One of Winston S. Churchill’s most useful quotes, as far as Washington Wizards fans are concerned, may be
“Nourish your hopes, but do not overlook realities.”
The big question everybody is talking about these days, and, most likely, the most fascinating question related to the Wizards right now (at least from the point of view of many GMs and fans around the league) is: will Bradley Beal be on the Wizards long-term?
Just today news broke that Beal signed a 2-year max extension through 2023 with the second year a player’s option. Nevertheless, it is still very much possible that Beal’s name resurfaces again in potential trade talks next off-season as his new contract (even with the trade kicker) arguably has even better trade value right now: teams receiving him would have him locked in until 2022 at least and at a very reasonable price compared to potentially having to shell him a super-max earlier.
I won’t attempt to answer this question, but let me just gather some facts and let you, the reader, make up your mind. I’ll take as a general guide David Aldridge’s recent advice that it is better to be skeptical than cynical.
One needs two for tango. Let’s start with Beal.
The obvious: what Beal brings to the table
It is hard to find players as mature as Brad. I spoke to a league veteran about it who best summarized it,
“When Bradley gave his first media interview at [name of team] facilities after his predraft workout, he was 18. And he was the most mature 18 year old I had seen answering questions from the local media to this day.”
It is hard not to love Bradley Beal. Everything about him, really.
Intelligence, character, community building, work ethic. And of course he has incredible hoops, All-Star borderline All-NBA level. This combination is rare.
Less obvious: what do the Wizards bring to the table?
This side of the equation is much more complicated, hence interesting, and things start to depend on which narrative one prefers to believe (I’m using words from the world of faith as we will probably never know the exact “truth” and discussions between sports fans often sound like dialogues between believers).
It seems to me that the narrative that has Beal staying in the Wizards is built on two main pillars: one, the Wizards always saw Beal as “the franchise guy” and, two, Sheppard is leading a sort of cultural revolution right now in the organization that has rid itself of its biggest problem: Ernie Grunfeld.
(Indeed, I am completely ignoring another third pillar which revolves around the super-max possibility since I honestly believe Brad when he said recently that for him “it is not the money.”)
The first pillar is interesting, since when a person is in love (and I am far from being a psychologist, don’t get me wrong), it is often the case that they subconsciously recast certain past relationship-related `details’.
Up until the very last season there was no question about Wall being the franchise guy. Even the little postcard that reporters find with their name and affiliation next to their designated media seat had the photo of only one Wizards player up until April 2019.
Clearly, as Wall started to fade into injurdom and display subpar defensive stats, something had to give from his alpha status. This started midway through the 2017-2018 season already and with it started the wonderful, albeit brief, Everybody Eats era of the Wizards (which I will hopefully come back to in a future piece). Beal was then promoted to the driver’s seat and became the temporary face of the franchise, but even then he was not given the “the guy” status.
I remember a media avail with Scott Brooks where superlatives for Beal were proceeded with some flattery for Wall conveying the obvious: we love what Beal brings and how “everybody steps up”, but Wall will come back and then Beal (and Satoransky and Porter) will probably be kindly asked to “step down” (in varying degrees, of course). This same nuance appeared in interviews with players in the locker room (did someone say Austin Rivers, Tomas Satoransky and, yes, Bradley Beal?). At the end, can there really be more than one alpha in the Wizards pack?
In the same vein, Wall, by construction of his contract was given de facto immunity from any reasonable trade. Beal? Far from it. He was not spared from many many trade rumors coming even from very reliable sources (e.g., Bill Simmons, Woj). I remember vividly Beal’s face in the locker-room when he was faced multiple times by questions about those trade rumors from reporters. Believe me, it wasn’t a pretty sight, and it got quite hard to watch around the time Oubre was sent away unceremoniously.
Did these scorch some of the love Beal had for D.C.?
Maybe. Apparently, not too much. Sheppard and Co. have done wonders to get Beal completely on-board in the last couple months, as manifested by today’s contract extension inking. Of course, things could go sour again in the next year and a half and a lot depends on how things develop when Wall returns; Who knows, this whole discussion could become relevant again.
The second pillar is even more fascinating since Tommy Sheppard seems to be trying genuinely to distinguish himself from the Tommy of the Tommy & Ernie show that ran in D.C. for the past 16 years. Objectively, he has replaced some of the faces in the front office most closely associated with Grunfeld (adios, Ed Tapscott), promoted others (Brett Greenberg is now his right hand), and partly through the auspices of Mike Forde has surrounded himself with able new faces (Sashi Brown, Daniel Medina, Rod Thorn, Johnny Rogers, among others). The overall new structure of the front office seems like a very positive direction.
However, is this really enough for Beal who just a few short months ago professed for change and that “I’ve been dealing with this s— for 7 years — it starts top-down.“?
(Interestingly, Shams Charania explains in the aforementioned tweet that Beal “was taking aim at Wizards officials, including [my emphasis] president Ernie Grunfeld.” Which raises another question: at which other Wizards officials?)
A Western Conference league executive told me that in the good old days in Oklahoma City with young KD, Harden, Russ and Ibaka all locked down for several years
“Man, the saying was that the only thing that could stop OKC from becoming a dynasty was Scott Brooks.”
The same Brooks that was according to some accounts on the hot-seat had Grunfeld made it to see another season or two is now safely installed as the coach of the rebuilding Wizards. The same Brooks that rode Beal to a league-high blistering 36.9 min/game en route to being the only player in the whole NBA to play over 3000 minutes in last year’s regular season, did the exact same (actually worse, as in 38-39 min/game) to Durant in his OKC hey days while not able to hold Westbrook accountable for his shot selection. The same Brooks that played Wall over 39 minutes per game in the playoff series against Toronto just two weeks after his return from knee surgery in 2018 (including a pair of games with 43 and 44 minutes with little or zero rest in the second half).
Will Beal be reluctant to scorch the floor (and, needless to say, potentially risk injury) for an over-using coach that has time after time told us in the media room in Capital One Arena: “to me rest is a good night sleep”?
A real conundrum though is how did Brooks keep his job if the Wizards are indeed going through a deep re-organization and cultural reboot?
The common answer out there? His hefty contract.
That is quite true but may or may not be the whole story.
An interesting detail that seems to be largely overlooked by the media (at both the local and the national levels) is that Warren LeGarie, the super-agent representing dozens of executives around the league, represents both Tommy Sheppard and Scotty Brooks.
(Of course this detail is well-known to the media, for evidence look no further than a 2016 piece by previous Washington Post beat writer Jorge Castillo who actually mentions this fact in connection with Grunfeld’s and Sheppard’s efforts to hire Brooks, and a recent piece by Ben Standig (formerly with NBC Sports Washington and currently with The Athletic) who mentions it in connection to the Wizards’ Hachimura getting prime-time in LeGarie’s Vegas Summer League).
I do not know if the fact LeGarie represents both Brooks and Sheppard means much, but according to other much more senior NBA writers it generally has significance viz-a-viz hiring and retention.
Some examples? Here you go - buckle up.
- Back in 2011, Donnie Walsh retired from the Knicks GM position, and Mike D’Antoni, a LeGarie client, was the Knicks head-coach. Three names came up as possible successors for the GM position: in-house lieutenants Glen Grunwald and Mark Warkentien along with 76ers GM and LeGarie clien Ed Stefanski. As Alan Hahn reported back then
“Stefanski is represented by agent Warren LeGarie, who also represents D’Antoni. This link could be extremely important to the coach’s future.”
(you can also read Ric Bucher’s take on those events).
- Longtime reporter and Oregon Sports Hall of Fame inductee Dwight Jaynes wrote a very insightful take on Warren LeGarie’s craft back in 2012 when Olshney was seriously considering promoting Kaleb Canales who was a junior assistant coach to head-coach of Portland:
“I believe those of us in that room -- the ones who watched the team closely over the last part of the season -- were astounded by [Olshney’s] over-the-top endorsement of Kaleb Canales. This is a sensitive thing to write about and I don’t think too many media people in town will even touch it... But ready to be a head coach in the NBA? Whoa. Let’s talk about that... Now I realize Olshey and Canales share an agent, many mutual friends and a long-time friendship. That’s all well and good. But Olshey went WAY past what he needed to say about Canales as a coach... Or it just might be agent Warren LeGarie doing what he does best -- getting one of his guys into a job and making sure that guy’s immediate priority is adding as many other LeGarie clients as he can. Canales, remember, is also a LeGarie client.”
(By the way, Johnny Rogers is also a LeGarie client.)
That press conference apparently was so unusual that another reporter, Jason Quick, also was quick to feast on Olshney’s comments:
Can you imagine anybody wanting to apply for the job after they heard this? Steve Kauffman, a prominent agent who represents Golden State assistant Michael Malone wondered aloud Tuesday night: “Does Malone really have any kind of chance in this search?” This reeks of the slimy underbelly of NBA politics these days, with agent Warren LeGarie positioning both of his clients -- Olshey and Canales -- for a big payday. Other qualified candidates be damned if they aren’t in position to scratch the back of a fellow LeGarie client.
- Back in 2016, Terry Stotts was given a rare third chance, as Kevin Pelton describes:
“Portland GM Neil Olshey was willing to go against that trend because of the advocates on Stotts’ side, including Carlisle and agent Warren LeGarie; the fit with the Blazers’ roster; and a closer look at his track record. After initially offering the job to former Utah Jazz head coach Jerry Sloan, Olshey chose Stotts at the conclusion of an extensive search.”
Keep in mind (and curiously Pelton does not mention it at all) that LeGarie represented both Olshney and Carlisle.
- More recenly, Terry Stotts was approaching the final year of his deal in Portland. John Canzano wrote
“I think Stotts deserves an extension. His agent, Warren LeGarie probably thinks so, too. That Stotts and general manager Neil Olshey are both represented by LeGarie presents an interesting little subplot that is going on in the background of this playoff series.”
By the way, the way LeGarie has positioned Sheppard (who undoubtly is highly qualified for the job regardless) to inherit the GM gig is nothing short of impressive. When Ted Leonsis was speaking about “the big powerful agents...” was he referring to LeGarie (among others)? LeGarie does not appear in the list of 78 people Leonsis did speak to so there is plenty of room for speculation here though it seems highly unlikely that the owner would not speak to the agent of the GM he is hiring.
But let’s not digress too much.
One thing is certain: Forde has started a mini cultural revolution that Sheppard has happily enlisted to, but some of the most important people in the organization (beside Sheppard himself, of course) are still there and going nowhere, notably the head-coach and the franchise-player.
Is Beal happy with several more years, perhaps more, of Brooks and Wall?
The contract extension signing today gives some evidence that he is happy to give it another shot. Hopefully, things work out well for all sides. If not, this discussion once again could become relevant.
I deliberately did not even mention the discussion around whether Beal can contend for a championship in his 20’s will he choose to stay in a Wizards uniform since I find the answer to that rather straightforward (while Ted Leonsis’ related question/statement, “Why can’t it be quick?” somehow deserves its own separate article, but, alas, I am not the right person to do so). In fact, the ability to contend or not could ultimately prove the most essential detail in whether Beal actually finishes stay in D.C. through the next 3-4 years. Let’s recall that Beal is not only extremely mature and rational when it comes to off-court matters, but also his agent, Mark Bartelstein, is perhaps the, if not one of the most astute agents in the league.
It is perhaps fitting to end with Dominique Minot and Audrey Hepburn’s legendary dialogue from Charade (1963),
- “But I don’t understand, why do you want a divorce?”
- “Because I don’t love him, and he obviously doesn’t love me. “
- “That’s no reason to get a divorce!”
Or, is it? Time will tell.