LAS VEGAS — From his courtside seat at the Washington Wizards’ summer league games last week, Bradley Beal looked like one of the NBA’s few stars still content with his situation.
He sat next to John Wall and down the row from managing partner Ted Leonsis, Coach Scott Brooks and Tommy Sheppard, the team’s interim president of basketball operations. For the Wizards, it looked like a picture of stability: Beal, their healthy all-star, was smiling and showing support for his franchise amid an offseason of massive change.
But the current landscape of the NBA may disrupt this united front: The league has entered an unprecedented era of player empowerment in which a chosen few can dictate movement.
Beal has been the antithesis of the short-time superstar, long expressing loyalty and a preference to stay with the franchise that drafted him in 2012. “I’m just going to give it all here until I can’t no more, until they don’t want me anymore,” he said in February.
But Beal’s upcoming decision on a contract extension looms large over the team’s future.
On July 26, exactly three years after Beal signed his max deal, the Wizards can officially present a three-year, $111 million extension. The team has indicated it plans to give Beal the offer, and both the player’s camp and the franchise have remained in contact throughout the summer. Around the league, however, the extension is not viewed as a done deal, and there is a growing belief that Beal will not remain in Washington for his entire career.
“He’s out of there,” one well-placed person within the NBA predicted.
Here in Las Vegas, where the NBA comes every summer to conduct business, NBA executives pointed to the Wizards’ rebuild as the main reason Beal has a tough decision on the extension.
Washington’s recent moves were praised by several opponents. One Eastern Conference executive referred to re-signing center Thomas Bryant as “huge,” while another described the trade of Dwight Howard as “massive.” Yet the team has signaled it wants to go younger by acquiring seven players with one or fewer years of NBA service this summer, and the departure of restricted free agent Tomas Satoransky, a 27-year-old point guard, was met with puzzlement. A front-office member from the Eastern Conference, seeking clarity about the team’s vision, simply asked, “What are they trying to do?”
Beyond the team’s transactions, many around the league wondered whether the Wizards’ general manager vacancy will affect Beal’s future with the franchise. Beal himself echoed a similar sentiment last month.
Sheppard, who maintains the title of senior vice president of basketball operations, has run the daily business for the past three months. In a statement released days before last month’s draft, Leonsis gave a public vote of confidence in Sheppard’s work.
However, more than 100 days after the Wizards made a change at the top by removing Ernie Grunfeld, the open president of basketball operations position remains a hot topic. One Western Conference senior executive said it would be hard to predict Beal’s future until the team’s leadership is settled.
“I’d be naive to say I wouldn’t be [interested in extension talks]," Beal told The Washington Post on June 24. “Washington is where I’ve been the last seven years, going on eight. It would be great to play in one place forever. But at the same time, you want to win and make sure you’re in a position to do so. I’m definitely going to evaluate who we hire as the GM and who we pick up on the team. All that plays a factor.”
If Beal decides to take the extension, then the Wizards’ road to recovery, with Wall potentially missing the 2019-20 season because of Achilles’ rehabilitation, becomes more clear. The Wizards can continue building a team in the image of a young all-star who last season became the first player in franchise history to average at least 25 points, five assists and five rebounds. But if Beal does not take the extension, it will force Washington into the same conundrum that other teams have faced.
When a star player does not sign an extension, it has forecast a breakup — at least in recent NBA history. Even when a potential franchise player agrees to stay, the extension has not always secured his long-term loyalty to the team.
Around the start of the 2018-19 season, rising star Kristaps Porzingis and the New York Knicks could not come to an agreement on a rookie-deal extension. By February, the Knicks had traded him to the Dallas Mavericks.
Last summer, Kyrie Irving declined to sign a four-year, $107 million extension with the Boston Celtics. Ahead of the season, Irving pledged to fans that he would return to Boston by the next free agency period, but June 30, he instead chose the Brooklyn Nets.
And, of course, there are now trade demands even from players who have recently signed contracts. Last July, five-time all-NBA player Paul George inked a four-year, $137 million extension with the Oklahoma City Thunder. When George announced the deal onstage at a house party filled with Thunder fans, he exclaimed: “I’m here to stay!”
Then, only one year into the extension, George requested a trade last week to the Los Angeles Clippers to join Kawhi Leonard. With George’s departure, Oklahoma City was thrust into its first-ever rebuild and traded superstar Russell Westbrook, the former MVP who has spent his entire 11-year career with the franchise, to the Houston Rockets.
Beal has two years and more than $55 million remaining on his contact, but because of his youth and ever-expanding game he has attracted great interest from other teams, according to many league insiders. The Wizards have indicated they will not trade Beal, a declaration that dates from last season when Wall sustained an Achilles’ injury that led to Otto Porter Jr. being traded. While it is well known around the NBA how much the team loves Beal, that hasn’t quelled outside interest.
"Whether or not [Beal] stays there, I really couldn’t tell you,” another Eastern Conference senior executive said, “but I know that there’s a lot of teams out there that would love him.”
It probably would take an organization with young assets or draft picks, movable pieces and salary cap space to pull off a trade for Beal. Teams such as the Denver Nuggets, Miami Heat and Minnesota Timberwolves have some, if not all, of those criteria.
A trade seemed like the furthest thing from Beal’s mind at the NBA Summer League. He squeezed in quality time with the Wizards before jetting to Atlanta to support his AAU team. Inside Thomas & Mack Center on UNLV’s campus, Beal laughed easily and appeared relaxed, not at all stressed about his future.
Still, many within the NBA wonder whether this happy scene will merely stay in Vegas.
“If he doesn’t accept [the extension],” a rival general manager said, “it will be a big blow to Washington.”