All eyes are on Ben Simmons and Kyrie Irving now, but everyone from team executives to opposing players continues to monitor the Washington Wizards. “Almost every game we play, someone says something,” Bradley Beal tells me over the phone, regarding how often players recruit him to leave. Anyone around the NBA is aware of the circumstances: Beal could become an unrestricted free agent in 2022, and with the Wizards unlikely to contend for a title before then, opponents are hoping that he’ll ask for a trade or sign elsewhere. But Beal isn’t sure what decision he’ll make when the time comes.
“It brings you back to college. Which school is the right school? Which team is the right team?” Beal says. “You love the fact that people see your game and would love to play with you. But it’s also tough on the back end, because you have no idea what you want to do.”
While Beal has developed into one of the game’s greatest scorers, averaging more than 30 points in each of the past two seasons, the Wizards have transformed the roster under general manager Tommy Sheppard. Since being promoted after the firing of Ernie Grunfeld in 2019, Sheppard has dumped every player he inherited except for Beal and Thomas Bryant and replaced bad long-term contracts with quality veterans and promising young players. John Wall was traded for Russell Westbrook, who was flipped after one season in a deal that brought in six players, while Scott Brooks was replaced as head coach by Wes Unseld Jr.
A few years ago, the Wizards had no hope. Between Beal’s emergence as a star and the revamped roster around him, at least now the Wizards have a direction.
Whether it’s enough to convince Beal to accept the five-year max deal worth $242 million the Wizards can offer next summer remains to be seen. Washington will have to show enough this season to prove there’s a pathway to contention in the coming years. But by taking their rebuild step-by-step, rather than rushing to add win-now pieces that might sacrifice the future, the Wizards are hoping to prove that they can build a championship team around Beal eventually.
“All the things that we’ve talked about two years ago to now, he can judge on the actions, not on the words and promises,” Sheppard says. “We’re going into year three of a plan to be more competitive every year. It’s not a win now. It’s win more.”
Unseld was hired away from the Denver Nuggets with the hope that he could lead a similar ascent in Washington. The Nuggets won 33 games in 2015-16, Unseld’s first season as an assistant in Denver. Then 40. Then 46, before making the postseason three seasons in a row. Nikola Jokic emerged as an MVP, and the young players and savvy veteran additions around him also progressed. The Wizards want to follow that blueprint to build around Beal. “You can’t skip steps and get there all of sudden,” Unseld says. “If we can create good habits and be consistent in how we work, I think you’ll start to see an uptick in the number of wins.”
Before Unseld was hired, he and Beal spoke about the guard’s desire to take fewer shots and have a lower usage rate to keep his energy up throughout the season. They agreed that the best way to achieve this was through an offensive system that features multiple players initiating the offense and values ball movement. Last season, the Wizards ranked 27th in passes per game because everything went through Beal and Westbrook. No player in the league took more shots on average than Beal, and only three players possessed the ball more often than Westbrook. Too often, it’d fall on them to create a shot at the end of plays.
“I call it the New Year’s Eve offense. Where the bench is screaming ‘Three, two, one!’ It’s like when the ball drops in Times Square,” Sheppard says. “And that’s what happens when you don’t have other people that can create late in the games.”
The Wizards no longer have Westbrook, but they have more shot creators. Washington acquiesced to Westbrook’s request for a trade to the Lakers, executing a five-team deal that returned Spencer Dinwiddie, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Montrezl Harrell, Kyle Kuzma, Aaron Holiday, and rookie Isaiah Todd. The Wizards aren’t NBA Finals contenders, but they do have one of the deeper teams in the league, with a variety of ball handlers, shooting capability across positions, and the versatility to play big or small.
“Shep played the hand he was dealt,” Beal says. “He had to clean up some things to shape it the way he wanted to and I’m definitely impressed with it. The way he made moves, he was able to save us without giving up crazy picks or assets to go get what we wanted.”
Dinwiddie is a key piece of the equation. He became a 20-points-per-game scorer two seasons ago before tearing his ACL at the start of the 2020-21 season. The injury kept Dinwiddie from playing much with Brooklyn’s stars, making Beal his first elite backcourt partner for an extended period of time. Though he isn’t a forceful downhill attacker like Westbrook, he could be a better fit because of his ability to play with or without the ball. Dinwiddie is a smooth operator in the pick-and-roll, plus a savvy cutter and a good shooter. When Dinwiddie and Beal share the floor, Unseld says he can run the same plays for each of them—a sign of the roster’s interchangeability.
Holiday and Raul Neto will share touches off the bench, while Kuzma could provide a scoring jolt in the frontcourt, much like he did with the Lakers. With more motion concepts, the Wizards hope international players who grew up in a free-flowing style like Davis Bertans and Deni Avdija can have bounceback seasons.
“It was just me and Russ before. Now we have so many guys who can be versatile with the game. I can play off ball, and take more challenges on the defensive end,” Beal says. “We have probably the best depth we’ve had in a long time, maybe since 2017. To be able to look at the roster on paper, and see we’re three-deep at every position, is pretty good.”
On paper is the key phrase. Much of the Wizards’ depth is still young, yet they’re counting on those players to produce this season. Rui Hachimura, the no. 9 pick in 2019, was absent during training camp for personal reasons. Hachimura has been inconsistent, though he’s flashed plenty of ability as a defensive stopper who can plug into different positions offensively next to one of Washington’s centers: Daniel Gafford, Harrell, and Bryant, who is expected to return early this season from a torn ACL suffered last January.
Avdija struggled as a rookie last season, but he’s still only 20 years old, and has playmaking chops that could allow him to fit right into this offense. The 6-foot-9 forward has good size, but made only 31.5 percent of his 3s last season. In the 2021 draft, Washington went with more of a sure-bet shooter in Corey Kispert, who made more than 40 percent of his 3s in all four of his seasons at Gonzaga. Kispert made progress in college by making plays off the dribble by attacking closeouts to score at the rim or finding a teammate with a pass, but the role for the no. 15 overall pick is clear.
“Come in and shoot it when I’m open,” Kispert says.
The Wizards will also need Kispert and all of their young players to become better defenders, much like Kuzma did with the Lakers.
“We’ve seen teams that have been able to develop their young guys, like Phoenix, to prepare them for the playoffs,” Beal says. “I think we can do that. I have trust in our player development staff and in our young guys. We have gym rats, guys who you have to draw back but not kick in the ass. That’s what we have and that’s a good thing.”
Defense all starts with Beal, who said earlier this month that he wants to make an All-Defensive team this season. But he also acknowledges it will be a challenge to balance his energy on both ends of the floor. Perhaps he’ll go for some possessions just spotting up from the corners instead of bringing the ball up the court. Or he’ll be a decoy, sprinting through a screen. “I won’t have that workload anymore, so I don’t have to do as much as I did on a nightly basis,” Beal says. “I hate not being considered a good defender, not being a willing defender. Because I am. Now I have the opportunity. I just need to go do it.”
Beal is only 6-foot-4 and 207 pounds, undersized for a guard, and in recent years his effort and intensity have waned. Defending hard will be more important than ever now that he’ll be looked at as the team leader. “When your best player is also your hardest worker, you are putting yourself in a good position where everyone else has to fall in line. There’s no excuse not to,” Unseld says. “As a leader, there’s no days off. Coach [Michael] Malone always used to say, ‘Heavy is the head that wears the crown.’”
A few years ago, Wall was the face of the franchise. Last year, Westbrook was the vocal leader. Beal says playing with each of them showed him what to do and what not to do.
“There was an accountability factor. You could hold John accountable. You could hold Russ accountable, even though they were franchise players.” Beal says. “That’s something I love. I don’t want to be the guy who’s barking, barking, barking at my teammates, but they can’t bark at me.”
Leaders are also expected to be available. Beal is unvaccinated, for “personal reasons,” meaning he’s subject to stricter NBA protocols. He tested positive for COVID-19 in the lead-up to the Olympics, which knocked him out for the entire competition. Any missed time by Beal this season would derail Washington’s playoff hopes in a strong Eastern Conference.
While Beal has been learning the dynamics of leading a team, the Wizards have already been giving him the privileges of the face of the franchise. Sheppard has kept an open dialogue with Beal about potential transactions, discussing some moves with him before they happen, including the Wall and Westbrook trades.
“He knows these things are made with his future in mind, with our future in mind,” Sheppard says. “I think it’s very OK to say that he’s a shareholder in this. And no CEO ever makes a decision without his shareholders in mind. Bradley’s a huge part of this. So any trade or anything we do, of course, I’m going to bounce it off of him. But I’ve got to have that trust from him that I’m going to always do what’s best for the Wizards, and what’s best for the Wizards is going to be best for him.”
All the serious contenders have at least two All-Stars. The Wizards need to find another one. And with so much youth, and all of their future draft picks, could Washington be the team that lands the next available star, rather than trade away the one they have?
There’s a lack of available stars right now though. Trading for Irving would be a monumental risk for any team, and the only player the Sixers would want for Simmons is Beal. Damian Lillard could be a target, but he doubled down on his commitment to the Trail Blazers this week. There’s simply not much else out there.
But that hasn’t stopped Beal from trying to recruit. Beal says he has shared his vision with other star players around the league about how they could fit in Washington next to him. He raves about the “freshness” of the team, with a new coach, a new system, and plenty of improving young players. Though selling Washington as most stars look to more glamorous markets has its challenges.
“A lot of people seem to think D.C. is a small market, but I try to tell them it’s a big market,” Beal says. “It makes that part of recruiting tougher.”
D.C. is a fairly big market, but even when the team was good, sellouts were a rarity. In 2010, team owner Ted Leonsis said he’d do the “dougie” if the Wizards had a sellout. In 2021, perhaps he’d do the milk crate challenge to fill seats. Beal, however, sees the potential. “We’re just missing the wins,” Beal says. “D.C. just needs to be talked about again.”
Washington may not be a ready-made contender, but it does have options. Sheppard hasn’t made any moves that will hinder future flexibility, regardless of Beal’s decision. The $65 million owed to Bertans through the next four years is the only contract that could be considered an overpay, but even that’s a reasonable amount for a knockdown shooter in today’s market. Sheppard, who joined the organization in 2003, bore witness to the countless bad contracts handed out during the Grunfeld era. He knows firsthand how hard it is to dig out of those holes as a franchise.
“You can recover from losing a player, or not getting the guy that you wanted. You can’t recover from a bad contract. It just sucks. It absolutely sucks. That’s why I don’t ever want to get in that space again,” Sheppard says. He thinks back to five years ago, when a historic salary cap increase led to a number of bad deals. “When you go back to that Woodstock summer of 2016 and everybody was using hallucinogenic drugs, you go down the list of names—that summer represented when you had a ton of money, the players just weren’t able to come close to that expectation of what you paid them.”
The salary cap is projected to increase from $112 million to $119 million next summer, but there’s not much money out there. Only the Magic, Pistons, and Spurs can realistically create enough cap space to outright sign a max player like Beal if he decides to opt out of his $36.4 million player option for 2022-23. However, as the Heat showed by sign-and-trading for Jimmy Butler two years ago, any team can land any player with the right pieces to make a deal work.
Beal could always just sign his contract extension, which would give the Wizards more time to shape the roster into a contender. It wouldn’t be a bad bet. If things aren’t going well for Washington in two or three years, he could demand a trade then, something stars haven’t hesitated to do in the past.
Leaving a team in this way would be risky, though. Unless a player has just one guaranteed season remaining on his contract, like Anthony Davis did when he left the Pelicans, it’s a challenge to steer your way to a specific team.
Simmons’s circumstance is an example of a situation no player wants to find themselves in. Simmons wants to leave the Sixers, and his agency, Klutch Sports, is doing what it can to help facilitate a deal. But he still has four years left on his contract. The Sixers have little incentive to make a trade now. Re-signing and then asking to be moved isn’t a strong position of leverage for a player.
“That’s kind of a dangerous game to play because you’re not in ultimate control,” Beal says. “Once you sign a five-year deal, you’re pretty much hooked.”
If Beal signs an extension next summer, it would indicate the Wizards were able to achieve some of their short-term goals, and that Beal is committing for the long term. It’d suggest that he wants to keep being a stakeholder in what Sheppard hopes to build, rather than in the vision his recruiters have.
Sheppard says the franchise wants to take steps forward in the years to come: win 50 games and get to the second round of the playoffs, or maybe even the conference finals. “We have all year to keep showing him, ‘Hey, this is a place you’re going to win,’” Sheppard says. “Then, of course, the championship’s the next thing. But we can’t skip steps. I can’t sit here and look our guys straight in the face and say, ‘We should win a championship this year.’ Not at all. But the more pieces you’ve got, the longer you can hang around. That’s what I really, really believe.”
What the Wizards need from Beal is time. Time to make more moves. Time to let the young players develop. But time is running out on his contract, and players will keep recruiting him away until he extends. Washington’s roster improvements should help the team win more, but are they enough to convince him to stay long term? Beal doesn’t know quite yet. The whole NBA is waiting for his answer.