Bradley Beal is selling mall perfume. You know the kiosk. The salesman, uninhibited and sprightly, finds your wandering eye. The speed of his spiel leaves no chance for a polite interruption, no time to rationalize away the guilt you feel in resisting, and so you stop. You listen. You spritz. Not for the product, for the person.
This weekend was Beal’s second All-Star appearance, but his first pitching the Wizards as a free agency destination to other star players. “I have to. I have to,” Beal told The Athletic heading into the break. “I’ve never been in this position before.” John Wall can’t be that face for Washington anymore. He won’t return to action until next year’s All-Star Weekend after spending half of last season on the sideline as well. Even healthy, Wall’s reputation as a teammate has fallen over the years. Beal had no choice but to usurp him as head of recruiting.
In the words of LeBron James, tampering rules do not apply at All-Star Weekend. The league penalizes only organizations for talking to players and doesn’t regulate player-to-player interactions, which makes the three-day gathering a sort of recruiting bonanza. Still, Beal is like a mid-major coach among Mike Krzyzewskis and John Caliparis. The top upcoming free agents in Charlotte (like Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson, and Kemba Walker) aren’t thinking about the Wizards—at least, there’s no indication they are. Durant and Irving are rumored to want to team up in New York, and James and Davis in Los Angeles.
The right person can, of course, manufacture unlikely interest. Two All-Stars, Russell Westbrook and Paul George, are proof: Oklahoma City traded for George when he was on an expiring contract, and after a year of rumors that he’d flee to Los Angeles, George re-signed with the Thunder. Credit Westbrook. But of all the organizations who players came representing, Washington was one of the hardest sells. All-Stars on other franchises in trouble, like Davis, Walker, Dwyane Wade, and Nikola Vucevic, could leave after this season, and don’t need to recruit. (Davis will leave assuming his trade request is honored, Wade is retiring, and the other two will become free agents.) Blake Griffin and Karl-Anthony Towns might be more inclined to listen than to promote their own franchises, although they’re under contract for the next three years and five years, respectively.
Beal resents the new wave of moving around and teaming up, but he has no choice but to engage with it. “I kinda hate it. I hate super teams,” he said. “Like everybody, just get your own team and just try to win with what you’ve got. But it’s like you need five All-Stars to win, especially to beat Golden State at this point.”
Beal is an old basketball soul in that he wants to retire a Wizard. Society has long attached honor to that kind of ride-or-die pledge—bonus morality points for it being with Washington—because of the unspoken fact that loyalty like that may very well mean a career of martyrdom. The playing field around Beal has changed in the player control era, making the decision to be a “lifer” more of a handicap than before. In the modern NBA, recruiting is the only way for Beal to get out of Washington’s predicament without getting out of Washington.
Any interest All-Stars have in playing in Washington can be stripped down to interest in playing with Beal, who is under contract through 2021. There’s no reason for a player to trust the front office’s roster-building or savvy; Scott Brooks isn’t a bucket-list coach like Gregg Popovich is; Wall, as aforementioned, is no longer at his peak; and the locker room is a failed chemistry experiment. Beal alone must be enough, because other players did have conversations with him about the Wizards:
“It was really crazy. A lot of guys were coming to talk to me and asking me how I feel. The recruiting process is really going all right. It’s going all right. I’m trying. This is new for me. So, I’m definitely getting some ears and seeing where guys’ minds are at. Guys were, ‘So, what y’all doing in D.C.? How is D.C.?’ Or I’m asking, ‘What’s your situation? What you thinking about? How you feeling? Any changes need to be made?’”
Beal didn’t reveal any names—that’s when the tampering rules do step back in—but he left Charlotte with an optimism that Wizards fans haven’t heard in some time. “In July,” Beal said, “hopefully we can do something.” Though that buoyancy would pale if he were assigned to work the books next. Washington offloaded Otto Porter’s maximum contract (good for $56 million the next two seasons) before the deadline, but still have $109 million in total cap allocations for the 2019-20 season. That leaves the team with about $22.8 million in cap space—not enough for a max contract. And that’s the maximum amount the franchise could clear without a trade—they’d have to renounce Tomas Satoransky, Bobby Portis, Trevor Ariza, Jeff Green, and Thomas Bryant to do so.
Beal is trying to court All-Star-caliber players without cap room. A good amount of cap space will get a free agent paid, but beaucoup cap space opens the chance for multiple players to sign on a team together—there are draws to both the Nets and the Clippers, but the organizations wouldn’t be in so many free agency rumors without the massive amount of money each has available heading into the summer. It’s easier now for a player who’s locked into a contract to leave prematurely than it is for a franchise that’s locked into many contracts to fix its payroll. Considering the state of the Wizards, it’s more believable in this new era that Beal, despite having two seasons left on his current maximum contract, was the one being recruited.