Bradley Beal Credit: All-Pro Reels

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After the Wizards lost, 116-87, to the Boston Celtics at home on Sunday, Bradley Beal declared the outcome “embarrassing.” It would be hard to believe that the Wizards would outdo themselves the very next game, but that’s exactly what happened when they blew a 35-point lead and allowed the Los Angeles Clippers to storm back and win the game, 116-115, on Tuesday night. It was the second largest comeback victory in the history of the NBA; only the Utah Jazz, who overcame a 36-point deficit to the Nuggets in 1996, have a greater comeback.

“I mean, something’s gotta change,” Wizards forward Kyle Kuzma said after the game. “It’s pretty comical at this point to blow a 35-point lead.”

The Wizards, who started the season 10-3, are now 13-22 in their last 35 games and have fallen from first place in the Eastern Conference to tied for 10th. With the trade deadline just two weeks away, it’s time for the Wizards to start thinking about what kinds of changes they need to make to help this team improve and whether they want to see those improvements in the short or long term.

The Wizards have essentially backed themselves into a corner with the options they have because of the looming Bradley Beal contract situation. Beal, who declined a four year, $180 million contract offered before the season, is reportedly now looking for a five year, $241 million contract when free agency begins in July. The problem is that Beal has looked over the course of this season like a player worthy of nowhere near the value that he and his agent Mark Bartelstein want to receive on his next contract. 

After the Clippers game a reporter asked Beal if he was starting to question whether he wanted to remain a Wizard and his answer was once again non-committal on his future. “I have a lot of conversations with [Wizards president and general manager] Tommy [Sheppard],” Beal said. “We’re very transparent with what we wanna do and what my future looks like. And yeah, the deadline is coming up, we’re very well aware of how we’re playing and how other teams are playing and what my interests are. Granted I’m giving the team an opportunity to prove that and show that. I’m a big factor in that too, in producing and playing well.”

The problem with that line of thinking is that the Wizards have been trying to appease Beal for the last three seasons and have little to show for it besides one playoff game victory in a 4-1 series loss to the Philadelphia 76ers last year. With Beal’s inconsistent play, it might be time for the Wizards brass to put pressure on him to prove his worth to them instead of the other way around. Beal is averaging just 23.6 points per game on 45 percent shooting from the field and a career low 29 percent from 3-point range, down from a career high 31.3 points per game on 48 percent from the field and 35 percent from the 3-point range last season. Since the Wizards traded John Wall in December 2020, Beal has shown that he is still not completely capable of taking over and winning basketball games. 

The Wizards had a grand opportunity to right the ship and close out an eight game homestand and at least finish with an even record over the course of those games, but the team faltered in capitalizing on playing in front of their home crowd. Despite the Wizards having the second lowest attendance mark in the entire NBA this season, it is still expected for Beal, as the leader of the team, to be the reason why they were winning games and not an afterthought in a string of poor performances in front of the home crowd. 

When asked about the trade speculation that has surrounded the team, Beal replied that the team does still have the parts to work with. “We got the pieces, we got the assets, we got the depth, everything that we bragged about at the beginning of the year,” Beal said. “Now let’s put it together and make it work.”

The assets and depth that he speaks of are turning out to be more of a hindrance than an advantage for this team.

Head coach Wes Unseld Jr. has found himself in a very precarious position of not being able to properly distribute playing time within the Wizards rotation since the return of Rui Hachimura and Thomas Bryant. The team does not have enough minutes to go around for all of their players. One of the main concerns is the team’s center rotation with the addition of Bryant. Daniel Gafford has started for the majority of the season when healthy, but has seen his minutes drastically decreased this month with Bryant’s return. Against the Clippers, Gafford played 12 minutes, none of which came in the decisive fourth quarter in which the Clippers were mounting their historic comeback. He had 12 points and two blocked shots in his brief action.

When asked about Gafford’s conspicuous absence in the fourth quarter, Unseld took responsibility for why the team never went back to their starting center: “He had a good stretch early; I didn’t like his stretch to start the third.” There is speculation around the league that the Wizards are shopping Montrezl Harrell and it stands to ask whether that has impacted Gafford’s playing time.

Other once key rotation players have received even less playing time. Both Dāvis Bertāns and Raul Neto registered a DNP-Coach’s Decision last night. That leaves the Wizards relying heavily on the players they received in the Russell Westbrook trade (Kuzma, Harrell, Spencer Dinwiddie, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope) and their last three first round draft picks in Hachimura, Deni Avdija, and Corey Kispert to play major roles on a team that still sees itself as a playoff contender. Hachimura is finding his rhythm after missing the majority of the first half of the season due to personal reasons. Avdija has been a defensive maven, while showing that he has strides to improve on his offensive game. Kispert started out slowly with his shooting but has improved drastically over the last two months and is looking more like the prospect who was deemed one of the best shooters in last year’s draft.

If Beal continues to string the Wizards along without a long term commitment to the team but wants them to prove to him they can be a winner, then he is essentially putting pressure on the organization to part ways with one of their promising prospects in order to appease him and marginally improve their potential playoff standings. From a team building standpoint, this would not make sense for the long term future of the franchise.

Beal has been operating from a position of strength in his negotiations with the Wizards, but the team has a lot more leverage than it realizes. There are virtually no teams that will have the requisite cap space to outright sign Beal to the maximum contract he will seek this summer, so even if he wants to leave he will probably have to work with the Wizards front office on a sign and trade deal in order to get paid. If the Wizards are committed to taking the path of building around Beal for the future then it’s time to get a commitment from him. If he’s still unwilling to make that kind of commitment then it may be time to explore the options of what the Wizards will be without Beal. This franchise can no longer operate without a long term plan for the future because, as Tuesday night proved, something has to change.

Photo by All-Pro Reels, used under the Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0 license.