If the Minnesota Timberwolves offered Kevin Love to the Washington Wizards for a package built around Bradley Beal, many Wizards fans would probably scoff.
If the Cleveland Cavaliers proposed a trade for Kevin Love in exchange for a package built around Dion Waiters, many Timberwolves fans (and the Timberwolves’ front office) would probably scoff.
The conclusion here is pretty simple. Bradley Beal is valued substantially higher than the man who was drafted one selection later in the 2012 draft.
Most unbiased observers would not only suggest that Beal’s trade value trounces that of Waiters, but he’s the objectively greater player, as well. But most of the available evidence seems to cast some doubts. A bare-bones head-to-head comparison of their 2013-2014 seasons suggests that the two are much closer in ability and production than anyone seems to realize.
Beal is a better shooter from three than Waiters, but Beal also takes so many more two-point jump shots, and makes fewer of them (Beal shot 37.2 percent on 519 two-point attempts outside the paint – Waiters shot 43.1 percent on 378 attempts) that there’s effectively no difference in their scoring efficiencies. In a twist of irony, it’s Waiters’ superiority on low-efficiency shots that actually offsets Beal’s superiority on high-efficiency shots at the rim and beyond the three-point line. Waiters has the reputation of the shameless gunner, but his shot selection is actually much better than Beal’s.
What it really comes down to is this – because Beal is a better three-point shooter, lots of people assume that he’s a more efficient player, but there just isn’t much evidence to support that. The majority of Beal’s perceived superiority stems from two mostly-innocuous points.
1. Beal is two years younger than Waiters
2. Beal’s team made the playoffs in 2014
The first point is certainly relevant in terms of trade value, but doesn’t really say much in terms of which player is actually better. The second one doesn’t really matter at all. Neither one of them is going to be the centerpiece of a Kevin Love trade (I just included that to establish the dichotomy), but they will each play significant roles for teams that expect to compete at or near the top of the Eastern Conference next season.
And here’s the weird part – this entire conversation could be flipped upside down a year from now. Imagine the following scenario:
With LeBron on board, Waiters spends the next 82 games doing nothing but shooting wide-open jumpers and slicing through a warped defense that LeBron already sent scrambling with prior action. Meanwhile, the Wizards spend all of next year wrapped up in their newfound expectations after advancing to Round 2, but sputter and struggle like so many up-and-coming teams before them. In the process, Beal’s improvement doesn’t meet the mandate of a third-year budding star. Waiters is seen as having made a huge leap, while Beal is seen as having regressed or plateau-ed. Suddenly, Waiters is perceived as being the superior player.
But did anything change about either player? Not really. All that changed was their circumstances. Playing with LeBron won’t make Waiters a better basketball player. It will just make the things he does easier, which isn’t the same thing. Playing with greater expectations won’t make Beal a worse basketball player. It will just make the things he does more difficult, which isn’t the same thing. Context matters.
It’s a case of perception (possibly erroneously) influencing reality. Beal has more trade value because so many people blindly assume he’s more valuable, but it might not actually be true. It very well may be, but even if it is, it’s by a margin not nearly as large as most would think. Yes, Waiters is a dismal player on the defensive end, and yes, the fact that he generally believes himself to always be the best player on the court sometimes leads to some not-so-desirable decisions. But at the most basic level, Waiters and Beal have strikingly similar offensive profiles, which is the end of the floor from which the majority of their contributions come.
There of course is a counter-point to this idea – if Beal were placed in an offensive system which, as opposed to encouraging players to pull the trigger on their first available open look (which leads to an inordinate number of two-point jump shots), instead emphasized working for high-efficiency shots (threes and shots near the basket), would his performance improve? Or is he a player that by nature is predisposed to just taking the first available shot? The answer to the first question is “almost certainly,” and the answer to the second question is “probably not.” We can make educated guesses, but we don’t know for sure.
What we *do* know, however, is the effect that playing alongside LeBron James can have for a player. Mo Williams was a middling point guard, teamed up with LeBron, made an All-Star game in 2009, very well could have made another in 2010, then LeBron skipped town and Williams was never heard from again. LeBron made J.J. Hickson look so good that it was rumored that Cleveland balked at the idea for trading him for Amar’e Stoudemire. Two years later he was waived by a team that finished 22-44.
Is Bradley Beal better than Dion Waiters? Maybe. Probably. But by what gap? It’s not the canyon that people assume. It’s a ravine narrow enough for a superstar to throw Waiters over. And LeBron James can carry guys pretty far.