John Wall has shed whatever pall was cloaking him this time last year. It wasn’t that he was completely unhappy in Washington, but maybe the mediocrity was getting to him. For six seasons, he had given the Wizards all he could and in turn received a better-compensated sidekick who was always in and out of the lineup, and a permanently perplexed coach, and a bench that gave away the leads he helped build. If the 2016-17 season didn’t totally right all of those wrongs, Bradley Beal chipped in twenty-three points a night over seventy-seven games; Scott Brooks was steady and communicative where Randy Wittman was only befuddled; and the bench—the bench was still bad, but management at least made a good faith effort to try to fix it. The Wiz, in winning forty-nine games and nearly beating the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Semis, had their best season since the late seventies, which speaks to the steadiness of the franchise’s futility through the decades, but they’ll take success where they can get it. Wall, for his part, produced career highs in points, true shooting percentage, and assists.
Convinced the team is headed in the right direction, Wall made a long-term commitment to Washington over the summer, signing right through the end of his early thirties. He has two more years left on his rookie extension, then a huge and much-deserved pay bump and four more years after that. There’s no point in testing free agency, he said at the press conference announcing his new contract. I have the ultimate goal what I want to do here. I know what team I want to play for my whole career.
You could accuse Wall of being naive or self-thwarting by tethering himself to the Wizards at the first sign of an uptick. Though they were fun and competitive last season, the Wiz are a long way away from title contention. They need at least one more star before it starts to look like even a remote possibility, and they lack the cap space to sign one in free agency anytime soon because they have so much money tied up in Beal, who’s great when healthy, but also Otto Porter, a more-than-useful player who is massively overpaid (four more seasons for $106 million), and the already sunk cost of Ian Mahinmi (three more seasons for $48 million). President of basketball operations Ernie Grunfeld has been in charge since 2003, and the Wizards’ record over his tenure is 492-and-639. It’s astounding that the dude still has a job after all this time, and Wall shouldn’t trust Grunfeld to construct a suitable squad for him to lead.
So why is Wall doing just that? Well, the Wizards can pay him more than anybody else and that’s not nothing, but in recent years we’ve seen plenty of max contract-level players take slightly less lucrative contracts in order to form superteams or flee disastrous franchises. If you could have a job you like a lot for $30 million per year or one you like less for $35 million per year, the sensible thing to do is take the hit and try to make yourself happy with what’s still more money than you know what to do with. No, for Wall this feels more like a mission than a financial play. Like Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City, Wall is about making things work with the franchise that drafted him, probably not because the Wizards are so terrific to work for, but because they are his organization more than anyone else’s. Ted Leonsis just signs the checks; John Wall is the most important basketball figure in D.C.
And it wouldn’t be that way if he went anywhere else. Let’s peer into an alternate future and say he doesn’t extend his contract and instead signs with the Knicks two summers from now. Let’s also say, since we’re indulging in the fantastic here, that the Knicks have kept Kristaps Porzingis content and have built a decent team around the big Latvian. Wall shows up as a celebrated interloper, but still an interloper. Plus the Knicks are the Knicks; their history and stature dwarfs any one player. Or let’s say he joins Paul George and DeMarcus Cousins in Los Angeles and they become the exceedingly talented upstart darlings of the Western Conference. That trident could win championships, but the story would never be about John Wall. It’s an ensemble tale.
The most compelling argument for Wall staying Washington isn’t that he’s proving his loyalty in a relationship that’s not at all a two-way street, or that he’s interested in serving as some counterpoint for sports-talk grumps who complain about superstars switching laundry every offseason, but that he wants full ownership over any success he might have. Wall has seen the way Kevin Durant’s triumph was somewhat absorbed into a broader narrative about the Warriors’ dominance and how LeBron’s title in Cleveland had more weight than the pair he won in Miami.
There is just something about getting it done for the team that drafted you. They claim you and you claim them, and it’s really nothing more than a business arrangement at its core, but with few exceptions, only one fanbase ever watches you come into your own, and that has meaning. So too does the deepening of one’s roots into a city over the years. It’s a steep and perhaps impassable route, taking the Wizards from where they are now to the pinnacle of the sport, but Wall intends to make this his career-defining struggle. If he’s going to work as hard as he does, he wants his name on the product in bold print.
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