A Great Wall in Washington

In evaluating whether the Washington Wizards star point guard is worth a “max” contract, there are many factors to consider beyond a simple dollar amount.  If the rumors and speculation are correct, the Wizards and John Wall are nearing a 5 year deal which would be worth upwards of $80 million, depending on the final salary cap figures for the 2014 season (when the extension would actually kick in).

The foremost concern of those who disagree with this early and lucrative extension espouse the idea that Wall must first “earn” these dollars.  While this thinking is logical,  it is not grounded in reality.  Wall has served as the face of franchise from the moment he was drafted #1 overall in the 2010 NBA draft.  There was never much of a debate as to whom the Wizards would select, beyond bringing in Evan Turner for a cursory workout.  Wall was tasked, before turning twenty years old, with redeeming a franchise that not only had been mired in irrelevance for decades, it had become an infamous joke thanks to Gilbert Arenas and his pistols.  Wall was a fresh-faced kid from North Carolina who would rehab the franchise image and lead the lowly Wizards back to the Promised Land, or at least the playoffs.

The rebuilding of the Wizards, which began in earnest in that 2010 season, has gone in fits and starts.  There have been multiple iterations of a Washington Big Three (none of which deserve mention here), only to see nearly all of those players on new teams by the 2013 season.  The lone exception is Wall.  He is the longest tenured member of the Wizards and continues to be the man on whom the franchise’s hopes are pinned.

Another reason cited for waiting to extend Wall is that the team is under no immediate pressure to get this deal done now.  Even without an extension, the Wizards own Wall’s rights through the 2014 season.  As this summer’s Brandon Jennings/Jeff Teague scenarios illustrate, the market for restricted free agent point guards is a weak one.  However, neither of those players is nearly as valuable to their franchises as Wall is to the Wizards.  Since 2010, the Wizards have accumulated players specifically designed to work well with Wall’s strengths.  It is not his fault that it took until this past year for General Manager Ernie Grunfeld and co. to finally acquire real NBA players and not merely the Rashard Lewis retreads of the world.  Leading a roster now stocked with promising youngsters and capable veterans, I fully expect a break-out year that builds on Wall’s torrid end to last season.

Yes, the Wizards could wait to see if Wall’s fantastic play from the last two months of the season was simply a flash in the pan, but that would serve to undermine the carefully constructed chemistry in the locker room.  All Wizards’ fans must do is remind themselves of the constant distraction which unhappy players can cause (from Rashard Lewis to Andray Blatche to Jordan Crawford) to see the value in keeping a close-knit locker room unified in a singular pursuit: namely, reaching the postseason after a five-year absence.  That process must start with the man you want to lead, and that man is Wall.

I believe this is where the Wizards will see the value in locking-up Wall long term.  There is a young and exciting core with Wall, Brad Beal, Martell Webster, and the recently drafted Otto Porter.  Wall, the on-court orchestrator, will now have the responsibility of leading off the court as well.  The “max” deal illustrates the Wizards’ faith in Wall, and the hope is that that faith will further enhance his confidence in himself and his ability to make the most of his team.  As an added bonus, it also puts Wall in a great position to recruit for the Wizards (Boogie Cousins, looking at you).

There are arguments pointing to Stephen Curry, Jrue Holiday and others who took organization-friendly deals in order to lock in their guaranteed millions – and it would be great if Wall decided to take a discounted deal – but the Wizards can hardly expect that of him when he has been the face of the franchise since his first day on the job.  As much as I enjoy watching Curry, his ankles could explode at any moment. Holiday is a solid point guard in a league now teeming with them, and that was reflected in his four-year $41 million deal.  Ty Lawson provides yet another example of a good young guard on a sensible contract.

However, with the exception of Curry, none of these players are worthy are having a team built around them.  Holiday was just traded to the Pelicans, after his first All-Star appearance.  The Nuggets used a first round pick on Virginia Tech guard (and ACC Player of the Year) Eric Green.  While it may be easy to get something near average point-guard play (at least compared to the scarcity of quality big men), there are few transformative talents at the position.  There’s a reason Derrick Rose was locked up as early as possible.  The Wizards are betting that Wall will be more like Rose than Holiday, and I’m inclined to make that leap of faith with them.

It is worth remembering that John Wall’s rookie numbers compared favorably to the rookie years’ of superstars like Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook and Rose; things may have veered off course due to a lockout season and a year plagued by injuries to the entire team but it is not like all that potential has vanished.  Wall is one of the best shot-blocking guards in the game due to his size and length, and with the continued development of his jump shot, he can have a massive impact on both sides of the floor.

Wall will turn 23 before training camp begins in September, meaning that a 5 year extension will cover the majority of his prime.  This is simply a situation where the Wizards must bet on their own player maximizing his own abilities, because the alternative is to risk losing Wall (or creating discord and submarining a season before it has even begun) and starting yet another rebuilding effort.

That is not to say I think Wall would react poorly if faced with an “earn your extension” mandate from ownership.  Rather, I believe it could create a dynamic where the best interests of the player are not necessarily aligned with the team.  The Wizards do not need Wall to set any records; they need him to make smart decisions and lead his team both in execution and by example.

It may seem unusual to use terms like “faith” and “hope” in justifying why Wall deserves $80 million but that is simply the nature of D.C. sports which I have come to accept.  The Lebrons and Dwight Howards are not yet lining up to play in the nation’s capital.  It will take either take years of sustained success (and we can see how well that has worked out for the Dallas Mavericks in their pursuit of free agents the past two summers) or a few supremely talented players to make D.C. a true free agent destination.  It is the organization’s belief that Wall could be the first of these players.

I earlier dredged up the Wizards’ disappointing history to illustrate the point that the Wizards need Wall to succeed.  There have been far too few players worth getting excited about, particularly for a city with a basketball tradition like Washington.  There is a nationally recognized summer-league which attracts many NBA players during their off-seasons and some of the very best high-school players have come from the D.C. area (see Kevin Durant as example 1A); yet the Redskins always dominate the headlines.  In order for this to change, the Wizards need Wall to become the foundational player who not only puts butts in the seats with his highlight plays but also leads the team with smart, savvy, defense-first basketball.

I have no interest in outlining which personal accolades Wall should aim for, but it is safe to say that as much as fans want Wall to earn this contract, it’s emphatically direr for the team’s ownership.  If Wall fails to live up to these lofty expectations, the national conversation will be just as much about the “poor culture” of the Wizards as it is about Wall.  With or without an extension, the Wizards’ success hinges on Wall.  I believe that giving him the extension now will maximize the return on their investment.

It is critical that the Wizards’ (and Capitals’ and Mystics’) owner Ted Leonsis shows loyalty to his young stars to foster an environment of trust and continuity.  With the exception of Arenas’ Agent Zero act (before the knee surgeries, seasons on the sidelines, and ultimately ignominious exit), Wall is the best player I have ever seen in a Wizards’ uniform.  The difference is that Wall, while not the showman that Arenas was, actually makes his teammates better on the court.  That might not mean much to the national punditry or various talking-heads, but it matters to fans.  It matters that the Wizards stop being a national punch line and consistent fixture on SportsCenter’s Not Top Ten.  It matters that the Wizards make it back to the playoffs.  And the only way this team will do that is with John Wall leading the way.

From the East Coast Office.

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