Photo by Joe Glorioso for The Sports Capitol

overhyped Wall-Gortat feud yet Wizards locker room dynamics remain center stage

BY BEN STANDIG | AUG. 8, 2018

The deteriorating relationship with John Wall played a part in Marcin Gortat’s trade to the Los Angeles Clippers. Events during a team meeting as described by sources to ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith did not. That’s because the circumstances as reported, namely Wall aggressively cursing out Gortat did not occur, multiple sources tell The Sports Capitol.

This information came to The Sports Capitol within days of Smith’s reporting. No action was taken largely because Gortat was gone and the Wizards were busy with their offseason as they attempted to reshape a roster that frustrated all last season. 

The feud was rarely as heated as hot takes suggested but frustrating enough that separating the two served the betterment of the team and individuals, according to numerous sources. Perhaps the sources to Smith, one of the NBA’s most plugged-in insiders, were simply overstating the interactions. 

However, there are some aspects of the Wall-Gortat dynamic worth exploring. The ultimate point of this rehash, is about locker room dynamics, a crucial factor for any team in any season. For the Wizards going forward, it’s about Wall’s leadership style and the dramatic Dwight Howard entering the fray.

Smith made his claims in late June after Washington sent the 34-year-old Gortat to the Clippers in exchange for combo guard Austin Rivers. The Sports Capitol reported on June 19 that a trade involving Gortat was in the works following five seasons with the Wizards. Multiple factors led to the deal, including Gortat asking for a trade. The situation with Wall was among them. The two were never best friends during those five seasons but did form one of the league’s better pick-and-roll combinations. Then a series of incidents led to additional frustrations.

Lack of team chemistry plagued Washington throughout the frustrating 43-39 season, which ended with a first-round loss to top-seeded Toronto.

Following a 122-112 win at Detroit on Jan. 19, Wall revealed to reporters that a recent team meeting — the one likely referenced by Smith — went awry. “We had our team meeting. A couple guys took it the negative way, and it hurt our team. Instead of taking it in a positive way like we did in the past and using it to build our team up, it kind of set us back a little bit.”

Smith, during his national radio show in June, steered a conversation about the NBA offseason into the Clippers landing Gortat.

“My sources tell me, obviously earlier in the year, Gortat had a real big-time issue with John Wall as teammates with the Washington Wizards. Scott Brooks constantly allowing folks to switch all the time instead of manning up and forcing them to guard folks, because Scott Brooks is known for not liking confrontation, basically took heat off individual players by allowing switches to take place every second. As a result, because John Wall wasn’t considered somebody too eager to guard anybody, Gortat found himself in the precarious situations of having to guard guards – quicker, smaller players. He’s older, clearly devoid of the lateral movement that will enable him to guard guys, was lamenting the fact that he was put in bad situations by John Wall’s lack of defense, said so in a team meeting. John Wall turned around and M.F.ed him to death. From that moment forward, Gortat wanted out of Washington. Didn’t want to play in Washington any longer. Didn’t want to play with John Wall any longer and that situation fell apart.”

A source close to the situation in Washington reached out to The Sports Capitol to refute Smith’s dramatic cursed-out claims.

“It’s all made up. Nobody from the locker room speaks to Stephen A. Smith. Not fans, especially Gortat. Even though Gortat and Wall haven’t been great friends, they never had that kind of situation at the meeting. After the trade, everybody moved on – and then this story came out. It’s just made up,” the source said.

Smith, one of the media’s most opinionated voices, lobbed criticism Washington’s way over the years. Smith hammered the Wizards’ frontcourt during the 2017 NBA playoffs,  which later led to a backside slap from Markieff Morris, a verbal counterpunch from Smith and a final shot from Morris via Twitter.

(Sidebar – I feel icky going down this lowest-common-dominator route of rehashing spats. We’ve generally avoided such things since launching The Sports Capitol. It seemed appropriate this time since the Gortat-Wall feud played a role in the recent trade and for the bigger picture I’m about to address…)

Wall’s lingering knee injury resurfaced soon after the win at Detroit. Starting with a Jan. 27 game against Atlanta, the five-time All-Star missed 27 games. Washington opened that stretch with a five-game winning streak including a 122-119 home victory over Toronto fueled by a pass-first offensive attack. Bradley Beal dropped the now infamous “Everybody eats” line in the locker room after the win while Gortat expressed excitement on his Twitter account (“Unbelievable win tonight ! Great “team” victory!”). 

Wall later quote-tweeted Gortat with “LOL.” The laugh-out-loud tweet was eventually deleted. Wall told ESPN he stood by the tweet and that someone with access to his account deleted it.

At season’s end, Wall expressed opinions on what went wrong and what needed to change. He credited Gortat, an old-school interior center, for his work, but also noted the Wizards lacked necessary athletic big men for the modern NBA. There were also cryptic takes that many interpreted as veiled shots at Gortat.

The key for the Wizards is how they address team chemistry going forward. Whatever the influence from Gortat, he’s now gone. Wall, who turns 28 in September, remains. Several individuals play substantial roles in shaping the organization including owner Ted Leonsis, President Ernie Grunfeld and Brooks. On the court and in the locker room, Wall is the tone-setter.

That the tenor was off-key last season falls in part on the point guard. Whether Gortat called him for his defense or not, Wall lacked the consistency of effort on that side of the court. Day-to-day observers note this was not a yearly one-off.

Ask anyone outside the DMV about the Wizards and the idea that they, specifically Wall and Beal, do not like each other comes up. This entire narrative went public when Wall, unprompted during an interview with the team-friendly television broadcast partner, said, “I think a lot of times we have a tendency to dislike each other on the court.”

The use of “Everybody eats” started a narrative, mostly fueled by out-of-town national media types, that the Wizards players believed they were better without Wall. Worse, that his teammates concur.

Beal, among other players, tried explaining the misinterpretation. The saying, quoted from the movie “Paid in Full,” is something said amongst the players. Wall used the line on an Instagram post during training camp. Even when the movie quote explanation was presented during an ESPN interview on a day he met with several outlets during a product promotion, the prideful Wall couldn’t entirely brush aside the controversy as nonsense.

What’s fascinating about Wall is that he means well and often says the right thing about needed improvement, as a player and a leader. Whereas Gortat often protected himself by exiting the locker room before reporters arrived, Wall took postgame questions without fail whether after an exciting win or ugh loss. Those in the room recognized the actions.

There are plenty of questions over how the combustible Howard, who signed a two-year contract with a player option last month, meshes with the Wizards locker room. Once one of the NBA’s elite players, the eight-time All-Star will be on his fourth team in four years. All that movement isn’t about declining production; Howard remains a double-double threat and ranks yearly among the league’s rebounding leaders. His reputation is that of locker room nuisance and then some, a player who sees his role one way and expects others to adjust accordingly. Now he’s joining a Washington team coming off a frustrating season.

With Gortat gone the Wizards needed a new starting center. Wall told The Sports Capitol about conversations with his pal DeMarcus Cousins — and why he ultimately focused on recruiting another free agent center, Dwight Howard, to the Wizards. The point guard suggests the doubters keep an open mind for now.

“If you feel like it won’t work out that’s fine, but the guy averaged 16 and 12 last year,” Wall said of Howard during a 1-on-1 with The Sports Capitol Saturday at a Wall Family Foundation event. “If he averages 16 and 12 for our team, we’re fine. … We all know the stuff he does, how he jokes, how he plays, but he’s in the process of wanting to change that image. Why not bank on him? I feel like [as] the point guard and the leader I am, I can change all those aspects. At the end of the day, you have to want to change yourself first.”

The relatively inexpensive cost made Howard appealing for the salary-cap strapped Wizards, who had little chance at making a splashy move this offseason. Their best hope for growth comes from the top players going next level. For Wall, that’s more about his tone-setting ways than how wet his jumper becomes. He said over the weekend “a lot of guys don’t talk about me being a top-5 point guard.” That comparison is an interesting debate. If valid, reasons extend beyond talented peers like Stephen Curry, Chris Paul or Damian Lillard. If Wall follows his own advice, he might just shut down the debate while helping the overlooked Wizards return to that Eastern Conference contender level.

“It was great but tough at times because as a leader you’ve got to do it at all times,” Wall said the day after Washington’s season ended. “You never take a day off. That’s something I can get better at. When you have your mood swings or days you don’t want to be bothered, you have to still be a great leader. That’s something I definitely can learn from this year but when you’re not playing it’s kind of hard to be a leader because you don’t want to say too much because you’re not out there playing or competing with the guys but at the same time you have to be a leader and hold it down.”

Ben Standig is a host, writer and co-founder of The Sports Capitol. This D.C. area native grew up rooting for all the local squads and dabbled in the professional media world after college before making a full shift to sports writing in 2005. Since, Ben has covered every team and big event in town for several outlets including the Associated Press, NBCWashington.com and Scout.com.

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