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Within minutes of absorbing a 29-point beating that threw his team into a deep abyss of despair in the postseason, Bradley Beal took his place on a Zoom screen and declared, with all the seriousness he could muster, that the Wizards of Washington would persist.
“I’m a huge fan of the word ‘hug,'” Beal said Saturday after the Wizards fell 3-0 in their first-round series against the seeded 76ers. “Embrace it all. Embrace the stages of life. Accepting every situation. And it’s the same with this. Accept where we are. “
A seasoned veteran, Beal knows the reality better than anyone: No team in NBA history has won a playoff series after falling 3-0. The Wizards, who posted a record under .500 this season, who had to win two play-in games just to make the playoffs, won’t be the first.
But after nine seasons in DC, Beal is also a veteran of disappointment and frustration and a virtual master in the art of stubborn faith. He’s embraced his fair share of quixotic missions: strike up a working partnership with John Wall; make the Wizards respectable; keep them relevant through Wall’s injuries; forging a new partnership with Russell Westbrook; dragging the Wizards to the playoffs after a season marked by quarantines and postponements.
Each year, Beal evolves a little further – as a shooter and scorer, as a playmaker and ball handler, as a leader and creator of culture – only to meet the same depressing fate: early elimination. The Wizards have made the playoffs just five times in Beal’s nine years, falling in the second round three times, the first round one (and soon twice).
Which has made league experts wonder once again: How much more will Beal tolerate? How long before you say the two words that you have repeatedly promised not to say? Exchange me. No one professes to know Beal’s intentions, but rival scouts and executives have believed for months that doomsday is near, just like this summer.
It’s true that Beal has always professed his loyalty to Washington and his commitment to bringing the Wizards out of the desert. But every NBA star has his limits.
“He’s been adamant,” says an Eastern Conference scout. “But yeah, it wouldn’t surprise people if he changed his mind and said, ‘Enough of this.
The case of Beal asking out is pretty straightforward. He is an elite scorer, one of the best in the NBA, averaging more than 30 points per game over the past two seasons. He is firmly in his prime (he will turn 28 by the end of this month). He has never been successful in the playoffs. He is routinely turned down for individual awards, due to the Wizards’ gruesome record. And he’s on a capped team, with an aging and overpaid co-star, and no clear path to title contention.
Rui Hachimura, the Wizards’ top pick in 2019, had a solid second season, but no one projects him as a star. Scouts like Deni Avdija’s tools, but his rookie season was mostly a flop. Daniel Gafford was a revelation at the end of the season, but he is a role player. Davis Bertans is a good shooter who cannot fulfill the $ 80 million contract he signed last year.
“They have good players, but they are not close to a champion team,” said the scout. “The future is not bright,” said an executive from another Eastern Conference team. It’s hard to find someone in the league who disagrees.
And while no one doubts the sincerity of Beal’s statements, well, these things tend to change when the stars tire. James Harden pledged his undying loyalty to Houston, but eventually made his way to Brooklyn. Westbrook did the same in Oklahoma City, before forcing his way into Houston… and then out of Houston. Kyrie Irving forced a trade from Cleveland to Boston, declared he would be a Celtic for life, and then went to Brooklyn. Anthony Davis left New Orleans for Los Angeles, just eight years after Chris Paul left New Orleans for Los Angeles. And so on.
Of the 27 players named to the 2021 All-Star Game (including injury replacements), only 14 are still with their original teams (including four players who still have rookie contracts).
Speculating on Beal’s future has practically become an annual ritual, but there are reasons to think that this time it will be different. Beal’s contract runs through the 2022-23 season, but the final year is a $ 37 million player option, meaning he can be a free agent in just 13 months. The clock is ticking.
“I think so,” said an executive for a Western Conference team. “They are in a difficult situation.”
It’s certainly difficult to accurately assess this Wizards season, marred as it was by injuries and a COVID-19 outbreak that forced the team to essentially shut down for two straight weeks in January. The Wizards were 6-17 in their first 23 games, fell 15 games below .500 in early April, then closed the season with an 18-7 kick, with Westbrook going supernova almost every night.
“The last part of the season really blew me away,” said Ryan McDonough, a former Suns general manager, now a commentator for Audacity. “I think there are some positive conclusions. I’d like to at least see what next season looks like with a healthy Westbrook and Beal, and more experience from Avdija, Hachimura and Gafford. “
Still, McDonough admits that a healthy, improving Wizards team is projected to be a lower-level playoff team in the East, perhaps with a chance to make the top six, if all goes well. There is your positive side.
Low? Westbrook will turn 33 in November and has already shown signs of erosion in the last two years. For all his flashy counting stats and triple-doubles, Westbrook remains a low-efficiency, high-turnover tactic. He doesn’t hit the basket as often as before, he doesn’t finish as well as before, he doesn’t win as many free throws as he used to, he doesn’t even shoot them well (.656 this season). Plus, he keeps hurting himself. (Plus, he will turn 33 in November. Did we mention he will turn 33 in November?) Oh, and he will make $ 44 million next season, with a $ 47 million player option clogging the salary cap in 2022-23.
“The right move is to (trade) Beal and probably buy Westbrook’s share,” the Eastern Conference executive said (although he noted that Wizards owners have always preferred playoff spots to long-term planning) .
If Beal finally requests a trade, or if Wizards officials decide it’s time to hit the reset button, the market would be strong and the payoff considerable, if recent superstar deals are any guide. The Thunder landed five first-round picks, two pick exchanges and a budding young star (Shai Gilgeous-Alexander) for Paul George. The Pelicans landed three first-round players, a draft change and two promising young players (Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball) for Davis. Most recently, the Pelicans acquired multiple first-round picks from the Bucks in the Jrue Holiday deal.
Rival executives expect something similar if Beal goes on the market. The Warriors could make an offer, hanging rookie center James Wiseman and the Minnesota lottery pick. The Pelicans could offer a host of picks (through the Lakers and Bucks), along with Ingram. If the 76ers shut down in the coming weeks, maybe they’ll consider the (long-speculated) Ben Simmons-for-Beal trade. The Heat have few top-notch assets, but they could get creative and make an offer. The same goes for the Mavericks. Perhaps the Knicks, armed with two picks from Dallas and RJ Barrett, will get a run.
“I think the teams will jump in,” the scout said.
The Wizards’ season could end as soon as tonight, and almost certainly by the end of the week. Will it also be the end of the Beal Era? That probably depends on Beal, and how much more heartache he’s willing to endure. For nine years, he has faced all kinds of challenges, setbacks, and putdowns. Perhaps now is the time to accept the change.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.