The Washington Wizards lost to the Chicago Bulls Wednesday night, 115-106, after leading by five at halftime. It was a disappointing loss, but not surprising given the team’s 5-16 road record and 13-27 record overall.
They now sit alone with the fifth worst record in the NBA. The thing is, none of this is a surprise. What is a surprise — Bradley Beal’s comments after the game:
After the last question, on if this particular emotion of losing games builds up over the year, Beal answered:— Candace Buckner (@CandaceDBuckner) January 16, 2020
“I hope it does. I don’t like losing, so its going to keep blowing up for me. Until we start winning and changing our culture, so…” https://t.co/rvhbsMPcY4
Since transitioning from Ernie Grunfeld to Tommy Sheppard and a new front office structure, the message has been about changing the culture. This was always going to be a season which would be defined by growth more so than record. Beal seemed bought into the plan, telling NBC Sports Washington:
”It’s definitely going to be a patient, long year. I will be saying that word a lot. Just being patient and understanding.”
To that effect, the Wizards have had meaningful contributions from a number of players who came into the season with almost no prior NBA experience.
Rookie Rui Hachimura was a consistent performer in the lineup, which is no easy task for a rookie.
Moritz Wagner is averaging 11.6 points and six rebounds per game in his first real taste of NBA basketball. His play includes a 30 point, 15 rebound breakout game against Karl-Anthony Towns in a win over the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Jordan McRae, a player whose career has been hampered by injury and who’s bounced around in search of an opportunity is finally getting a chance at 28-years old and is taking full advantage of it, averaging nearly 14 points per game.
Troy Brown Jr and Isaac Bonga can also be included here — with the overarching point being that the team brought in a young and unproven core that’s flashed as much promise and potential as they could have realistically hoped for.
More so, they play with enthusiasm. They compete nightly, regardless of adversity caused by injuries or a general lack of talent. They encourage each other on the court, consistently standing and cheering for their teammates, bringing infectious energy to a franchise that had grown stale and surly.
This brings me back to Beal. With John Wall out for more than a calendar year now, the team has unequivocally been his and the organization has made no secret that he’s been given the keys to the kingdom. After agreeing to his contract extension, Beal’s agent Mark Bartelstein had this to say,
”This was probably going to be the most important decision that Brad was going to make in his career, and we wanted to give Ted and Tommy every opportunity to present their vision for the franchise. And they’ve genuinely done a wonderful job of getting Brad excited about the future and how they plan to build the Wizards team around him.”
The young players on this team were going to follow his lead for how to practice and how to play. This is a role he seemed to relish, and by signing a contract extension with the team before the season, he committed to being a franchise leader and mentor.
Beal is averaging a career high, 27.6 points per game, but anyone who has watched or paid close attention to him this season knows he’s not playing at his usual level. His shooting has fallen off a cliff — the player once touted as the next Ray Allen is shooting 31 percent from beyond the arc this season, the third straight season that number has fallen.
Although his teammates have shown they can contribute offensively at least, he’s averaging a career high 21.5 field goal attempts per game and a career high 31.7 percent usage rate. The result — the raw numbers far exceed their impact.
Last season, after the All-Star break, when Wall had been declared out for the season and Otto Porter was traded, Beal had a usage rate of 28.9% percent. He averaged 26.7 points, 4.9 rebounds, and 5.6 assists per game with an effective field goal percentage of 54.9 percent.
When a player’s usage increases, it’s normal for their efficiency to fall, and that’s happened with Beal. But the question to ask is why his usage has gone up? Why has Beal’s usage continued to rise as the team has added new capable offensive players and more importantly, the results aren’t there to support that approach?
Going into the season the chatter was that the Wizards would be one of the worst teams in the league but that Beal would will them to 20-30 victories. The team’s most impressive wins have come against the Heat, Celtics, and Nuggets — all games he missed.
In another victory over the 76ers, Hachimura and Davis Bertans helped the Wizards jump out to a 13-point lead before Beal went 0-10 from the field in the fourth quarter and let the Sixers back in the game.
His teammates have shown that they can play — at least on offense. Without Beal, the Wizards are 4-3 this season. With him, they are 9-24. This is not Everybody Eats Part II; talent is necessary to sustain success in this league and the sample size without Beal is small. That being said, trusting teammates and empowering them to do more is part of a leader’s job.
Going through a season that has little to no chance of a playoff berth and having a substandard individual season naturally is trying for a player of Beal’s ability. It’s not surprising for the frustration to leak to the surface but it’s pointed in the wrong direction. Beal needs to take a long look in the mirror. The developing players around him have largely met or exceeded expectations. It’s his play that’s been below the benchmark he’s set for himself. Instead of criticizing the culture with a finger-pointing ‘we,’ he needs to start with the ‘I’ and take accountability.
There is no pressure on this team this season. That doesn’t mean there won’t be in the near future. Ownership believes the rebuild can be quick. With Wall’s return along with another high lottery pick, a 13-27 record won’t be acceptable or considered “fun” next year. What happens when they face their first bout of real adversity in a season with expectations of success?
It’s naive to ignore this organization’s past and Beal’s place in it. He may be doing a great job leading behind the scenes but comments to the media that even sound remotely like fractures or frustration will only resuscitate the noise that we heard the last few seasons — noise that Sheppard and the team’s management have tried hard to drown out. He has to be aware of that.
He knew exactly what he signed up for when he agreed to his contract extension on the eve of the regular season. That comes with a cost though and 40 games in to the regular season, his play on the court and comments off the court have taken the conversation regarding this team back to a place they wanted to leave behind.
Beal last season famously gestured towards Grunfeld during a contentious practice last season and said “It starts at the top.” Over the past 12 plus year, the organization and new management team has done everything in their power to put Beal on a pedestal. Now he’s at the top and it’s his responsibility to be accountable and lead.