Any chance the Washington Wizards had of turning around what has been a disastrous season went out the window Saturday afternoon. The team announced that John Wall, who has had persistent left heel pain and sat out the Wizards' Friday night loss to the Chicago Bulls, will undergo season-ending surgery.
With this news, the Wizards can effectively write off what little hope they had of salvaging a playoff push out of a season that has been filled with dysfunction. At 14-23, Washington is a mere four games out of the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference, but even against less-than-stellar competition, the gap will likely be too big to make up with Wall out of the picture.
But beyond this season, Wall's injury brings to the forefront some already nagging concerns about this group's long-term viability.
The Wizards in the Wall and Bradley Beal era have made the playoffs in four of the past five seasons, which counts as major success in this franchise's tortured history. But as they've fallen short in the postseason, their roster has gotten more and more expensive, and their options for meaningful improvement have diminished.
This season, Wall, Beal and Otto Porter Jr. are making a combined $70.6 million, and that's before Wall's massive four-year, $169 million extension kicks in next season. He will have a player option for $46.9 million in the 2022-23 season when he will be 32 years old.
Wizards general manager Ernie Grunfeld has not been able to build the right supporting cast around Wall, Beal and Porter; instead, he gave out pricey contracts to role players like Ian Mahinmi.
This summer, Grunfeld took a flier on Dwight Howard, who has been sidelined for most of the season with a buttocks injury. He also traded veteran center Marcin Gortat for Austin Rivers, hoping for a viable backup for Wall, but he then traded Rivers and fourth-year wing Kelly Oubre Jr. to Phoenix for Trevor Ariza.
It's been an endless cycle of secondary moves like those—moves that made sense on paper but haven't panned out. In Grunfeld's 15-year tenure running the team, the Wizards have not had a 50-win season or an Eastern Conference Finals appearance. And with Wall's declining health, things are only going to get worse if they don't make drastic changes and undertake a full-on rebuild.
Because of his contract, Wall would be the most ideal guy for the Wizards to move. But because of that same contract (which, in addition to a fourth-year player option, also includes a 15 percent trade kicker), it's next to impossible to find a deal for him that makes sense.
If healthy, Wall is still an All-Star-caliber point guard. But he's had various knee and wrist injuries for several years that have caused him to miss significant time, and the heel surgery he will undergo next week is expected to sideline him for the next six to eight months.
No contract in the NBA is untradeable—just ask Timofey Mozgov, who has been moved three times since signing a widely mocked four-year, $64 million deal with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2016—but Wall's deal is as close as it gets.
If the Wizards put everybody on the table, Beal would be by far the most attractive player. Just 25 years old and on a below-market contract for two seasons beyond this one, he would fit well on virtually any team. Out of their Big Three, Beal is also the one the Wizards would most like to keep. But their roster isn't set up to win while he's still in his prime, and it's extremely unlikely they'd be able to pair him with the kind of talent that would lead them to contention.
Beal would be best as the second or third option on a contender, which he's been in some of the Wizards' better years recently. He's the player Washington could move for a meaningful package of young players and picks from a team like the Utah Jazz or New Orleans Pelicans, in need of a scorer in the backcourt and looking to win in the near term. If he becomes available, there will be a serious bidding war, and that could kick-start Washington's rebuild.
Porter sits somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. The size of his contract (which will pay him $81.8 million for the rest of this season and the next two) will scare some teams off, but he's a useful and productive starting-caliber wing. Teams like the Chicago Bulls and Portland Trail Blazers, desperately in need of scoring on the perimeter, would do well to take a look at him, even if it means taking on that long-term salary.
The time is right for the Wizards to start over. They own all of their first-round picks going forward, and the way things are going, they will be good picks. They'll be able to get a solid package for Beal if they move him, and Porter has at least some value around the league.
Wall will be much tougher to trade, at least until teams see what he looks like after his recovery is complete from this latest surgery. Washington may have to attach an asset, such as a draft pick, to get a team to take on his contract. That's always a risky proposition, but in this case, it could be worth it to clear the books.
The Wizards have a lot of questions and no clear path back to relevance. However they get there, it won't be with this group. That was true before Wall's latest injury, but the news that the five-time All-Star will miss the rest of the year is only further evidence that this group has run its course.