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  • There is no sole culprit for the Wizards’ collapse, but on many nights this season, John Wall has not looked like part of the solution. Is it time to move on?
By Jeremy Woo
November 13, 2018

A listless start to the season has rightfully put the Washington Wizards on notice. They’ve dropped winnable games in frustrating fashion over the past two weeks, searching for answers on the fly after coming out of the gate hamstrung. The Wiz have been somewhat volatile in the past—but not quite to this degree—and with each drop below .500, speculation has mounted that some degree of change may be in order. They began a potentially season-defining stretch with a 117-109 win over the Magic at home on Monday night, moving their record to 4–9 with six of their next seven games at home. Perhaps this was the start of something. Still, with the way the Wizards’ season has opened and accounting for the team’s best interest going forward, it’s worth at least considering the most drastic possibility on the table: trading John Wall.

Although Wall had an efficient 25 points and 10 assists on Monday, his game has visibly taken a bit of downturn at age 28. He’s been expected to lead a core that peaked during the 2014–15 playoffs and has largely tread water since. The Wizards’ wintry start has been rife with poor body language and evident frustration, and the circumstances offer reason for concern until they prove they can string together positive play. Wall’s otherworldly end-to-end speed now comes and goes, as his lack of consistent three-point acumen has hampered his team’s spacing. There is no sole culprit for the Wizards’ collapse, but on many nights this season, Wall has not looked like part of the solution.

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With his supermax salary—worth $170 million through 2023—set to kick in next season, Wall is set to move into the upper echelon of superstar earners. Meanwhile, his team’s performance and his own continue to trend in the wrong direction. When Wall agreed to the new deal in the summer of 2017, the hope was that the Wizards could boldly enter a contention window with a trio of Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter all financially secure. Now drowning in luxury tax payments and potentially stuck with an untenable, expensive core, the onus is on Washington to try something new. Beal and Porter are both 25, the former looking like the Wizards’ best player and the latter unlikely to bring the sort of trade return that could fix much. That leaves Wall as the preferable trade chip during a potentially narrow sell window. If Washington can find a deal, it could be a necessary parachute to reorient their season and the future of the franchise.

The prospect of trading Wall is clouded by major financial considerations. If the Wizards decide that keeping him around isn't a long-term option, there may not be many teams racing to inherit their risk. Bluntly, Wall has underachieved. He hasn’t improved much as a three-point shooter, and the core of his game depends on athletic gifts that may soon be in decline. Consider that he’s set to make $47 million during his age-33 season, the last one on his deal. While he remains a highly capable player on good nights, the present arc of Wall’s career is reason for concern when considering him as a long-term investment. As such, it would be surprising to see any trades that return real value or immediate on-court recompense for Washington at this point: if Wall were to move, it would stand more as financial addition by subtraction, offering the Wizards long-term flexibility, some potential luxury tax relief, and a chance to redefine their identity going forward. 

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Granted, the money will make any negotiations complex. If there is a Wall suitor that makes sense, it’s the Miami Heat, who need an injection of star talent, and are financially saddled entering next summer’s potentially starry free agency period. Stuck with Hassan Whiteside and Tyler Johnson through 2020, the Heat are in a position to take a risk and inject some energy into a roster replete with tough players, but lacking in ceiling. It was a poorly-kept secret that the Heat were part of the preseason sweepstakes for Jimmy Butler, which ended over the weekend as the Timberwolves dealt him to the 76ers. That move served to beef up an established Eastern Conference hierarchy that includes neither Miami nor Washington—a Wall trade between the two teams would be more about shaping plans for the future.

The proposition of paying Wall so much for so long is such that teams could reasonably ask for future draft assets as a makeweight to inherit his salary. Miami dealt their unprotected 2021 first-rounder to Phoenix as part of the Goran Dragic trade, and recouping a draft asset would likely sweeten the proposition of an opportunity to take Wall and try to return him to top form. As part of a deal, the Heat could send Dragic, still effective but also 32 years old, to match money and give the Wizards a chance to play their way back into the playoff picture. Miami could view a Wall addition as equivalent to a big free agent signing, then try to get creative with the roster next summer.

Wall already spends a large chunk of his summers living in Miami. There is ongoing chatter that his partying habit has become an issue, which he’s addressed publicly. But the Heat have long held a firm organizational belief in their ability to get the most out of their players, with a focus on conditioning and discipline and a track record of rehabilitating careers. It would still be a serious long-term financial risk for the Heat, but if nothing else it’s a fresh approach to rejiggering a team that has grown somewhat stagnant, and clearly fallen short of its intended ceiling. Josh Richardson has improved markedly, but there is no star lying in wait, and Miami has never been interested in tanking. The prospect of returning Wall to top form is a massive gamble, but of all the potential suitors, the Heat might embrace the chance.

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Complicating matters, Wall’s contract contains a 15% trade kicker, one he may have no interest in waiving. ESPN’s Zach Lowe noted last week that if Wall is traded in the 2019-20 league year his kicker could be spread over the duration of his max contract. But due to a technicality where a kicker can’t raise a player’s annual salary above their max number, that could lead Wall to lose money long-term. If he’s moved now, the Wizards would owe a large payment upfront. From Wall’s perspective, that could create incentive to welcome a trade this season as opposed to next. The math there is tricky and CBA-dependent, and it’s also possible that the lack of state income tax in Florida could help split the difference in Wall’s earnings and encourage him to waive the kicker now to facilitate a Miami move.

The Suns also stand out as a partner, noting their ownership has an itchy trigger finger and Phoenix can dangle young assets to find a new point guard. Still, adding Wall would make negative sense given Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton’s respective growth timetables. From an outward perspective, it’s the Heat that make the most sense if there’s any to be had—it would take significant stones to ride out Wall for the duration of his max contract, perhaps moreso than the Pistons’ semi-comparable acquistion of Blake Griffin earlier this year. The decision isn’t clear-cut, and surely the Wizards would prefer to stick to the plan, but it does make sense to entertain the possibilities.

Washington’s next four games take place on their own turf, with winnable contests against the Cavs and Nets, followed by trickier opponents in the Blazers and Clippers. The Wizards will then have two days off to regroup around Thanksgiving. If things continue to break bad and Washington loses patience, it will make even more sense to move swiftly, while potential Wall suitors can still sniff playoff position. Washington can hope for a stirring turnaround in the coming days, but if the early-season doldrums persist, it’s a possibility worth considering.

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