This is a very polarizing piece for me to write. I’ve invested countless hours of my life rooting for the Washington Wizards, which also means that I purposely enter a torture chamber every NBA season. This is a franchise that has not made the Conference Finals or even had a 50-win season since 1979. That’s 41 years, or longer than if you started preschool and graduated college, twice.
But what sets the Wizards apart from other depressing franchises is the assortment of embarrassments that come from what is ironically (or maybe quite fittingly) the team that represents the capital city of the United States. In my lifetime alone, I’ve seen DeShaun Stevenson start one of the dumbest beefs in the league against LeBron James. I’ve lived through the franchise’s superstar episode of bringing guns to the locker room only because he lost a card game on a team flight. For a time, the Wizards front office thought it was a good idea to build around a Big Three composed of Andray Blatche, JaVale McGee and Nick Young. Oh and even the recent successful Wizards era said ludacris things like how they would be a worthy challenger to the defending champion Cavs only to lose in the playoffs before even getting the opportunity to play those said Cavaliers.
Last season was devoid of embarrassing moments, thanks in large part due to the franchise’s change in management. Well, except for the fact that our fanbase watched a bunch of former Wizards actually win the NBA title. GM Tommy Sheppard has clearly prioritized the need for high-character players, which is good, but it didn’t translate to wins for the youthful Wizards. They were terrible last season, finishing at 25-47. They were the worst team in the bubble, and played so little defense that you could drop double-digits on them. Yes, you, reader. You would score at least 10 points on last year’s Washington Wizards.
And yet, despite that passionate rant, I love my Wizards, and I always hold out hope that the next season will be a better one.
II. Wall and Beal are Fine… but does it really matter?
The biggest bright spot of the Wizards ‘19-’20 season was Bradley Beal’s jump as a star. Once a sidekick to John Wall, Beal averaged 30 points and 6 assists last season, which in the last decade had only been done 5 other times. Of those 5, three were MVP seasons.
Via Basketball Reference
And Beal didn’t even make the All-Star game last yet, but okay that’s a discussion for another day.
That version of Beal will be paired with the returning Wall, who has missed the last two seasons, but is set to come back fully healthy. May I remind you, Wall is a five-time all-star and had been dealing with plenty of injuries even before he was shelved in late 2018. Even at 80%, Wall would be a massive talent upgrade for a team that trotted out Ish Smith and Shabazz Napier at the point.
However, there are a lot of skeptics that point to Wall’s comments in 2016 which indicated a rift between the two Wizards stars. While I believe that was true at the time, both have gone on record saying they’ve cleared the air. If anything, I’m irritated that the media has not blown up how close these two actually are right now. Late last year, John Wall’s mom, who he considers his best friend, passed away. It was Bradley Beal who was first by Wall’s side after Wall had heard of the news.
Wall said in an interview with NBC Sports Washington, “I’ve tried to tell people that when you have two great basketball players on the court, you’re going to have differences from time to time.” He added, “I don’t even call it like a basketball friendship, it’s like a brotherhood outside of basketball.”
Beal also talked about his good relationship with John Wall on The Lowe Post Podcast. Beal said, “We’re both alpha dogs… but at the end of the day, I think we both trust each other. I know that I wouldn’t be who I am without him and I think he wouldn’t be part of who he is without me either.”
So sure, they won’t be bickering, but will they be able to play together? The numbers on them were pretty good in some of the team’s more successful seasons. In 2015, the Wizards were a +6.8 per 100 possessions when the two were on the court. In 2017, they were +6.1. It makes sense since Wall functions as the ball dominant pass-first point guard, and Beal as the roving sniper.
Wall on the ball and Beal off it should still be an effective way to play next year, and Beal’s additional arsenal of moves should make it more deadly. However, Beal has also since changed into more of a ball-handler himself, and I do believe that this is Beal’s team already. Wall will need to become more effective off-the-ball if the team is going to succeed, though he’s said that he’s willing to do that.
“To be able to have a guy like Brad, playing at the level he’s at, that makes the game easier for me, that’s perfect… I am able to spot up or cut backdoor, Brad gets the ball in transition, and I can run the floor and be the opposite of what he used to be when I got the ball,” Wall said in an interview with Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer.
But that’s still going to be a massive adjustment for the 2010 Number 1 Overall pick. Wall’s a very high usage rate guy, recording a usage rate of at least 25 for his last seven NBA seasons.
On top of that, Wall possessed the ball per game more than any other player in the league from 2013 to his last game in December of 2018. He’s going to need to become a better cutter or catch-and-shooter player in order for the duo to become more successful.
In the ‘16-’17 season, or what his last full season, Wall shot just 39% on spot-up opportunities. And he cut so little off the ball that there is no data on the NBA Stats website of how he performed as a cutter in that season. In the year before that, Wall cut 0.2 times per game and was only in the 8 percentile in the league in terms of productivity on those types of plays.
Still, and call me biased, but I do have a lot of faith that Wall will be healthy and adjust enough so he and Beal will be one of the better backcourts in the league next year. However, does that really mean anything in the grand scheme of things?
- The Inevitable Bradley Beal Trade
The Wizards supporting cast is a lot easier to root for than past iterations, but they aren’t even close to the best they’ve had in the Wall-Beal era. And the furthest that team went was the four-seed and Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
The only real hope for Washington is that someone like Rui Hachimura or Troy Brown Jr. makes a gargantuan leap, and that just isn’t realistic. Rui’s numbers make it seem like he had a solid season, but he was a zero on defense and an inefficient offensive player. To me, he looked a lot like Jabari Parker, and that’s not a complement. He was a rookie and will get better, but not nearly enough to boost the Wizards up a tier.
Troy Brown is one of my favorite players on the team, but his game isn’t fit to be the third guy, especially with ball dominant players like Wall and Beal. TBJ operates best when he has the ball in his hands. He’s going to need to improve his jumper to play off the ball, and that’s still extremely suspect as well, shooting 33.5% from three for the full season last year, and just 32.1% from three when he was more exposed in the bubble.
The addition of a ninth pick in the upcoming weak draft isn’t really going to change much in the immediate future either, even if Onyeka Okungwu happens to fall into their laps.
In a top-heavy Eastern Conference that’s set to welcome KD, fill in the blanks… the ceiling for this Wizards team is ___ ? I say like the fifth-seed and a first-round upset, and that’s being generous. The more realistic scenario is that they’re battling for one of the lower seeds and get easily ejected in the first round.
So I guess the better question is — What is the Wizards main objective? If it’s to make the playoffs and keep the team’s revenue as high as possible in a weak economy, then the sixth-seed next season is a success. And maybe even another lower seed in the following year right before Bradley Beal’s free agency. But if the team is concerned about the long term, then shopping Beal — who is probably the hottest commodity on the market right now and will likely be for all of next season — might be the smartest thing to do.
Washington has very little flexibility to sign anyone of worth whilst also keeping their star backcourt. Beal signed a $72M contract extension that puts him under contract until at least 2022. John Wall signed a supermax worth an insane $171M over four years. He can also opt out by 2022, but ain’t no way he’s giving up $47M dollars in the ‘22-23 season. There’s also no reason to believe the Wizards can find supreme young talent with Beal. I mean, he alone was so good that the Wizards were still only the 9th worst team when the season was suspended.
Even if Beal clearly wants to stay in DC, and boy do I want him to stay, both Beal and the Wizards may find themselves on the dreaded treadmill of mediocrity unless they trade him for a package of more future-based assets. In my opinion, it’s really more of a when then if, which is why I think the Wizards may be the most interesting team to watch in the first half of the upcoming season. Should they start strong or at least look well within the playoff picture, then it’s likely the Wizards try their hand at one run at the playoffs before shopping Beal. But if the Wizards struggle, then perhaps the option will be to trade him within the year. With another year on his deal, a midseason deal might be the best time to reel in the biggest haul from a pseudo-contender willing to bet on Beal as their winning piece.
IV. A New Era in D.C.
D.C. should see a new era by January 20th when Joe Biden steps in the oval office, but their city’s basketball team will also likely see a new era sometime soon. Beal is really exactly what contenders want given that he can be plugged into any system because he can play with or without the ball in his hands.
The Wizards should be looking at a return of young pieces and picks to help kickstart a rebuild, especially with the 2022 and 2023 drafts both projected to be loaded. Wall would likely have to stay on as the Wizards point guard for at least another season after a Beal trade because I doubt many teams would want to take a chance on his contract until it’s at least down to one or two years. Well, unless of course he balls out and teams take a chance on him, but then that would likely mean we wouldn’t be in this trade Beal hypothetical anyway. Wall should keep the Wizards from completely bottoming out, but likely not enough wherein they can’t possibly get into the top five range come draft night.
So which teams might get Beal and what haul would the Wizards be able to fetch?
Denver might offer the most enticing package. Michael Porter Jr. is flawed, but so young and tantalizing that he may be the most enticing piece to help the Wizards pull the trigger. Add in Gary Harris’ contract, Bol Bol, and a pick or two, and the Wizards will get a potential future star, a decent veteran role player, and a free look at whatever Bol Bol could be. I’m not the biggest Michael Porter Jr. fan, but the tools are undeniable. Waiting 20-30 games next season would also probably help the Wizards so they can see some of him in Year 2.
Miami could offer a similar package, but with Tyler Herro as the lead return. After watching Herro’s playoff run, I don’t actually know if Heat fans will be willing to let kid go, but remove recency bias a bit. If the Heat are chasing a title around Jimmy, then Beal — who is actually only 27 years old — might be worth the risk. Herro, Kendrick Nunn, Iguodala’s expiring contract, and a pick might be the sweet spot. The Wizards get the wonderkid from Wisconsin to become their lead young piece, and the runner-ups get a star upgrade. Pretty cool, right?
Other teams that might throw packages are the Warriors surrounding whomever they draft with the second pick and the Minnesota pick in 2021. Unless the Wolves are terrible next year, that offer might be a little short without a more established player, and Wiggins doesn’t count. The Nets have the much-talked about LeVert-Allen-Dinwiddie package, but any offer with MPJ or Herro trumps that one. Remember, LeVert is 26 years-old, which is only one year younger than Beal. He’s not necessarily a young prospect anymore.
The best case scenario for the Wizards is that those four teams get into a bidding battle wherein Washington is able to come out with either MPJ or Tyler Herro and milk as much out of whichever team takes Beal. And a midseason trade will be the best time for that to happen.
Then, the Wizards can trot into 2021 with hopefully another good pick to start building their new team of the future.
I am a Washington Wizards fan, and watching the Wizards in the playoffs provides me with unrivaled exhilaration. I mean, Wall’s game winning shot in Game 6 of the semis in 2017 was probably one of the best moments of my life.
But I have to be realistic about where we are. And where we are at this point is at a crossroads between commitments. Our star backcourt of the last decade has a shot to bring us back some joy, but it’s probably going to be temporary bliss before the inevitable.