When All-Star backcourt mate John Wall went down with a season-ending heel injury, Bradley Beal told Washington Wizards owner Ted Leonsis: “We got enough. We’re going to make the playoffs.”
“I feel like as soon as we knew John was going down, everybody kinda ruled us out anyway. You didn’t have to write it,” Beal told The Athletic’s Fred Katz this week. “And my mindset is, I already knew that going in, so I just want to control what I can control and try to help this team make the playoffs.”
What’s funny is that a lot of folks had written the Wizards off well before Wall went down for the year, and the injury had a lot of us wondering if they were better off with Beal trying to carry the team back into contention by himself. We have spent years studying the chemistry between Wall and Beal, a combustible pairing that they themselves have acknowledged, and the team’s disastrous 13-22 start had us testing the trade machine to see how Washington could deal its way out of a failed experiment.
Sure enough, Beal has flourished in Wall’s absence once again, averaging 29.3 points, 6.7 assists and 5.7 rebounds on 45.5/39.2/80.4 shooting splits. In the 10 games since news of Wall’s injury broke, the Wizards are 6-4, with a double-overtime loss to the Toronto Raptors sprinkled in, and the Wiz have inched within 2.5 games of the Eastern Conference’s eighth seed. It’s not great, but it’s something, especially with expected starters Markieff Morris and Dwight Howard also battling long-term ailments.
It is further evidence that the Wizards should do everything they can to rebuild around Beal and that Washington’s ceiling is higher with the 25-year-old shooting guard operating without Wall around.
Beal, for his part, disagrees. Via the Sporting News:
“It’s a lot harder to play without John Wall,” Beal said. “Me playing well or not is not based off of John. The fact of it is we don’t have John, so what else am I supposed to do?
“Everyone’s game has to step up. My minutes and my workload have increased tremendously. Obviously, no player wants to be out of the game but by no means is my job easier.
“You said John is one of the best players in the league, so with that being said that doesn’t make us a better team without John. That’s absolutely nonsense. I’m gonna nip that in the bud right now. That doesn’t make sense at all.
“We realize the fact we don’t have him and that’s the reality and we just have to continue to move forward and play without him here. Whatever it looks like that’s up to you guys to write, not us.”
Theoretically, this is true. Wall is a five-time All-Star who, when healthy and engaged, ranks among the league’s best two-way playmakers. The Wizards came within a whiff of the conference finals when Wall and Beal were coexisting just two seasons ago. As we’ve come to learn, though, Wall is infrequently healthy and engaged, and the $170 million he is owed over the next four years could almost certainly have been better invested elsewhere. They may be better with him, but they weren’t playing like it.
In 695 minutes with Beal on the court and Wall sidelined this season, the Wizards have operated like a 49-win team, scoring 114.8 points and allowing 111.8 points per 100 possessions, per nbawowy.com. In 977 minutes with both Beal and Wall on the court this season, they have played like a 27-win team, scoring 109.7 points and allowing 114.8 points per 100 possessions. That’s an incredible discrepancy.
It also runs counter to numbers from last season, when there was a similar stretch without Wall that elicited the same questions about whether Washington was better off with Beal working alone. Beal’s “everybody eats” comment and a tweet from then-teammate Marcin Gortat that suggested the Wizards were playing better team basketball in Wall’s absence only drew more attention to the matter.
Maybe Beal has learned that it is best to credit Wall, even as evidence mounts that discredits him. Or maybe Beal realizes that, in the long run, the numbers will eventually tilt in favor of keeping Wall around. In 1,280 minutes with Wall and Beal on the floor last season, the Wizards performed like a 55-win team, and in 1,655 minutes with only Beal, they played like a 43-win team, per nbawowy.com.
As Beal said after a short-term surge in Wall’s absence last season, “For us to say that we’re a better team without John it’s, like, that’s comical in a sense. Come on, let’s be real. The guy’s the head of our franchise, a five-time All-Star. Let’s be realistic. I think what benefits us is we figured out how to play without John. Reality is reality. … We’re not sitting here saying we’re a better team without him.”
As currently constructed, that’s probably true. It is better to have a guy who has averaged damn near 20 points and 10 assists per game over a nine-year NBA career than to not have him. The ceiling for Wall and Beal is still so high, but that would require the former learning from his absence that ceding some control to the latter could benefit the team immensely. Wall has ignored that lesson thus far.
It could also be true that the Wizards would be better off swapping Wall’s dollar for a few quarters. Given Beal’s 43-point triple-double against the Raptors this week, I would sure like to see what he is capable of with a few more pieces around him, but the fact that Wall won’t be healthy again until the start of next season (at the earliest) eliminates Washington’s ability to shop him for spare parts. As Beal said, that leaves few options besides trying to prove he can carry the Wizards all by himself.
The only question now is why Beal and the Wizards waited until after Wall went down to make their playoff push. When the chemistry is off, the results don’t always match our theoretical projections, and that more than anything seems to be Washington’s biggest problem for the foreseeable future.
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