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Evaluating Bradley Beal's season and the weight of his max contract extension

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Next up on our end-of-season evaluations is Bradley Beal. We discuss his season and the max-contract extension he's eligible for this summer.

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Back in November, we all had the same concerns over Bradley Beal's looming max contract extension when RealGM had reported that the Wizards had made it clear they'll do "whatever necessary" to retain him. Durability was obviously a major talking point considering the timing of the report -- Beal had just returned from a 6-week layoff following wrist surgery -- but chief among those concerns was his efficiency. How much of it was was Randy Wittman's offensive approach, and how much of it was his own inability to put the ball on the floor and create for himself?

Seven months later, I still don't know the answer. And this comes after yet another successful playoff campaign in which he became just the fourth player in league history to score at least 20 points in eight career playoff games before his 22nd birthday.

It's why this isn't an easy decision, even if Ted Leonsis is ready to ante up and put pen to paper this summer. And while the front office will be quick to bask in how Wall's extension turned out, historical precedence doesn't hold much weight in a year where everyone is positioning themselves for the impending cap spike in 2016. Let's go through all the considerations.

How does this effect Washington's 2016 plans?

You'll want to read Jorge Castillo's excellent breakdown here, but here's a quick rundown:

  • Beal can sign the early max extension of four years that would kick in for the start of the 2016, when the league's new TV deal starts to flow in. He'll be entitled to 25 percent of the cap which figures to jump to $89 million, making him the highest paid player on the roster (Durant or another max free agent notwithstanding). The downside? It bumps up Beal's cap hold, an artificial placeholder charged to a team's cap sheet that prevents them from spending big on free agents while retaining their own via Bird rights. Beal's cap hold is currently slated at $14 million, but sign him to his extension now and it jumps to $21 million per Grantland's Zach Lowe.
  • The Wizards can play hardball and cajole Beal into waiting until after the 2015-16 season to sign his extension. This would be a huge concession on Beal's part; he isn't betting on himself to squeeze more out of his team like say, Jimmy Butler, and his injury history isn't to be taken lightly. But the Wizards would stand to profit in 2016 where they could rake in a max-level star, improve on the margins until they're up against the cap, and then sign Beal to his extension using his bird rights (meaning they can go over the cap to sign him).
  • Beal could wait, sign the qualifying offer next summer, and enter the 2016/17 offseason as an unrestricted free agent. This almost never happens; something horribly wrong will have to go down over the next two years for this to even be a thing, and even then, the Wizards will still have the upper hand seeing as they can offer him the most money.
Beal likely won't leave money on the table, which means chances are he's signing the early max this offseason. And let's not downplay the role Ted Leonsis plays in all of this. His front office has missed on a few stars over the past few drafts, but they've hit on Beal and Wall, two marketable stars in a guard-driven league that have their heads on straight. Nothing will please him more than to see both of them taken care of.

Evaluating the regular season and playoffs

Offense: No players' faith has been more intertwined with how we gauge Randy Wittman's offense than Beal. Of the 66 players to attempt at least 250 midrange shots this season, Beal's 33.9 percent shooting from that range ranked second to last, behind Andrew Wiggins, a rookie. The season before that? 37 percent. And his rookie year? 36 percent. The belief had always been that with a more modern approach to the offense, meaning less two's, more three's while spacing the floor, that his efficiency would increase.

2015 PER True shooting % Midrange FGA midrange FG%
Regular season 14.0 52% 5.0 33.9%
Playoffs 17.8 52% 5.9 37.3%
All stats via basketball-reference and NBA.com/stats

The playoffs had been a revelation to the Wizards. They took more threes by stretching out their pick and pops to the three-point line while actually deploying shooters at those positions. They passed out of midrange shots, played less with their backs to the basket, and generally did their part in keeping the lane unoccupied.

Yet, that didn't translate to better shooting efficiency from their backcourt. They played smarter, yes, and in regards to Beal, showed ample growth as a ball handler and distributor by knowing when to pick his spots better. His midrange attempts were up in the playoffs, but so was his field goal attempts in general, and he played with the ball far more than he ever had in the past. And it showed. He kept the ball moving from side to side, allowing his big man to make passes out of the pick and roll.

beal pass

Those aren't always easy reads to make, and I thought Beal took a step forward in learning to manipulate that open space more to his advantage against a defense that baited him into those midrange shots.

But those one or two dribble pulls ups out of the pick and roll with 16 seconds left on the clock still reared its' ugly head like it did so often in the regular season. The offense may have changed, but you could argue that it's because of what Wittman did with his supporting cast, not the two guards that stole all the headlines.

Defense: I always make it a point to bring up games three and four of the first round series against the Chicago Bulls last year when discussing Beal's defense. To me, those two games served as Beal's wake-up call; that he can't take plays off defensively and allow ball-watching to get the better of him.

In Game 3, that's exactly what happened. Mike Dunleavy Jr went off for 16 first half points; the Wizards still led by halftime, and in an interview with CSN's Chris Miller, Beal remarked, "I take all the blame for all the points he has, and I guarantee he won't score in the second half." Dunleavy went on to score 19 points and the Bulls picked up the win. In game 4 though? Dunleavy went 3-8 from the field in 35 minutes, with Beal playing the best defense of his career to that point.

It's the same effort he consistently showed on Kyle Korver throughout the second round this year. He stayed attached, didn't get duped by Atlanta's misdirection, and refused to let Korver catch the ball freely. Look at how fixated he is on him here, to the point where he's within an arms length of Kyle before he even steps inbounds, and how he rubs off the screener (while possibly getting away with hooking Korver's arm), and forces him to uncharacteristically put the ball on the floor.

That's one of three shots he managed to put up in the first half of that game. It's not just that Korver missed an unusual amount of open shots as so many bloggers have been quick to point out. It's that Atlanta couldn't get into much of their halfcourt sets because so many of them involve Korver's off-ball movement. Just watch Atlanta's offense devolve into an iso for DeMarre Carroll while Beal stalks Korver around a maze of screens.

Beal doesn't get half the notoriety Wall does on this end, but he should. Between the two backcourt mates, they've become hard to screen off, and both have curtailed their ball-watching to the point where you can't exploit them even if they are at a size mismatch. Defense will always be about protecting the rim, but maybe we've understated the impact those two have made on their defensive standing each season.

Overcoming injuries

Aside from a fluky wrist injury that was caused while trying to break his fall in a preseason game last October, all of Beal's injuries have occurred in his legs and ankles. He's had three separate stress reactions in his right fibula, the first of which was confirmed by CSNWashington for having played through a high ankle sprain, and the most recent back in February after aggravating his right toe in a game against the Hornets. He's had multiple ankle sprains resulting in him either missing games or at the very least hobbling him, which forced him to sit out most of the fourth quarter of Game 1 against the Hawks.

It's hard enough determining whether Beal has the pain threshold to fight through them. He's come back earlier than expected from injuries to go on to have big games (Game 2 vs. Hawks or his game-winner against the Knicks two years ago), and he's also had injuries take him out longer than expected (his stress reaction two years ago). The poster boy for anything related to ankles is Stephen Curry, who has missed just five games since his ankle surgery back in 2011 in large part due to a protective brace he's been wearing that's all but "erased the chance of chronic injury." It would be wise for the Wizards to look into something of that nature for Beal, who they're sinking a lot of money into.

You can look at this any number of ways, but any 21 year old with two years of high-level playoff experience under his belt will get the benefit of the doubt. His efficiency is disconcerting, but so was Gordon Hayward's at the time of his max-deal, and so was Klay Thompson's. And remember, it wasn't long ago that people were discussing Wesley Matthews as a near max-contract candidate too. Beal's already in that class -- he has the potential for a lot more -- and Washington will correctly bank on it.

Finally, for those of you who like graphics, a comparison of regular season Bradley Beal vs. playoff Bradley Beal

Beal Infographic