelphia Sixers, Boston Celtics and Raptors. For that to happen, Wall is going to have to take it upon himself to go, as the cliche goes, from good to great, or in his case, from great to greater. 

The fixes are obvious. No more lounging into off-balanced mid-range jumpers. No more jogging back on defense or getting beat by inferior opponents on the perimeter. Wall has the skills and savvy to play like an MVP candidate. It's up to him whether he does. 

If the Wizards bow out early again, Washington—on the path of becoming a 2.0 version of the Joe Johnson-led Atlanta Hawks—may begin to fret.

Four playoff berths in five years is nice, but at a certain point, a team reaches its peak.

"You kind of know when that time is there, as a player, when that time is up," Wall said. 

In other words: He doesn't think his Wizards have reached that point. At least not yet. 

                                         

Yaron Weitzman covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow Yaron on Twitter @YaronWeitzman and sign up for his newsletter here.        

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