All eyes are on Ben Simmons and Kyrie Irving now, but everyone from team executives to opposing players continues to monitor the Washington Wizards. “Almost every game we play, someone says something,” Bradley Beal tells me over the phone, regarding how often players recruit him to leave. Anyone around the NBA is aware of the circumstances: Beal could become an unrestricted free agent in 2022, and with the Wizards unlikely to contend for a title before then, opponents are hoping that he’ll ask for a trade or sign elsewhere. But Beal isn’t sure what decision he’ll make when the time comes.
“It brings you back to college. Which school is the right school? Which team is the right team?” Beal says. “You love the fact that people see your game and would love to play with you. But it’s also tough on the back end, because you have no idea what you want to do.”
While Beal has developed into one of the game’s greatest scorers, averaging more than 30 points in each of the past two seasons, the Wizards have transformed the roster under general manager Tommy Sheppard. Since being promoted after the firing of Ernie Grunfeld in 2019, Sheppard has dumped every player he inherited except for Beal and Thomas Bryant and replaced bad long-term contracts with quality veterans and promising young players. John Wall was traded for Russell Westbrook, who was flipped after one season in a deal that brought in six players, while Scott Brooks was replaced as head coach by Wes Unseld Jr.
A few years ago, the Wizards had no hope. Between Beal’s emergence as a star and the revamped roster around him, at least now the Wizards have a direction.
Whether it’s enough to convince Beal to accept the five-year max deal worth $242 million the Wizards can offer next summer remains to be seen. Washington will have to show enough this season to prove there’s a pathway to contention in the coming years. But by taking their rebuild step-by-step, rather than rushing to add win-now pieces that might sacrifice the future, the Wizards are hoping to prove that they can build a championship team around Beal eventually.
“All the things that we’ve talked about two years ago to now, he can judge on the actions, not on the words and promises,” Sheppard says. “We’re going into year three of a plan to be more competitive every year. It’s not a win now. It’s win more.”
Unseld was hired away from the Denver Nuggets with the hope that he could lead a similar ascent in Washington. The Nuggets won 33 games in 2015-16, Unseld’s first season as an assistant in Denver. Then 40. Then 46, before making the postseason three seasons in a row. Nikola Jokic emerged as an MVP, and the young players and savvy veteran additions around him also progressed. The Wizards want to follow that blueprint to build around Beal. “You can’t skip steps and get there all of sudden,” Unseld says. “If we can create good habits and be consistent in how we work, I think you’ll start to see an uptick in the number of wins.”
Before Unseld was hired, he and Beal spoke about the guard’s desire to take fewer shots and have a lower usage rate to keep his energy up throughout the season. They agreed that the best way to achieve this was through an offensive system that features multiple players initiating the offense and values ball movement. Last season, the Wizards ranked 27th in passes per game because everything went through Beal and Westbrook. No player in the league took more shots on average than Beal, and only three players possessed the ball more often than Westbrook. Too often, it’d fall on them to create a shot at the end of plays.