Clock Is Ticking on Wizards' Bradley Beal-John Wall Backcourt

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistApril 20, 2018

TORONTO, ON - APRIL 14: John Wall #2 of the Washington Wizards and Bradley Beal #3 look on from the bench during a timeout against the Toronto Raptors during Game One of the first round of the 2018 NBA Playoffs at Air Canada Centre on April 14, 2018 in Toronto, Canada. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Bradley Beal;John Wall
Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

In theory, the Washington Wizards' foray into the NBA playoffs is unfolding as planned: A No. 8 seed trails a No. 1 seed in the first round, 2-0, with little to no hope of lasting beyond Game 5. 

Nothing to see here. Business as usual. No need to panic, overreact or view this eventual postseason exit as anything more than a bad draw borne only into existence because John Wall missed half of the regular season.

This de-emphasis of the inevitable might fly if the Wizards were your typical last-team-in seed. It would excuse, or even half-explain, their situation if the Toronto Raptors entered this matchup having fully exorcised their demons from postseasons past.

But the Wizards are not the usual first-round stepping stone. And the Raptors didn't totally earn the right to be treated as a sure thing until after their 130-119 romp in Game 2—a baby step sponsored at least in part by Washington's self-destruction.

The Wizards do not get the luxury of brushing off what everyone knows is about to happen. They must confront their flaws, both tactical and intangible, over the offseason with an eye toward substantive change.

That commonly refers to aggressive free-agency pursuits. The Wizards don't have cap space. It often entails unearthing immediately impactful rookies in the draft. The Wizards will pick outside the lottery. It sometimes will demand a new look at head coach. Scott Brooks is just two seasons into a five-year, $35 million deal.

Effectively retooling will dictate something more drastic than the norm in Washington: the dissolution of its Big Three. More pointedly: the re-evaluation, and probable division, of the John Wall-Bradley Beal partnership.

This is not reflexive recourse for the Wizards' in-progress belly flop. Their performance against the Raptors is not an indictment of Beal and Wall alone. But it has reinforced the need for a wholesale shift. And Game 2 offered a crash course in nearly everything that ails them.

Beal needs to score more (nine points on a 3-of-11 clip) for him to have meaningful value. He's shooting under 40 percent for the series, including under 28 percent from three, and Washington is being outstripped by a team-worst 30.8 points per 100 possessions when he plays.

Wall cannot wait so long to be a bucketsmonger. His 7-of-12 showing in the second half brought the Wizards back within striking distance, but he attempted just five shots through the first two frames.

First-quarter foul trouble carries zero cover. Waiting to attack high switches doesn't either. Wall blew by both bigs and guards alike in the second half. He may not be all the way back from knee surgery, but he remains one of the NBA's five fastest men even at 75 percent. 

This Wizards' core appears to have peaked.
This Wizards' core appears to have peaked.Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

Marcin Gortat is unplayable. He doesn't have the chops to hang in space against pick-and-rolls or the mobility to read and react around the rim. The Wizards have a defensive rating north of 133 with him in the middle. They cannot afford to overlook that when he's shooting 45.5 percent inside of nine feet, down from 55.3 percent during the regular season.

Otto Porter is supposed to complete Washington's Big Three. He's instead draining just 33.3 percent of his treys, cutting with less frequency and falling behind Toronto's ball-handlers. 

Maybe the right calf strain he suffered toward the end of the regular season is still bothering him. That would at least begin to explain Brooks giving more minutes to Ty Lawson and Mike Scott than Porter in Game 2. Then again, if he made the active list, he should be on the court—especially when you're trying for a last-ditch comeback in the fourth quarter:

Kelly Oubre Jr. looks overmatched on defense in non-garbage time. Tomas Satoransky is (among the few) busting his tail at the less glamorous end but neither shining nor getting the opportunity to shine on offense.

Brooks' rotations stay curious. He's turning to Scott earlier and earlier. And if you buy into his postgame comments on Tuesday, per the Washington Post's Candace Buckner, he'll turn to him earlier still for Game 3:

This move underscores the depths to which the Wizards' problems run. Going small is a solid counter to the Raptors' spacing and split-second decision-making—even if it means more time for the serially disappointing Scott-Markieff Morris duo.

Except, favoring like-sized combinations also results in a ton of money collecting dust on the bench.

Gortat, Ian Mahinmi (played well so far) and Jason Smith (has yet to see the court) earn a combined $34.7 million, or about 35 percent of the salary cap. Their share will hold steady next season, at $35 million, assuming Smith picks up his player option.

Limiting the court time for more than one-third of your payroll is not a sustainable model. It may be necessary now, but the Wizards don't have an imminent break in the clouds. Gortat and Smith won't be trade commodities over the summer unless they're taking back bad money, and the two years and $31.4 million left on Mahinmi's pact aren't going anywhere without a sweetener.

Waiting for Gortat, Smith and Morris to wash off the books in 2019 doesn't alleviate the Wizards' inelasticity. Wall's super-max extension kicks in for 2019-20. His $18.6 million uptick, along with Oubre's restricted free agency, will more than offset the $27.7 million Washington sheds in Gortat, Smith and Morris.

And again: That's 2019. Next summer. Not this one.

Factor in a salary for their first-round pick, plus the requisite minimum placeholders, and the Wizards will comfortably cross next season's luxury-tax threshold ($123 million) if Smith and Jodie Meeks exercise their player options. That doesn't include a new deal for Scott, who will command more than the league minimum after this year's performance. 

Paying into the tax, again, for the same old product should be out of the question. The Wizards aren't teeming with young players who will improve. Oubre, this year's pick and maybe Porter are the extent of their unfinished projects. And the peaks on all of them will be inherently capped beside Beal and Wall.

Established pecking orders are part and parcel of team dynamics. Beal and Wall aren't a problem in the conventional sense. But they do constrict the Wizards' leeway. They don't have the financial wiggle room to flesh out the bench's playmaking or the touches and timeline to thoroughly experiment with more expansive roles for Oubre and Porter.

Glossing over this any longer would constitute franchise malpractice. Yes, Wall missed half of the year. Yes, Beal logged almost 3,000 minutes and is visibly gassed. And yes, the Beal-Wall alliance has yielded some competitive postseason series. But these Wizards always had a glass ceiling, and they're meeting it now.

Fall to the Raptors, and the Wizards will have to consider some wholesale changes—even ones that impact their Big Three.
Fall to the Raptors, and the Wizards will have to consider some wholesale changes—even ones that impact their Big Three.Nick Wass/Associated Press

This core won't get any cheaper. Beal, Porter and Wall cost a combined $66.7 million this season. They'll run the Wizards $92.2 million in 2019-20. Nor will the nucleus get any younger. Wall will be in his 30s by the time the team enjoys real spending power again, while Beal and Porter will be well past their age-25 seasons.

Washington has no shot at legitimate breathing room with all three in tow. Beal will have just turned 28 when he hits free agency in 2021. Porter can reach the open market at 27 (player option) or will have turned 28 by the time his contract expires in 2021. They won't cost that much less in the thick of their primes, if they cost less at all.

Wall is locked up through 2022-23, assuming he exercises his $46.9 million player option...which he will. The Wizards should be tempted to shop him this offseason in exchange for spare parts and the ultimate guarantee of breathing room down the line. But he has the capacity to take over games in ways Beal does not, and good luck finding a team ready to mortgage its future for the right to pay a 32-year-old Wall almost $47 million.

Porter would seem like a natural odd man out if the Wizards have no impulse to groom him as a featured on-ball scorer. But he provides more defensive value than Beal and Wall, and combo wings who profile as universal offensive fits are among the NBA's hottest properties.

That leaves Beal, an All-Star and efficient 20-points-per-game scorer. He's shown he can headline an average offensive attack without Wall. The Wizards pumped in 106.5 points per 100 possessions during Beal's regular-season me-time—a hair more than the Utah Jazz's' 15th-place machine.

Prospective suitors can talk themselves into surrendering value for him and the $81.3 million he's owed over the next three years. Maybe the Los Angeles Lakers see him as a No. 2 befitting Paul George or LeBron James. Maybe the Cleveland Cavaliers are willing to build a post-draft offer around the Brooklyn Nets pick, Cedi Osman and short-term salary fodder. 

Wall holds a special place in his heart for Paul George types. Perhaps Beal gets Washington into the Kawhi Leonard trade sweepstakes. Or perhaps the asset-flush Phoenix Suns are smitten with a possible co-opt between Beal and Devin Booker.

Is this the end of the Wizards as we know them?
Is this the end of the Wizards as we know them?Ned Dishman/Getty Images

Look, the Wizards' dance with the Raptors isn't over. And they don't have a feasible path to cap space this summer by trading anyone. They'll be lucky to decongest 2019's bottom line while rounding out the rotation with impactful accessories.

Faced with the prospect of dismantling their All-Star backcourt, or their Big Three in general, the Wizards could fight. They gave the Eastern Conference Finals-bound Boston Celtics all they could handle last year. They nearly spoiled the 60-win Atlanta Hawks' postseason fun in 2015. Maybe they have it in them.

Or maybe, as NBC Sports' Dan Feldman noted, it's too late:

Or maybe, just maybe, the Wizards don't care enough about staying together to scrap for continuity. Their defensive rotations have been that uninspiring, their general demeanor that dejected and apathetic:

Do these Wizards have anything left to give? Or are they the Eastern Conference's version of the 2016-17 Los Angeles Clippers: joyless, past their use-by date and just flat-out not good or deep enough?

Right now, without question, they tilt more toward the latter. They're running out of time to prove otherwise, and to fend off the pseudo-teardown they now seem destined for.

                       

Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com or Basketball Reference and accurate leading into games on Wednesday. Salary and cap hold information via Basketball Insiders and RealGM.

Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale) and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by B/R's Andrew Bailey.

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