NBA Insider Tom Haberstroh

NBA Insider Tom Haberstroh

It was time. The bone spur in his left heel was just too painful and surgery was necessary, even if it ended his season. The season was going sideways, anyway.
 
Yes, the star point guard had just signed the richest contract in NBA history, over $150 million. But this is likely best for the long-term, for the individual and the organization. Plus, it might just help add the team’s next star in the draft.
 
Oh, you thought I was talking about John Wall?
 
My bad. I was actually talking about Mike Conley, who underwent season-ending surgery last January to smooth a bone spur in his left heel. This appears to be a similar injury to the one that Wall is dealing with at the moment.
 
As one person close to the situation described the injury to NBC Sports, Wall has a “spur stuck in his Achilles and it won’t calm down. Probably need to look at the big picture.”
 
For frustrated Washington Wizards fans, that big picture may look a lot like the current Memphis Grizzlies. Conley’s season-ending surgery in late January eventually led to the No. overall 4 pick and Jaren Jackson Jr., who looks every bit like the future star of a rejuvenated Grizzlies franchise.
 
The Wizards still have their 2019 first-round pick, which, at the moment, might be the team’s most valuable asset. According to Tankathon.com, the Wizards have a 37.2 percent chance of landing a top-four pick.
 
The 2019 draft will be the first with the NBA’s reformed draft lottery odds. Under the new rules, the teams with the three worst records have an equal 14 percent chance of receiving the No. 1 pick. The team with the fourth-worst record has a 12.5 percent chance, an almost negligible difference of odds. In years past, the NBA drew ping-pong balls for the top-three picks. Now, it’s four.
 
The big question is whether the organization shifts into rebuilding mode. And that decision is going to be a difficult one now that the Wizards have already traded 26-year-old Austin Rivers and 23-year-old Kelly Oubre Jr. for veteran Trevor Ariza. That’s a win-now move, not a rebuilding move. If they want to go the youth movement and jockey for draft positioning, letting Rivers and Oubre play through their mistakes would’ve been an easy shift.
 
However, they may not have to shift at all. The Wizards have been playing like a lottery team over the last month or so, going 2-8 over their last 10 games. Even before Wall’s season-ending diagnosis, the Wizards were battered and bruised. Dwight Howard might be months from returning. Markieff Morris and Otto Porter both sat out Friday’s game with minor injuries. To make matters worse, Sam Dekker turned his ankle and left the game as well.
 
No doubt that the Wall news is a tough pill to swallow for the Wizards faithful, but this might be a blessing in disguise. Yes, fans might look at his average annual salary of $42.5 million through 2022-23 and cringe even more. But that max extension is precisely why you might opt for surgery now.
 
Does having bone spurs in your heel that grind into your Achilles tendon sound like something you want to aggravate by playing another 50 or so games? No. This is the smart course of action because of that enormous investment that the Wizards made in Wall. After surgery and a full summer of rehab, Conley is playing some of the best ball of his career, averaging 20.3 points and tying a career high with 6.5 assists in Year 3 of a five-year max extension.
 
Also, the Wizards don’t have to throw in the towel just yet. If last season is any indication, they might be able to turn things around. When Wall went out in late January, the Wizards uncorked a five-game win streak and ended up going 15-12 in the 27 games he missed.
 
We also might see a different Otto Porter now that Wall is sidelined. In the 121 minutes that Porter has played without Wall this season, he has played like the star they envisioned, averaging 19.6 points, 8.3 rebounds per 36 minutes while shooting 52 percent from the floor and 38.9 percent from deep, per NBA.com tracking. Those numbers shrink to 13.2 points, 6.6 rebounds and 47 percent shooting with Wall on the floor. Last season, a similar trend followed: Porter’s numbers ballooned without Wall across the board.
 
Wall’s backup, Tomas Satoransky, could see a big boost as well after his breakout performance during Wall’s absence last season. Though he didn’t wow anybody in the disappointing loss to Chicago on Friday, the 27-year-old big combo guard can be a change of pace for the team. Though he’s not a natural pick-and-roll point guard, he can be creative in transition and run with Bradley Beal.
 
Beal might also be able to turn this adversity into an opportunity. The 25-year-old has watched his assist rate grow for the fourth straight season and that should only continue in Wall’s absence. The Wizards have actually been plus-23 in 341 minutes this season when Beal plays without Wall. Beal’s assist rate jumps from 4.1 per 36 minutes with Wall to 6.1 assists per 36 minutes without him. (When they’ve shared the court this season, they’ve been minus-110 in 977 minutes, per NBA.com tracking. Yikes.)
 
The question is whether they want to try to eke into the playoffs at all. The worst-case scenario would be just missing the playoffs and sitting outside of the top 10 in next year’s draft. That’s a very real possibility considering that the Wizards have only 26-percent odds to make the playoffs, per FiveThirtyEight tracking and just 1.3-percent odds, per Basketball-Reference.com’s simulations.
 
It might be prudent to see Wall and Howard’s injuries and admit that it’s time to build for next season. Let promising 21-year-old Thomas Bryant bang in the post against the NBA’s best. See what you have in 19-year-old Troy Brown Jr. -- the team’s next “Jr.” swingman waiting in the wings. Give Dekker and Ron Baker every chance to prove they belong in the league.
 
Memphis was 17-31 when Conley announced his season-ending bone spur surgery last season. They handed the keys to Marc Gasol and the kids. They lost 29 of the last 34 games of the season and ended up with maybe the most promising big man of the 2018 class in Jackson Jr.
 
Can the Wizards make the same gamble? With the draft lottery flattening out for the top-four picks this year, this might be just the time to find Wall and Beal’s next running mate.