Three months after the Washington Wizards offered him as much money as the NBA’s rules would allow, and five days before his deadline to decide whether to take it or stay on the path to unrestricted free agency in two summers, Bradley Beal has chosen … neither.
Beal is re-upping with the Wiz, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN, but not for the full three-year, $111.8 million deal that Washington governor Ted Leonsis and general manager Tommy Sheppard put on the table in July. Instead, the All-Star shooting guard has agreed to a two-year, $71.8 million extension of his existing contract, with a player option for the second season; now, instead of hitting the market in 2021, Beal could remain in D.C. through 2023.
That a 26-year-old All-Star would choose to prolong his stay with a franchise that, thanks to years of mismanagement and a catastrophic injury to franchise cornerstone John Wall, looks likely to rank among the NBA’s very worst for a while seems somewhat surprising. My Ringer colleague Kevin O’Connor suggested last month that Beal could be “the season’s defining player”—a dynamic scoring threat who, if traded, could push a run-of-the-mill playoff team into serious championship contention.
Given the chance to escape the doldrums in D.C. and join a title hopeful—and to be the belle of the ball on the NBA’s trade market, after most of the available superstar-level talent just moved and is staying put for a bit—who wouldn’t want to strike out for greener pastures? But maybe, as former Washington Post Wizards beat writer Michael Lee suggests, this news is only surprising if you don’t know Beal.
Beal has been incredibly durable of late, playing all 82 games in each of the past two seasons and leading the league in minutes in 2018-19. But he’s also not that far removed from the stress reactions in his lower right leg that at one point had him expecting playing-time restrictions for the rest of his career. If he needed an object lesson in the value of stacking paper while you can, he needed to look no further than the Wizards’ own bench to see how Wall, his once-and-future running buddy, has had his career altered by injury.
Or maybe Beal—who now has two small children—just likes the idea of staying where he is for a little while longer and honestly thinks things might be on the uptick for the Wiz. Leonsis and Sheppard have spent the last few months making it abundantly clear that they want to build the next competitive iteration of the Wizards around Beal. According to Woj, they’ve been selling the guard on a vision for the future that includes a quick turnaround with him at the wheel, led by a revamped front office. The new approach breaks sharply from the sort of organizational dysfunction that festered under former GM Ernie Grunfeld—the kind of stuff that a frustrated Beal reportedly exclaimed during a practice last season he’d been “dealing with for seven years.”
A few weeks after Beal told Fred Katz of The Athletic that he was “still not done asking [himself]” whether he wanted to be part of the rebuild and whether he believed in the team’s new direction, Beal’s now signing on the dotted line. It appears, then, that he’s sold—or at least sold enough to lock in a $34.5 million payday for the 2021-22 season.
As salary cap guru Albert Nahmad notes, that $34.5 million actually comes in a few million shy of the absolute top dollar that Beal would’ve been able to secure on a standard maximum-salaried deal if he hit the open market in 2021. It also means he’s passing on the chance to qualify this season for the designated veteran player extension, a.k.a. the “supermax.” (If Beal had made an All-NBA team this season, he’d have been eligible for the supermax next summer. But when you’re on an extended contract, league rules prevent you from doing another extension until the two-year anniversary of when you signed your previous one. Signing this means Beal can’t sign a new extension, supermax or otherwise, until October 2021.) That would’ve allowed him to earn up to 35 percent of the salary cap and tack another year on to the end of the deal, putting Beal in position to lock down a monster five-year pact worth well north of $250 million next summer.
In the short term, then, Beal is potentially sacrificing both total contract value and the chance to play NBA basketball games of legitimate consequence. In exchange, though, he’s getting some perks, according to ESPN’s Bobby Marks: a trade kicker that bumps up his salary by 15 percent if he gets dealt; salary advances that allow Beal to get up to half of his full-year nut up front in each season of the extension; and, crucially, that player option for Year 2. That gives him the opportunity to hit free agency in 2022, when he’ll have accrued 10 years of service time, which will make him eligible for the 35 percent max and another huge new deal: a four-year, $198 million contract from another suitor or a five-year, $266 million deal to stay in Washington. Which is to say that in the big picture, Beal—who wouldn’t be a slam-dunk guarantee to make All-NBA anyway—might not be sacrificing that much scratch by sticking around. (Not sure we can say the same about the “games of legitimate consequence” thing.)
From the Wizards’ perspective, keeping Beal for at least one more season works on a few levels. League rules mandate that Beal can’t be traded for six months after signing this extension, a date that will come after the NBA’s February 6, 2020, trade deadline; that means that Wizards fans will have someone definitively worth watching during what promises to be another trying season (though we’re keeping a candle lit for Rui Hachimura and Troy Brown Jr.).
Some might ding the Wizards for thinking short-term by keeping Beal rather than flipping him for whatever assets they can get and tanking this season, but it’s reasonable to believe Washington will still be terrible even with Beal. And besides, as we saw back in May, the flattened draft lottery odds make it more likely than ever that a garden-variety bad team can land a top-three pick without aggressively going into the tank. Keeping Beal around might not preclude the Wizards from landing a top-tier pick to fuel a rebuild—or, swinging the other way, to flip for an established veteran who could help a prime Beal and (fingers crossed) a returning Wall try to compete again in a soft-around-the-midsection Eastern Conference.
Plus, though the Wizards can’t trade Beal this season, there’s life beyond 2020. (You know, we hope.) As was the case for the Raptors’ one-year extension on Kyle Lowry’s contract, although an additional year for Beal increases the total cost of trading for him, it also adds a layer of cost certainty for an acquiring team: Now, you know you’ll be getting Beal through at least 2022 and possibly through 2023. (That Beal is only 26, rather than 33 like Lowry, only increases the prospective value.)
That could make Beal a more valuable trade asset after this season, when teams unmoved by the options available in a shaky free-agent class might prefer to fork over a king’s ransom for a bona fide All-Star. Or, failing that, it could make him even more attractive during the 2020-21 season if teams eager for an upgrade get skittish about the prospect of losing out in the zero-sum game of free agency. The Wizards haven’t really limited their options at all here; in fact, they may have given themselves more opportunities to chart their course.
In so doing, Washington removed arguably the most significant trade piece in the league from the board, which must have been a cold cup of coffee for potential contenders to choke down on Thursday morning. That much-speculated team-up with Nikola Jokic in Denver is, for now, kaput; so are the dreams of Beal in Celtic green, those rad-ass Vice Nights jerseys in Miami, or whichever other uniform he’s been Photoshopped into over the course of the summer. Beal, Lowry, Draymond Green, CJ McCollum—one by one, the could-be difference-makers are removing themselves from consideration, joining all the marquee stars who changed teams in 2019 free agency and the rest of the roughly 40 percent of the league that found a new home in this summer’s chaotic game of musical chairs.
With each passing day, it’s looking more and more likely that the way teams look right now might be, more or less, the way they look for the rest of the season—and maybe next season, too. The story of the NBA might wind up being less about who’s going where and more about actual NBA basketball. Your mileage may vary on whether that’s a good or a bad thing; Bradley Beal, for his part, seems happy enough to let things quiet down for a little while.