Rejoice, my good friends, for the mighty John Wall, in his profound wisdom, has signed a 4-year, $170 million contract extension with the Washington Wizards. We have come through dark times indeed, but at last we are delivered to a better day. Whew!
Here are some things that have happened in the NBA very recently: DeMarcus Cousins became eligible for a super-max extension in Sacramento, and was traded; Jimmy Butler was traded by the Bulls a year or two before he was a mortal lock to become eligible for a DPE super-max extension; Paul George became ineligible for a super-max extension in Indiana, and asked out, and was traded; Gordon Hayward became ineligible for a super-max extension in Utah, and left in free agency. Also! Cousins went to New Orleans and paired up with fellow super-talented Kentucky big man Anthony Davis; Chris Paul went to Houston and paired up with super-max player James Harden; George went to Oklahoma City and paired up with reigning MVP Russell Westbrook; Butler went to Minnesota and paired up with another monster Kentucky big man, Karl-Anthony Towns; Hayward went to Boston to join the team that bounced the Wizards in the 2017 playoffs; Carmelo Anthony is agitating to go to Houston; LeBron James’s attachment to Cleveland seems to be crumbling; Kyrie Irving is asking out of Cleveland.
At first blush these things might seem mostly unrelated, but they are not. In the mind of a Wizards fan, waiting for John Wall to either sign the extension or throw the organization into the trash, these are all evil omens, heralding the arrival of a new period of upheaval at the NBA’s superstar level. And, as we all know, any shift in NBA business is bound, inevitably, to screw the fucking Wizards. Without even giving any specific examples (Ian Mahinmi, Larry Hughes, Michael Goddamn Jordan, Jan Vesely, Andray Blatche), you can look at the recent history of the Wizards and know that no particular phase of or trend in NBA team-building has particularly benefited these bozos. Virtually every part of constructing an NBA roster other than lucking into a trio of talented young players when you are bad enough to draft in the top five for four consecutive years has left them in ruins.
It has therefore been Washington’s lot to utilize only the home-team advantages baked into the most recent collective bargaining agreements—like restricted free agency, and the new Designated Player Veteran Extension—to build something like a pseudo-contender on top of and around the detritus of decades of just being sort of awful at the business of making good basketball teams, and the whole rotten reputation those decades rightly earned them. But this has meant using those tools in ways that mostly do not advantage the home team—the restricted free-agency contracts given to Bradley Beal and Otto Porter are for the maximum allowable amounts, when at least by some definitions neither guy has been what you might consider a “max-player” (neither guy, for example, has ever made an All Star team). Similarly, the extension Wall just signed is for the very maximum amount of money that he can receive at this point in his career, and it includes a couple of player-friendly goodies—a fourth-year player option and a 15 percent trade kicker—that tell you that the player’s agreement was highly conditional.
These contracts are not necessarily overpays, because in each case, as Wizards owner Ted Leonsis was quick to point out during Porter’s press conference, the market spoke, and dictated the going rate for the player’s services. Still, there is a way of tilting your head and looking at this team and wondering about paying a fortune to retain a core that won 49 games last season, and has not advanced beyond the second round in three playoff appearances, especially when it means going into the luxury tax and accepting a near-term future of extreme financial inflexibility. Conventional—and largely right-thinking!—basketblogging wisdom says paying $116 million a season for a frisky also-ran in the shabby Eastern Conference is at least severely financially imprudent, if not comprehensively foolhardy (to say nothing of being insufficiently, umm, disruptive).
But player contracts can’t be viewed in just that narrow way. With $48 million worth of Ian Mahinmi still on the books, and another $26 million worth of Marcin Gortat, and a ghastly $11 million worth of Jason Smith, and Bradley Beal’s massive $128 million contract, the Wizards were looking at something like $92 million in 2017-2018 salary before re-signing Porter, far too close to the $99 million salary cap to find any real difference-makers in free-agency. Under those circumstances, the prospect of losing Porter over luxury tax concerns probably meant taking a big step backwards during the last years of John Wall’s current contract. So the equation was pretty straightforward: the Wizards could decide to continue trying to be good, with an eye on retaining Wall through his prime, or they could make the painful decision to rebuild, because paying through the nose for two-thirds of a 49-win core is probably not in the budget. If you are a fan of the NBA having good teams in both conferences, let alone a long-suffering Wizards fan, this is an easy call!
But it was a gambit! Once the Wizards decided to pay Otto Porter $106 million over the next four years, they needed John Wall to sign that extension—you cannot decide to continue trying to be good and then subtract John Wall from your 49-win roster. As gruesome as the prospect of replacing Porter with just a guy might be, imagine pulling something similar with the best player your organization has had in like 30 years. That Wall signed it, and made the decision to play out his prime years in a Wizards uniform, means that, barring catastrophe, the Wizards can continue to make a credible effort to be good for the next five or six years. They’ve made a lot of bad decision to arrive at this point, and those decisions will continue to haunt them for the length of Wall’s time in Washington, but the decision to retain Porter and Wall—to pay what it takes to let it ride—was a fine one. The only fine one available, in fact.