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Bradley Beal’s star jump presents opportunities and challenges for the Wizards

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Memphis Grizzlies v Washington Wizards Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

In an otherwise desultory Wizards season, a few positive signs for the future have emerged. Chief among these is the performance of guard Bradley Beal, whose production over an extended period has begun to match his reputation as one of the game’s best guards.

Beal took the first step when backcourt make John Wall left the lineup for heel surgery. In the 39 games since then, he’s averaged 28.4 points, 5.6 rebounds, 6.5 assists, 2.0 steals, and 3.2 turnovers per game. While carrying a heavy offensive burden (29.6 percent usage rate), Beal posted above average efficiency — an offensive rating (points produced per 100 possessions) of 115 and effective field goal percentage of .544. His Player Production Average during the span: a robust 172, which would rank seventh among all NBA guards if he maintained that production over the full season. (Ahead of him: James Harden, Kyrie Irving, Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, Jimmy Butler and Mike Conley.)

Since the Wizards traded Otto Porter, Beal has performed even better — scoring more on a slightly lower usage rate, boosting his assists, and increasing his efficiency to elite status. Inthe 20 games since the trade (note: this was written before the March 23 game against the Heat), his offensive rating was 120 on a 28.9 percent usage rate. The players this season maintaining this level of efficiency while shouldering so much of the offensive load is a list of game’s top offensive weapons: Davis, Lillard, Giannis, Jokic, Kawhi, Towns, Curry, Durant, Irving, George, Harden. Post-trade, Beal’s PPA is a whopping 189, which moves him up the list of guards to fourth behind Harden, Irving and Curry.

There’s much chatter about whether Beal merits All-NBA this season, and whether the Wizards should offer him the super-max extension if he receives the honor. The answers, in my analysis is probably not and no.

First, let’s look at All-NBA. The case in favor of Beal receiving the award is that he’s been outstanding since Wall exited the lineup and even better since they dealt Porter. Beal has played heavy minutes all season, and his total production currently ranks fifth among guards. All-NBA is top six, so if we stop there, he’s third team.

But, the argument against Beal is at least as persuasive. He leads the NBA in playing time so he should be among the leaders in total production. The four players ahead of him (Harden, Lillard, Curry and Irving) have all played significantly fewer minutes. Analyzed on a per game or per possession (like PPA) basis, and Beal falls out of the top six. Using a system that blends the three approaches (totals, per game and per possession), Beal ranks seventh among guards behind Harden, Lillard, Curry, Irving, Mike Conley, and Jimmy Butler. But it’s close enough that voters could reasonably name Beal to the third team ahead of Conley or Butler.

If Beal is All-NBA, the Wizards are faced with the same decision they were presented when Wall made it in 2017. The team awarded Wall the super-max contract, which they’re regretting before it even takes effect next season (and would probably be regretting even if Wall hadn’t suffered a torn Achilles).

While the case for offering Beal the super-max is stronger than it was for Wall, this time around the team should say no. As good as Beal is, it’s improbable his value will approach 35-40 percent of the salary cap — and the numbers will go at least that high.

Still, Beal’s production is a godsend for the Wizards. If he can perform at this level over a full 82-game schedule, he’s a legitimate building block for a contending team. He’s not at the level of the NBA’s truly all-around elite (think Giannis, Kawhi, Davis, Curry, LeBron, Durant, Harden), but he’d be in that “second guy” category that’s critical for a team with title aspirations. Or, he could lead a team that “contends for the playoffs” in the Eastern Conference, which is a key goal for owner Ted Leonsis and team president Ernie Grunfeld.

Beal’s production could also stimulate a robust trade market among the teams with cap space hoping to land one of the elite free agents, but destined to be disappointed. In an offseason trade, the Wizards could swap Beal for a package of assets that might turbocharge a genuine rebuild with the goal of winning a championship.