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Is treating Beal’s 2021-22 season as an outlier a good idea or wishful thinking?

Orlando Magic v Washington Wizards
Wizards guard Bradley Beal with team owner Ted Leonsis.
Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images

Yesterday, Chase Hughes from NBC Sports Washington wrote that the Wizards believe Bradley Beal’s subpar 2021-22 season was an anomaly or aberration, and not the beginning of a decline or indicative of a larger trend.

As the team points out via Hughes, there are some reasons to think this way:

  • Beal dealt with a hip injury
  • Beal dealt with the death of his grandmother
  • Beal dealt with two stints in the NBA’s COVID-19 health and safety protocol, and
  • Beal’s injured left wrist required season-ending surgery.

Wizards coach Wes Unseld Jr., and team president Tommy Sheppard are firmly in the “wave it off” camp.

“I see stuff about Bradley and I kind of wonder, my goodness, are we talking about the same player?” Sheppard told Hughes. “He’s a special player, one of the best at his position in the NBA.”

And, they could well be correct. But, it’s worth scrutinizing this issue more closely, especially a passage from Hughes that I’ll get to in a moment.

First, how should we view the “reasons” articulated above? All are valid reasons for a decline in production. Two of those issues are likely to be non-recurring: death of a close family member and COVID-19 protocols.

But, the injuries are a legitimate concern. Beal will be 29 next season, and he’s missed 68 games over the past three seasons. And, one of the things players typically do as they age? Get hurt. Just assuming he’s going to be healthy next season, and for the next several seasons, is at least edging up to the Wishful Thinking line.

Here’s the part of the Hughes’ article that made my eye twitch and got me spending a lunch hour in the database. Wrote Hughes:

Beal is also 28 going on 29, so not at the point where a steep drop-off is expected to happen. And his injury is to the wrist on his non-shooting hand. It’s not something that should present long-term concerns.

Let’s start with the idea that Beal’s wrist injury shouldn’t be a long-term concern because it’s to his non-shooting hand because...well...this is bad thinking. Why? Because basketball players use both hands to do important things other than shooting. In Beal’s case, ball-handling is critical to his offensive game. If the wrist isn’t 100%, it could diminish his offensive effectiveness.

How likely is that? Back in March, Albert Lee interviewed Dr. Leo Rozmaryn, hand and wrist surgeon at The Centers for Advanced Orthopaedics. Here’s what Dr. Rozmaryn said:

I’m not sure exactly what repair Beal had, and there are about 20 different procedures to address it. And I’m going to startle your readers, but the success rate of scapholunate ligament surgery is only 75 to 80 percent, even with the best of hand surgeons. The thing is that many of these repairs fall apart. They may fall apart a year or five years after surgery.

In other words, there’s a 20-25% chance that the wrist doesn’t heal properly. There’s risk of even what seems to be a successful repair coming undone up to five years down the road. And that’s from a patient pool not highly populated by athletes trying to compete in the NBA. That’s the very definition of a long-term concern for a franchise set to invest more than $250 million in Beal over the next 5-6 years.

Finally, let’s loop back to the idea that a steep decline isn’t expected because Beal is 28 going on 29. For this, I went to my statistical doppelgänger machine and pulled the top comps for Beal’s 2020-21 season. Note: I’m looking at this as optimistically as possible by accepting the assumption of Sheppard and Unseld that 2021-22 was an outlier. I’ve gone back a season and treated that season as Beal’s “norm.”

Here’s the list of similar players (similar production at a similar age): DeMar DeRozan, Tracy McGrady, Kobe Bryant, Mark Aguirre, Damian Lillard, Carmelo Anthony, George Gervin, Michael Redd, Mitch Richmond, Vince Carter, Kemba Walker, Jerry Stackhouse, Danny Granger, and Kevin Martin. Ben Gordon’s age 23 season also showed up, but I dropped him from this exercise because he was basically finished as a productive NBA player at age 25.

For their age 28 seasons, this group’s production ranged from Lillard’s 193 to Martin’s 115, according to my PPA metric (in PPA, average is 100 and higher is better). Their average production was a 139 PPA.

What did they do the following season? Eight of the 14 declined in production. The average drop was 16 points in PPA — about 12%.

From age 29 to 30, nine of the 14 saw declines. The drop-off was smaller — an average of 4 PPA points, or about 3%. Still, that’s a dip of 15% from 28 to 30. And the decline continues from there.

From 30 to 31, 11 of 14 had production drops. The average decline: 11%.

From 31 to 32, Lillard and Walker drop out (their age 32 seasons are coming up), but 11 of the 12 dropped in production — another 10%.

From 32 to 33, four players drop out because of retirement (McGrady, Redd, Granger and Martin), and DeRozan joins Lillard and Walker in not being old enough. Of the remaining seven, all of them declined in production by an average of another 10%.

From 33 to 34, Gervin retired and four of the six remaining guys declined an average of 20%. The “improvers” were Bryant, whose PPA went up 2 points from 137 to 139, and Richmond, whose PPA went from 89 to 106.

Here’s a quick table showing the PPA progression of this group by age:

  • Age 28: 139
  • Age 29: 123 — cumulative decline: 12%
  • Age 30: 119 — cumulative decline: 15%
  • Age 31: 105 — cumulative decline: 24%
  • Age 32: 94 — cumulative decline: 32%
  • Age 33: 85 — cumulative decline: 39%
  • Age 34: 68 — cumulative decline: 51%

I’ll let folks make their own determination on what qualifies as a “steep drop-off,” but to me, 15% in two years and 24% over three would meet the criteria.

While Sheppard and Unseld may be correct that Beal’s season was just an outlier, and that a steep drop in production isn’t imminent, there are also good reasons to think 2021-22 was a warning.

Sheppard’s job is to assess and weigh these risks. His public comments give no indication that he’s conducted this kind of assessment on Beal. As has often been the case with the Wizards, the team’s public stance projects certainty and doesn’t so much as nod at serious analysis and deliberation. Fans of the team should hope someone in the front office is raising their hand and asking, “Are we really sure about this?”

My look at the risks of awarding Beal that supermax contract keeps producing flashing red lights. My assessment is that Beal is more likely than not to continue missing a significant number of games due to injury, and that he’ll experience a steep decline in production...if that isn’t what we already saw this past season.

In other words: this supermax deal the Wizards are hellbent in getting him to sign has serious risk of going terribly wrong. It has the earmarks of yet another #SoWizards contract.