- The Washington Times
Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Bradley Beal called catching the coronavirus a few months ago a “blessing in disguise.” Yes, the positive test cost him a shot at winning a gold medal in the Tokyo Olympics. But looking back, the Washington Wizards guard said he was able to redirect his focus — and come to terms with the whirlwind of change that the franchise experienced over the summer.

Among those offseason moves: A new coach in Wes Unseld Jr. The trade that sent Russell Westbrook to Los Angeles. The retooled roster.

“It was a long summer, it was an adverse summer, for sure,” Beal said. “I’d be lying if I said it was an easy one.”

Beal ultimately made his peace with the franchise’s new direction. He did not request a trade, though there is little doubt rival executives around the league wish he would.

Now, Beal‘s Wizards — and this is, now, more than ever, Beal‘s team — are set to begin another season Wednesday with a matchup against the Toronto Raptors. The three-time All-Star seems genuinely excited about the pieces in place. “We have a high ceiling,” he said Monday.

Still, this is the start of a crucial campaign for Beal and the Wizards. The 28-year-old can opt-out of his contract at the end of the season — bypassing on a $36 million player option to enter free agency.  If that happens, Beal would have the freedom to choose his future NBA home — be it with the Wizards or some other franchise. 

Until then, the Wizards find themselves in a delicate situation: They not only have to win games, they must also make enough progress to reassure their best player the District is the right place for him

That task, in some ways, is nothing new. Rumors around Beal’s future have swirled for years, though the guard has several times pledged loyalty to the Wizards. Even this summer, Beal said general manager Tommy Sheppard and owner Ted Leonsis had his trust.

But the contract year creates new pressure. And in a deep Eastern Conference, the Wizards have a stiff challenge ahead.

“Patience is probably going to be our biggest word of virtue,” Beal said. “We’ve got to be patient. We have to understand that this is new faces, a new system, a new team. … We showed great signs and we’ve showed it in the preseason. Different lineups, certain situations, we looked really good. There were other times we struggle and we can use some work. 

“So it’s still a work in progress but you can see the trajectory.”

The man responsible for guiding the Wizards on a day-to-day basis will be Unseld, the son of team legend Wes Unseld Sr. Junior comes to Washington with his own pedigree — namely a defensive reputation stemming from his days as an assistant for the Denver Nuggets. Unseld is looking to fix a team that ranked 20th in defense last year. 

Unseld’s scheme, though, will only go so far. That’s why the Wizards brought in a number of players this offseason to address their defensive shortcomings. In trading Westbrook to the Lakers, the Wizards acquired guards Spencer Dinwiddie, Aaron Holiday and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, forward Kyle Kuzma and center Montrezl Harrell — five solid role players who should help defensively.

Center Daniel Gafford also figures to be an important piece to Washington’s defensive improvement. After Gafford emerged as a steal following last year’s trade deadline, the former Chicago Bull recorded 1.8 blocks per game in 23 contests for Washington last spring and gave the team an interior presence. His performance is why the Wizards were eager to sign Gafford to a three-year, $40 million contract late Monday — just ahead of the regular season.

In general, the Wizards are more versatile compared to a season ago. Just look at the team’s young frontcourt talent in Rui Hachimura, Deni Avdija and Corey Kispert — Washington’s last three first-rounders. Factoring in Kuzma and sharpshooter Davis Bertans, one or two of those players could be on the outside of the rotation come the regular season. 

Hachimura, it should be noted, only rejoined the team recently after being away for personal reasons. He will not play Wednesday in Toronto.

“The flexibility and depth is really exciting,” Unseld said. “You have so many options.”

But will it be enough? Washington made the playoffs as an eighth seed last year, but was handled in just five games by a superior Philadelphia 76ers team. And this season, the East appears to have two title contenders in the Brooklyn Nets and Milwaukee Bucks, four near-playoff locks in the 76ers, Atlanta Hawks, Miami Heat and Boston Celtics and a fringe of other respectable teams in the Chicago Bulls, New York Knicks, Indiana Pacers, Charlotte Hornets and the Raptors.

Oddsmakers aren’t sold. The Wizards’ over/under for wins was set at just 34½ — putting them 12th in the conference. 

If the Wizards were to actually finish 12th, that wouldn’t even put them in the play-in tournament, where seeds seven through 10 qualify. 

Beal, in theory, could end questions about hisWizards‘ future before the end of the season. The Wizards reportedly have offered a four-year, $181.5 million extension to Beal that can be signed at any time.

But there’s a financial incentive for Beal to wait — the Wizards can offer $50 million more and an extra year at the end of the season. Besides the money component, Beal can also use that time to determine if the Wizards are still on the right track. 

Last month, Beal said he was “not in a rush” to sign an extension.

“It’s the same as always,” Beal said. “It’s always going to be, ‘What’s he going to do?’”

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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