RICHMOND — It’s crazy to think: This is the sixth season of the John Wall-Bradley Beal tandem. It’s crazy because the years passed so quickly despite some hard times. And it’s crazy because, in the current, ultra-transient NBA, “Let’s Stay Together” isn’t a song that reverberates through too many headphones.
How long has it been in NBA time? Consider that, when the Washington Wizards drafted Beal in 2012 and made him a seemingly perfect backcourt mate for Wall, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade had just won the first of two championships together in Miami. Now the Super Friends are back on the same team — in Cleveland — and it seems like they separated a decade ago.
In the three years the two were apart, James ended Cleveland’s 52-year championship curse in 2016; Wade went home to Chicago; the Golden State Warriors became invincible; Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook broke up; James Harden and Dwight Howard broke up; Chris Paul and Blake Griffin broke up; and Harden and Paul hooked up. But Wall and Beal remain together. And they’re thriving. And the Wizards have one thing that most of the other contenders don’t possess: a core with continuity. It’s a solid history that will last longer now that Wall, Beal and Otto Porter Jr. are locked into long-term deals.
The Wizards have become the rare NBA team that has grown together, resisted overreaction and benefited from a classic team-building approach. They trusted the process before Philadelphia flaunted the retro style. Now, with a payroll approaching $125 million and coming off the franchise’s best season in 38 years, there’s pressure for Washington to turn its methodical work into a truly dominant team. In the process, the Wizards could make a refreshing statement about patience and the importance of letting a team marinate when the current NBA arms race suggests that you can’t keep up unless you do something — anything — no matter how shortsighted.
The lesson applies to players and teams, both of which have become stunningly ambivalent to familiarity and comfort. If there’s one thing that bonds Wall and Beal, it’s the need for camaraderie. They’re vastly different personalities. Wall is all fire. Beal provides the ice. But they’re also family-focused men who don’t trust easily. So when they put work into a relationship, they aren’t flippant about the significance.
“I, for one, appreciate it because I’m the type of person . . . I hate change,” Beal, 24, said of continuity. “That would kind of be difficult for me to be able to just adapt to a whole new everything. I love being here. I love the bond that we have. I love being with a teammate for six years. That’s amazing to me. That’s just a bond that you build, a camaraderie you build. That’s a lifetime of memories.”
Said Wall, 27: “I don’t like new change. I don’t like dealing with new people, new stuff. I’m all about loyalty, and for the organization to do what they did to sign all of us back and have our cornerstones here, it means a lot.”
The Wizards now have three players with maximum contracts. In the past two offseasons, they have invested more than $400 million on extensions to ensure Wall, Beal and Porter stay together. This is the fifth year of that trio. This is also the fifth season that center Marcin Gortat has been with them. Power forward Markieff Morris, who has been with the Wizards for 1 1 /2 seasons, is the only starter who has been here for a short time. But Morris has meshed with the Wizards so well partly because he walked into a solid locker-room culture, which only has improved since Scott Brooks became the coach last season.
It has been an interesting journey for the Wizards as they have allowed their young talent to develop, shuffled the rest of the roster and intermingled success with a few setbacks. They have advanced to the second round of the playoffs in three of the past four years. They haven’t had a losing season since Beal’s rookie year in 2012-13.
They created cap room for free agency in 2016, failed to land a high-priced all-star, tried to fix the bench and then tried to fix it again. Wall had surgery on both knees. Beal had to solve a mysterious, chronic right leg issue. But through it all, the team is better than it has been in nearly 40 years, and the stars have a better understanding of how to keep their bodies healthy.
Wall and Beal also have a better understanding of each other. Previous reports of a rift were overblown. They say it was nonexistent, but that’s revisionist history. There was tension, just not an alarming level of it.
It’s an underrated challenge for a team to raise two all-stars at once. Wall and Beal are quite eloquent about the subtle conflict of aspiration and sacrifice upon reflection. The NBA is a league in which Kyrie Irving, a 25-year-old star who won a championship with James in Cleveland, forced a trade because he wanted the freedom to explore more of his game. He couldn’t handle being the little brother of the best basketball player on the planet.
Wall isn’t as clearly the man over Beal as James was over Irving, so the dynamic of the Wall-Beal relationship has the potential to be far more complicated, but they’re handling their partnership well.
“The toughest thing you have is two young players that want to be great,” Wall said. “Sometimes it might work, and sometimes it might not work out. But us being brothers, we put everything to the side, and we make things work because we both want to be great. I couldn’t be the point guard I am without him. He couldn’t be the player he is without me.”
Said Beal: “That’s a legacy that we’re building here, and we’re trying to accomplish something like the championship team in ’77-78. We want our names up here one day. It’s important to us. . . . I damn sure wouldn’t be where I am without him. It’s a respect thing.”
NBA marriages don’t last long anymore, but Wall and Beal are halfway to 10 years together. It seems like they will get there, too. James and Wade may reunite on a third team by then, but the Wizards’ stars hate change. More importantly, they have learned to love how well they complement each other.
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