NBA: If the Wizards convey again Wall, they want a plan

The improbability of John Wall returning to the Wizards next season has not dampened discussion of it. Given the bad break-up, it seems unlikely Wall would want to return or that the team would want a second go-around with him.

To recap: after missing at least half the team’s regular season games in two consecutive seasons, and then all of the team’s games in a third season (due to the Achilles tear), a video of a partying Wall making gang-related hand gestures went public. Wall ultimately apologized for it.

Even with that, Wall seemed set to return to the lineup until news leaked that the Wizards had talked with the Rockets about a potential Wall trade. This was the straw for Wall, for a trade and was final asked who sent to Houston.

At this point, please join me in the #SoWizards Conspiracy Theory Cone of Silence.

See, what I was told by friends in the Houston front office Wall’s agency approached the Rockets first to say he was interested in going to Houston … if he was to part ways with Washington. The Rockets wanted to move Russell Westbrook and placed a call to the Wizards. Tommy Sheppard listened and engaged in the conversation but no deal was struck. Both front offices viewed the call as speculative.

Somehow, news of the call leaked, and Wall asked to be traded. No one I talked with in Washington or Houston could say whether Wall knew his agency had broached the subject with the Rockets, though my sources thought players would know about that kind of thing, at least in most cases. On the other hand, Wall’s reaction seemed to reflect surprise and genuine hurt. And that would seem to lend at least a sheen of plausibility to the idea that his agency was acting without his explicit approval or knowledge.

Klutch Sports did not return calls back when the trade went down.

The source of the leak? My guys in Houston say it wasn’t them. My guys in Washington say they didn’t do it. Could it have been Klutch? ¯_(ツ)_/¯

Regardless, the Wizards and Rockets quickly completed the deal, sending Wall to Houston and Westbrook to DC

The point of all this isn’t to rehash old news, but to remind Wizards watchers that there’s an accumulation of reciprocal distrust and bad feelings between the Wizards and Wall. Fans may be rooting for a reunion, but Wall felt the team treated with him disrespect and dishonesty, and there are those in the Washington front office who at least wonder if they got “played” as he and Rich Paul orchestrated his exit from the Wizards .

Assuming Wall and the Wizards can get past the negative feelings, should the Wizards even have interest in pure basketball terms? To be blunt, no.

Here’s a piece I wrote in 2018 about how players like Wall typically aged. I wrote:

…The likelihood of Wall reaching his 2016-17 level of play — much less sustaining it into his thirties — is minimal. Analysis of the career patterns of players most like Wall suggests that he’s already peaked, and he’s unlikely to provide high-level production for the duration of his contract extension.

The following season, he was limited to 32 games, and then he tore his Achilles and missed all of the following season. In 2019, when it was clear he’d be out with injury, I wrote this article analyzing the experience of All-Star level performers who had extended absences due to injury. The summary paragraph:

Applying average effects to Wall suggests he’s likely to be a below average producer (PPA: 87) when he returns. What might be the final three years of his career projects to rate around 90. That would make him a useful player in the right role, but it would be unwise to plan for him to return at or near All-Star level. As such, the Wizards would be smart to search for a starting-caliber point guard if they hope to compete for a spot in the playoffs over the next four seasons.

In his return to action, Wall managed 40 games for the Rockets in 2020-21. Some of his per-game numbers were superficially gaudy — 20.6 points and 6.9 assists per game. In truth, his overall performance was below average (a 90 PPA where an average is 100 and higher is better).

His scoring was produced with staggering inefficiency. His 30.2 points per 100 possessions came on a career-high 26.7 field goal attempts per 100. His at-rim finishing was at a career low, and he produced career lows per 100 possessions in assists, rebounds and steals. His defensive index was reflected in a career-low 1.7 fouls per 100.

Let’s loop back to his offensive efficiency. That season with the Rockets, he produced a career-low 99 points per 100 individual possessions. That was his worst mark in raw terms, and his relative efficiency (personal efficiency compared to league average) was a career-worst -13 points per 100 possessions.

He shot 31.7 percent from three-point range, which is poor — exactly the percentage Deni Avdija hit this season. His turnovers remained high (5.2 per 100 possessions).

The best argument in favor of the Wizards bringing Wall back boils down to wishful thinking. Maybe he’ll regain some semblance of his former glory in a return to Washington. Maybe the “time off” has him rejuvenated and ready to lead the Wizards to…something. Signed cheaply enough (as in league minimum) and with the mutual understanding of all involved that he’ll probably be a guy in the rotation and not a leading man, maybe it’s kinda-sorta worth it.

What’s most likely? Well, he’ll be 32 next season, and players like him have typically aged badly. He missed at least half his team’s regular season games in three consecutive seasons, and he tore his Achilles. When he got back on the floor, he played poorly and suffered additional injuries. And most recently, he sat for an entire season. He hasn’t played a full season since 2016-17, and he’s missed two entire seasons in the five years since.

Wall was a terrific player for several seasons, but that’s in the rearview mirror now. Sure, improbable things happen sometimes, so it’s theoretically possible that he could be good again. With that understood, the Wizards — any NBA team with hopes of winning — would be crazy to think they can rely on him as a starter or even a key part of the rotation.

If the Wizards bring Wall back, they should continue to pursue other starting-quality guards, as well as other talented players. Odds are that Wall will continue to do what aging players are known for: get worse and get hurt. Again, if he ever returns, the Wizards better have a plan for what they’re going to do when Wall’s injured or when he’s not as good as they imagined he would be. Anything else would be #SoWizards.

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