At first glance, Bradley Beal’s latest injury might look like a typical December setback. The Wizards’ shooting guard has suffered a stress reaction in his right fibula for the fourth time in his four-year career. He’s expected to be out two weeks before being reevaluated, which means he might be sidelined for longer than that.
This seemingly minor development, however, not only has serious repercussions in Washington’s present but also in its future. This season, as crazy as it sounds, was all about Beal.
Let’s start with the impact Beal’s absence could have this year. The Wizards have lost a 20-point scorer and solid wing defender. They were better with him off the court than on this season, but that has more to do with a starting lineup that’s struggled than anything else. He’s still a much more talented player than either Garrett Temple, Gary Neal or Kelly Oubre Jr., who will get his minutes. This is a substantial loss.
Making matters worse, Beal has a hard time getting his rhythm back after missing time. His splits before and after his shoulder injury this year are illuminating in that regard, but sadly not the only example. Last season he struggled to regain his level after this exact same stress reaction. So even if he returns in three weeks, it might take him awhile to go back to being the best version of himself.
That’s a big problem because the margin of error is slim for the Wizards. Washington currently has the 11th-best record in the East, 2.5 games away from the eighth seed. The New York Knicks and Milwaukee Bucks are lurking behind them. Their schedule is about to get rough, as they’ll visit the Memphis Grizzlies and San Antonio Spurs before hosting the surprisingly good Charlotte Hornets. A losing streak wouldn’t be surprising.
If they continue to lose ground in the race to the postseason, they could face an uphill battle to make the playoffs even if Beal doesn’t suffer any setbacks. That’s not a good look for a franchise heading into the offseason with dreams of bringing Kevin Durant home to D.C. or landing any other free agent who can make a difference. The allure of the Wizards is supposed to be that they’re young but already competitive in the East. No star will leave a good situation for a lottery team.
It gets worse. Beal suffering lingering and potentially chronic injuries makes his free agency status much more complex.
The Wizards and Beal didn’t agree to a contract extension in the offseason. It’s been speculated that the decision was made with the 2016 free agency class in mind. Washington will have about $7 million more in cap space by waiting and can go over the cap to sign Beal to a max contract — which is what he’s reportedly asking for — after signing Durant or any other free agent. Beal, for his part, will be eligible to sign for five years instead of four once his current contract is up.
It’s extremely likely that both parties understood that it was in their best interest to wait. But could the fact that Beal can’t seem to get past those stress reactions change things?
“I’m still going to come back from this,” Beal told The Washington Post’s Jorge Castillo. “I’m not going to let this just keep me down or worry me too much. I’m still confident in who I am and the type of player I am. And the GM and the rest of the organization knows what I’m capable of doing, too. So hopefully they won’t use this against me come next summer.”
Beal shouldn’t worry. The Wizards will be forced to assure him that they’ll max him out. Timing is essential to Washington’s plans. They need Beal to wait out restricted free agency without negotiating with any other team because once he signs an offer sheet, the clock starts ticking. If he agrees to terms with another franchise, the Wizards have three days to match that offer, and then that extra cap space is gone if a match happens.
Hoping no one will be willing to offer the max would be foolish. Even if he doesn’t play at a star lever this season, Beal is still a quality young wing in a league that’s short on them. Eric Gordon fetched a maximum offer after a season-ending injury in 2012, and there’s a case to be made that Beal’s upside is higher than Gordon’s ever was. It only takes one team to believe his injuries will go away for him to get the contract he’s looking for.
Yet Gordon’s case is exactly why Washington might hesitate. The Pelicans’ shooting guard missed 71 games over the first three seasons of his max contract and never again approached the level he showed as a Clipper. Something similar happened to Jrue Holiday, who suffers from the same type of injury that’s plaguing the Wizards’ up-and-coming star. There’s a very real chance that Beal will continue to suffer from these ailments and never reach his potential.
It might be way too early to worry about these things, but Washington has a lot riding on the next offseason. In an ideal world, their new fast-paced offense would’ve made them a threat to the Cleveland Cavaliers, Beal would’ve emerged as a clear-cut star worthy of the maximum contract he’ll get and their pitch to free agents would’ve been as simple as pointing out to their young backcourt and saying, “you get to play with them.”
Instead, they might miss the playoffs unless they turn things around quickly and Beal is as much of an enigma as he ever was.
Uncertainty is the worst thing that can happen to a front office that’s about to make franchise-altering decisions, and that’s exactly what Beal’s injury has introduced. How the Wizards deal with it could determine their future success.