John Wall’s Achilles rupture inexorably altered the course of the Washington Wizards’ overall direction. As a result, their best path forward involves taking two steps back.
They need to trade Bradley Beal this summer before they lose all leverage.
Prior to Wall’s Achilles tear, the Wizards could have talked themselves into being a playoff-caliber team undone by awful injury luck. Dwight Howard missed all but nine games this season with a lower back malady. Wall joined him on the sidelines in late December with a heel issue (and later the torn Achilles), while Otto Porter Jr. missed 10 games in December because of a quadriceps strain.
Then again, the five-man lineup of Wall, Beal, Porter, Howard and Markieff Morris had a net rating of minus-10.6 in 129 minutes this season. That’s too small a sample size to draw meaningful conclusions, but the early returns weren’t promising.
As Washington scuffled to a 5-11 start, ESPN.com’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported in mid-November that the team was “making every player on its roster … available to discuss in trade scenarios.” While the Wizards preferred to “reshape the team around Wall and Beal … poor play among key teammates is limiting their trade value and paralyzing the Wizards’ efforts to make meaningful changes to a roster that no longer appears functional together.”
Fast-forward two months and team owner Ted Leonsis was singing a different tune. Leading up to the Feb. 7 trade deadline, he proclaimed the Wizards would not be dealing any of Wall, Beal or Porter. He also swore the team would “never, ever tank.”
Yup, Wall’s Achilles injury changed everything.
Not only did he miss the remainder of the 2018-19 season, but he also figures to sit out most (if not all) of the 2019-20 campaign, too. In addition, it’s notoriously difficult for NBA players to fully recover from Achilles injuries. For a point guard who relied heavily on his speed and athleticism, it may be a death sentence to Wall’s days of All-Star-caliber play.
Recognizing this, the Wizards shifted course and shipped Porter to the Chicago Bulls for forwards Bobby Portis and Jabari Parker. In doing so, they ducked under the luxury-tax threshold and gave themselves some financial breathing room moving forward.
But with Wall now entering the first season of a four-year, $169.3 million supermax contract, the Wizards may be screwed either way.
Washington has four players under guaranteed contracts for next season—Wall, Beal, Ian Mahinmi and rookie Troy Brown Jr.—for a combined $83.9 million. If the salary cap comes in at $109 million as expected, that gives the Wizards roughly $25 million in cap space (not counting their first-round pick) to fill out the rest of their roster.
Even after Mahinmi’s contract comes off the books following the 2019-20 season, the situation isn’t much better. Beal and Wall alone gobble up nearly $70 million in cap space, and the salary cap is projected to come in at $118 million in 2020-21. While that may sound like plenty of room, a maximum of $48 million won’t go a long way toward filling 13 roster spots with capable rotation members.
Unless Wall defies science and returns from his Achilles injury better than ever, the Wizards will struggle to build a championship-caliber roster because of his bloated contract.
As such, Beal may be looking for an exit ramp. And the Wizards should be, too.
If Beal earns an All-NBA spot this season, he’ll become eligible for an estimated four-year, $194.3 million supermax extension that would keep him locked up through 2024-25. If he declined that deal this summer, he’d have to qualify for an All-NBA team again next season to be eligible for a record-setting five-year, $251.5 million supermax in 2020.
Beal isn’t certain which route he’d prefer if he does earn an All-NBA nod this season.
“I have no idea. … I try not to (think about it),” he told The Athletic’s Fred Katz when asked whether he would sign a supermax from the Wizards. “I’m not gonna be naïve to it. I know about it. But … I haven’t even gotten that far, because I need to figure out what we’re gonna do in this offseason, where we’re going, which direction we’re going.”
It’s also unclear whether the Wizards would even offer Beal the supermax after having seen how quickly that backfired with Wall.
That leaves them in a damned-if-they-do, damned-if-they-don’t dilemma.
If they do offer Beal the supermax and he takes it, they’d owe him and Wall nearly $85 million in 2021-22 and more than $90 million in 2022-23 and 2023-24. They would thus likely be stuck rounding out their supporting cast with dirt-cheap options, salary-cap exceptions, rookie-scale contracts and veterans on minimum deals.
If they don’t offer Beal the supermax, that may poison the well between the two sides, leading to a trade demand down the line. And once that trade demand leaks, so goes the Wizards’ leverage in any negotiations. (See: Anthony Davis and the New Orleans Pelicans, circa January 2019.)
Even if Beal misses out on All-NBA honors, this scenario isn’t difficult to foresee. He’ll be expecting a fat payday after the 2020-21 season, and the Wizards will be in no position to give it to him unless they’re willing to pay the luxury tax for a 45-win ceiling and first-round playoff exits.
Trading him will be a bitter pill to swallow, but it’s the objectively correct decision.
With two years left on his contract, interested suitors won’t have to view Beal solely as a rental. That should drive up the Wizards’ asking price. They should demand the sun, stars and moon for a 25-year-old two-time All-Star who’s averaging a career-high 26.0 points on 47.6 percent shooting, 5.5 assists, 5.1 rebounds and 2.6 triples.
Say, for instance, the Los Angeles Lakers strike out on the free-agent market this summer and are unable to land Davis via trade. With LeBron James not getting any younger, they’ll be under enormous pressure to land him a win-now sidekick. The Wizards may not be able to extract everything the Lakers reportedly offered the Pelicans for Davis—namely, their entire young core along with multiple first-round picks—but some combination of Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart and draft considerations should be a conversation starter.
Conversely, imagine if the Boston Celtics watch top trade target (Davis again) head to L.A. If they’re serious about doing everything they can to retain Kyrie Irving in free agency this summer, securing another All-Star sidekick may go a long way. Armed with as many as four first-round picks in this year’s draft along with young players such as Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, the Celtics have the ammunition to pique any team’s interest.
After firing longtime team president Ernie Grunfeld on Tuesday, the Wizards first need to get a new front office in place before considering any drastic shakeups. But they should grill any potential successors on how they’d approach Beal’s future.
Refusing to proactively address the situation this summer will only decrease the Wizards’ leverage once Beal’s inevitable trade demand eventually leaks.