Welcome to the Morning Shootaround, where every weekday you’ll get a fresh, topical column from one of SI.com’s NBA writers: Howard Beck on Mondays, Chris Mannix on Tuesdays, Michael Pina on Wednesdays, Chris Herring on Thursdays and Rohan Nadkarni on Fridays.
Within minutes of absorbing a 29-point thrashing that cast his team into a deep chasm of postseason despair, Bradley Beal took his place on a Zoom screen and declared, with all the earnestness he could muster, that the Wizards of Washington would persist.
“I’m a huge fan of the word ‘embrace,’” Beal said Saturday, after the Wizards fell into a 3-0 hole in their first-round series against the top-seeded 76ers. “Embracing everything. Embracing the stages of life. Embracing every situation. And it's the same thing with this. Embrace where we are.”
A seasoned vet, Beal knows the reality as well as anyone: No team in NBA history has won a playoff series after going down 3-0. The Wizards—who posted an under-.500 record this season, who needed to play two play-in games just to make the playoffs—will not be the first.
But after nine seasons in D.C., Beal is also a veteran of disappointment and frustration and a virtual master in the art of stubborn belief. He’s embraced his fair share of quixotic quests: striking a functional partnership with John Wall; making the Wizards respectable; keeping them relevant through Wall’s injuries; forging a new partnership with Russell Westbrook; dragging the Wizards to the playoffs after a season marred by quarantines and postponements.
Every year, Beal evolves a little more—as a shooter and a scorer, as a playmaker and a ball-handler, as a leader and a culture-setter—only to find himself staring at the same, depressing fate: early elimination. The Wizards have made the playoffs just five times in Beal’s nine years, falling in the second round three times, the first round once (and soon to be twice).
Which has league insiders asking once again: How much more will Beal tolerate? How long before he says the two words he’s repeatedly vowed not to utter: Trade me. No one professes to know Beal’s intentions, but rival scouts and executives have believed for months that a day of reckoning is near—as in this summer.
It’s true that Beal has consistently professed his loyalty to Washington, and a commitment to leading the Wizards out of the desert. But every NBA star has his limits.
“He’s been adamant,” says an Eastern Conference scout. “But yeah, it wouldn’t surprise people if he had an about-face on that and said, `Enough of this.’”
The case for Beal asking out is fairly straightforward. He’s an elite scorer, one of the NBA’s best, averaging 30-plus points per game the last two seasons. He’s firmly in his prime (turning 28 later this month). He’s never experienced playoff success. He’s routinely snubbed for individual awards, because of the Wizards’ ghastly record. And he’s on a capped-out team, with an aging, overpaid co-star, and no clear path to title contention.
Rui Hachimura, the Wizards’ top pick in 2019, had a solid second season—but no one projects him as a star. Scouts like Deni Avdija’s tools, but his rookie season was mostly a dud. Daniel Gafford was a late-season revelation, but he’s a role player. Davis Bertans is a nice shooter who cannot possibly live up to the $80 million contract he signed last year.
“They got some nice players, but they’re not close to a championship team,” said the scout. “Future is not bright,” said an executive with another Eastern Conference team. It’s hard to find anyone around the league who disagrees.
And though no one doubts the sincerity of Beal’s declarations, well, these things tend to change when stars get fed up. James Harden pledged his undying loyalty to Houston, but eventually forced his way to Brooklyn. Westbrook did the same in Oklahoma City, before forcing his way to Houston…and then out of Houston. Kyrie Irving forced a trade from Cleveland to Boston, declared he’d be a Celtic for life, then left for Brooklyn. Anthony Davis ditched New Orleans for Los Angeles, just eight years after Chris Paul ditched New Orleans for Los Angeles. And on and on.
Of the 27 players named to the 2021 All-Star Game (including injury replacements), just 14 are still with their original teams (including four players still on their rookie contracts).
Speculating about Beal’s future has practically become an annual ritual, but there’s reason to think this time will be different. Beal’s contract runs through the 2022-23 season, but the final year is a $37 million player option—which means he can be a free agent in just 13 months. The clock is ticking.
“I think so,” said an executive with a Western Conference team. “They’re in a tough spot.”
To be sure, it’s hard to accurately assess this Wizards season, marred as it was by injuries and a COVID-19 outbreak that forced the team to essentially shut down for two straight weeks in January. The Wizards went 6-17 over their first 23 games, fell 15 games under .500 in early April, then closed the season on an 18-7 kick, with Westbrook going supernova nearly every night.
“The last part of the season really impressed me,” said Ryan McDonough, the former Suns general manager, now a commentator for Audacy. “I think there’s some positive takeaways. I’d like to at least see how it looks next season with a healthy Westbrook and Beal, and more experience from Avdija and Hachimura and Gafford.”
Still, McDonough concedes, a healthy, improving Wizards team projects as a lower-tier playoff team in the East—perhaps with a chance to crack the top six, if all goes well. There’s your upside.
The downside? Westbrook turns 33 in November, and he’s already shown signs of erosion over the last two years. For all his gaudy counting stats and triple-doubles, Westbrook remains a low-efficiency, high-turnover gambit. He doesn’t get to the basket as often as he once did, nor finish as well as he once did, nor earn as many free throws as he once did, or even shoot them well (.656 this season). Also, he keeps getting hurt. (Also, he’s turning 33 in November. Did we mention he’s turning 33 in November?) Oh, and he’s earning $44 million next season, with a cap-clogging $47 million player option in 2022-23.
“The right move is to (trade) Beal and probably buy out Westbrook,” said the Eastern Conference executive (while noting that Wizards ownership has always preferred playoff berths over long-term planning).
If Beal at last requests a trade—or if Wizards officials decide it’s time to hit the reset button—the market would be robust, and the payoff considerable, if recent superstar deals are any guide. The Thunder got five first-round picks, two pick swaps and a budding young star (Shai Gilgeous-Alexander) for Paul George. The Pelicans got three first-rounders, a pick swap and two promising young players (Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball) for Davis. More recently, the Pelicans acquired multiple first-round picks from the Bucks in the Jrue Holiday deal.
Rival executives expect something similar if Beal hits the market. The Warriors could make a bid, dangling rookie center James Wiseman and Minnesota’s lottery pick. The Pelicans could offer an wealth of picks (via the Lakers and Bucks), along with Ingram. If the 76ers flame out in the coming weeks, perhaps they consider the (long-speculated) Ben Simmons-for-Beal swap. The Heat have few top-shelf assets, but could get creative and make a bid. Ditto the Mavericks. Maybe the Knicks, armed with two Dallas picks and R.J. Barrett, make a run.
“I think teams would pounce,” said the scout.
The Wizards’ season could end as soon as tonight, and almost certainly by the end of the week. Will it be the end of the Beal Era, as well? That’s probably up to Beal, and how much more anguish he’s willing to endure. For nine years, he’s embraced all manner of challenges and setbacks and humiliation. Maybe now it’s time to embrace change.
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