The Wizards Are Hoping the Slow-and-Steady Approach Ends the Race for Bradley Beal

All eyes are on Ben Simmons & Kyrie Irving right now, but everyone, from team executives and players to the opposition, continues to watch the Washington Wizards. “Almost every game we play, someone says something,”Bradley Beal speaks over the phone about how many players have asked him to leave. Anyone around the NBA is aware of the circumstances: Beal could become an unrestricted free agent in 2022, and with the Wizards unlikely to contend for a title before then, opponents are hoping that he’ll ask for a trade or sign elsewhere. But Beal isn’t sure what decision he’ll make when the time comes.

“It brings you back to college. Which school is the right school? Which team is the right team?”Beal, “You love the fact that people see your game and would love to play with you. But it’s also tough on the back end, because you have no idea what you want to do.”

While Beal has developed into one of the game’s greatest scorers, averaging more than 30 points in each of the past two seasons, the Wizards have transformed the roster under general manager Tommy Sheppard. Sheppard was promoted in 2019 after Ernie Grunfeld’s firing. He has replaced bad long-term contracts and inherited players with promising young players and dumped all but Thomas Bryant. John Wall was traded to Russell Westbrook. He was flipped after just one season. Scott Brooks was appointed head coach.

The Wizards were without hope just a few years ago. Between Beal’s emergence as a star and the revamped roster around him, at least now the Wizards have a direction.

Whether it’s enough to convince Beal to accept the five-year max deal worth $242 million the Wizards can offer next summer remains to be seen. Washington will have to show enough this season to prove there’s a pathway to contention in the coming years. The Wizards will take their rebuild step by step, rather than rush to add win-now pieces that could sacrifice the future. They hope to show that they can build a champion team around Beal eventually.

“All the things that we’ve talked about two years ago to now, he can judge on the actions, not on the words and promises,”Sheppard said. “We’re going into year three of a plan to be more competitive every year. It’s not a win now. It’s win more.”

Unseld was fired by the Denver Nuggets in the hopes that he would lead a similar rise in Washington. The Nuggets won 33 games in 2015-16, Unseld’s first season as an assistant in Denver. Then 40. Then 46. Before reaching the postseason three times in a row. Nikola Jokic was named MVP and the young players as well as veteran additions to his team made significant progress. The Wizards plan to follow that blueprint in order to build around Beal. “You can’t skip steps and get there all of sudden,”Unseld: “If we can create good habits and be consistent in how we work, I think you’ll start to see an uptick in the number of wins.”

Before Unseld was hired, he and Beal spoke about the guard’s desire to take fewer shots and have a lower usage rate to keep his energy up throughout the season. They agreed that an offensive system with multiple players initiating offense and values ball movement was the best way to achieve these goals. Because everything went through Beal or Westbrook, the Wizards were 27th in passes per match last season. Beal took the league’s average number of shots, while Westbrook was the only one who had the ball more often. Too often, it’d fall on them to create a shot at the end of plays.

“I call it the New Year’s Eve offense. Where the bench is screaming ‘Three, two, one!’ It’s like when the ball drops in Times Square,”Sheppard said. “And that’s what happens when you don’t have other people that can create late in the games.”

The Wizards do not have Westbrook but they have more shot-creators. Washington acquiesced to Westbrook’s request for a trade to the Lakers, executing a five-team deal that returned Spencer Dinwiddie, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Montrezl Harrell, Kyle Kuzma, Aaron Holiday, and rookie Isaiah Todd. The Wizards aren’t NBA Finals contenders, but they do have one of the deeper teams in the league, with a variety of ball handlers, shooting capability across positions, and the versatility to play big or small.

“Shep played the hand he was dealt,”Beal, “He had to clean up some things to shape it the way he wanted to and I’m definitely impressed with it. The way he made moves, he was able to save us without giving up crazy picks or assets to go get what we wanted.”

Dinwiddie is an important piece of the puzzle. Two seasons ago, he was a 20-point-per-game scorer. He then tore his ACL at season’s start in 2020-21. The injury kept Dinwiddie from playing much with Brooklyn’s stars, making Beal his first elite backcourt partner for an extended period of time. Though he isn’t a forceful downhill attacker like Westbrook, he could be a better fit because of his ability to play with or without the ball. Dinwiddie is a skilled pick-and-roll operator, a skilled cutter, and a good shooter. When Dinwiddie and Beal share the floor, Unseld says he can run the same plays for each of them—a sign of the roster’s interchangeability.

Holiday and Raul neto will be sharing touches off the bench, while Kuzma may provide a scoring boost in the frontcourt, much as he did with Lakers. The Wizards are hoping that international players who were raised in a free-flowing style such as Deni Avdija and Davis Bertans can enjoy bounceback seasons with more motion concepts.

“It was just me and Russ before. Now we have so many guys who can be versatile with the game. I can play off ball, and take more challenges on the defensive end,”Beal, “We have probably the best depth we’ve had in a long time, maybe since 2017. To be able to look at the roster on paper, and see we’re three-deep at every position, is pretty good.”

The key phrase is on paper. Much of the Wizards’ depth is still young, yet they’re counting on those players to produce this season. Rui Hachimura was the No. The No. 9 pick in 2019, was absent during training camps for personal reasons. Hachimura has been inconsistent, though he’s flashed plenty of ability as a defensive stopper who can plug into different positions offensively next to one of Washington’s centers: Daniel Gafford, Harrell, and Bryant, who is expected to return early this season from a torn ACL suffered last January.

Avdija struggled as a rookie last season, but he’s still only 20 years old, and has playmaking chops that could allow him to fit right into this offense. The 6-foot-9 forward is very tall, but he made only 31.5 per cent of his 3s last year. Washington drafted Corey Kispert as a more certain-bet shooter in the 2021 draft. Kispert made more than 40 per cent of his 3s at Gonzaga in each of his four seasons. Kispert made significant progress in college, making plays off of the dribble. He was able to score at the rim by attacking closeouts or finding a teammate with the pass. But the role for the no. The 15th overall pick is obvious.

“Come in and shoot it when I’m open,”Kispert said.

Kispert will also be required by the Wizards in order to develop their young players into better defenders, just like Kuzma did for the Lakers.

“We’ve seen teams that have been able to develop their young guys, like Phoenix, to prepare them for the playoffs,”Beal, “I think we can do that. I have trust in our player development staff and in our young guys. We have gym rats, guys who you have to draw back but not kick in the ass. That’s what we have and that’s a good thing.”

Beal said earlier this year that he wanted to be an All-Defensive player this season. He also acknowledged that it will be difficult to balance his energy at both ends of the court. Perhaps he’ll go for some possessions just spotting up from the corners instead of bringing the ball up the court. Or he’ll be a decoy, sprinting through a screen. “I won’t have that workload anymore, so I don’t have to do as much as I did on a nightly basis,”Beal, “I hate not being considered a good defender, not being a willing defender. Because I am. Now I have the opportunity. I just need to go do it.”

Beal, who is just 6-foot-4 and weighs in at 207 pounds, is a little too small for a guard. His effort and intensity have decreased over the years. Defending hard will be more important than ever now that he’ll be looked at as the team leader. “When your best player is also your hardest worker, you are putting yourself in a good position where everyone else has to fall in line. There’s no excuse not to,”Unseld: “As a leader, there’s no days off. Coach [Michael] Malone always used to say, ‘Heavy is the head that wears the crown.’”

Wall was the face and voice of the franchise a few years back. Last year, Westbrook was the vocal voice. Beal says that playing with each one taught him how to be a leader.

“There was an accountability factor. You could hold John accountable. You could hold Russ accountable, even though they were franchise players.”Beal, “That’s something I love. I don’t want to be the guy who’s barking, barking, barking at my teammates, but they can’t bark at me.”

Leaders are also expected be available. Beal is not vaccinated. “personal reasons,” meaning he’s subject to stricter NBA protocols. He was found to have COVID-19 antibodies in the weeks leading up to the Olympics. This resulted in him being ruled out for the entire event. Any missed time by Beal this season would derail Washington’s playoff hopes in a strong Eastern Conference.

Beal has been learning how to lead a team while the Wizards have been giving him the title of franchise face. Sheppard has been open to Beal’s ideas about possible transactions and has discussed some moves with him, including the Wall-Westbrook trades.

“He knows these things are made with his future in mind, with our future in mind,”Sheppard said. “I think it’s very OK to say that he’s a shareholder in this. And no CEO ever makes a decision without his shareholders in mind. Bradley’s a huge part of this. So any trade or anything we do, of course, I’m going to bounce it off of him. But I’ve got to have that trust from him that I’m going to always do what’s best for the Wizards, and what’s best for the Wizards is going to be best for him.”

All serious contenders at least have two All-Stars. The Wizards should find another one. Washington, with their youth and future draft picks could be the team that finds the next star rather than trading away the one they already have.

There’s a lack of available stars right now though. Trading for Irving is a huge risk for any team. Simmons is the Sixers’ only option. Damian Lillard could be an option, but he has increased his commitment to the Trail Blazers. There’s simply not much else out there.

But that hasn’t stopped Beal from trying to recruit. Beal claims he has shared his vision of Washington with other top players in the league. He praises the facility. “freshness”The team is now under a new coach and has a new system. There are also many young players who are improving. Although Washington is a star, most people look to other glamorous markets for their money, it has its problems.

“A lot of people seem to think D.C. is a small market, but I try to tell them it’s a big market,”Beal, “It makes that part of recruiting tougher.”

D.C. has a significant market, but sellouts were rare even when the team was doing well. In 2010, team owner Ted Leonsis said he’d do the “dougie”If the Wizards had a sale. In 2021, perhaps he’d do the milk crate challenge to fill seats. Beal sees the potential. “We’re just missing the wins,”Beal, “D.C. just needs to be talked about again.”

Washington may not be a strong contender, but it has options. Sheppard hasn’t made any moves that will hinder future flexibility, regardless of Beal’s decision. The $65 million owed to Bertans through the next four years is the only contract that could be considered an overpay, but even that’s a reasonable amount for a knockdown shooter in today’s market. Sheppard was an early member of the organization and witnessed the numerous bad contracts that were given during the Grunfeld era. He has seen the pain of trying to find a franchise out of those holes.

“You can recover from losing a player, or not getting the guy that you wanted. You can’t recover from a bad contract. It just sucks. It absolutely sucks. That’s why I don’t ever want to get in that space again,”Sheppard said. He thinks back to five year ago, when a historic salary cap hike led to a number bad deals. “When you go back to that Woodstock summer of 2016 and everybody was using hallucinogenic drugs, you go down the list of names—that summer represented when you had a ton of money, the players just weren’t able to come close to that expectation of what you paid them.”

The salary cap is projected to increase from $112 million to $119 million next summer, but there’s not much money out there. If Beal opts out of his $36.4million player option for 2022-22-23, only the Magic, Pistons and Spurs have enough cap space to sign a max player. The Heat proved it two years ago by signing and trading for Jimmy Butler, that any team can sign any player with the right pieces to make the deal work.

Beal could sign his contract extension and the Wizards would have more time to make the roster a contender. It wouldn’t be a bad bet. If things aren’t going well for Washington in two or three years, he could demand a trade then, something stars haven’t hesitated to do in the past.

This would be a risky move. Unless a player has just one guaranteed season remaining on his contract, like Anthony Davis did when he left the Pelicans, it’s a challenge to steer your way to a specific team.

Simmons’s circumstance is an example of a situation no player wants to find themselves in. Simmons wants to leave Sixers, and Klutch Sports is helping to broker a deal. He still has four years on his contract. The Sixers are unlikely to trade him now. Re-signing and then asking to be moved isn’t a strong position of leverage for a player.

“That’s kind of a dangerous game to play because you’re not in ultimate control,”Beal, “Once you sign a five-year deal, you’re pretty much hooked.”

It would be a sign that Beal has committed to the long-term and that the Wizards were able achieve some of their short term goals if he signs a contract extension next summer. It’d suggest that he wants to keep being a stakeholder in what Sheppard hopes to build, rather than in the vision his recruiters have.

Sheppard said that the franchise wants to make progress in the years to follow: win 50 games and reach the second round of playoffs or the conference finals. “We have all year to keep showing him, ‘Hey, this is a place you’re going to win,’”Sheppard said. “Then, of course, the championship’s the next thing. But we can’t skip steps. I can’t sit here and look our guys straight in the face and say, ‘We should win a championship this year.’ Not at all. But the more pieces you’ve got, the longer you can hang around. That’s what I really, really believe.”

Beal has time for the Wizards. Time to make more moves. Time to allow the young players grow. However, Washington’s contract is ending quickly. Players will continue to recruit him away until he renews. Washington’s roster improvements should help the team win more, but are they enough to convince him to stay long term? Beal doesn’t know quite yet. The entire NBA is awaiting his answer.

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