NBA contracts aren’t considered, awarded or agreed upon in a vacuum. Every possible context matters to salary negotiations in today’s league, one increasingly intelligent, accountable and prudent on the court as well as off of it.
Like the ripple effect of a deadly shooter stationed in the weak-side corner or back-line help responsibilities of varied pick-and-roll coverage, the specific terms of a new contract offered by a franchise are examined through every lens imaginable. What is this player’s market value? What is he worth now? What will he be worth in the future? What’s he worth to us – as a piece of the basketball puzzle, as an ambassador for the team, as a portion of the salary cap?
The questions an organization must ask in determining a player’s value in dollars are immeasurable. Extremely rare are cases akin to those of LeBron James, Kevin Durant and, in all likelihood, Kyrie Irving: surefire superstars whose overall value and influence can’t be measured financially despite their huge slice of the cap. Those select few will always get their maximum money, and questions concerning their free agencies or looming ones are limited exclusively to where they’ll sign their next mega contract.
John Wall, he of a just-signed and much discussed five-year, $80 million contract extension, isn’t among that handful of transcendent players. His new deal with Washington deserves at least study and perhaps scrutiny, like all those that came before him this summer. Wall’s extension generated so much interest because he’s at the very least close to deserving the distinction that comes with the designated player contract. That often harsh spotlight combined with his injury history, middling efficiency and awesome finish to last season is the nature of stardom or potential stardom; remember, there are still those skeptical of Houston for awarding Dwight Howard – the league’s second best player as recently as 2011 – a contract worth the maximum.
Unless you’re LeBron or the next best thing, a max-level deal will always generate apprehension. Some players live up to it, and others don’t. So the Wizards are certainly gambling a bit with a player as unproven and uneven as Wall. The extent of that bet depends on their projection for him going forward, which is almost as much about Wall’s teammates as it is his play individually. In this case there’s certainly no vacuum, with Washington’s above .500 second half, Wall’s public attitude adjustment and a concerted effort to make the playoffs in 2014 all factoring into the 22 year-old’s mammoth extension.
But aside from Wall’s personal improvements, there may not be a bigger contributing factor to his new contract than the changeabout play of backcourt mate Bradley Beal. Wall won’t ever be able to win by himself, and Beal’s Hyde and Jekyll of a rookie season ensures he won’t have to. Whether or not reality – well, advanced statistics, game logs and shot-charts – supports the popular narrative that Wall’s return to the court from injury was the direct means behind Beal’s rapid improvement is something else entirely.
The raw numbers support that half-full theory, of course. Beal began his rookie season in the worst way possible, shooting a combined 35.7% from the field and 28.7% from three-point range through November and December. For a player whose greatest strength supposedly lied in rare marksmanship, such consistent struggles provided cause for major concern. Worst, there were even few fleeting bright spots; after making at least half of his shots and scoring at least 17 points in the fourth and fifth games of his career, Beal couldn’t manage those feats again before the calendar flipped to the new year.
Wall was sidelined the first ten weeks of the season due to a September knee injury, of course, leaving Beal stretched too far as a ballhandler and creator. That much was assumed once news of Wall’s sustained absence surfaced, but Beal’s early rookie year performance came up well short of even those revised expectations nonetheless.
Then Wall made his 2013 debut and everything changed. Below are Beal’s numbers from before and after Wall returned to the Washington lineup. The differences, obviously, are stark.
By most every statistical measure available, Beal was a new player once Wall was healthy enough to play on January 12th. The uncomfortable, often indecisive rookie of 2012 was replaced by one that played with a sense of role and purpose in 2013, and the numbers bear that out. Beal was a far more efficient and productive scorer with Wall available, a fact best exemplified by a more than 10 point rise in his true shooting percentage once Wall made his debut.
But there’s more to the idea that Beal’s turnaround hinged mostly on Wall’s health, and it centers around metrics that indicate the former’s satisfaction playing off the ball alongside a point guard that garners so much attention from the defense. Beal’s usage rate declined with Wall in tow as did his percentage of baskets made that came without an assist, but only slightly so. Evidence supporting that belief lies mostly in Beal’s three-point shooting performance pre and post Wall’s return.
The percentages speak for themselves: Beal hit on 10.9% more of his corner attempts from deep and 15% more than his above-break tries after January 12th. But just as important is the frequency and quality of those shots, too. Though Beal actually averaged fewer three-point attempts – 4.3 per game versus 4.1 – after Wall’s debut, they were distributed across the floor in a far more efficient manner. A corner three-pointer might be the most valuable shot in basketball; there’s a reason Beal performed well from there pre-Wall even as he struggled to make shots from anywhere else. Good thing for the Wizards, then, that 41% of Beal’s three-point attempts with Wall in the lineup came from the corner. When he was injured, only 37% of Beal’s tries from deep came from that hallowed ground.
Yes, the metrics agree that Beal’s game changed once Wall was finally healthy, and not just for the sheer statistical better, either. He was suddenly a more selective shooter, a more effective cutter and something much closer to the player archetype he was billed as coming into the draft – a skilled marksman that doesn’t need the ball to succeed.
But there’s another layer to Beal’s 2013 play, and to best understand his major improvements and project his career’s altered trajectory, it’s one that needs to be peeled. How did he perform with Wall on and off the court from January 12th and so forth? The numbers tell an interesting story, and one that shines new light – if not lighter or darker – on Wall’s extension.
The general takeaway of the above: Beal’s second half turnaround had less to do with Wall’s return than it did him hitting and clearing the proverbial rookie wall (no pun intended) – that development just happened to coincide with the assumed health of Washington’s star point guard and, now, franchise player.
Beal’s numbers with Wall on the floor are indeed slightly superior to those he compiled while Wall rode the bench. But that difference is negligible, and his progress in those instances compared to the pre-Wall period is the best indicator of his whirlwind rookie season as well as his future success. And while Beal’s play alongside Wall is an obvious harbinger of success, too, the degree of his coming ascendance appears steeper when he’s on the floor alone as the Wizards clear top offensive option.
So Beal’s rookie season was more than one of halves; it was actually one of thirds. Pre-Wall, with Wall and without Wall, he was a different player. How much certain strategic changes and the overall health of the roster played into his rapid rise is a consideration for those most familiar with Washington’s season. But these numbers tell a story just as encouraging for Beal and the Wizards going forward as does the one with Wall as his knight in shining armor.
But given Wall’s recent re-up, Washington has a problem. It’s a good one, an issue which they’d rather put up with than not have at all, but still something that bears watching as this roster ripens over the next two or three seasons.
Wall is the Wizards’ surefire ‘guy’ now, and not just because his is the face of the organization’s reclamation efforts. Under the parameters of the new CBA, teams are allowed one designated player for a five-year extension on a rookie deal that’s already on the roster. Wall is that player for Washington, even though the last 25 games of Beal’s ever-encouraging rookie season indicate he’ll likely be just as if not more worthy than his teammate of that distinction when the time comes at the end of the 2015-2016 season.
Unless David Stern and the league’s Board of Governors grant Washington the same confounding exception they did Oklahoma City with respect to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook (not happening, obviously), the Wizards are running the risk of antagonizing Beal. That was mostly beyond their control what with the language of the CBA, and electing to save the designated player tag for Beal – the inferior player, for now at least – with Wall eligible for it risked alienating the latter at a time this franchise finally had an opportunity for stability. Just ask Minnesota how that very decision worked out with Kevin Love.
A bird in the bush is worth two in the gander, the saying goes, and Washington was almost forced to play things out that way as a simple result of timing. Wall has two years on Beal in development as a player and salary cap entity; this bet was the safest one, and it was probably the smartest, too. The possible negative trickle down of saving the tag for Beal was simply too much, what with likely disenchanting Wall and the possibility that his evolution stalls. The Wizards’ bet is insured by the fact that Beal – at just 20 years-old – is a noted professional that understands the business side of basketball, and whose relationship with Wall is constantly championed by both sides.
But more important than salary cap ramifications of Beal’s rise are those that occur on the floor. It’s clear now that he can thrive with or without Wall by his side, as evidenced by the numbers laid out above. Should his talents and overall influence eventually eclipse those of Wall, how will each player react? Washington’s case is a rare one, with two players that could conceivably emerge as the team’s best player on different timelines. The complications gleaned from that possibility are numerous and varied, but it’s another good problem to have nonetheless.
For now, at least, Washington is sitting pretty. Wall’s extension was necessary for the short and long term goals of this organization, and the justification behind it – be it his individual merits, how pieces like Beal fit around him or factors contributing to public perception – is obvious regardless on which side of the fence you sit.
But Beal’s rookie evolution isn’t what it seems on the surface, and positions the Wizards for additional possibilities going forward that most don’t assume. For the future sake of both backcourt stars and the franchise as a whole, let’s hope they realize it.
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