What John Wall, Wizards must learn from Warriors once star guard returns from injury
No, the Wizards are not better without John Wall, but that doesn't mean they can't be better with him
A few weeks ago, the Wizards were riding high at 11-3 during this latest stint without John Wall, who hasn't played in almost six weeks as he continues to recover from knee surgery and . During that stretch, they were passing the ball like crazy, leading the league in assists while playing with a much more inclusive flow -- which, of course, gave birth to this utterly delusional narrative that the Wizards are somehow better without Wall.
Washington has since come back to Earth in a big way, dropping five of its last seven -- all to playoff teams -- including a 116-111 defeat at the hands of the Jimmy Butler-less Timberwolves on Tuesday. Two of those losses were against the Warriors and Raptors -- a reminder that against elite teams, you need elite players. So, no, the Wizards are not better without Wall. Not even close.
That doesn't mean they can't be better with him.
The basics of the "Wizards are better without Wall" argument, though clearly flawed, are at least based in fairly sound basketball logic: He's a high-usage, ball-dominant star, and when he's out, the ball naturally moves more and everyone else becomes more involved and effective. There is some truth in this.
Though with every loss it's looking hollower and hollower. the Wizards are making more than 30 more passes a game than they were prior to Jan. 25 (the last time Wall played), and as a result of this more inclusive activity, Markieff Morris and Otto Porter are scoring a combined eight points more per game over that stretch. As a team, the Wizards are scoring over two points more per game since Wall went out, which is more than it sounds like. Meanwhile, Tomas Satoransky, Wall's replacement, has been something of a revelation.
These are all good things for the Wizards, obviously. But they're also not enough for them to really compete at an elite level, which we're starting to see. To do that, they need Wall, with the qualifier being that they can't go back to the old Wall, who holds the ball on average 6.3 seconds every time he touches, which is more than anyone in the league who has played meaningful minutes. That's not going to get them where they're trying to go either. At best, they're a second-round team playing like that. The key is to somehow find a way, on the fly, to marry Wall's talent with the way they've played collectively in his absence.
This, of course, is easier said than done.
Indeed, before we can even try to examine how the Wizards and Wall might be able to accomplish this marriage of skill and system, we have to first understand what we're even talking about. In a word, it's talent. Wall has worlds of it, and Satoransky doesn't -- which makes it inherently easier for the latter to give up the ball and play more within the system. Wall is the system. Has been his whole life. Playing his way, he's gone from a No. 1 overall draft pick to a five-time All-Star and borderline top-five point guard in the world.
As such, Wall possesses the same take-control instincts that almost every great player possesses -- instincts that have been cultivated and validated over years and years of success, and it's difficult to just turn those off, or even temper them. But it can be done. Just look at the Warriors.
Like Wall, Stephen Curry can get his shot or directly create a shot for someone else out of a pick and roll any time he pleases. Curry is, without question, the deadliest pick-and-roll player in the league, probably in NBA history. He leads the league in just about every pick-and-roll category in terms of points per possession, no matter who he runs it with. There is simply no good answer for a Curry pick and roll. The Warriors could run it every time and kill teams. So why, then, do they run the fewest pick and rolls of any team in the league?
Allow Steve Kerr to explain, as he did on Tim Kawakami's show shortly after the Warriors won the title last year:
"... it's one of the things -- I think important for our fans to understand -- because one of the things I get all the time is, 'Why don't you just put Steph in a screen-and-roll every play? Why don't you give him the ball every play?' And I think what people who follow our team closely understand is that the number of playmakers we have on our team is what makes us who we are ... drive and kick and passing and moving -- it keeps everybody engaged."
"... for the people who say, 'Just give it to Steph every time and let him go,' well now you're alienating Draymond, you're alienating Andre, you're alienating Shaun. You're basically telling them to be spotup 3-point shooters," Kerr continued. "And now I think you're losing a lot emotionally from what makes the team tick, and you're taking away the energy that Draymond gets from being a playmaker and getting 8 or 10 assists.
"So that's the balance we always try to find with our group -- get everybody involved and energized."
And there you have it. Now, to be clear, the Wizards don't have the collective talent the Warriors have. But the principle is the same: Golden State could give it to Curry, or Kevin Durant for that matter, every possession and simply let them do their thing on their own terms. But they don't. Ultimately, they understand that there's a cost to every bucket, and as Kerr said, they value the benefits of having everyone involved and engaged, and what that means in the big picture of chasing a championship, over winning any single possession.
Wall and the Wizards would be wise to take note. Because listen, if Wall wanted to, he could get a good look for himself or directly create a play for someone else every time down the court. He's that talented, and defenses are willing to give him a mid-range pull-up whenever he wants it. He could, and often does, do this all night:
Wall takes, and makes, these shots all the time, usually in far prettier fashion than the accidental bank-in. But what is the cost? Run that clip back, and notice how long Wall holds the ball. Notice the other players standing around like a bunch of statues. That's not how you get Porter going. That's not how you get Morris going. Compare that, now, to this possession:
That is how you get everyone involved, and pretty simply, you do not see many possessions like that when Wall is on the floor. For starters, he holds the ball too long to even have time for four other Wizards to touch it, and besides that, when he does give it up, he would never make that cut to the basket that Satorasky made for the bucket. Hard as it is to believe, Wall has made one cut for a shot this season, per Synergy, and he didn't covert.
This only further illustrates that Wall is something of a fish out of water without the ball in his hands. He's a playmaker, plain and simple, and a damn good one. But if modern basketball has taught us anything, it's that what's best for the individual isn't always what's best for the team.
To be fair, Wall isn't the only player struggling to strike this balance between system and star. Russell Westbrook is in the same boat. The Thunder are a remarkable 17-2 this season when Westbrook shoots fewer than 17 times, which begs the question: Why doesn't he just shoot less more often? It obviously works.
Again, great players often don't think this way, even if perhaps they should. It's not so much selfish as it is primitive, a survival instinct sharpened over years of killing. For guys like Wall and Westbrook -- and at times Kyrie Irving, and for years Kobe Bryant, and on down the list of control-freak superstars -- to pass the buck in any capacity, to anyone, let alone to a lesser-talented player, feels more than unnatural -- it feels flat-out dangerous. Deep down, they struggle to truly trust anyone but themselves.
But over this stretch, the Wizards have proven worthy of Wall's trust. They're a good team waiting on their star to be great. Wall has had a tough season. He hasn't been healthy, and consequently, he hasn't been the player we've come to know. But he's gong to have an opportunity to turn that around very quickly. If he can come back and not disrupt what the Wizards have created without him, but rather take it to another level, Washington feels like a team that can compete for a spot in the Finals if it's clicking at the right time. The East is that wide open. And John Wall is, or at least can be, that good.
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