By now, any long-suffering Washington Wizards fan knows the story. The Wizards lost their first game without Bradley Beal this season, and then rattled off four straight wins in his remaining absence. When he returned, their win streak snapped.
To a fan of any of the other 29 NBA teams, the question may sound blasphemous, but it must nonetheless be asked: Does Beal hold the Wizards back?
Wait. Bradley Beal, the three-time NBA All Star? The former 30 points per game scorer? The once All-NBA Third Team selection? Yes, that Bradley Beal. Beal may be a three-time NBA All-Star, but he is paid like a perennial MVP candidate, which he simply is not. This summer he signed the second-largest contract in NBA history — $251 million over five years with the luxury of a no-trade clause.
The most difficult part about the discourse around Beal and his contract is that he is a good player. With a bad player like Russell Westbrook or a great player like Nikola Jokić, the case is far more open-and-shut. Westbrook is the owner of one of the worst contracts in league history, and Jokić has earned every penny of his after winning back-to-back MVPs. That’s really all there is to it.
With Beal, things get complicated. What exactly is he being rewarded for? He is a very good player and a borderline All-Star, but it is hard to justify such a massive financial commitment to a guy who may not even be one of the 25 best players in the league.
Another factor making the financial commitment all the more bewildering is that Beal is past his prime. Beal is 29 years old, and his days of torching defenses on a nightly basis may be over. Since the start of last season, with a sufficient sample size of 52 games, he has averaged 23.1 points per game. This dip in scoring came after back-to-back seasons in which Beal averaged over 30 points per game. He is still a great scorer, but he is no longer the guy with the unlimited green light liable to go for 50 on any given night.
The Wizards have placed all their proverbial eggs in a basket that has not displayed the chops necessary to be the primary option on a championship team. He has not even definitively been the best player on a playoff team — and that is okay. There is nothing wrong with not being NBA caviar. But paying caviar price for a nice, tasty Chipotle burrito is sure to quickly take a toll.
The unfortunate truth is that Beal is not a leading man. Imagine him as a complimentary piece in Philadelphia instead of Tobias Harris — his shotmaking would perfectly accent James Harden’s playmaking and Joel Embiid’s physical dominance. Or how about if instead of Donovan Mitchell, the Cavaliers had traded for Beal? In either of these situations, Beal would not be the ball-stopping frontman drawing the bulk of the defensive attention, and instead he would receive much cleaner looks as the second or third option in a more fluid offensive system.
So now we’re back to the question at hand. With the Wizards perennially stuck in the NBA’s no man’s land, too good for a high pick but too bad for a playoff run, who bears the responsibility of blame?
The verdict: Don’t blame Beal, blame the Wizards.
Bradley Beal did not hold a gun to the Wizards brass and demand $250 million, and he is not to blame for being offered such a lucrative contract. After all, the way NBA contracts are structured, he did technically earn it. As much as we as fans like to deride players who seem to regard money as their highest priority, the fact of the matter is that professional basketball players are just that — professionals. Their job is to play basketball and to play basketball is their job, so money matters, period. Anyone offered such a large sum of money, especially someone like Beal who supports a family and by all accounts seems to be a great father, would do what is best for their family.
As frustrating as the Wizards can be on the court, their situation is an organizational failure, not a personnel one. Players like Kyle Kuzma and Kristaps Porzingis averaging near-career-highs almost across the board in spite of the Wizards’ struggles the past two years are further proof of this.
So next time you are tempted to blame Beal for the Wizards’ seemingly inevitable mediocrity, just remember that he is a family man who was offered a life-changing amount of money. He now has such financial security that his young children may never have to work a day in their lives. Direct the dissatisfaction toward the front office for putting the team in the position to revolve around a borderline All-Star.