Skip to main content
ABC News
Bradley Beal’s New Contract Leaves The Wizards Stuck In The Middle

The opening minutes of NBA free agency are a period of mayhem that, for most fans, represent arguably the most exciting time of the whole season. The Twitter feeds of Adrian Wojnarowski and Shams Charania are refreshed frantically to see who’s going where. But for the Washington Wizards, this year was about who was staying where. One minute after free agency “officially” opened, it was reported that Bradley Beal would sign a five-year, $251 million maximum extension with the team, locking up one of the summer’s biggest free agents for the long haul.

That development was likely a bittersweet one for Wizards fans, who are waiting for their first championship since 1978. In the current era, when hopping teams to pursue an NBA title has become widespread, Beal is beloved in Washington for his loyalty. His 10 seasons in the nation’s capital make him the second longest-tenured player in franchise history, behind only Wes Unseld, who spent his entire 13-year NBA career with the franchise.1 And Beal will probably set many more franchise records — including total points, games and minutes — if he finished out his career in D.C.

But it’s also understandable for Wizards fans to question the size and duration of Beal’s latest contract. Beal has made only three All-Star teams — 2018, 2019 and 2021 — and made the All-NBA Third Team in 2021. Beal’s $43.3 million base salary next season will make him the league’s fifth-highest paid player, running slightly behind LeBron James and Kevin Durant, who have a combined 30 All-Star game selections and 28 All-NBA selections, and slightly ahead of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard, with a combined 11 All-Star game appearances and 11 All-NBA selections. Beal is slated to make an astonishing $57 million in the 2026-27 season. Just as incredibly, he’s the only player in the league with a true no-trade clause.

Based on Beal’s total RAPTOR wins above replacement over the past three seasons, though, he should probably be earning closer to the likes of Bogdan Bogdanović, Jarrett Allen and Jonas Valančiūnas:

Then there are the team's mediocre on-court results. Since they selected Beal third overall in the 2012 NBA draft, the Wizards have managed just four winning campaigns and have yet to eclipse 50 wins in the regular season. During that time, Washington’s overall .473 winning percentage is good for 17th in the NBA. As for the playoffs, the team has managed a modest .489 winning percentage, but the Wizards haven’t made it further than the Eastern Conference semifinals with Beal helping run the show:

The Wizards have had a second-round ceiling in the Beal era

Yearly regular-season and playoff results for the Washington Wizards since the 2012-13 season, when Bradley Beal debuted for the team

Season Wins Losses Win Pct Conf. Rk Round Reached Result
2013 29 53 .354 T-11
2014 44 38 .537 T-4 2 Lost to Indiana 4-2
2015 46 36 .561 5 2 Lost to Atlanta 4-2
2016 41 41 .500 10
2017 49 33 .598 4 2 Lost to Boston 4-3
2018 43 39 .524 8 1 Lost to Toronto 4-2
2019 32 50 .390 11
2020 25 47 .347 10
2021 34 38 .472 8 1 Lost to Philadelphia 4-1
2022 35 47 .427 12

Source: Basketball-Reference.com

Part of Beal’s low WAR relative to his salary is down to the time he’s spent off the court. After starting every game for Washington in the 2017-18 and 2018-19 regular seasons, Beal has managed just 157 games out of a possible 226 since,2 including a career-low 40 last season as he battled illness and numerous injuries.

It’s tough to blame Beal for all of Washington’s shortcomings when his best teammates by WAR have been John Wall (37.6 WAR alongside Beal), Marcin Gortat (23.6), Otto Porter Jr. (22.7), Nenê (11.9) and Trevor Ariza (10.5). Together, that quintet made just five All-Star games and one All-NBA team — all by Wall — during Beal’s tenure. And the team struggled to build around Beal in his prime, as Wall earned $75.4 million while missing the majority of three seasons from 2017-2018 to 2019-2020. The Wizards’ lack of success extends far beyond Beal’s limitations as a superstar.

Of course, nobody should blame Beal for taking the money he’s been offered, either. The NBA is a cutthroat business, and Beal is simply making the most of his earning power while he still can. At 29 years old, he won't be a free agent again until he's 34, meaning this is likely the biggest payday he’ll receive for the rest of his career. And it’s commendable that, in an era defined by star players signing for maximum contracts and then demanding trades soon after, Beal appears to be sticking it out with the organization that drafted him as a teenager.

But as it stands, the partnership hasn’t come close to delivering a title to Washington, and it’s not as though there haven’t been off ramps: Beal and Washington have had numerous chances to part ways via trade, which would have given him the chance to win a ring and the Wizards a chance to be appropriately compensated and rebuild through the NBA draft. While Beal or Wizards president of basketball operations Tommy Sheppard could have a change of heart down the line, for now there is a strong connection between player and city. Washington is Bradley Beal, and Bradley Beal is Washington.

That said, loyalty isn't always a key ingredient to championship success — just ask the Toronto Raptors, who traded revered icon DeMar DeRozan to the San Antonio Spurs for Leonard before marching toward their first NBA title in 2019. And hamstringing your team financially by assigning 35 percent of its total salary cap to just one player can sting if that player isn’t among the elite of the elite.

What will make Wizards fans even queasier is the extra $33.8 million owed next season to the injury-plagued Kristaps Porziņģis, whom they acquired from the Dallas Mavericks last season. Beal and Porziņģis’s combined salary next season is the sixth-highest among the highest-paid duos on all 30 teams, while their total wins above replacement over the past three seasons ranks 18th.  

Looking at Washington’s immediate situation, it’s hard to envision the Wizards concocting a championship-caliber team until approximately $70 million comes off their books after the 2023-2024 season. By then, Beal will be on the wrong side of 30 and probably no closer to leading his team to the promised land. While Beal’s loyalty to Washington cannot and should not be questioned, his new contract may have just doomed the Wizards to NBA purgatory for the foreseeable future.

Footnotes

  1. Unseld spent five seasons with the Baltimore Bullets between 1969 and 1973, one season with the Capital Bullets in 1974 and seven seasons with the Washington Bullets between 1975 and 1981.

  2. The Wizards played 72 games in both the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons due to the COVID-19 pandemic

Daniel Levitt is a former sports intern with FiveThirtyEight and is now a data journalist at The Guardian.

Comments

Latest Interactives