WASHINGTON -- Tomas Satoransky months ago looked at the locker to his left and pondered. Before the start of his third season, Satoransky already had gone through two teammates in that spot because “Meeks” recently was removed from the nameplate spot and replaced with “Howard”. He was asked to recall everyone else who cycled through that locker since he arrived from Europe in 2016. He rattled off some names and knew one thing: Kelly Oubre Jr. had always been to his right.
Friday, John Jenkins, nearing the end of a 10-day contract, took temporary shelter under bulbous headphones at what used to be Oubre’s locker. Even Oubre had long ago left Satoransky following a mid-December trade to Phoenix. Sam Dekker dressed in what was Jason Smith’s spot. Howard’s locker remained empty. Jordan McRae had a light pregame meal at the next locker over. John Wall’s stall at the end of the row had a tomb-like feeling. Only a small batch of socks, practice jerseys and shorts dangled together, tethered onto a hanger above two pairs of unused shoes. The Larry O’Brien photo hanging on the locker’s back wall was obscured by the clean laundry.
Satoransky was the lone constant on his side of the locker room. Bradley Beal and Ian Mahinmi were the only multi-year occupants on their side. Just four players -- Beal, Satoransky, Mahinmi and Wall -- remain on the roster from Game 7 against the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference semifinals, played less than two years ago. Only two -- Beal and Satoransky -- play with any regularity. The Wizards have undergone a massive shift in roster and trajectory since the night that closed a 49-win season with a reasonable argument more could have been, and would be, expected.
“[That’s] how the league’s going,” Satoransky told NBC Sports Washington. “Still getting used to that. So much trades this year. We changed everyone. I actually saw a tweet that we are the last four players from that season -- Ian, John, Brad and me. It’s kind of crazy. You don’t even think of that because you’re still going. Season doesn’t stop because of that. But when you look around, and you just remember, it’s kind of crazy how much we’ve changed.”
No two teams since that night exemplify the shifting of NBA rosters more than Boston and Washington. Of the 13 players available to the Wizards on May 15, 2017, the aforementioned four remain. Despite reaching the Eastern Conference Finals that season, only four players -- Al Horford, Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier -- are still playing for the Celtics. The combined groups couldn’t produce a full starting lineup.
Otto Porter and Markieff Morris were the last pieces removed from that Wizards group following trades last week. Morris’ “FOE” sticker (Family Over Everything) was peeled off the top of his locker after he was dealt to New Orleans for Wesley Johnson. Bobby Portis has taken Otto Porter’s old locker, providing a slight linguistic and enormous personality twist in the spot. Jabari Parker now sits in the corner Marcin Gortat occupied for four seasons, but has been used as a revolving home in 2018-19.
All of the tumult and turnover combined with Wall’s injuries to alter the path of the team since they walked out of Boston. That night, Scott Brooks, Ernie Grunfeld and Ted Leonsis met outside the Wizards locker room after the game. Their conclusion? “We’re close.” They felt small changes could push them into the conference finals for a swing at LeBron James. Beal and Wall deemed the season a failure at the time because it stalled in the semifinals.
Washington came up with six fewer wins the following year and a quick first-round exit at the hands of the Toronto Raptors. Wall missed half of the season. After last weekend’s consecutive wins over two of the league’s wayward teams, the Wizards are now 24-32, again without Wall for the rest of the year and trying to scratch their way into the back end of the playoffs.
“It’s totally different,” Beal told NBC Sports Washington of now vs. the end of the Boston series. “I don’t think there’s anybody...me...Me, John, Sato and Ian. Crazy. That’s crazy. That’s the league. Guys come and go. Especially when we weren’t having that much success after that. Having 49 wins, making it that far -- the last year and a half, two years, has been kind of rocky for us. Now, it’s a totally different team. A lot has changed. I’m kind of thrown into a position now where I have to be an ultimate leader. I’ve been embracing it. It’s been a challenge but it’s been fun, too.”
He’s working without Wall, something Beal first became accustomed to -- or at least dealt with -- for an extended period last season. The ball is in his hands much more. His time as a pseudo-point guard has it moments, in both positive and negative directions. “Now I know what John deals with all the time,” Beal said before the season began.
Only Wall knows how much the last two years have weighed on him. An arthroscopic debridement of his left knee in January of 2018 was followed by heel surgery to remove bone spurs a year later. A slip tore 95 percent of Wall’s tenuous Achilles tendon three weeks after the bone spur surgery aimed toward preventing that specific injury. Asked if he is surprised by the massive roster changes since Boston, Wall, his left knee resting on the padded seat of a purple scooter with a gray boot framing the end of his leg, looked around at the nameplates in the locker room.
“Mmmm,” Wall said as he glanced across the room. “No, not really. I’m so used to having so many new teammates every year, it’s kind of like nothing new. ... I think when I got injured, kind of missed a lot of time last year, they kind of had to go a different way and try to get under the [luxury] tax so they can make some moves throughout the summer. No, I’m not [surprised]. It’s great that they added these pieces and Brad’s going to continue to lead these guys.”
Even for those who remain, much has changed since the loss in Boston. Beal is no longer solely Wall’s backcourt partner. Instead, he is the team’s lone All-Star representative, it’s voice, motor and lead rope-puller. The injuries stalled Wall’s ascension following his first season of All-NBA recognition and filled his future with questions. Mahinmi rarely plays. Satoransky has acquitted himself well for the second straight season as the starting point guard with Wall out. He didn’t play in Game 7 against the Celtics. But the memory of being on the cusp and recognition of massive change remains.
“I remember leaving that place with feelings like we didn’t take care of the advantage we had there, not only Game 7, but [also] Game 2,” Satoransky said. “We feel like we should [have won] those games. It was like opportunity that passed by us, we all felt very disappointed. We felt disappointed because it was going well. Then, you don’t think about it, but now that you remind me, it’s crazy how much everything has changed. But I guess this is how NBA goes now.”
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