Bradley Beal is the best player you never have to think about. His path to becoming one of the league’s best shooting guards wasn’t sudden like Victor Oladipo’s, or filled with slain younglings like Jimmy Butler’s. Whether it was the shadow John Wall cast or the blinding incompetence of Washington’s front office, Beal’s ascent wasn’t as closely monitored as you would assume.
That’s no fault of Beal, who has methodically altered his identity as a player. After being labeled as injury-prone earlier in his career, Beal, one day shy of 26, has become a modern-day ironman by leading the league in minutes played last season while appearing in 241 of a possible 246 games over the past three seasons. He has evolved from being a one-dimensional shooter to a pick-and-roll distributor capable of threading the needle and reading coverages with a point guard’s acumen. He’s earned his respect around the league, even if some fans haven’t caught up.
Maybe you can’t win a championship with Beal as your top option offensively, but you can be competitive. When the Wizards lost Wall to a torn Achilles and traded Otto Porter Jr., the wheels were supposed to come all the way off. Instead, Beal stepped up and carried a ragtag group of chuckers to the 12th-best offensive rating in the league after the All-Star break. The Wizards, by default instead of design, have become Beal’s team.
That changing of the guard complicates things moving forward. Wall is still the higher-paid player, set to make an unfathomable $47.3 million in 2022-23, the last year of his deal. The Wizards can’t afford, literally and figuratively, to let Wall stand 35 feet away from the basket while Beal plays four-on-five. Those days are over. If the Wizards want Beal to stick around and be happy, he’ll need the keys and personnel who support him. He’s not a sidekick anymore.
Beal recently went on record saying that he wants to evaluate whoever replaces Ernie Grunfeld, the deposed team president who somehow survived 16 seasons while never putting together a team that won more than 50 games. And that he also wants to see what Washington will do in free agency, even though the Wizards don’t have the cap space to sign any players who will dramatically alter their immediate outlook.
Beal, whose current deal ends after the 2020-21 season, has expressed interest in the three-year, $111 million extension offer from Washington that everyone seems to think is coming. The Wizards once signed a one-legged version of Gilbert Arenas to an $111 million contract extension and kept him around after he brought guns into the locker room; Beal could probably gut a fish at center court every practice and still get that extension offer from owner Ted Leonsis, who was a minority owner at the time of the Arenas deal. Beal is the only anti-tanking mechanism left for Leonsis, who told media last year that the Wizards would never, ever tank and that he would fully commit to being bad at being bad. I made up that last part, but 16 years of Grunfeld was more or less that principle in practice.
If Beal agrees to an extension and the Wizards are unable to pawn off Wall on another team, there will be a reckoning ahead. Beal and Wall aren’t good enough alone to get out of the first round, and without the means to acquire big-time free agents or top picks in the draft (because Beal is too good), it’s hard to see how things will get better; unlike the Lakers and Grizzlies, the Wizards fell hard on draft lottery night, showing how precarious hinging your future on ping-pong balls can be. The margin of error for whoever takes over as GM is just way too slim. Also, it probably didn’t make things easier that an interim front office was overseeing a crucial draft process. Instead of moving back or completely out of the ninth overall pick and gaining assets the future GM could use, the Wizards took the closest thing to Jeff Green they could find. Maybe Rui Hachimura will pan out, but if ever there was a year to stockpile assets for later use, this was it.
That may be the most distressing thing about the Wizards: They’ve been trying to compete this whole time. Draft picks have been mortgaged at the trade deadline for replacement-level players. Young players have been pushed aside for washed-up veterans. They traded for Trevor Ariza—twice. Maybe some of it will change with a new front office, but what assurances could Leonsis possibly give Beal that would make him feel comfortable signing away the bulk of his prime?
There’s no time like the present to jump. Without Wall, another lost season looms ahead, but optimism springs eternal elsewhere. Golden State’s injuries have suddenly opened the title window for multiple teams, and you’re beginning to see even the most conservative of franchises—here’s looking at you, Utah—show a willingness to push their chips in with a big trade. Paul George’s re-signing in Oklahoma City and Toronto’s winning a championship with Kawhi Leonard on an expiring deal could embolden less traditional powers to target unhappy stars via trade and try to convince them to stay long term.
On that note, if Beal wants to go to Los Angeles (be in Space Jam 2! Come on Desktop!), the Clippers could offer Danilo Gallinari’s expiring contract, a young guard on a rookie-scale deal like Jerome Robinson or Landry Shamet, and future draft picks—without jeopardizing a shot at Kawhi Leonard or Kevin Durant. The New Orleans Pelicans could ship out multiple future first-round picks and not bat an eye, accelerating their timeline with a three-guard lineup featuring Lonzo Ball, Jrue Holiday, and Beal that would play at an unstoppable pace alongside Zion Williamson. The Denver Nuggets could deal picks and upgrade from Jamal Murray or Gary Harris to give Nikola Jokic the big-time scorer he needs. The Boston Celtics could regroup and stay competitive by dangling Jaylen Brown and draft picks.
Even if Beal demanded a trade and got sent to a random destination, is there really a group of teammates drastically worse than the ones he dragged around the court last season? Loyalty can turn into martyrdom pretty quickly.
If Beal wants out, now is the time to say it. Washington can maximize his return with time left on his contract, and all the movement around the league will quickly wash away any potential PR hit. The Wizards need a merciful release from the treadmill of mediocrity, and Beal’s staying put would keep the franchise firmly on it. For the best interest of both parties, it’s time for a change in Washington.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Ted Leonsis signed Gilbert Arenas to a contract extension. Leonsis was a minority owner at the time of the deal.