Bradley Beal took a September meeting at the offices of Priority Sports in Chicago. Wizards owner Ted Leonsis flew into town for it. Beal’s agents were there, and so was Tommy Sheppard, the man tasked with moving a team stuck in NBA purgatory in one direction or the other.
Sheppard took over as general manager of the Wizards on July 19, 2019, after 16 years in their front office. He declared three days later he would offer Beal a max contract extension. The meeting provided the Wizards an opportunity to make their pitch to Beal. Leonsis and Sheppard couldn’t sway Beal on D.C. weather, and they couldn’t argue the roster was only a piece or two away from contention. They had to present a vision.
Changes would come in the front office, and the team would get younger. There would be one constant — Beal as the franchise guy.
“Loyalty is important to [me],” Beal said on the “Posted Up with Chris Haynes” podcast. “Building around myself is important. If I go somewhere else it’s not built around me, I’m a piece, [compared to] being the piece. … To be able to have your own team, you’re not granted that type of power, and you don’t get that often.”
Beal told Haynes that he researches and processes everything thoroughly.
“Like if I buy a car, I’m going to look up the car, research it for the whole summer before I buy it the following summer.”
He knew he was signing up for a rebuild and the ups and downs that come with it. The Wizards handed him the keys, and now he’s driving the car.
A seven-minute drive — from West Grand to North Ogden and down to West Madison — will take you from the Chicago office, where Beal was pitched on Washington’s future, to the United Center, where less than six months later, he was living it.
Beal watched from the bench for the last 50 seconds Sunday night. The rebuild was in full bloom against the Bulls. He shook his head and stared blankly toward the court. It was the end of a historic night for Beal, who scored a career-high 53 points and moved into second on the franchise’s all-time scoring list.
The Wizards lost to a Bulls team on an eight-game losing streak.
Beal was incredible in Chicago, but not incredible enough to overcome leading a team without another active player most casual fans can name. The Wizards player with the second-most starts this season, Isaiah Thomas, isn’t even on an NBA roster right now.
Against the Bucks 24 hours later, Beal beat his previous personal best with 55 points. He looked unstoppable, clawing the Wizards back from down 20 points in the third quarter to force the game into overtime, scoring 22 of the Wizards’ 24 fourth-quarter points.
The Wizards lost. It was the first time a player scored over 50 points in consecutive days since Kobe Bryant in 2007.
Despite his visible frustration, Beal can’t say he didn’t see this coming.
“We can develop our young players into who we need them to be,” he said before the season. “We have full control over that. So, I love the fact that we’re young. It’ll be a challenge like I said before. It won’t be easy. [There] will be some — a lot of bumps in the road. But I think now I’m in a place where I can be at peace with it and I can be patient with it and understand that it’ll be a lot on my shoulders. But I’m ready for it.”
The ups of this season have included a 7-5 stretch heading into the All-Star break to jump up to ninth in the Eastern Conference and 4 1/2 games out of a playoff spot. The downs? Going 0-2 in the best games of Beal’s career certainly qualifies.
Beal is averaging 30.1 points per game, second in the NBA behind only Rockets star James Harden (35.3). He’s too good to let the Wizards be bad and not good enough, even on career nights, to lead the team to lasting success by himself.
Rookie Rui Hachimura is the team’s best young player, but it’s fair to question his ceiling. John Wall may not be the same player after nearly two full years away from NBA action, and his $170 million extension just kicked in. Options in free agency are limited. The mid-level exception could bring in a guy like Evan Turner, but how much does that move the needle? The 2020 draft class is already considered one of the weakest in years. A late lottery pick isn’t getting anyone excited.
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Re-signing Beal over the summer was widely considered a big win for the Wizards. Talents like Beal don’t often find their way to Washington.
Don’t forget this, though: Beal is frustrated. He doesn’t like missing out on All-Star weekend. He doesn’t want to continue dropping 30 points each night for a lottery team.
A $76 million extension over two years not only helps ease the pain of losing, but also sets up Beal with the option to enter free agency after the 2022 season when he’d have a decade of playing experience in the league. Why is that significant? Well, after 10 years, players become eligible for the “super max,” meaning they can be paid a contract that’s up to 35 percent of a team’s salary cap. The $27 million in the bank from this season isn’t bad, but Beal will be eligible to earn double that in 2022.
Trade rumors surrounded Beal last summer. His extension calmed them down, partly because it was taken as a sign of commitment, but also because the Wizards could no longer trade him until the summer of 2020. The Wizards were selling a vision during that September meeting in Chicago, and Beal was buying in. The path to a successful rebuild appears murky, filled with detours and too many masterful efforts gone by the wayside. The path in D.C. might ultimately lead back exactly where it started, with constant trade speculation around the team’s best player.
“I love D.C.,” Beal said right before this season. “This is where I’ve always wanted to be, and this is where I want to be the rest of my career.”
A rebuild can look like one thing when you’re talking in a Chicago office building, but seven minutes down the road, with a courtside view to another loss, it can feel like something else.
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