Grades: Washington’s backcourt of the future is all set, for better or worse
The Wizards agreed to re-sign restricted free agent shooting guard Bradley Beal to a five-year, $128 million maximum contract, according to Yahoo Sports and CBSSports.com. Beal, 23, averaged a career-high 17.4 PPG, 3.4 RPG and 2.9 APG for the Wizards last season, although he only played in 55 games due to injury. While the 2012 lottery pick is a career 39.7% three-point shooter with All-Star potential, he has dealt with health issues throughout his four-year career.
This agreement comes with a little more anxiety than one typically sees on a max rookie extension. The reason, of course, is Beal’s long list of leg injuries. Beal has already missed 85 games, which equates to roughly 25% of Washington’s games, and his extended absence last season was a major factor in the Wizards’ disappointing fall back into the lottery. The fear in some quarters could be that Beal winds up as the next Eric Gordon, a talented scorer who bursts onto the NBA scene early, earn a max extension, and then fade from the forefront in a non-stop cycle of injury absences.
Washington’s problem, though, is that it had no leverage to protect itself from these risks. Beal has been viewed as a foundational player since he was drafted, he’s been used as a full-time starter since day one, he logged extraordinarily high minutes under former coach Randy Wittman despite the injury issues, and he was forced to wait on an extension until this summer as the Wizards’ front office constructed its (failed) dream to pursue Kevin Durant. The Wizards couldn’t afford to lose him under any scenario and they pushed off his pay day, so the natural result was a contract agreement that involved little to no negotiation and included the extra fifth year. Beal gets the whole boat and the Wizards get down on their knees and pray that he can move past his leg injuries to reach his considerable potential.
While Beal’s mediocre 15.5 Player Efficiency Rating and rough -2.24 Real Plus Minus hardly suggest a star in the making, he’ displayed the potential for big-time play in both the 2014 and 2015 playoffs. A natural shooter blessed with a smooth motion, Beal is still young enough to make a series of leaps: to a 20 PPG scorer, to All-Star status, to a true two-way impact-maker and one of the best players at his position. Getting there will require a continued commitment to better shot selection—he did well to cut back on his long twos last season—and more savvy when it comes to getting to the line. With the proper developments and good health, Beal and point guard John Wall should be in the “NBA’s Best Backcourt” for the duration of this contract.
However, Washington has already gotten a taste of the potential downside, and it’s been pretty sour. Beal’s absence at the start of last season killed a lot of the positive momentum generated by the 2015 playoff push. It was hard to make the “championship contender” case to Durant when Beal was out for a month straight and the Wizards were fading quickly back from the pack in the weaker East.
By tabbing him for the max, Washington has committed itself to riding the Beal rollercoaster, and his availability may be the single biggest factor in determining the franchise’s success going forward. As with Gordon in New Orleans, if Beal can’t stay on the court and produce like a max guy, the rest of the team’s plans, no matter how carefully laid, don’t matter all that much.