With James Harden trade rumors presently in hibernation, Bradley Beal has become the NBA’s juiciest transaction-related possibility, in part because he might also be its most electric attraction.
Unlike Harden, Beal has not been publicly frustrated enough to demand a trade, either through words or actions. In October, the ever-loyal franchise centerpiece said staying in Washington, D.C., for his entire career “would mean the world.” But as he stacks one show-stopping performance on top of another—Monday night, in a win against Phoenix, Beal became the fourth player in 45 years to score at least 25 points in the opening 10 games of a season—a breaking point seems inevitable.
The Wizards are bad, and Beal is good. Right now his 34.9 points per game lead the league. The next highest scorer is Kevin Durant, at 29.3, and the gap between the two is the same difference between Durant and the NBA’s 27th-ranked leading scorer, Malcolm Brogdon. If this keeps up, he’d be the 11th player in NBA history to eclipse the 30-point mark two seasons in a row.
Sustainability is a good question to consider whenever someone scores the ball like 24-year-old Michael Jordan did, and Beal has certainly drilled his fair share of difficult shots in the early going. Most of his shots are from midrange, and he’s made 56.2% of them. That’s a notable leap from the 41.3 percent he posted last season or the 42.6% the year before.
But at the rim, Beal is shooting under 60%, a mark well beneath his usual output. Last season, that number was 63.9%, and in 2018–19 it reached 65.8. In other words, the force of nature we’ve seen thus far probably won’t let up anytime soon, especially if the Wizards continue to turn every game into a track meet (their 106 pace is a league high) as Beal’s usage stays above everybody’s not named Luka Dončić.
His value is evident. Washington’s offensive rating plummets from 117.8 with Beal to 101.3 points per possessions when he sits (a drop from second to 29th). And somehow things get even worse when Russell Westbrook is in the game and Beal isn’t. But there are some greater faults that can’t be corrected by any one player. The Wizards have an atrocious defense for the third-straight season and, according to FiveThirtyEight, currently sit with just an 11% shot at making the playoffs.
Expressions of loyalty aside, if winning matters (as he frequently states, most recently when his 60-point career high was marred by a loss) it’s hard to see Beal happily signing another contract with the Wizards once his current deal expires after next year. And from the perspective of any team that wants to trade for Harden but realizes that possibility may be fading until the offseason, what we’ve essentially seen here is a less accomplished (Beal has never made an All-NBA team), more integrable, equally durable strain of the three-time scoring champ.
Beal has never carried the play-to-play offensive burden Harden has. His handle, vision and physical strength aren’t on the same floor, and the two have very different shot selections—Beal takes nearly three pull-up twos for every pull-up three and is more likely to unfurl his picturesque jump shot off the catch than off the dribble. But distilled down to their respective cores, both are precise walking buckets who can make a pretty good team that’s been living in a one-bedroom apartment feel like it just moved into a penthouse suite.
If Beal’s production keeps up, another parallel worth noting is Kobe Bryant’s age-27 season back in 2005-06. That’d be the seething, 81-point iteration who was two years removed from his last Finals appearance, saddled with a dubious supporting cast that was somehow dragged to 45 wins and an unforgettable first-round loss against the Suns.
Beal is doing what Bryant miraculously did for an entire season, albeit more efficiently and with less teamwide success. But as individual infernos, they relate in that their very best wasn’t/isn’t enough to lift their team toward the type of respectability that’s justified by their own production. It’s a hopeless situation that would breed resentment in the best of us, especially when endured for as long as Beal has had to deal. And unlike Bryant’s Lakers, the Wizards don’t have anyone as good as Pau Gasol waiting in the wings.
Instead, the time is ripe for star and franchise to part ways. With so many teams believing they can win the 2021 NBA title, a trade makes sense for both parties.
The most-likely suitors are usual suspects: Golden State, Miami, Brooklyn, Denver, Philadelphia and maybe even Toronto. But what about teams that wouldn’t view Beal as a missing championship piece, but rather someone who can either supplement their own best player or stand in as an upgrade? Sacramento, Atlanta, San Antonio, Orlando, New Orleans or Chicago, where Beal’s college coach Billy Donovan is employed, would all be fascinating destinations. If it doesn’t work out they could always flip him elsewhere before next year’s trade deadline. If the relationship is harmonious, they’ll have a chance to build around one of the NBA’s most lethal scorers and alter their trajectory for the better.
Gaming it out, if the Magic cobble together a package around Cole Anthony, Evan Fournier and three unprotected first-round draft picks—with an internal bet on Jonathan Isaac’s health and the rest of their roster coalescing around Beal’s offensive ingenuity next season—the Wizards should at least consider it.
Similarly, what if the Spurs slap Dejounte Murray, Devin Vassell, salary and multiple first-round picks on the table? Neither is close to the best offer Washington would see if it let the league know Beal was available, but both speak to the countless options they could choose from.
Westbrook’s contract is an intractable cap clog until 2023, which makes it easy for the Wizards to talk themselves into riding things out. Maybe the former MVP will regain his footing and have a renaissance campaign, either later this year or in 2021–22. But that’s not smart money if losing Beal for nothing is a possibility. (Also, tanking around Westbrook shouldn’t be the most difficult exercise.)
From Beal’s perspective, there’s no appealing infrastructure or foundational spring of optimism that can override his own impatience with an organization that hasn’t made any tangible steps in the right direction since his $72 million show-of-faith extension back in 2019–20.
The two-time All-Star will turn 28 in June. His prime won’t last forever. If you’re the Wizards, acquiring draft assets and/or James Wiseman, Tyler Herro, Michael Porter Jr., OG Anunoby, Ben Simmons or any other potential young building block has never felt more possible. For Beal’s sake and their own, moving on is a good-enough solution to a dilemma that won’t fix itself and has never felt more uncomfortable.