John Wall won’t see the court for 10 months thanks to season-ending surgery. Where does leave his contract in the NBA’s ranks of the worst of the worst?
Earlier this season, Marc Berman of the NY Post dropped a line in one of his articles about the Knicks that “some in the league believe” New York would go after John Wall if the Washington Wizards ever made him available via trade.
Predictably, intelligent Knicks fans everywhere (there’s more of us out there than you’d think) hit the panic button. Although this seemed to be nothing more than conjecture by a beat writer filling out a column, it was enough to cause a stir. We immediately recognized the danger in acquiring a player who, while only 28 years old and supremely talented, was also about to get very expensive.
At the time, the general consensus was that the Wizards wouldn’t be able to unload Wall and his max contract extension — which doesn’t kick in until next season — until at least the summer due to some messy complications involving his trade kicker that Zach Lowe detailed in early November. Still, it’s not like trading him would have been impossible. Wall was an All-Star in 2018, a season in which he shot above league-average from deep for the first time in his career. When engaged and healthy, he is a borderline top-ten NBA player.
That last part might still be true, but no one will know for sure for nearly a year, and maybe never again.
Thanks to season-ending surgery to remove bone spurs from his left heel, Wall won’t see the court again until October. When he does, he will have missed 91 of his Washington’s previous 163 regular season games.
For most newly minted 29-year-olds, this might not be a big deal, but for any potential Wall suitors, it’s a large red siren telling opposing general managers “trade for this fella, and you’re outta business.” That’s because when you combine his extensive injury history with his noncommittal relationship to offseason conditioning, the odds that Wall reaches anything close to his previous athletic peak aren’t great (Bob). In the same piece detailing Wall’s trade kicker, Lowe cites Second Spectrum data showing that only two players spent more court time than the former Kentucky Wildcat either standing still or walking during the 2016-17 season.
This is someone whose average annual salary is tied with James Harden for the highest in the league over the next four seasons. Throw in the fact that Wall has not only called out teammates publicly, but has been called out by his own teammates and opponents alike, and it’s fair to ask the obvious question:
Is John Wall’s contract the worst in the NBA?
It seems an odd question to ask about someone who could still absolutely have it in him to be the best player in the right playoff series. It’s also a valid one.
Look around the league. There are two types of bad contracts: ones where good money has been positively set on fire for players who aren’t remotely useful, and ones where good players are overpaid for their still useful services. Wall is in category B, but usually, there’s at least someone in category A who takes the cake in this discussion. That’s doesn’t seem to be the case right now though.
Thanks to the cap crunch that faced free agents over the last two summers, there have been very few truly terrible deals handed out to subpar players over that time. Contracts for Dion Waiters (four years, $52 million) and Cristiano Felicio (four years, $32 million) are in the lead right now, but each of those are almost halfway done and have average annual salaries that don’t hold a candle to Wall.
There are more than a few stink bombs still emanating throughout the league from July of 2016, but all of the Ian Mahinmi’s of the world will be turning into “Ian Mahinmi’s Expiring Contract” in seven short months. Only two pacts signed during the Summer of Spending are in contention for this conversation, and both are for players who are lingering somewhere in the purgatory between category A and category B mentioned above: Chandler Parsons and Nicolas Batum.
Batum is due $25.5 million next season and has a $27.1 million player option for 2020-21 that he’s almost certain to pick up. He has a comically low usage rate of 12.8, good for 405th in the NBA, just above the aforementioned Mahinmi. His points and assists per game have dropped to 8.8 and 3.4, respectively — nearly half of what they were just two seasons ago, the first of his then-new contract.
Still, Batum is far from a bad player. He has started every game and played the second most minutes for a competitive Charlotte team, and he is a net positive during that time. During the rare occasions he plays without Kemba Walker (only 306 total possessions), the Hornets are managing to outscore teams by 12.7 points per 100 possessions according to Cleaning the Glass. He’s far from a total zero.
Parsons, on the other hand, has essentially been exactly that over the two-plus seasons he’s been with Memphis. Since signing his four-year, $94 million deal, he’s appeared in just 36 percent of possible games, averaging 19.3 minutes in those contests. According to him, he’s now healthy and doesn’t understand why he’s not playing. Whether that makes his contract any better or worse is anyone’s guess.
For as little as Parsons has given the Grizzlies and for as helpful as Batum might still be, the difference isn’t worth an additional year at roughly a quarter of the salary cap. So Batum wins by a nose to stay in the race with Wall. Before getting into that debate, we do have a couple of category A guys — players who are paid like superstars but don’t fit the bill- – who merit consideration. Ironically, they were once traded for each other.
Kevin Love and Andrew Wiggins will both make north of $90 million over the next three seasons (Wiggins will make slightly more, and of minor importance, his contract ascends in value while Love’s dips down in the last year). Both signings were egregious in their own way; Love’s because Koby Altman believed he would have more trade value on this contract than as an expiring deal, and Wiggins’ because the Wolves didn’t simply wait until he hit restricted free agency, instead opting to re-sign him a full year ahead of time.
The difference, of course, is that Love is still a plus NBA player, or at least he was the last time he saw the court. The toe surgery that will sideline him for a few more weeks doesn’t seem to be a long-term issue, but the fact that he’s already 30 certainly is. The problem is that Love doesn’t make much sense for anyone. He’s too old for rebuilding teams and an imperfect fit for contenders.
But at least Love is still really good at basketball. The same maybe can’t be said of Andrew Wiggins.
Writing about Wiggins continued struggles has become a cottage industry in the NBA blogosphere, as we’ve seen time and time and time again…and that’s all in the last month. There are, however, some reasons to be hopeful of late, and this is still someone the same age as several first and second-year players in the league. There is at least a chance he still makes good on his talent.
Given that (slight) hope, not to mention the fact that we know where Kevin Love tops out (third-best player on a championship team…alongside one of the two greatest players of all time…and that was 30 months ago…eek…), Wiggins’ is probably the more palatable deal.
So that leaves Batum, Love and Wall to battle it out for the top spot.
(I hear the chorus of calls for Chris Paul to be included in the convo as well, but I can’t do it. He has one less year than Wall does on his deal and is still theoretically the second-best player on possibly the second-best team in the West despite what has been a down year, at least by his lofty standards.)
The answer to the question of which one is the worst probably changes depending on the team. If, say, the Lakers or Bucks were forced to take on one of the three, Wall’s the easy choice. Were it a rebuilding team like the Hawks or Bulls, Batum and his two fewer years would be the pick. For teams like the Blazers or Jazz, it’s easy to see Love being the choice.
It’s impossible to pick one, but the fact that Wall is even in the conversation represents a striking fall from grace for a player who was arguably the best point guard prospect since Magic Johnson when he came out of the draft. If this is the beginning of the end, there is one number that is perhaps the most telling number of his entire career: five.
That’s how many MVP votes Wall has received as an NBA player…one fourth place vote and four fifth place votes in 2017. The over-under on him ever getting another one would have to be set at 0.5 at this point.
The Wizards are betting $170 million on the over. They don’t appear to have a choice.