The Washington Wizards create so many of their own problems in such dramatic fashion that any blow from outside their locker room feels like overkill. Such is the painful added cost of a team never getting out of its own way. Washington can host players-only meetings and air every grievance it wants, but that strife will always come in addition to the usual turbulence of an NBA season.
Case in point: The Wizards are now left to sort through an immediate future without John Wall. According to Candace Buckner of the Washington Post, Wall has undergone yet another knee surgery—a “clean up” projected to cost him at least six weeks of action. Optimistically, Wall could miss 20 games.
It’s at times like these that Washington could use more of a buffer. A mere four and a half games separate the Wizards from the ninth-seeded Pistons and painful playoff disqualification—the sort of margin easily erased by a few rough weeks. Washington earned that precarious standing. This is an incredibly capable team with laughably inconsistent focus. Had they played at their best more often, the top seeds in the East might have actually dreaded meeting them in the postseason.
Instead, the Wizards merely believed that to be true, and in their self-satisfaction found every excuse not to commit fully. The cart had lapped the horse. Losses came more often than they should have, and with them frustration. This team was markedly better than 28–22—or at least it should have been. Now, it would seem that any hope of salvaging this season rests with Bradley Beal. It’s fitting, in a way; Wall may be the engine behind the best version of the Wizards, but too often this season it was Beal who pulled them out of the muck.
Beal's improving shot creation has become a lifeline. When the offense turns listless, he can transform a single screen into a golden opportunity. If the tide of a game starts to shift, Beal can stem it with a timely three-pointer. His 23.8 points per game are both a career high and tops among Wizards—a first for Beal. Washington has become reliant on his high-level play. There is often no better place for the Wizards' offense to turn, regardless of whether Wall is on the floor or not. Washington, on balance, has been a losing team in its total minutes without Wall this season and basically split the 13 games that Wall missed outright. Yet through Beal, the Wizards have at least managed some solvent lineups—provisional arrangements crucial to keeping their heads above water.
Beal, to his credit, has become less dependent on Wall by generating more of his own offense. This is the least assisted that Beal has ever been, and yet his production and efficiency have largely held course. Ask the Thunder, who dispatched the Wizards last week before falling to Wall-less Washington on Tuesday. While they split the two games, the Thunder didn't pull off their win without enduring 41 points on 26 shots from Beal—including a cool 6-of-11 from three-point range. One of the best defenses in the league was at Beal's mercy. Here is the growing predicament that he presents, in three acts:
Beal is more than capable of hitting shots like this:
II. Screen and roll
So to deny him any clean look at a pull-up jumper, the Thunder decided to switch whenever Beal used a ball screen—including matchups with center Steven Adams. It did not go well. Adams had to honor Beal's shot, yet in doing so left himself vulnerable to moves like this:
There are shades of Chris Paul in that vicious hesitation move.
III. Off the dribble
Even when the Thunder were able to square up on Beal and defend him more traditionally, they played so far up as to surrender driving lanes in the process.
Beal has long been quite good, but these are next-level, star-quality mind games. Any who have wondered what Klay Thompson's game might look like if he could better create off the bounce can find the answer in Beal: a deadly shooter who, by developing his handle and his footwork, has found the means to attack downhill. Often when a player suddenly appears more explosive than before, they've merely tightened their dribble. That quickness was always there—it just didn't have anywhere to go.
Those dynamics are in play with Beal's budding dynamism, and the work he's put in to sharpen his fundamentals is palpable. If the slightest advantage can be gained from how Beal positions his feet on the catch, he pays it mind. If there's room to set up an opponent with one move only to rip back in the opposite direction with another, he does so. One of the game's more natural scorers has meticulously crafted layers.
If this isn't a leap, it's at least a substantive step forward. Beal is getting to his spots more easily than he ever has before. In pick-and-roll situations, he's been every bit as effective as DeMar DeRozan and Lou Williams. (Those three, along with James Harden, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and DeMarcus Cousins, are the only players to notch at least three games this season with 40+ points.) On dribble hand-offs, the Wizards have used the wide bodies of Marcin Gortat and Ian Mahinmi to clear room for Beal—an invaluable tool in Wall's absence. The way Beal moves even racks up fouls, even if a solid portion of them aren't of the shooting variety.
And when Beal cooks, he plays with a complete ease. The whole scene projects effortlessness. The creation of an attempt comes at a glide. Beal's shooting form itself is compact and efficient. His shot, once airborne, traces the arc of the ideal. And then the ball finds the net with the softest splash, as if simulating the delicate billow of a jellyfish in motion. There is barely a sound, and the same sequence can be repeated so often and so smoothly that it becomes a wonder Beal ever misses.
Most everything about the Wizards has been erratic but him. Beal is a relief of consistency, most of all in that he has appeared in every one of the Wizards' 50 games this season. Now, Beal—a player whose early career had been defined by injury—ranks eighth in the league in total minutes played. The story of his development begins there. It is impossible for a player to build a complete game when his progress is so consistently derailed. Just as Beal started to gain traction, his leg would fail him. Energies that would have gone toward the growth of his skill set were instead used just to get back on the court. It takes time for an injured player to trust in their body again, particularly when a single ailment is part of a larger pattern. Wall’s return should be treated skeptically for just that reason.
But for the first time in his NBA career, Beal has the luxury of moving forward instead of working his way back. The Wizards are counting on it.