(WASHINGTON POST) - Time and again after demoralising losses this season, the Washington Wizards have exhibited, and admitted to, problems with effort. Half-hearted ball movement. Lazy defensive rotations. Poor attention to the glass. Canned, mumbled answers during post-game news conferences.
The Wizards' front office, though, has suffered from a different problem over the past 12 months: Vision, not effort. They have tried, quite diligently, to rearrange the deck chairs around John Wall and Bradley Beal.
Enter Dwight Howard. Exit Marcin Gortat. Enter Trevor Ariza. Exit Kelly Oubre Jr. Enter Austin Rivers. Wait 29 games. Exit Austin Rivers.
All told, Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld has provided a case study for the classic John Wooden maxim, "Never mistake activity for achievement." Washington have thrashed about in denial, only to find themselves entering 2019 in familiar territory: with franchise guard Wall on the shelf, with its salary cap clogged, and with no hope of contending in the immediate future.
Wall, 28, will undergo season-ending surgery on his left heel. Even when healthy, Wall had emerged this season as arguably the league's most untradeable player due to his declining efficiency and his US$170 million (S$232 million) contract extension that starts next season and runs through 2022-23. Now, with a six-to-eight month recovery ahead of him, he is doubly untradeable.
Around this time last season, the five-time All-Star underwent left knee surgery that cost him two months. The Wizards responded by playing gamely in Wall's absence, winning eight of the first 10 games after his surgery and squeezing into the playoffs as the East's eighth seed. Their reward, even with Wall's hasty return for the postseason, was a quick first-round exit against the Toronto Raptors. The most memorable moment of that forgettable series came when Wall and Gortat bickered openly as Beal hid his face in a towel.
But the Wizards displayed an unexpected competitive pride when Wall went down, resisting the urge to fold and leading some observers to briefly wonder whether they were better off without their ball-dominant lead guard. That question no longer applies. Instead, the franchise must ponder: What's the best path forward knowing that they're stuck with Wall and his contract?
Trying to repeat 2017-18's plucky late-season run would be a fool's errand. The Wizards are 14-23 after Saturday's win over the Charlotte Hornets, four games back of the East's eighth seed. Even if they managed to scramble back into the postseason picture, they are 0-6 against the East's top five teams and they will not be able to count on a last-minute Wall return to provide a talent infusion. It would take a minor miracle for the Wizards to make the playoffs and a major miracle for them to avoid a first-round sweep.
Rather than clinging to fading respectability, the Wizards should look back to 2009-10 for inspiration. That season, a rickety Washington team went off the rails when franchise guard Gilbert Arenas was suspended for his infamous locker-room gun incident. With Arenas on the court that year, Washington went 11-21. The Wizards' record with Wall this year? 11-21.
Washington finished 2009-10 with a bottom-five record - 26-56 - and lost 16 games in a row down the stretch. But their reward for that pain was significant, as they landed the No. 1 pick in the draft lottery - a pick they used on Wall, around whom they quickly charted their post-Arenas future.
A similar opportunity now awaits the Wizards. After years of trying to patch things together around a high-priced core, Grunfeld and company need to embrace this Wall injury as a moment of clarity. Wall has not consistently performed like a franchise player since 2017, and he may not ever again. Beal is very good, but he is not talented enough to be the best player on a title team. And huge commitments to Wall, Beal and Otto Porter Jr - more than $92 million worth next season alone - will make it next-to-impossible to acquire another veteran star in the foreseeable future.
Shouldn't they be angling, then, to draft Wall's heir-apparent? Yes, and the good news is that the 2018-19 Wizards are set up beautifully to tank. They are already bad, so they do not really need to radically alter their trajectory or risk disappointing their already-disappointed fans.
The first step is clear: cut Beal's workload. The All-Star shooting guard is averaging 36.6 minutes, and he has already logged 40-plus minutes, a huge burden in today's game, 11 times. Better protecting Beal's body will directly aid the team's draft lottery positioning.
Next, conduct a fire sale on the veterans and expand the roles of their younger players. Vets on one-year deals like Ariza, Markieff Morris and Jeff Green should be moved at any price, while pleasantly surprising centre Thomas Bryant and rookie wing Troy Brown Jr should be given as many minutes as they can handle (or more). If the right deal for Porter finally emerges, all the better.
Following those two simple steps should virtually guarantee Washington a top-five slot in the draft lottery. The Wizards would fall even further in an ideal world, as the bottom-three teams each get a 14 per cent chance at the No. 1 pick. Out-losing the Atlanta Hawks, Chicago Bulls and New York Knicks would meaningfully improve the Wizards' shots at landing Duke man-child Zion Williamson.
The No. 3 draft slot, and not the No. 8 playoff seed, should be the franchise's new goal. The only viable way for the Wizards to escape the treadmill of mediocrity is to plunge headfirst into the tank.