With the February 10 NBA Trade Deadline just 24 days away, not much buzz has surrounded the Washington Wizards, at least not yet. The most notable news was non-news, when Brian Windhorst reported that he "has heard nothing about Bradley Beal on the trade market" on the Hoop Collective Podcast. Only 10 games remain from now to then, and it will likely take time for a consistent rotation to emerge with the entire squad finally available. How long before all the old and new faces start to gel? It's a fascinating question, and I don't expect Tommy Sheppard or Wes Unseld Jr. to make any rash decisions before then. Here's Sheppard's history from his first two deadlines days:
- Zigging when everyone else is zagging
"You just laid out Cuban’s zigzag theory: If a growing cluster of NBA teams are trying to execute the same strategy...then common sense says it’s better to zag the other way because you’ll find inefficiencies just by thinking differently"
- The state of the roster
- What about Bradley Beal?
"He knows these things are made with his future in mind, with our future in mind. I think it’s very OK to say that he’s a shareholder in this. And no CEO ever makes a decision without his shareholders in mind. Bradley’s a huge part of this." - Tommy Sheppard to the Ringer back in October
For better or for worse, everything the franchise is building towards revolves around the three-time all-star. Over the past three years, Sheppard has been treading the fine line of placating Beal ("be competitive/win-now") while maintaining hope for the years to come (taking the long-view on transactions) -- but what ultimately is the end game here? It's time for the organization to quit walking on egg shells and accept the risk of alienating Beal.
We know what "Bradley Beal, number-one option" looks like at this point: a ceiling of 40 wins/first-round roadkill. Could he be the co-star on an elite team a la Devin Booker in Phoenix? Possibly, but the odds of the Wiz ever reaching that point seem slim.
Meanwhile, we can rule out Beal demanding a midseason trade (based on all reporting) or exercising his $36.4MM player option for 2022-23 (why would be turn down the bag). This leaves two scenarios for this upcoming offseason: 1) Beal reups with Washington on the supermax, or 2) Beal departs in free agency.
Option 1: Bradley Beal agrees to a 5 year deal worth around $235MM -- where he'll make upwards of $50MM as a 33-year old, ridding the Wizards of any flexibility moving forward. Why should Washington be champing at the bit to commit this kind of dough when it's already been established that he's not THE Guy?
Option 2: Bradley Beal decides that he wants to leave. At first blush, this is an organizational disaster -- losing one of the best players in franchise history for nothing. But...
"Despite a $7 million increase in the salary cap from $112 million to $119 million, ESPN is projecting only four teams to have cap space. The Detroit Pistons, Orlando Magic and San Antonio Spurs are expected to have a minimum of $30 million in room." - Bobby Marks in his 2022 Free Agency preview piece
A mere three teams with the space for Beal next summer, each of them somehow further away from winning than the Wizards. I'll go out on a limb and say that Detroit, Orlando, or San Antonio won't be among the franchises in the running for his services.
That said, the landscape of the league is quickly shifting below us -- the 2021 offseason may have just been the tip of the iceberg. The days of hoarding cap space like the Knicks and Heat in 2010 are likely behind us. In this current NBA — where the pendulum has swung more towards the player side — it's more about becoming a desirable situation and figuring out the rest later. We already saw two highly-priced free agents in DeMar DeRozan and our very own Spencer Dinwiddie finagle their way to a preferred destination regardless of the salary sheets. I'd expect more to follow in the coming years.
Should Beal choose to move on during the summer of 2022, it would likely require his next team to orchestrate a sign-and-trade with Washington. The Wizards would hold most of the leverage, so Sheppard and the front office would hopefully be able to recoup a nice return in the form of young players/draft picks.
Now tell me, is either scenario markedly worse than the other? I say no, which is why the Wizards should at least explore selling at the trade deadline -- regardless of Beal's feelings.
It's time for the Washington Wizards to have some ambition and deviate from the status quo. Tommy Sheppard's slow and patient process-oriented approach is admirable (particularly when you compare it to his predecessor), but at some point the franchise must pick a direction. Given the circumstances laid out, I believe that the most sensible path forward is to sell.