Beal with it: Decision time for Washington

Ted Leonsis, owner of the Washington Wizards, once made a bold statement that shed light on his philosophy. “We will never, ever tank,” declared Leonsis. Today, it is safe to assume he may have had a change of heart. According to Shams Charania of The Athletic, All-Star guard Bradley Beal hopes to decide on his future in Washington this week before the NBA Draft in three days. Almost every team can use someone like Beal as a primary or secondary option, with the ability to score from everywhere on tremendous efficiency. Still in the prime of his career at 28 years of age, Beal has averaged more than 30 points per game in his last two seasons, solidifying himself as the best shooting guard in the league behind James Harden. While Beal has maintained over the years that he would love to finish his career with the Wizards, the last few years of mediocrity have reportedly swayed him. During his time in Washington, the Wizards have managed to get no further than the second round despite a talented roster headlined by Beal and John Wall. They did come close to reaching the conference finals in 2017, but fell to the Boston Celtics in a hard-fought seven-game series, after which Wall signed a four-year extension worth $170 million. However, the following season marked the beginning of the end of the Wall and Beal era owing to the former’s various injuries and he was eventually traded to the Houston Rockets last year for Russell Westbrook. Latvian sharpshooter Davis Bertans was also signed to a five-year deal last offseason and was expected to be one of the team’s primary options before the arrival of Westbrook. Bertans did not live up to expectations this past season, with inconsistency and a limited skillset hampering his effectiveness. When his shot is not falling, he provides little value to a team and may be a situation that needs to be addressed.

Photo by All-Pro Reels, distributed under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license

A few teams have the assets needed to land a player of Beal’s caliber, such as the New Orleans Pelicans. They may have extra incentive to make a play for Beal, with reports of star forward Zion Williamson’s family wanting him moved elsewhere, putting the Pelicans in uncomfortable territory. After trading away Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday in recent years, the Pelicans have managed to accumulate a treasure trove of assets that would be of interest to many teams. Headlined by young stars Williamson and Brandon Ingram, New Orleans also own several first-round draft picks, which would be of interest to the Wizards in potential trade discussions. New Orleans just finalized a trade, signaling its commitment to improve by sending Steven Adams, Eric Bledsoe and two first-round picks to the Memphis Grizzlies in exchange for Jonas Valanciunas and the 17th overall pick in this year’s draft, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. The Pelicans are looking to create financial flexibility and may be clearing room to absorb a significant contract or pursue more established talent on the free-agent market, leaving the door open for the Wizards to work out a deal to send Beal to New Orleans. Of course, Williamson is off-limits, but Ingram may be on the table along with Jaxson Hayes, Kira Lewis and Nickeil Alexander-Walker, if a trade is to materialize between the two teams.

What’s next?

The Wizards are nowhere near title contention, even with their two All-Star guards. While Beal should fetch a sizable return if traded, shipping out Westbrook instead should be considered. Since Beal is the younger of the two guards, the Wizards would certainly like to sign him to an extension, but according to a report by the Philadelphia Enquirer, Beal will request a trade if the team parts with Westbrook. Even if Westbrook agrees to stay in Washington after declining his player option to become an unrestricted free agent next offseason, signing a 33-year-old Westbrook to a lucrative extension is inadvisable. The Wizards appear to be in a tough spot because it is unlikely that Westbrook would re-sign after his contract expires, given his desire to compete for a championship. The Wizards own the 15th overall pick in this year’s NBA Draft and given the Wizards’ track record of short-sighted moves in recent years; it seems plausible that they would look to trade the pick for more immediate help to push for the playoffs once again.

The Wizards have some young talent that have shown promise in recent times, like Rui Hachimura, Thomas Bryant, Daniel Gafford and last year’s lottery pick, Deni Avdija. However, the Wizards’ lack of direction these past few years has arguably hurt the development of their young players. They seem to be rebuilding and trying to win now at the same time, hampering the growth of their youngsters in the process. Hachimura, one of those youngsters, showed flashes of potential as an all-round contributor but lacked consistency. If he wants to take his game to the next level, Hachimura needs to develop as a shooter and on the defensive side of the floor. At present, he projects to be a decent starting-caliber forward but has the tools to be so much more. Thomas Bryant also showed signs of becoming a valuable contributor before suffering a partially torn ACL in his left knee seven months ago, putting an end to his season after only ten games played. Before his injury, Bryant was averaging a career-high 14.9 PPG on 64.8% shooting from the field and 42.9% from three, improving on his averages from his breakout season a year ago. If the Wizards decide to rebuild, Bryant may become a priority, but provided they are able to agree on an extension before his contract expires after this season. Given Bryant’s injury history and the possibility he may be offered a lucrative deal in restricted free agency, Gafford may become more of a priority for financial reasons. After being traded from Chicago at the trade deadline, he quickly established himself as an effective option at center, averaging 10.1 PPG, 5.6 RPG and 1.8 BPG in just 17.7 minutes per game. He proved to be the perfect rim running partner for Westbrook and gelled immediately with the team’s All Star guards to make a late push for the play-in tournament, where they defeated the Indiana Pacers before falling in the first round to the Philadelphia 76ers. Deni Avdija is another prospect that needs time to develop and will become a priority if the team decides to rebuild. A point-forward out of Israel, Avdija was expected to take some time to get acclimated to the NBA, but after a bout with COVID-19 and adjusting to his new surroundings, his impact was minimal. He struggled last season for the most part before a season-ending injury, but could become a solid all-round performer once he adjusts to the NBA. Perhaps new coach Wes Unseld Jr. can help develop Washington’s young prospects after he finalized a four-year deal to become the 25th head coach in team history, according to ESPN’s Wojnarowski. Primarily known as a defensive guru, Unseld Jr. has been credited with revitalizing the Denver Nuggets’ defense, where he worked as an assistant coach for the past six seasons. Unseld Jr. will replace Scott Brooks after five seasons as head coach in Washington, beginning a new chapter for the organization.

It seems increasingly likely that the Wizards will rebuild sooner than later given the current circumstances. Now may be a good time as any to rebuild, especially with Beal’s value at an all-time high. The Wizards may have no option but to rebuild after the upcoming year, when Westbrook and Beal can decline their player options to become unrestricted free agents. Instead of losing them for nothing, it would be in the team’s best interests to gauge their market value to recoup assets in return, preferably in the form of draft picks and young prospects. However, that decision will likely depend almost entirely on their reported conversations with Beal that are currently ongoing and could usher in a new era of Wizards basketball.

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