Chris Paul doesn’t know when to shut up. Kevin Durant needs to be coddled. LeBron James’s recent Cavs teams were terminally grouchy and prone to torpid nosedives. Kawhi Leonard is a ghost. Jimmy Butler doesn’t seem like a jerk, but the Wolves throw off strange vibes. Teammates either admire the hell out of Russ Westbrook or keep out of his way. Among the best thirty or so players in the NBA, who’s a truly beloved leader? Maybe Dame Lillard. Al Horford gets positive reviews. It’s a rare human being who is both outrageously good at basketball and also possesses the charisma, emotional intelligence, and communication skills to get an entire locker room behind them. The best most great players do is command a degree of respect, but of course they get blown off and ignored, of course they anger and alienate their colleagues. The perfect Churchillian brand of leadership is a myth. If you’re tamping down on the chaos a little bit, and your people mostly like you, you’re doing pretty well.
Really, what stands out is extraordinarily poor leadership. Example: John Wall. It’s been thoroughly documented that he and Bradley Beal don’t get along. Back in the summer of 2016, they admitted it themselves. As Wall awkwardly put it, they have “a tendency to dislike each other on the court.” (A propensity! An inclination!) At the time, this was thought to perhaps be about the fact that Beal had a much fatter contract than Wall despite not yet having established himself as a star, but two years later, Wall has a new mega-deal, Beal is playing up to his potential, and they’re still an unhappy pair. It would be helpful here to be able to note that Beal played much better during the stretch from this past January to March that Wall missed with a bum knee, but he actually performed slightly below his season averages in most categories over those two months. (And weirdly, took fewer shots.) So it’s not a Blake Griffin/Chris Paul situation, where one tends to flourish without the other. The dudes just have a personality conflict.
Which would be tenable if Wall had a warm relationship with his other teammates. That doesn’t appear to be the case either. Marcin Gortat, since shipped out to Los Angeles, sent a subtweet during Wall’s injury break about the Wizards playing more like a team with their starting point guard absent from the lineup. Wall responded to that slight by being not mad at all and laughing about it, while also offhandedly mentioning that he had spoonfed Gortat numerous easy dunks throughout their time together.
That was a single instance of private tensions spilling over into the public arena, but there have been for the past few seasons persistent murmurings from the Washington press that the locker room is a mess, which makes sense if you watch the team during timeouts or between plays. This Ben Golliver screenshot summarizes things aptly. They frequently look miserable and confused. This isn’t completely John Wall’s fault—Scott Brooks has zero gravitas, Markieff Morris is difficult, and Beal is aloof—but he’s at the center of most of the discontent, and he’s quick to defend himself against criticism, often lamely declaring things that obviously aren’t true. Many NBA players disingenuously overuse the terms brother and family—you’ll remember Kyrie Irving employed both liberally while, behind the scenes, he was immensely fed up with LeBron—but when Wall utters them, he comes off like a senator under investigation for tax fraud. It’s next-level insincerity.
And not for nothing, he can’t claim the moral high ground considering he’s made a habit of playing himself into shape every season, which is becoming an increasingly risky practice given his balky knees. Wall doesn’t set a standard work ethic-wise, he rubs teammates the wrong way, and he’s not any good at diffusing conflict. He’s not Dwight Howard—who is, hoo boy, his new pick-and-roll partner—but Dwight has always been too much of a goofball to try to lead. Wall has been giving it a whirl for a half-decade now, and it’s been an unqualified disaster, in part because he’s so insistent about his own leadership. It’s a spectrum, but people who want to be in charge of stuff tend to be either exceedingly responsible or exceedingly self-serving. Wall appears to be the latter.
Which sucks because he’s an electric talent who recalls pre-injury Derrick Rose in his rapid, aggressive drives and fluid transition play. When the Wizards’ defense is functioning well, and they can get out and run, it’s a delight to marvel at how quickly Wall makes sharp decisions while sprinting full speed at a backpedaling defense. There’s a lot that he understands about the game, but the same apparently isn’t true about people.
Wall won’t relinquish the leadership role he’s not suited for. He’ll keep unintentionally taking credit for dysfunction by arguing that it’s actually harmony. Everything is fine, families fight sometimes, etc. But it’s pleasant to imagine John Wall on a team with a stronger infrastructure, a more forceful coach and a couple vets who could marshal the rest of the squad—a less arrogant Wall, one who isn’t out of his depth. That version appears regularly, when he’s calling for a pick, accelerating, moving through the lane like a diving gull through the air. He’s too captivating a player to be overwhelmed by his deficiencies, but they’re there, in the margins of the game and at the press conference afterwards. You wish he would give up on being in charge and just play. It’s not so simple, in Washington or in Wall’s head. He’s a superb player occasionally brought low by responsibility he can’t handle.