“We can’t guard a parked car.” That’s how Bradley Beal described the Wizards’ defense on Friday after allowing 116 points in a loss to the Celtics. Beal could’ve said it following nearly every other game this season, though, including the night he scored 60 points in a loss. Washington is tied for the worst record in the league at 2-8 and it ranks 27th in defensive rating. It’s ugly there.
With the Wizards in disarray, teams thirsting for a blockbuster trade are increasingly shifting their gaze toward Beal. Though James Harden captured the entire league’s focus after demanding a trade, league sources question general manager Rafael Stone’s willingness to deal him this season. The Rockets have shown promise amid a 3-5 start—John Wall resembles his pre-injury self, Christian Wood is posting All-Star numbers, and even role players like Jae’Sean Tate are excelling off the bench. Front office executives around the NBA say Houston is growing more confident that Harden will be content to stick around at least through the rest of the season. Sources say Harden still prefers to be dealt, and losses like Sunday’s 18-point defeat to the Lakers won’t help Houston’s case. But Harden himself expressed optimism for Houston’s future on Saturday, telling reporters, “As long as we continue to find chemistry, we have a chance to do something special.”
Harden still wants a trade, but seeing how things play out in Houston has undeniable appeal. They’re building chemistry in Stephen Silas’s offensive system, which features more movement than the Rockets were accustomed to under Mike D’Antoni. Harden and Wood are already clicking in the pick-and-roll. Harden and Wall are still finding a rhythm together, but early returns are encouraging.
The same can’t be said for the Wizards. Beal is averaging a league-leading 35 points, but when he’s not on the floor Washington’s offensive rating plummets from 116.1 (second in the NBA) to 100.0 (30th). Russell Westbrook, who was acquired for Wall and a heavily protected future first-round pick, hasn’t been able to carry the load without Washington’s best player in the game. Wizards general manager Tommy Sheppard said in November that Beal “isn’t going anywhere,” which is true right now. Beal, who can become an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2022, hasn’t expressed a desire to be dealt yet. But if the losing continues this season, teams vulturing around Washington are wondering: How long until Beal wants out and a trade becomes the franchise’s best option?
There’s an argument to be made that Beal has more appeal to more teams than Harden does. At only 27 years old, he’s younger than Harden (31), meaning his best seasons could be ahead of him. And he has a more malleable game that could immediately plug into any system. Harden is one of the game’s more unusual players with his ball-dominant style, whereas Beal could fit anywhere. He can thrive running a high volume of pick-and-rolls and isolations, and he’s still able to move off the ball and use screens like he did when he first became an All-Star.
But Beal can’t do it alone, and he’s not getting the help he needs from Westbrook. While Wall is one of the main reasons for optimism in Houston, Westbrook has been a main concern in D.C. He’s an aloof defender and he’s also having the worst season of his career offensively, scoring 0.72 points per possession, worse than 90 percent of the NBA (according to Synergy Sports). And yet, he attempts 19.3 shots per game, which is more than all but seven players. Westbrook dislocated a finger on his shooting hand last week, and will miss a week with a left quad injury. Whatever the cause may be, his shot selection is worrisome.
Westbrook’s explosive drives toward the rim have been replaced by even more midrange jumpers. Only 20 percent of his shots come from the restricted area, the lowest mark of his career, and 44 percent of his shots come from midrange, the most in his career. His performance feels a lot like Allen Iverson in Denver: a past-his-prime star struggling to adjust to his diminishing gifts and talents. There’s still a winning player somewhere inside him, but he needs to recognize it to manifest it. Less perimeter shooting with more cutting, more passing, more screening, and way more defensive effort would help Westbrook impact winning even without racking up points. In other words, the Wizards need him to be more like Wall.
Wizards fans already miss Wall, though undoing the trade wouldn’t solve all of their problems. Head coach Scott Brooks, who is in the final season of his five-year contract, looks lost trying to find effective lineups. League sources say Brooks is sitting firmly on the hot seat. New coach or not, the team also just needs to be better. Some of their returning players are struggling—Davis Bertans apparently has lost his jumper, and Thomas Bryant still can’t protect the rim (and now he’s out for the season with a torn ACL). Their new additions haven’t moved the needle, either—Robin Lopez looks roasted, and Deni Avdija is just a rookie figuring things out.
Avdija had his best performance of the season against Miami on Saturday, a game both Beal and Westbrook missed, scoring 20 points with five assists, five rebounds, and two steals. At just 20 years old, he looked the part of the talented all-around player Sheppard selected with the ninth pick. For the Wizards to turn things around this season, they’ll need Avdija—and Rui Hachimura, who was drafted ninth the year prior—to have more big games. With Avdija, Hachimura, and solid young players like Troy Brown Jr. and Isaac Bonga, the Wizards aren’t necessarily without hope for the future. This team has young talent. It’s just a matter of becoming competitive enough before Beal has to make a choice to stay or go.
The trade market gets slim quickly after Harden and Beal. Kyle Lowry is still producing for the Raptors, but he’ll turn 35 before the playoffs. Could Zach LaVine be had from the Bulls? How about DeMar DeRozan from the Spurs? Options are limited. Any team looking to make a big splash would only naturally look toward the Wizards. If Beal did become available, the expectation around the league is there’d be a long line of teams hoping to acquire him.
Teams already widely known to have interest in Harden, such as the Nets and Sixers, would unsurprisingly also have interest in Beal, league sources say. Most people around the league consider Brooklyn a fairly unlikely destination to land a star considering it lacks a high-value player or asset to put into a deal. Philadelphia, however, remains a threat to acquire anyone if Daryl Morey is willing to give up Ben Simmons. How many draft picks or young players he’d be willing to add with Simmons may be the bigger question.
There could also be a few teams flying under the radar who can put themselves in a superstar sweepstakes. This weekend, I asked 14 front office executives which teams come to mind as a sleeper for a blockbuster deal. Six of the executives responded with the Pelicans; three said the Heat; two said the Knicks; and the Mavericks, Nuggets, and Spurs each got one vote. It’s difficult to see a path toward a deal for Dallas without the inclusion of Kristaps Porzingis. Any team dealing with Denver would need to see value in Michael Porter Jr. (and he’s a love-him-or-hate-him type of player). New York and San Antonio aren’t ready to contend, but do have a blend of young players and picks to package together.
Miami shouldn’t qualify as an under-the-radar team since it was involved in public trade reports for Harden, but it was frequently mentioned nonetheless. The Heat have cooled on those discussions in recent weeks, though they could put together an offer built around Tyler Herro. Following their Finals run, the Heat are off to a bumpy start, with a 4-4 record and the 23rd-ranked offensive rating. League sources expect Miami to remain in the race for either Harden or Beal. But the fact the Heat can offer only their 2027 first-round pick hurts their odds of making a splash, and as ESPN’s Brian Windhorst first reported in December, that caused early discussions with Houston to fizzle.
Draft picks aren’t a problem for New Orleans, by far the most mentioned team by executives. The Pelicans are sitting on a pile of future firsts acquired for Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday, plus a bevy of talented young players and tradable veterans. Execs from other teams don’t believe Pelicans executive vice president David Griffin will sit on his assets for long considering how good Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson already are. With Stan Van Gundy at head coach and Steven Adams at center, the Pelicans are getting stops. Ingram and Williamson need assistance offensively, though. They don’t have a shot-creator and their spacing stinks. Beal would bring what the team is lacking with his shooting and shot creation.
Beal isn’t available yet. The season isn’t even one month old, so the Wizards still have a little time to turn this around. But their paths to make improvements are limited. Even if the Wizards keep Beal for the rest of the season, they project to have no cap space to sign free agents, leaving them with only the midlevel exception (worth under $10 million). Significant players will be hard to come by before the deadline, and any that can be had would come at the cost of sacrificing pieces with the most long-term value: Avdija, Hachimura, and draft picks. Moving talented young players and picks would seem desperate.
It’s not inevitable that Beal expresses his desire to play elsewhere, but it’s a growing likelihood given Washington’s situation. Until the Wizards prove they can get stops, whether it’s against a parked car or more mobile opposition, and until Westbrook stops torpedoing the offense, Beal will remain a threat to leave.
This story was updated after publication to include the news that Westbrook will miss a week with a quad injury.