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NBA Saturday: Is Bradley Beal Worth a Max-Contract?

Bradley Beal is very talented, but is he worth a max-contract considering his notable injury history?

Jesse Blancarte

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Bradley Beal of the Washington Wizards will be a restricted free agent this summer. Beal enters free agency at an ideal time considering the fact that the salary cap will rise to an estimated $92 million this offseason and the fact that this year’s crop of free agents is relatively weak.

Earlier this week, Beal made it clear that he expects to receive and sign a max offer from the Wizards.

“I want to be valued the right way,” Beal said to Jorge Castillo of the Washington Post. “I feel like I’m a max player and that’s what I’m looking for. If Washington can’t meet that requirement then I may be thinking elsewhere. I’m pretty sure that they probably won’t [let me go]. At the end of the day, that’s where I want to be. I think a deal will probably get done but you just never know.”

Castillo soon after reported that, according to people with knowledge of the situation, the Wizards will offer Beal a max offer when free agency opens. However, the Wizards, according to Castillo, will look to come to terms with Beal as soon as possible, while holding off on officially signing him in order to maximize their spending power in free agency. This will allow the Wizards to pursue a max-level free agent, like Kevin Durant, while maintaining the right to sign Beal afterwards using his Bird Rights.

Considering all of this, the substantial likelihood is that the Wizards will retain their 22-year-old shooting guard this offseason. The question, however, is whether Beal is worth such a heavy investment at this point in his career.

Before evaluating Beal’s four-year career in the NBA, it must first be noted that not all max-contracts are the same. A max-contract for Beal will look a lot different than a max-contract for a player like Dwight Howard, who has 12 years of NBA experience under his belt and thus can earn a higher percentage of salary relative to the cap. Also, with the cap rising so significantly this summer, we all need to adjust the way we think about player salaries and contracts in general.

A lot of people were shocked with some of the contracts free agents were offered last season. This included players like Al-Farouq Aminu, who was offered a four-year, $30 million contract, and Khris Middleton, who was offered a five-year, $70 million contract. However, both of these deals will seem like relative bargains moving forward with the cap rising and salaries becoming increasingly inflated. The same may be true for Beal’s deal in a few years assuming the cap continues to climb.

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The first thing to note about Beal is how young he is. At 22 years old, Beal is one of the youngest top-level free agents in this year’s free agency class. Consider that Beal is just a few months older than Buddy Hield, who will be one of the top overall picks in this year’s draft.

The flip side is that Beal has already dealt with an assortment of injuries in his short NBA career, including injuries to his wrist, back, ankle, nose, toe, shoulder and pelvis. The most concerning injury is a recurring stress injury to his right fibula. This sort of lower-body injury is worrisome for a young player, especially one who hasn’t put a ton of miles on his body. Nevertheless, Beal insists he is past his injury issues.

“I hear about it all time, but that doesn’t define me as a player,” Beal said. “That won’t stop me from growing as a player and it won’t stop me from being who I am. The injury thing, that’s behind me. I’m moving forward. I’m past it. I’m focused on my career from here on out. Hell, Steph Curry was hurt his first four years. Look at him now. John [Wall] was hurt his first three or four years. Look at him now. I’m not worried about it. People are going to say what they want to say. At the end of the day, it’s not going to affect me or the money.”

While Beal insists that his injury history won’t affect the money—which he is probably right about—it probably should. Beal has never played in more than 73 games in his career and averages just about 62 games played per season so far. While Stephen Curry did in fact struggle with recurring injuries earlier in his career, which he overcame, there are others who haven’t been so fortunate.

Eric Gordon was on a similar trajectory as Beal early in his career. He was a promising two-guard who posted similar, and in several ways, better stats than Beal.

Eric Gordon Early Career StatsEric Gordon’s statistics over his first four seasons

Bradley Beal Early Career StatsBradley Beal’s statistics over his first four seasons

An assortment of injuries have plagued Gordon’s career over the last few seasons. He went from being one of the most promising up-and-coming guards in the league to almost an afterthought. Beal will hopefully have more luck than Gordon on the injury front, but Gordon’s story is a reminder that injuries can derail even the most promising of players.

Assuming that Beal can overcome his injury history, there is a lot to like about his game and his future. Beal has one of the smoothest shots in the league, a skill that is at an absolute premium these days. Beal has shot 39.7 percent from three-point range over the course of his career, and has shot over 40 percent from distance in two of his four seasons in the NBA. Also, Beal posted a career-best 54.7 True Shooting percentage last season.

Here is Beal’s shot chart for each of his four seasons in the NBA, which shows, for the most part, an increase in volume and overall accuracy:

Any contract for a player as young as Beal has to contemplate future potential. Though Beal may not be worth every penny he’ll be paid early in his contract, he has the talent and potential to one day outperform a max-contract.

Part of the reason this is true is because Beal is more than just a good shooter. Of course, shooting alone is a very nice skill to have, but being limited to that caps a player as an Anthony Morrow or Steve Novak kind of player. But Beal can do more than just hit shots from distance.

Beal was featured heavily in Washington’s offense last season (25.2 percent usage of possessions), often operating in the pick-and-roll (29.5 percent of the time). Unfortunately, Beal wasn’t exactly the most efficient pick-and-roll ball handler in the league, generating just 0.81 points per possession (59.7 percentile) and turning the ball over 15.7 percent of the time.

Despite mediocre efficiency numbers this season, Beal has a strong handle and good instincts. He looks for easy passes out of the pick-and-roll and then will look for his own offense if none of his teammates are open. The ability to play on the ball allows for teammate John Wall to be used off the ball in creative ways, and gives the Wizards a uniquely talented back court similar to what the Toronto Raptors have enjoyed with Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan.

Also, Beal’s comfort level with the ball helps make him a threat in transition. Beal generated 1.18 points per possession in transition this season and often times threw pinpoint passes to streaking teammates for easy layups. Already having John Wall—one of the fastest players in the league—to lead the break is a nice weapon for the Wizards, but having two guards who can lead the break so effectively is a luxury.

So we know that Beal is a strong shooter, developing playmaker and a nice fit next to Wall, but what about his defense?

Earlier in his career, Beal seemed to have the tools and defensive instincts to become one of the better defensive two-guards in the league. For whatever reason—perhaps injuries—Beal has either leveled out or regressed as a defender. Beal, like Gordon, isn’t the longest defender, but has the strength and athleticism to stick with his opponent and force them into tough shots.

Beal is at his best when defending an opponent in isolation, but struggles at times chasing opponents running through multiple screens. Like many young players, Beal often times loses focus on his opponent for a split second, giving them time to get a step ahead going through a screen, which often leads to an open look. This in part explains why opponents shot particularly well against Beal on three-point looks around the top of the arc this season.

Bradley Beal Defensive Shot ChartBeal ranked 65th among shooting guards in Defensive Real Plus-Minus this season, falling behind guys like Leandro Barbosa and Vince Carter. RPM on its own is not a sufficient means to evaluate a player’s defensive impact, but it can give some context to how that player performed throughout a single season.

Again, Beal has the physical tools to be a good defender, but he needs to improve moving forward. It’s not clear why Beal regressed so much defensively this season, but the Wizards have to bank on him finding some of the defensive tenacity and instincts he had earlier in his career.

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Between multiple injuries and a drop off in defensive impact, Beal, at best, is a risky investment on a max-contract. However, signing Beal to a max-deal this summer is a necessary move for the Wizards considering they can still pursue a top-tier free agent, Beal is still deceptively young, he has significant room to improve and he combines with Wall to make a uniquely skilled and effective back court.

If Beal is right and his injury troubles are mostly behind him, then this contract will look like a decent-to-good investment years from now. But if Beal runs into the same extended issues that Gordon and other players have, then the Wizards may ultimately lament investing so much money in an injury prone player.

 

All statistics used in this article are current as of May 28, 2016 and are courtesy of Basketball-Reference, StatMuse, NBA.com/stats and NBA Savant.

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA Saturday: Rankings, Lists, and Reporters Aren’t All That Bad

With lists and reporters credibility under fire, it’s important to remember that these are just subjective opinions.

Dennis Chambers

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Every year when the NBA season is just around the corner, major media outlets look to drum up the conversation heading into opening night by releasing a list of the top players in the league for the upcoming campaign.

Nobody usually has any qualms with the very top. It most likely follows in some order of LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, Kawhi Leonard, and then the rest of the league’s brightest stars follow suit.

However, every so often, an aging star will begin his fall from grace in a particular list, and people will rant and rave about the ridiculousness of where that guy landed.

Obviously, that’s the point.

Carmelo Anthony landed No. 64 on ESPN’s Top 100 Players list earlier this week, and Twitter lost its collective mind. It certainly didn’t help that rookie Lonzo Ball came in just one place ahead of Anthony, either. At this stage of his career, Anthony isn’t what he once was. It doesn’t help that the New York Knicks are somewhat of a dumpster fire, but nevertheless, Anthony is certainly on the back nine of his career. That being said, there still probably aren’t 63 better players than Anthony in the entire league. When push comes to shove, you know Melo is more than capable of getting your team a bucket.

But, again, that’s the point of these lists. To get people talking.

As soon as news of Anthony’s misplacement hit social media, everyone was up in arms. Players were scoffing at the disrespect on Twitter, writers and analysts chimed in as well, and even Melo had his own piece to say on the matter.

Amid all of the usual water cooler banter that takes place whenever a hot-button topic rises up like this one, Portland Trail Blazers guard C.J. McCollum added his interesting two cents.

Granted, McCollum has a point that throughout the vast landscape that is sports reporting, there are definitely some watered down voices that all too often get their say, and in turn, diminish the reputation of the whole. But just because a vague ranking system that produced a hot-take list took over the news cycle on that particular day doesn’t automatically warrant the complete dismissal of what NBA reporters do.

Despite the obvious imperfections of ranking lists, there are some positive, and well thought out, pieces floating around the internet. Among these, Sports Illustrated’s Top 100 features the joint effort of Ben Golliver and Rob Mahoney. Instead of just slapping on a fancy graphic and using some cherry-picked statistics like the list that had everyone on Twitter irate, Golliver and Mahoney take a deep dive, multiple paragraphs deep, into each player’s ranking and why they land where they do. Yes, while the position each player lands on the list is still subject to the opinion of Mahoney and Golliver, the two reporters take a sound approach to reach their conclusion and then relay that to the reader. It isn’t just, “Here’s the player, deal with it,” like the ESPN list tends to do, more or less. Another step further, Mahoney and Golliver attach their initials to each player they rank, ultimately holding themselves accountable for when someone on the internet digs up the list retroactively with 20/20 vision.

 

When a certain level of disagreement comes from a particular opinion of a reporter, or media outlet in this case, those in the accused or offended field always take immediate refuge behind the idea that their accusers’ opinion holds no weight because they’ve never competed at the highest level like the targeted athlete.

Yes, that is true, for the most part. Most reporters aren’t world class athletes. That’s probably why they’re reporters. But the narrative that they can’t be educated, or provide insight on whatever they’re reporting, is nonsense. At that rate, should felons be the only ones allowed to report on a crime beat? How about politicians reporting on the White House? Should we just let rain tell us the weather report every day?

See how ridiculous that sounds?

Boiled down to their core, rankings and lists are the epitome of subjectivity. Not everyone will always agree on every given opinion, that much is obvious. But in this day and age, there are still countless individuals and outlets that produce thoughtful opinion; seek them out. Griping over the differing judgement of a bad few, and in turn condemning the whole, helps no one.

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NBA Saturday: Reforming The Lottery Won’t Add Parity to The NBA

The NBA is considering a reform of the draft lottery to disincentivize tanking, but it won’t add parity.

Dennis Chambers

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With one simple WojBomb Thursday afternoon, the league’s intentions to overhaul the draft lottery system became known once again.

Adrian Wojnarowski, of ESPN, reported that the NBA is aggressively pursuing draft lottery reform that could be voted into legislation and instituted by the 2019 draft.”

In its current construct, the NBA lottery is comprised of every team in the league that fails to make the playoffs. Those teams then have a specific percentage chance to win the lottery based off of their record. The team that finishes with the worst record in a given season is awarded a 25 percent chance at the top pick, while the second and third worst teams have 19.9 and 15.6 percent chances, respectively.

What the NBA’s competition committee, comprised of league general managers and coaches, is proposing is making the percentage to win the lottery even among the teams with the three worst records in the league.

Essentially, this move is being brought forth as another attempt to extinguish reward for losing — and more importantly, tanking.

The main reason the NBA would look to rid the league of tanking franchises is obviously to keep competition at its highest level. If teams are outright losing on purpose, or doing so with a “wink wink” mentality like the Philadelphia 76ers have employed in recent years, the league’s overall product becomes watered down.

But changing the lottery system doesn’t help prevent disparity in the NBA. In fact, it encourages it.

Throughout the entirety of the league’s existence, team’s have ridden the backs of star players to NBA championships. In order to get that elusive ring, having a franchise player — or multiple franchise players — is a team’s best bet. However, getting players of that caliber on your team is easier said than done. There are few routes to acquiring a locked in franchise talents. First, a team could draft a player that becomes a star (their best bet at landing that player would come at the top of the draft, naturally). A team could also trade for an already established star (though that takes assets, usually draft pick compensation — the higher the pick, the more value it has). Finally, a team could sign a star player in free agency (although, small market teams usually don’t have the appeal to sign a star player outright).

In order for everyone, small market teams and poorly constructed teams included, to have a shot at landing star players, getting a top pick as compensation for a bad season seems to be the most logical way of spreading stars throughout the league.

For Major League Baseball and the National Football League, the worst teams get the highest draft pick in that year’s following draft. You win 59 out of 162 games like the Minnesota Twins did last season? Guess what, you get your chance at picking the best player available. Or how about the Cleveland Browns, who won just one of their 16 football games last year? Guess what, they got their choice of all every eligible player in the draft.

It isn’t a guarantee that players picked first overall in a draft ultimately turn into stars, but it’s the option that the worst team in the entire league has their pick of the litter that is so valuable. If a team is perpetually bad, but can’t win the draft lottery and continues to miss out on their franchise player, how does that create parity in the NBA? Short answer: it doesn’t.

By keeping the struggling teams at an arm’s distance from what could be viewed as their own first-aid kit in the form of a top overall pick, the NBA allows less of a chance for a franchise to rise of from the bottom of their league and challenge the Golden State’s and San Antonio’s of the world for a prolonged period of time.

In Wojnarowski’s report, he also makes mention that a varied structure of the reform could involve a potential clause that wouldn’t allow a team to draft within the top three picks in consecutive years. While this stipulation isn’t directly proposed in the reform’s current structure, it is expected to be discussed at the board of governors meeting, Wojnarowski said.

With the current stranglehold the Golden State Warriors have on the NBA and the trend of super teams the NBA is experiencing, clubs with one good player being able to compete for a championship is a thing of the past. Barring a team from being able to select within the top three in consecutive years potentially stops that team from throwing away a handful of wins the season after they draft in a high slot, but it doesn’t allow that team the opportunity to build a contender and add another franchise into the mix for a championship.

Through their words and their actions, dating back to the 2014 attempt the league made on a lottery reform, it’s clear that the NBA wants to make it harder for bad teams to become contenders.

As the 2017-18 gets ready to tip off, with another Warriors-Cavaliers NBA finals seeming imminent, parity is certainly becoming an issue throughout the league. However, reforming the lottery and cutting down the fractional chances bad teams already have at landing their star player isn’t going to fix that problem.

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NBA Saturday: Russ Smith Is Trying to Score His Way Back Into The NBA

Russ Smith is lighting up scoreboards halfway across the world, waiting for his next NBA chance.

Dennis Chambers

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A few days had gone by since the NBA Development League’s eighth annual Elite Mini Camp concluded back on May 10.

Russ Smith, who spent 25 games with the Delaware 87ers last season, put on a performance throughout the two-day event where he displayed his ability to score the ball at a high level as well as get his teammates open. The scouting event designed to give D-League players a chance to crack the NBA scene surely would have rewarded one of its leading scorers with a brand new opportunity to continue their basketball career.

Except it didn’t.

“I thought I would get a phone call,” Smith said. “And my phone never rang.”

Instead, Smith — a 6-foot guard and Brooklyn native — was forced to look at other opportunities should he want to continue his basketball career.

“I might as well try something different, see if I can, you know, do what I do best,” Smith, the No. 47 pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, told Basketball Insiders. “The year previous when I went to Summer League, I don’t think I got a fair chance. As somebody that wasn’t signed to a team, you gotta go through a lot of, like, BS, in the Summer League. It’s kind of, I don’t want to say annoying, but I just decided to come out here and try something different. To be able to score.”

By “here”, Smith means the Chinese National Basketball League, where he now suits up for Luoyang.

A former consensus first-team All-American with Louisville back in 2013-14, Smith has always had a knack for putting the ball in the basket. When he followed his gut decision to forgo another shot at the Summer League to move halfway across the world, Smith’s motive was because he knew he would get the opportunity to do, as he says, “do best.”

Well, Smith certainly didn’t let his opportunity go to waste.

Following the end of the regular season, Smith led the league in scoring. According to him, that was his expectation when he made the commitment to play in China. However, what he didn’t expect was the gross magnitude in which he would wind up scoring points.

Smith averaged 61.2 points per game.

That’s right. Every night Smith stepped on the court he was looking to hang 60-plus on his opponents. This included 64 in his first game, a four-game stretch of scoring 70-plus points and ultimately his 81-point performance.

No player in the history of the NBL has ever averaged more than 45 points per game.

Right from the jump, Smith started getting buckets for Luoyang. However, his team wasn’t faring as well as he was. Smith’s squad started the season 1-3, despite his scoring barrages. But after noticing how defenses started keying in on the spectacular scorer, Smith made his own adjustments, and the team’s success followed suit.

“I started doing things a lot differently,” Smith said after recognizing defensive adjustments. “I started cutting a lot more, moving with the ball a lot more, breaking out in transition a lot, getting easy ones, jump-stopping, a lot of pull-ups. There’s no scouting report for that.

“Because of that, my teammates started picking up a lot of slack. They started getting easy opportunities, getting open looks. We started off the season 1-3, but then after that everything just started really moving well. We became a top-3 team in our league.”

Clearly Luoyang’s most dangerous scorer, Smith wanted to show the league — and the rest of the basketball world — that he was more than a one-trick pony. He figures that by showing he can do more than just score at will, maybe more doors for different opportunities will open in the future.

“I averaged 61 and a half, so I felt like what I was doing out here, regardless, they’re gonna have to start taking me seriously as a scoring guard, anywhere I go,” Smith said. “That’s really the impression I wanted to leave, and then at the same time, I was top-three in assists, and I lead the league in steals.”

Now, when a player takes the court each night with the ability to, for lack of a better word, embarrass the opponent, some guys won’t take that so lightly. Unlike playing ball back over in the states, life in the NBL is a bit more rough and tumble, according to Smith. There are fewer technicals dished out, and maybe some contact that you wouldn’t get away with in the NBA is accepted over there. Because of that, Smith has a little more on his mind than just pulling up to hit a jumper when he has the ball. To him, that’s been one of the biggest adjustments he’s had to make since taking ahold of this latest opportunity.

“Sometimes when I’m shooting shots, I’m focused on making it,” Smith said. “But when you see somebody jump that close to you and you’re not used to it, you kinda gotta fade back a little or brace yourself coming down. So, you can’t even put all of your focus into making shots, you gotta watch everything because they might jump under you.”

Smith does concede that there are some dirty players back stateside as well, but the abundance in the NBL has made him play with a bit more caution than he originally anticipated. Regardless, the numbers speak for themselves and so do the results. Luoyang finished the regular season 18-8, the third best record in the league.

After a season that would be considered wildly successful from Smith’s standpoint, new doors have opened for him. Maybe not the ones he would have envisioned for himself back in May, but positive endeavors nonetheless. Next season, Smith will move up to China’s highest league, the Chinese Basketball Association, where he’ll play for Fujian. Former NBA players Al Harrington, Sebastian Telfair, and J.J. Hickson all once suited up for Fujian. Most recently, Dwight Buycks, who just inked a deal to play for the Detroit Pistons next season, also played with the same CBA club.

So, Smith is moving himself up in the ranks of Chinese basketball. Just like he did in the NBL this past season, he’s looking to get buckets next year all the same.

“I want to assert myself in a situation to show people, ‘Alright he can really score the ball,’” Smith said. “‘He’s done it here, he’s done it here.’ Now, I’m gonna try [to] have some momentum.”

For as much success as Smith has had this summer in China, however, there’s still the nagging itch he has about not being in the NBA. Sure, Smith has had stints in the league. After being drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers in 2014, Smith managed to appear on an NBA court 27 times from 2014-16, most notably with the Memphis Grizzlies. Despite his fleeting time spent in the league, Smith feels like he never got a fair shake in terms of being able to contribute what he does best on the basketball court: Score the ball.

“There’s point guards and guards in the league that can’t create shots for others, and they need a ball-screen,” Smith said. “Or that they can’t push the ball, they’re not fast enough. And it sucks because I feel like I’m all of those things, but they’d rather have those guys because they’re easier to manage.”

Smith takes it one step further, even. To him, there’s no way he can look at every NBA roster and believe every player on that team is better than him. In order for him to have the drive he needs to turn his dreams into reality, he needs to think that way.

“I really think it’s BS that I’m not on an NBA roster, to say the least,” Smith said. “There’s no way that I can look 30 teams in the NBA, in the states, and I can go, ‘All 13 guys on this roster is better than me.’ I can’t believe that.”

In the meantime, the Brooklyn native with a colorful personality will continue to bide his time in China doing what he does best and getting buckets. Smith mentioned that he can assimilate just fine to the Chinese culture. Across the Pacific, certain norms like a Pizza Hut or Papa John’s are treated as fine cuisine. As Smith said, “You can’t go wrong going there, out here.”

And when he isn’t dropping 81-point games and eating at altered versions of American pizza joints, Smith will just relax at his place and watch movies on his laptop or play cards with his teammates, patiently waiting for the next time he can step on the court.

Life halfway across the world has been kind to Smith so far, but to the point guard who’s been lighting up the scoreboards, coming back home to play in the NBA is never too far from his train of thought.

“I would love to,” Smith said. “I’m from the states, and I’m an American at the end of the day. That’s the best league in America, so when I’m doing what I’m doing over here, I think it’s only right to bring me back to the crib. There’s no other way to put it.”

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