The NBA’s trade deadline is Thursday afternoon. Trades are happening, although nothing yet that will especially reshape the league or this season. None of the big names—Ben Simmons, Damian Lillard, James Harden, Bradley Beal—have been involved in anything. Sometimes it takes a move or two at that level—an also-ran dealing a star player to a contender in exchange for a package of future goodies—to jumpstart the action. Lots could still happen over the next day and a half.
Brian Windhorst of ESPN reported Tuesday morning that the 76ers and Nets might still be sniffing around a blockbuster swap of Harden and Simmons, but at this point that particular move seems like a long-shot. Anyway that’s not why we are here. We are here because Windhorst also reported that “the only drama around” Beal in Washington right now has to do with an upcoming reevaluation of Beal’s injured wrist, which has caused him to miss four straight games. The Wizards, according to Windhorst, still intend “to keep Beal on a five-year deal this summer if he becomes an unrestricted free agent.” The five-year deal Windhorst is referring to would be a super-maximum contract worth 35 percent of the team’s salary cap over the next half-decade, or $235 million.
It sounds increasingly like the next chapter of Beal’s career will go one of two ways: Either he will leave Washington as an unrestricted free agent this summer, or the Wizards will make him one of the highest paid players in league history, on a contract that takes him through what’s left of his prime playing years. For reasons beyond all comprehension, the Wizards have foreclosed altogether on the possibility of trading Beal to another team. General manager Tommy Sheppard has justified this position by insisting that the Wizards “have heard nothing from Beal that indicates he’s not committed to being there,” which suggests that the only possible reason a team would trade away a player like Bradley Beal is if they knew for certain they would soon be losing him anyway.
If the choice was between simply having Beal or trading him away, this would make some sense. Beal is a good scorer capable of handling a heavy workload, and lots of teams better than the Wizards would be thrilled to add him to their roster. In many ways he’s an organizational dream: on-time and in-shape and thoroughly professional, durable, civically engaged, and notwithstanding some insanely bad vaccine takes generally a thoughtful and articulate spokesperson and face of the franchise. But the choice is between letting Beal go, on the one hand, and paying him 35 damn percent of the team’s allotted salary, on the other. It works out like this: The Wizards can either continue to pretend that Beal can be the best player on a team worth watching and supporting, or they can try something else.
It’s implied in all of Sheppard’s public comments about Beal that the team is working around the clock to finally construct around him a roster capable of contending. You could almost find yourself believing that for one reason or another the Wizards have not yet gotten around to attempting to build a good team around Beal. This is not so! One of the defining trends of the Ted Leonsis era of Wizards ownership has been the team’s steadfast refusal to think long-term. Without getting lost in the details, suffice to say the Wizards have been scrambling to become Good Right Now for more than two decades, with very little to show for it. This is their fourth consecutive season of trying to build playoff teams with Beal as the unchallenged centerpiece, and all they’ve gotten for their efforts is 115 wins against 164 losses, and one brutal first-round gentleman’s sweep of a playoff appearance.
Perhaps Sheppard would argue that what they’ve lacked is a second Beal-caliber player, another bonafide star to pair with the face of the franchise and finally make the team into something more than fodder for the league’s serious contenders. They tried that, too! Beal was teammates with an All-NBA point guard in John Wall, and the high-water mark of that project was one 49-win season and a handful of second-round playoff exits. In Bradley Beal’s nine complete NBA seasons, the Wizards have finished in the East’s top four exactly once. However good a citizen and employee Beal might be, there exists no evidence that one could build a contender with Beal as the main guy.
I don’t especially need the Wizards to be a contender, but it would be nice if they at least occasionally mixed up the ways in which they do not contend. It has now been almost 10 years of not contending with Bradley Beal, and the show is getting extremely old. Because he is a ball-dominant offensive player, long-suffering Wizards fans know pretty much exactly how a Wizards game is going to look on a given night. Beal is going to pull up for some mid-rangers. He is going to step back into other mid-rangers. He is going to try to straight-line drive past positional mismatches. He is going to attempt to spin in traffic if his defender cuts him off. When he turns the ball over (3.4 of these a night, virtually all of them of the dreaded live-ball variety) or misses a shot, his chin will go to his chest, his shoulders will slump, and his teammates will need to form up a scrambling four-man defense for as long as eight seconds while Beal talks himself into returning to the action. And because Beal is not nearly good enough for this stuff to amount to much, Wizards fans know precisely the outcomes it will all produce. Sometimes it will look cool. Sometimes it will string together and give the appearance of success. In all cases it will lead nowhere in particular.
The only variety in a Wizards game these days is in seeing how his teammates divvy up the non-Beal opportunities. Will Kyle Kuzma attempt to hijack every single one of them? Will poor sweet Deni Avdija be allowed to touch the ball? Which Wizards guard will half-heartedly pretend to want to pass the ball to Montrezl Harrell? These are not good reasons to tune into a televised basketball game, and they are even worse reasons to pay for a ticket and schlep to a cold and lifeless arena. At Monday night’s ugly home loss—Washington’s eighth defeat in nine gams and fifth double-digit loss in two weeks—the arena was overrun with boisterous fans of the visiting Miami Heat. Even Heat home games are not this celebratory.
Morale is shockingly low, even for the Wizards. Monday night an assistant coach had to be physically restrained from attacking a fan in the stands, in the closing stages of a home game. Harrell and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope recently threw punches at each other during halftime of a game. Spencer Dinwiddie is all but holding up a “Dover or Bust” sign out in front of the stadium. It’s important to remember that this was supposed to be the season when the Wizards finally had a strong, deep squad, suited specifically to playing around Beal! Instead, following a fluky 10–3 start, the Wizards are having one of their most discouraging seasons in recent memory. Here I must reiterate that these are the Wizards we’re talking about, an organization that mastered dysfunction whole decades ago and has been hovering around complete and total irrelevance for longer than many of my Defector coworkers have been alive.
Sheppard cannot possibly believe that retaining Beal for another five years, at this cost, will achieve more than a sentimental victory. The Wizards have tried to win with Beal on a cheap rookie contract. They’ve tried to win with Beal on a maximum-value rookie extension. They’ve tried to win with Beal earning 30 percent of the team’s allotted salary on a veteran extension. As a fan, I don’t know how I’m supposed to believe that they will be any closer to making this work with Beal earning an even bigger chunk of the team’s payroll. It’s not his fault the NBA’s salary system is structured like this, but that won’t make it any less unbearable to stare down another five years of this same exact futility.
This is not a call for the Wizards to go into the tank. By all means, they should continue scrapping for wins and pushing for relevance, however doomed those efforts may continue to be. I would still rather watch them win than lose. But simply having Bradley Beal around is not enough to make a consistent winner, and I think we can close the book on the Wizards scoring the perfect combination of supplementary players to make this formula work. If the team is going to continue sucking and losing—and they absolutely are—Wizards fans at least deserve to have a little variety. The futility I can handle, but it’s the miserable sameness of it that I can feel driving apathy into my heart. Tuning into Wizards games now feels like watching the same episode of a not-very-good sitcom over and over again, two or three times a week, with no end in sight. Beal is no longer a joy to watch. He is Lisa Kudrow performing “Smelly Cat” again and again and again, with no real purpose and without even the vaguest hope that the notes or lyrics or beat will change, forever, until the hours of my life are finally spent and I die.
The Wizards must release me from this hell. Please, for the love of God, trade Bradley Beal. I feel quite certain he will be happier someplace else. I don’t dare to hope that this will make this awful team any better or better to watch, but it will at least make them different. Anything different is better than this.