Disappointment has run rampant for many teams in the NBA this season, but there have been varying degrees of it, ranging from the Utah Jazz to the Washington Wizards.
Having covered both teams for a number of platforms, including the Jazz for Deseret News, I’ve become familiar — almost too familiar, as evidenced by the strange dreams I get involving obscure players who many have forgotten — with the shape of each franchise.
And that’s why a blockbuster trade is on my mind.
This season, the Jazz’s disappointment has been akin to the smart kid's whose report card suffered a bit after getting straight A’s the previous semester. The classes got harder, the rest of the students began studying more and the A’s turned to B’s. The good news is, there’s still plenty of time to turn it around, and the kid has a history of doing exactly that. If he works hard and makes adjustments, the excellent grades will fall into place.
The Washington Wizards are the brilliant kid who refuses to apply himself. He skips class, thinks he can get away without doing homework and rolls his eyes at mom when she tries to reprimand him for not taking school seriously enough. For him, it’s a lot harder to turn things around.
One of those teams is going to be fine — they have leadership in the locker room, competent management and an elite coaching staff. The other is on the verge of imploding.
The Wizards, who constructed an exciting team around their backcourt pair, John Wall and Bradley Beal, have been the most dysfunctional team in Washington, making the White House seem like a stable place to work.
Wall — whose year is done, as he's set to have season-ending surgery on his left heel for a Haglund’s deformity and a chronic Achilles tendon injury — reportedly hurled expletives at head coach Scott Brooks during a recent practice. Beal made similar comments towards the team’s president and the players' body language generally gives off the feeling that they despise playing with each other, as evidenced by their 15-23 record.
Whether it happens soon or at the trade deadline, the Wizards need to seriously consider blowing up their core. One could — and should — argue that a major trade shouldn’t be completed until GM Ernie Grunfeld, the architect of the Wizards’ disaster, is fired, but the Wizards have still made it clear that they’re open to moving on from their current All-Star backcourt.
The Wizards are in a complicated situation — and finding a trade partner will prove to be difficult.
Wall’s super-max contract which will pay him upwards of $40 million in his 30s is set to kick in next season and teams have been reluctant to take on that sort of money. Plus, he has a 15 percent trade kicker that will make teams squirm. The only teams that will consider bringing Wall into the fold are ones that, too, need a change — and others that won’t attract big-time free agents in the summer, making a blockbuster trade the only avenue for landing stars.
Enter the Jazz.
Utah’s struggles with landing highly coveted free agents has been well-documented. The Jazz can get away without being a free agent destination because their management does a fantastic job of finding gems in the draft and lesser-known but impactful free agents. But at some point, the team is going to have to match up talent-wise to actually compete for a championship.
Prior to the Nov. 18 loss in Atlanta, Wall seemed to be turning the corner. Four days before, against the Kyrie Irving-led Celtics, Wall scored 34 points and dished out 13 assists. Then a few days after that game, Wall scored 40 points to go alongside 14 assists against LeBron James and the Lakers.
Of course, Wall followed those performances up with just 15 points and 6 assists against the struggling Atlanta Hawks, with 11 of his 16 shot attempts coming from beyond the 3-point line — evidence of him beginning to settle for jump shots instead of using his speed and athleticism to beat his opponents off the dribble and score inside.
That is a microcosm of Wall’s season.
The superstar point guard used to be known for his hustle — for not having an ounce of quit in his game. It’s been the opposite this year.
Wall had bone spurs for years and dealt with the pain in his ankle, wanting to give his team the best chance to win games. The discomfort became intolerable for Wall this year and he wasn't able to move like he normally would, which could be a partial explanation to his abysmal defense. After he recovers from the ankle procedure which will sideline him for 6-to-8 months, he should return to regular form and resume playing at an all-star level.
Wall and the Wizards need to move on from each other, and the Wizards should find a way to move him to a franchise that will make sure the juice is worth the squeeze — a team with the coaching, front office and locker room that will bring the best of Wall out every night, not just against a handful of teams.
The Jazz are really a perfect fit.
Utah’s top-notch coaching and use of its limited talent have been enough to get them to the playoffs and even past the first round. After Gordon Hayward (is it still too soon to invoke his name?) left, pundits, myself included, thought the Jazz were headed for the lottery. Instead, they found a new franchise player in the draft in Donovan Mitchell, filled the void with other role players, and allowed Rudy Gobert to blossom as a leader.
Other teams have made similar improvements, which has made it more difficult for the Jazz to keep up in the West. The Denver Nuggets, Memphis Grizzlies, L.A. Clippers, Sacramento Kings, and Los Angeles Lakers are all likely candidates for the playoffs that missed out last year. To stay within playoff range, the Jazz might have to consider a change.
Wall, with the proper mindset and in the right atmosphere, is a Top 5 point guard, capable of dominating on either side of the floor. As a five-time NBA All-Star and former All-Defensive team member, Wall has carried the Wizards his entire career, and for eight straight seasons, did so without another All-Star teammate.
He seems burnt out — tired of having to do the heavy lifting, tired of seeing the same faces, and tired of watching some of his teammates who are on one-year deals clearly gunning for paychecks. He’s been lethargic and basically refuses to move on offense when the ball isn’t in his hands (which, again, is evidence of him settling, or otherwise being lazy).
Utah has the pieces to get a trade done, too, or at the very least entice the Wizards into considering a deal. Ricky Rubio and Derrick Favors are coming off the books after this season, and the questions concerning Dante Exum’s future have become an annual occurrence. Rubio and Favors have played an integral role in creating a winning culture in Utah — one of the healthiest locker rooms in the NBA, in fact. But to get something, the Jazz will have to give something up.9 comments on this story
The current core, including Rubio and Favors, hasn’t been enough to propel the Jazz this season. They have to ask themselves: can this core truly compete for a championship? If the answer is no, the Jazz are not the type of franchise to want to toil in mediocrity. Considering a high-risk, high-reward move like a trade for Wall might be something they must do to make that final push.
The Wizards have been a wasteland for talent, but Wall has managed to power through the dysfunction and mishandling for years. Washington owes him a chance at success — a shot at creating the legacy most envisioned when he came out of Kentucky.
When it comes to talent development and honing skill-sets, the Jazz are in a league of their own. The fit, really, couldn’t be better. The Wall-to-Mitchell connections are dreamlike. All it takes is for one team to accept the risk.