On Sunday night, Bradley Beal and the Wizards gave fans something to cheer about: a 95-90 win over the Denver Nuggets, the second-best team in the West. As Beal walked into the tunnel after the win, a fan yelled out “You suck!” Beal stopped in his tracks, turned toward the fan, asked rhetorically if the fan was referring to him, and then turned himself into a meme:
There are many, many things that have “sucked” about this Wizards’ season. But Beal—who is posting a 25-5-5 season and could make one of the All-NBA teams—is not one of them, and neither was this reaction. If anything, the good-natured fun Beal is still exhibiting, despite a disappointing season marred by injuries, strange trades, and a failure to meet expectations, should be a glimmer of hope for a franchise without much direction. And the team experienced another flash of positivity on Tuesday as the front office finally fired longtime general manager Ernie Grunfeld. That sound you hear is the reset button finally being pressed. So what now?
Here are three questions the Wizards face as they enter the offseason:
Can Washington Hire the Right General Manager?
Owner Ted Leonsis has installed Tommy Sheppard as the team’s interim general manager, and reports say that he has a shot at retaining the job. Sheppard has been with the Wizards for as long as Grunfeld, and, as this Washington Post story details, he listens to Nipsey Hussle to better relate to millennials. Sure.
The Wizards have also been linked to Nets assistant general manager Trajan Langdon, Rockets vice president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas, and Warriors director of player personnel Larry Harris. After 16 years of Grunfeld’s culture defining the team, creating a new identity will be jarring but necessary—even if it means blowing things up and starting over. It will be paramount for Washington to hire a general manager who both has a plan and isn’t afraid to execute it. Sheppard could be a fine candidate, but after so many years working under Grunfeld, will he be willing to go against the principles instituted by his old boss? Unless the Wizards plan to continue jogging on the treadmill of mediocrity, drastic changes need to be ushered in. Finally firing Grunfeld was the right move, and hiring someone who can establish a team identity on a squad that always seems to be in conflict is equally important.
Will They Give Beal the Supermax?
So we’re back to Beal, who is under contract for the next two seasons (at $27 million and $28 million, respectively). This is his team now, and he could be on the brink of getting paid handsomely for his troubles. If Beal makes an All-NBA team this season—he’s a possible third-team candidate—he will be eligible for a supermax contract, which would give him the same kind of extension Wall got in 2017, but at an even steeper price: roughly $192 million over four years. That would mean Wall and Beal would make a combined $83.4 million during the 2021-22 season and $90 million the season after. For a team that has topped out as a middling Eastern Conference squad, that’s untenable.
Still, Beal deserves this. At 25, he’s gotten better each year of his career and turned into more than just a scoring guard. He’s the centerpiece the Wizards should build their team around. Beal has also been vocal about not being desperate to leave Washington despite the franchise’s troubles. (Though, earlier in the season, he did reportedly say “I’ve been dealing with this for seven years” during a team practice.) The reality is that if the Wizards do offer Beal the supermax, he’ll likely take it. It’s too much money to turn down, and of the five players who have been eligible for this type of extension, only Kawhi Leonard didn’t receive it (as he requested a trade). Would Beal also be willing to turn down the extra money in order to play for a franchise with a better shot at a title? It’s unclear. But money talks, and if Beal does sign the supermax, that would almost guarantee the Wizards would have to do something about Wall’s contract to have any hope of climbing into the top tier of the Eastern Conference.
What, If Anything, Will They Do With John Wall and His Contract?
Oh boy. After going through season-ending Achilles surgery this year, Wall will not play basketball until February 2020, at the earliest. By then, his cap hit will be $37.8 million (though 80 percent could be paid by insurance if he sits out the entire 2019-20 season). That will expand to $40 million the following season, $43 million the year after that, and $46 million in 2022-23. Even if you ignore how the injury may affect Wall’s play once he returns—no NBA player has ever returned to prime form after an Achilles injury—that is a truckload of money that will constrict the Wizards salary cap. Finding a trade partner for Wall is a near impossibility at this point, so now the question becomes: How can Washington deal with this contract?
The Wizards have been cutting salaries this year by trading away Jodie Meeks and Jason Smith (which saved the team $12 million combined), Otto Porter Jr. (who was set to make over $80 million between 2019 and 2021), Austin Rivers, and upcoming restricted free agent Kelly Oubre Jr., whom they likely weren’t going to be able to pay anyway. The return on those trades (Jabari Parker, Bobby Porter, and a 2023 second-round pick for Porter; Trevor Ariza for Oubre) was not impressive and underlined Grunfeld’s failures as a GM and the franchise’s questionable player development. But getting Ariza (an expiring contract) does give Washington a bit more financial flexibility moving forward.
“I want to do what’s called ‘best practicing.’ What do the best organizations look like? What do they spend?” Leonsis said in his press conference after the Grunfeld firing. “Maybe I made mistakes in the way we spent and invested our money. I have to be open minded.”
Even if Washington does save some money due to the insurance on Wall’s contract, the team will still have to figure out how to build a contender with him on the books and on the floor. Leonsis may say his goal is to be more open minded about his investments, but will that be enough to hit an even bigger reset button and perhaps let go of the dream of a Wall-led contender?