All things told, a complete and utter demolition job was probably the best the Washington Wizards could have hoped for.
The most important thing you can have in the NBA is talent, but it’s a zero-sum market: For one franchise to form a super team, another one has to tear down its roster to the foundation.
The Wizards chose what kind of pain they were willing to endure for the next two or three seasons: either tying themselves to Bradley Beal, one of the NBA’s five most handsomely paid players (who is not even close to one of the NBA’s five best players), or pressing reset, which makes them immediately dreadful but could see them emerge with a flicker of hope.
Neither option was very appealing. That is, in part, thanks to the Wizards’ own poor choices. Few franchises have capitalized less on top draft picks, and certain free agents ($84 million over four seasons for Davis Bertans, anyone?) hamstrung their ability to build around Beal, who became their franchise star by attrition once injuries slowed down John Wall.
But alongside the string of head-scratching personnel decisions, the Wizards were always operating with a huge structural flaw: They talked about and paid Beal as if he were the foundational player for a championship-caliber team when there was never any evidence he could be. Yes, in back-to-back seasons he averaged 30 points — but the Washington Wizards were below .500 in both of them.
Therein lies a problem embedded not so much within the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement as much as the theater of how teams treat their stars — one which seems likely to keep hurting small-market franchises as eager as the Wizards to please their headliners. There are fewer superstars than supermax contracts. And when a team gives the supermax to a player who isn’t up to that kind of lifting, what should be a triumph turns quickly into an albatross.
Supermax deals were instituted starting in 2017, meant to help franchises (especially the non-glamour ones) hold onto their homegrown stars. Eleven players have signed those deals worth 35% of a team’s salary cap. Looking at the list, there are the stars that the supermax was designed to reward: Golden State’s Stephen Curry, Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, Denver’s Nikola Jokic and Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid.
But beyond these standouts, the margins become immediately clear. Back in 2017, Russell Westbrook and Wall were supermax guys. For very different reasons, neither lasted long with their franchises. In 2020, it was a mark of how onerous their contracts had become when Houston and Washington traded them for one another. Both were unceremoniously bought out of their deals after winding up on teams that were rebuilding — their days as contending headliners a long-ago memory.
It forecasts the struggles that other teams who have signed supermax players will face in building adequate contenders around players who aren’t quite the cream of the crop. With all due respect to Portland and Damian Lillard, the NBA may not make it to the end of Thursday’s NBA draft before seeing another supermax-signed player on the move.
The latest saga with Beal and the Wizards provides the most cynical example of how the mechanism has been misused. Beal and his agent Mark Bartelstein, one of the league’s most influential dealmakers, not only convinced Washington to pay out the nose for a player who hasn’t been past the first round of the playoffs since 2017, but also to insert a no-trade clause. Less than a year after signing the deal, Beal had all the leverage: Not only could he request a trade out of Washington, which started a hard reset with a new team president, but he could choose his next location.
For the 29-year-old, it was the perfect setup: Get paid one of the richest contracts in NBA history, and join a contender. For the Wizards, it was a disaster before the ink was dry. Throughout the league last summer, a common sentiment about the deal was, “Why would Washington do this?”
The mere existence of the supermax puts a difficult onus on franchises who want to show their belief in their home-drafted star, even if that star won’t take them to the promised land. But there are plenty of ways for teams to fail when approaching a supermax decision.
They can sign up for more years of mediocrity, as the Wizards did with Beal. They can decide not to pay and lose their best homegrown star for less than equal value, like Charlotte did with Kemba Walker (which was prudent, but has not improved the team’s fortunes). They can double down, in the way Phoenix is furiously acquiring expensive contracts around Devin Booker, leveraging themselves to the hilt and hoping for a trophy before their bank accounts wear out.
There is recognition throughout the league that the supermax isn’t working as intended, but little seems to have been done about it in the last collective bargaining agreement, which was negotiated this spring. The most consequential rules tweak is a 65-game minimum for All-NBA honors, including the All-NBA teams which determine eligibility for supermax contracts. Beal played just 60 games in the pandemic-shortened 2020-21 season in which he made All-NBA third team.
Restrictions to pay one player more than a third of the salary cap should probably be tighter, requiring a top-five MVP finish or a first-team All-NBA selection. It would help save some of the NBA’s more woebegone franchises from themselves and ensure that a supermax player is, indeed, super.
But the National Basketball Players Association is powerful, taking on huge victories in the last few decades of negotiations with owners, and taking away a mechanism to pay players vast sums of money is a nonstarter. It doesn’t matter to the players’ association whether Beal merits such a contract — for them, bigger is always better.
There probably is no world where perfect parity exists. The path for small-market success might just be good fortune, like Denver finding Jokic in the second round and from there shrewdly building a roster that matches his strengths. As good as the Nuggets’ evaluation might be, no one was stitching a championship banner when the Serbian was drafted during a Taco Bell commercial. He simply surprised us all.
But for so many more franchises, for so many more years, these contracts are likely to extract two things: money and pain. Almost inevitably, there’s a fork in the road, both unappetizing choices: continuing to drift gradually downhill, or cutting the cord and getting to the bottom much, much faster.
Many of basketball’s astute observers commended the Wizards this week for doing the right thing: pulling the plug on the Beal era and taking themselves off the hook for $207 million over the next four seasons. It gives them flexibility and freedom for the coming years, and the hope that perhaps a top draft pick can revitalize D.C. basketball once again.
But when you consider that the team’s best option was to cut and run from the star they celebrated signing last summer, doing “the right thing” somehow just feels wrong.