When a team fails, and the Wizards were an exceptional train wreck this season, the leader comes under the spotlight. John Wall had an interesting take in his exit interview and I followed up with him to clarify his remarks. Then I followed up with others close to the situation to flush out exactly what Wall was referencing as the underlying factor that prevented him from being more effective.
I did a great job leading as much as I could. A lot of guys that's on a one-year deal, you put your foot down, you say what you need to say as a leader, but at the end of the day if everybody is not held accountable from the starting position down -- from me to the last person on the bench -- if we're not held accountable if one person wants to do something more no matter what I say as a leader if he's not backing me up it's not going to work. I think it was tough because with nine guys coming in on one-year deals everybody wanted the last word. Everybody wanted the last say so. This is probably the most flare ups or whatever throughout games.
This probably went over a lot of people's heads, but this onion needed peeling. Exactly who or what was Wall referencing? Clearly, Wall is suggesting that coach Randy Wittman, now fired, wasn't consistent in how he handled the locker room.
"If I'm the best player on the team and I can take the criticism," Wall said to me after he talked to the media horde at his press conference, "then everybody else can."
Specifically, I'm told by multiple persons with knowledge of the situation, it was Wittman's outright refusal to ever call out Nene that was at the heart of it. The 7-foot Brazilian, in the final year of a contract that paid him $13 million this season, is treated with reverence for good reason. He brought a seriousness and a professionalism to the locker room that it lacked post-Gilbert Arenas. He was acquired in a 2012 trade that also sent JaVale McGee out of town.
Nene's lengthy injury history has long been a source of frustration for the Wizards, but without him they don't make two consecutive playoff appearances. They don't beat the Chicago Bulls in five games of a first-round series in 2014. Where does that appreciation end and more accountability begin?
As some players saw it, Wittman's refusal to be fair in this regard contributed to his loss of credibility in the locker room. In Wittman's defense, he was in a classic Catch-22. He berated Marcin Gortat for not being Nene on the defensive end every chance he had. Nene plays more physical, angry and reads the floor so well on both ends that he almost always connects with the right pass or make the right rotation. He needed Nene.
He couldn't start Nene, however, because of his constant foot and leg injuries and had to keep his minutes down. He could never bench Gortat as a form of punishment because he'd check out mentally for the rest of the season. And Gortat felt unfairly targeted by Wittman because he took the criticism for two players.
Tensions were raised when the team would study game film and Wittman always was quick to call out the likes of Wall and Bradley Beal while Nene routinely received a free pass. While Nene was vital, he wasn't flawless. He had five turnovers in 17 minutes in their game at Golden State, stripped from behind on double-teams by Stephen Curry that he should've seen coming. Then by Leandro Barbosa. What could've been a major upset turned into a 102-94 loss. Nene commanded double-teams because Golden State had no one to handle him in the low post without Andrew Bogut on the floor, which forced them to take a chance and compromise their defense. That's a good thing. His reaction time was just too slow vs. a cat-quick team. That's a bad thing.
"It was all our fault. He did nothing wrong," a player said, nodding at Nene, in the locker room in Oakland, Calif., and this came the night before Beal's blowup following a loss the to the Sacramento Kings when he called his teammates for not playing hard or smart.
Even when it came to Ramon Sessions, who had a strong season as Wall's backup and in the final year of his deal, Wittman curiously refused to criticize him for soft defensive coverages on pick-and-rolls. The perception became that Sessions is such a likable and great player to coach, Wittman didn't want to mention him by name and as with Nene he'd blame the mistake on the collective instead of that individual.
Sessions, I'm told, actually challenged Wittman to call him out if he's suggesting that he was at fault. It wasn't a combative posture by Sessions. He wanted the coaching. He wanted to be challenged.
Wittman's eventual departure wasn't the a case of players turning on their coach to get him out of office. Wall has been candid about how Wittman helped him become thicker-skinned. He takes criticism so well now, became an All-Star three times and made an NBA All-Defensive team because of those lessons.
But even players who were partial to Wittman saw the favoritism and also suspected that their coach was afraid of angering Nene, or just bowed to him because he was a veteran of 14 seasons. This undoubtedly contributed to repeated spats between young and old, with Beal and Nene going at it heavily in a home loss to Portland.
When asked about this likely being the last time he'll play with Nene, Wall was genuinely complimentary. But you also can read between lines:
He's a feisty competitive person. He wants to get his point across. I want to get my point across. Somebody that came in and gave us a physical presence that we needed on the low post, that can pass, understands basketball. When he's healthy you know what you're going to get from him. .... Nothing I have bad to say about him.
It would've been easier if these players didn't like each other as people. Almost everyone got along off the court. Professionally, they saw the game in different ways and one of Wittman's major mistakes was playing favorites.
Gregg Popovich is the gold standard of NBA coaches so this is a high bar, but he will yell at Tim Duncan, Tony Parker or Manu Ginobili -- in front of his team -- as easily as he'll verbally assault Patty Mills or Boban Marjanovic. He'll also bench his entire starting five if he feels they're playing lackluster and they'll need to get over it if they don't like it.
The best player has to set an example for everyone to follow. He has to take it. But so does everyone else when their turn comes to go to the woodshed. This is how a team maintains order.
Only in this type of an environment can Wall or Beal have a chance to have any chance at fulfilling their ability to lead. It's imperative for the Wizards' next coach to understand that.
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