First, the disclaimers. I am happy for John Wall, insofar as reports had him wanting out of D.C., and Houston seems like about as good a landing spot as any for a guy whose age, bleak injury history, and huge multiyear contract foreclosed on any of the truly cool possibilities, like teaming up with LeBron James and Anthony Davis in L.A. or, like, reinvigorating himself in Heat Culture. I am also happy for Russell Westbrook, insofar as (frankly extremely hard to believe!) reports had him wanting to make his way to D.C. to be reunited with Scott Brooks, his old Oklahoma City coach.
And, yes, right, of course, the front-office shit. Russ was a better player than Wall even before the latter suffered just about the most devastating injury a speed- and explosion-based basketball player can suffer shy of total dismemberment; paying out a protected draft pick to make what’s otherwise a salary cap-neutral trade of a lesser player for a better one is wise, or at least not obviously stupid. The Washington Wizards very likely are better right now than they were before the trade. As for the Houston Rockets, they get to begin replenishing their store of draft assets for what now looks like as near-term a total rebuild as they can manage; if they’re saddled with a shooting-averse, ball-dominant point guard on the downslope of his career with a supermax contract who doesn’t really make sense next to James Harden, well, that broadly describes yesterday morning, too. Both teams got something positive out of the trade, at what each of them likely regards as a fair price. That makes it a good trade.
None of this quite dissipates the stink. You can be happy that Wall got out when he wanted out, regard the trade as a smart move by the Wizards, and still feel acutely betrayed by this deadbeat organization this morning. It is not hard to imagine a world where Wall never wanted to leave D.C.; where his decade in town were not widely regarded as a continually souring succession of squandered opportunities and own-goals; where the peak athletic years of the best, boldest, easiest-to-root-for player the team has drafted since it moved to D.C. in 1973 were not sacrificed on the altar of Ernie Grunfeld’s self-preservation. Wizards fans have been imagining that world for Wall’s entire career, as the franchise assiduously went about the work of ensuring nobody could ever live there. The trade crystallizes it: That world will never exist. It’s too late for Wall to have the career he could have had, and whatever the other reasons might be, the inescapable one is that he spent the first 10 years of it playing for the Washington Wizards.
So today I’ve been thinking back to the beginning, when I still didn’t know, but only had every reason to suspect, that the Wizards would fuck this all up. Wall arrived in the NBA at what looked, at the time, like the crest of a wave of LeBron-descended talent overtaking the sport. The three-point revolution hadn’t happened yet, and the future seemed to belong to all-court hyper-athletes; it was possible to imagine, then, that alley-oops and chase-down blocks would be the signature plays of the era to come. (This seems hilarious in retrospect, from a present-day iteration of the sport that has a clearer use for Seth Curry than for, well, John Wall.) The previous three drafts had delivered Kevin Durant, Westbrook, Derrick Rose, and Blake Griffin—not only obviously transcendent stars, but grades of pure athletic incandescence in shapes and configurations that simply hadn’t seemed imaginable before LeBron exploded every possibility. And here came this speed demon 6-foot-4 point guard, whose one-and-done path through Kentucky represented the highest possible pedigree for a 21st century star and whose game, like LeBron’s, seemed rooted less in discrete practiced skills than in the pairing of superhuman athletic gifts and a joyously creative mind for the game. Another thing that seems crazy in retrospect is that he seemed, then, on the eve of the 2010 draft, like as sure a thing as anybody since LeBron himself.
For what it’s worth, I don’t think anybody was wrong about John Wall’s part of that. He could have been anything. There has never been a faster player, and no one even remotely in Wall’s class as a runner could come close to matching his genius for making creative plays at a dead sprint, or his sheer stubborn indefatigable bravery about it. For a time, one of the very most electrifying sights in all of sports was Wall catching an outlet pass—or even sometimes an inbound pass—chucking the ball out ahead of himself, and exploding into a sprint after it. It felt revolutionary and superpowered in very much the same way as Steph Curry’s rainbow 30-foot bombs did a couple years later, when Curry finally got the crabmeat out of his ankle and began raining hell on the league. But there was never a time when it didn’t feel like one of the things Wall was racing through, past, upstream against, was the kludgy inertia and ineptitude of his own team.
It’s all too depressing to re-litigate here, and anyway he’s finally and probably six years too late in getting free of it. I want to share a memory; I may have shared it once before in some ancient blog on the old site, but it’s raw and fresh again this morning and now it hurts to think about. It’s from a game in the preseason before Wall’s rookie campaign. He turned the ball over in the half-court offense, and the other team—the Pistons maybe? Honestly who cares?—got out ahead of the Wizards in transition for what was going to be an uncontested breakaway layup. Only here came John Wall, sprinting up behind the ballhandler like an absolute madman. In seasons to come he’d become known for spectacular chase-down blocks, but this wasn’t that. He came up behind the ballhandler at a dead sprint and fouled the absolute shit out of him. Just hammered him down across the shoulders. It was a playoff foul, in a preseason game, from the guy who’d just been picked first overall in the NBA draft a couple months prior.
I loved him for that. Not because I have any particular reverence for physical roughness in basketball—I don’t—but because he had every reason not to give a shit about a layup in a preseason game, and hauled ass two-thirds of the length of the court to prevent it anyway, in the absolute least sexy way. On team with sleepy-eyed Nick Young, JaVale McGee, and Andray Blatche—on a franchise that had for years settled for smarmy bullshit failure artist Antawn Jamison’s hollow, self-exonerating post-loss pronouncements about The Habits Of Winning in lieu of any actual pride or dignity or zeal for competition—here was a raw 19-year-old kid who wanted to win even that possession, who more to the point could not stomach losing it.
The kid who balled up all his wondrous revolutionary gifts and gave them to fouling some guy to prevent a layup in a preseason game could have been and done anything. He deserved a team and an organization with half as much self-respect as that, and never got one. I’m so sorry to see him go, and sorrier that it took so long.