By trading Marcin Gortat and replacing him with Dwight Howard, the Washington Wizards may have solved their biggest problem: The locker room.
Directing blame for the Wizards over eight years of John Wall’s career has been a choose-your-own-adventure of misery.
Is injury and inexperience to blame for the team’s inability to break through to the conference finals? Or perhaps it’s the incongruous shape of the roster, where backup point guard and wing depth always problematic? These answers are both likely part of a larger puzzle, as is the tangled grumpiness that always seemed to pop up at the worst times for Wall and the Wizards.
Washington’s best season was 2016-17, a year in which they finished seventh in offensive efficiency as Wall stayed healthy, Bradley Beal broke out as a star, and the depth improved. Or, at least, guys like Kelly Oubre and Tomas Satoransky were impressive in extended run. One has to hedge their excitement about Washington so as to not run into the buzzsaw of Marcin Gortat’s frustration with one aspect of the team or another.
In November 2016, incredibly early in what would go on to be one of the Wizards’ best runs, Gortat spoke with the media to air his grievances.
“What can we do? Well, we’ve got to play better. We’ve got to compete,” Gortat told The Washington Post. “We need energy. We need effort. We’ve got to make shots. I think there’s a lot of things we can do better. I think right now, as far as I know, I think we’ve got one of the worst benches in the league right now.”
He was referring to a stretch in which the Wizards were without Wall and Beal, to be sure, but his overall temperament could be counted on to blow out existing anxieties into controversy thanks to the way he used the media to communicate his (often negative) feelings. It couldn’t have helped chemistry or the mood in a younger locker room.
Now, Gortat is gone, traded to Los Angeles in return for Austin Rivers. The deal got more press than it ought to have over the summer, because it involved two peculiar stories exchanging situations. Gortat enters a pseudo-rebuild with the Clippers, while Rivers enters Washington as perhaps the backup guard they’ve always sought.
Yet the most interesting piece of the entire transaction came in how the Wizards replaced Gortat. It began with Wall, the centerpiece of the franchise, who gave a candid answer when asked after the season about remaking the roster in 2018.
“It’s pretty obvious. I don’t need to point it out. I think the way the league is going, you need athletic bigs, you need scoring off the bench, you need all of those types of things,” Wall told Washington media. “We don’t really have an athletic big.”
In a seeming attempt to answer Wall’s call, the Wizards brought in storied big man Dwight Howard, who once likened himself to Superman and now resembles the Man of Steel after a go with a stick of kryptonite.
Howard agreed to a buyout with the Brooklyn Nets and now will make Washington his fourth NBA city in as many years. Will he play like the “athletic big” Wall clamored for after the Wizards’ first-round exit? It’s tough to say, but one area in which he could help is to clear the air of the tension that seemed to reign over the Capitol One Arena locker room the past several seasons.
Gortat is gone. The once-magnified problems between Wall and Beal seem to have reached a tenable resolution. Oubre and Otto Porter continue to grow as role players. Rivers is a solid, if overpaid, backup. On paper, this team makes sense. If healthy, it should press for solid seeding in a wide-open Eastern Conference playoff race.
But as has been the case for years, what happens behind the scenes will dictate the course of Washington’s season.
“He brings toughness, he brings leadership, he brings just a competitive spirit and he brings a fun to the game,” coach Scott Brooks said of Howard at the center’s introductory press conference. “I like that, and we need that.”
When attention turned back to Howard himself, it was back to that silly nature that has defined his career, mostly for worse, since he left Orlando. The one Brooks now claims Washington needs.
“I learned Magic for 8 years…traveled to La La Land, learned how to work with Rockets…how to fly with Hawks, got stung by the Hornets, and through all of that, it’s taught me how to be a Wizard,” Howard said.
But at this point, Howard can side-step his own persona enough to be realistic. He knows he’s packed and moved every summer since 2016. Understanding Howard’s motivation is tough, but he committed to the Wizards for two years and has to know winning will put his career back on course.
He knows that in Washington, that means a happy and engaged Wall. Their relationship — on the court and through the words of the media — will play a big role in determining how this year plays out for the Wizards.
“At this point in John’s career, it’s about one thing, and that’s winning,” Howard said. “All of us have something to prove, and we want to do it together.”