In swapping John Wall for Russell Westbrook last week, the Washington Wizards traded away the greatest Washington Wizard of all time.
How do you grade a move that in addition to personnel and a draft pick ships out the heart and soul of your team? Please spare me the this-and-that on X’s and O’s; keep your advanced analytics to yourself. Save your musings on 2023 salary cap projections and/or free agency for the comments section of an ESPN+ article. Any evaluation of DC’s take in this deal starts and ends with this: the franchise just offloaded the first and only true franchise player its ever had.
You can’t determine fair compensation for a player whose best strength is being your team’s spirit animal. You can’t accurately assess the value of an All-Star who is not only worth more to your team than he is to any other team, but is arguably worth more to your team than any other player in the league is worth to theirs. The Wizards can no more contemplate a future without Wall than a Trump immigration policy can – once you remove the Wall we’re no longer talking about the same concept.
Since the 2009 NBA Draft Lottery, John Wall is the Washington Wizards. The team went as Wall went, for better and for worse. At his best we came within a few key plays from the ECF (3X, in fact), and at his worst you could only ask yourself WTF (ask Randy Wittman). The fanbase took on his personality – passionate but overlooked, raw with a chip on the shoulder, sometimes volatile, always fresh, and dripping with love for the game. The players who came through the organization were defined by how well they played with John (Bradley Beal, Otto Porter, Marcin Gortat), and later by how poorly they performed without him spoon-feeding them baskets (Marcin Gortat, Otto Porter). Even when John Wall wasn’t playing, he was the story – i.e. “Everybody eats” – and when he wasn’t around at all there was hardly a point of even watching – i.e. the last season and a half.
John was our lottery grand prize, our Slam Dunk champ, our perennial All-Star, our real-life G-Man, our cover boy, our local TMZ-headliner, our Rose Bar HoF’er, our signature sneakers, our district philanthropist, our highlight tape sensation, and so much more.
Every Wizards jersey for sale at the NBA Store looked best with a #2 on it. Every reaction you can possibly have to a Wizards story or moment can be summed up with a John Wall meme or gif. Every Wizards franchise record list has John’s name on it, usually at the top or somewhere nearby.
When John Wall’s hand broke in the 2nd round versus the Hawks, our hearts broke with it. When he cried for the passing of his friend Miyah or of his mother, we shed tears as well. When he jumped on the scorer’s table after hitting the Game 6 winner against the Celtics to proclaim the city was his, we were jumping on the bar at Clyde’s or on our couches at home to yell the same thing.
No trade package can replace that. No next-man-up can fill that gap. You can’t quantify such a player’s worth to an organization, especially this organization, and in the end this trade will only be measured in what-ifs and could’ve beens. What if we could’ve brought the squad back to the days of a dominant Wall-Beal duo? Wow, we could’ve had our own legendary franchise icon, a DC version of Dirk and the Mavs or Steph and the Warriors.
John Wall and the Wizards parted ways with the exchange of mutual gratitude and kinds words, but this was not a fitting end. After enduring through a painful two-year recovery, John deserved to make his return in a Wizards jersey, and we fans deserved to see it. Whether the comeback went miraculously or was a disaster it would’ve been ours, with John repping the District and the District cheering him on in turn. And that would’ve meant something; something more than perhaps anything short of a championship could mean for the city.
In explaining the Wall for Westbrook trade, GM Tommy Sheppard said, “I want to remove the emotions from this and explain the reason we do things in this basketball world.” Well, by trading John Wall he certainly removed the source of the team’s emotions for the last decade. One day soon, a Wizards #2 will hang from the rafters of the Capital One Arena. It’s just a shame the same #2 won’t be balling on the court in the meantime.