Bradley Beal trade is a complete and total surrender by the Wizards

Bradley Beal trade is a complete and total surrender by the Wizards

It happened. It finally happened. Ted Leonsis, at long last, pried his fingers away from his most prized possession. No, not the shiny replica of the Stanley Cup that he positions in the background during his Zoom calls, nor that 24-karat-gold esports trophy belonging to his NBA 2K team that he also uses as a flex. But rather the no-trade clause on Bradley Beal’s blight of a contract.

Oh, how Leonsis loved that thing.

It gave him, the CEO and chairman of Monumental Sports and Entertainment, such clout among his billionaire peers. It represented his despera— I mean, his desire to attract top-shelf free agents to D.C. To Leonsis, the bargaining chip that favored an all-star who has never been confused with a superstar was an emblem of loyalty and partnership. Almost like a promise ring but with the full understanding that the love of your life could pick a new mate anytime he wanted, leaving you with Landry Shamet and multiple second-round draft picks.

Analysis: The Wizards gave away Bradley Beal. It was the right call.

On Sunday, when the Washington Wizards agreed to a Beal trade three years too late, they began in earnest what will be a long and onerous rebuild. The Wizards can now look to the future without dragging their franchise cornerstone’s supermax contract with them deeper into misery. But merely liberating themselves from paying Beal $207 million over the next four seasons should have accounted for half of the team’s restoration plan. The other half should have been acquiring young prospects and high draft picks to develop as they lay the new foundation or become tradable assets.

But that didn’t happen, because last summer the man with all the trophies in the room outsmarted himself.

Leonsis committed too much to Beal, a player who leaves owning a host of individual franchise records but one without the lasting mark of a winner. Not that I completely fault Beal for this. Together, John Wall and Beal needed more talent around them. Their window of contention cracked open ever so slightly from 2014 to 2017, but after that last season, and a vigorous and fun matchup with the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference semifinals, the wedge slammed shut. Wall’s injuries mounted, and Beal emerged as the guy, but that’s not him. So it’s hard to blame Beal totally for not elevating the Wizards to the playoffs on his own more than once. And even when that happened in 2021, Beal wasn’t the solo act. Russell Westbrook was that guy.

Players of that caliber — capital letters The Guy — are the ones who get a full no-trade clause penned into their contracts. Kobe. LeBron. Dirk. KG. D-Wade. Hall of Famers with instant name recognition. All but two of the nine players have won championships. Yet Leonsis made Bradley Emmanuel Beal Sr. the 10th player in league history with such a clause, lavishing him with the power to control not only his own destiny but also the fate of the franchise.

Last June, when Beal’s contract details surfaced, the clause seemed unnecessarily burdensome — why give away your team’s ability to secure a mutually beneficial deal if it ever needed to trade him? But back then, the Wizards were not thinking about the future. They clearly had no plan, other than some misguided forecast that, by empowering one player, it would signal the kind of fidelity that could attract bigger stars.

So, sure, let’s pin this one on the scapegoat who’s no longer here.

Tommy Sheppard was the one smiling and sitting next to Beal during the news conference that was an attempt to celebrate his five-year, $251 million extension. Beal had stuck around long enough to be eligible for that kind of money, and because it happened on Sheppard’s watch, he will always be the general manager who overpaid. Still, it’s not as though Sheppard pulled a fast one on Leonsis, diverting his attention with the ol’ Hey, look over there! trick, and while Leonsis was preoccupied with watching Alex Ovechkin’s chase for 800 or buying a baseball team or expanding his sports empire, Sheppard threw in that no-trade clause.

Nope. This one’s on Leonsis. He agreed to the clause. He celebrated it. He flaunted it as the thing that made the Wizards the envy of the league.

“You have to trust me. I’ve come back from a lot of league meetings,” Leonsis said while in his office, live-streamed into the team’s news conference last summer. “And several fellow NBA owners have said, ‘I wish we had a relationship like you have with your players.’ There’s a lot of movement, a lot of non-partnership that you see around the league, and for there to be a public statement that essentially says we have a player [who] wants to be here and serve out his contract, as do we, that allows your general manager to plan and to have the confidence that your best player, your bedrock player, is a part of the process.”

As Leonsis continued speaking, his championship laurels sparkling behind him, he shared how he interpreted the no-trade clause. While 29 other team owners might have viewed this as a transparent move for power by the player and his agent, Leonsis saw it as a glowing example of his commitment.

“When the player brings that to you, we’re not naive,” Leonsis said. “I didn’t take it as a point of leverage. I took it more as a point of partnership. All we can do is show you … that we’re in this together.”

They were in this together, until Leonsis fired Sheppard after the 2022-23 season, then hired Michael Winger as president and gave him the go-ahead to do what should’ve been done years ago.

Earlier this month, I wrote that I expected Beal to remain in D.C. for a while. After all, Winger said he could close his eyes and “envision” having Beal here for training camp while explaining his theory on rebuilding.

“One of my biggest fears is being overreactive to unmet expectations before me getting here,” Winger said. “I just fundamentally don’t believe in taking a flamethrower to things until you know exactly what you’re torching. I don’t know the guys yet. I really want to get to meet them face-to-face over a meal.”

Well now. That must’ve been one eye-opening dinner. It took Winger no time at all to do what he did when he was with the Los Angeles Clippers — use his flamethrower and start over. In their 2018 trade of Blake Griffin, the Clippers received three decent role players as well as first- and second-round picks. Luckily for the Clippers, their star player did not wield a no-trade clause.

The Wizards have a lot of cooks in the kitchen. Here’s how it will work.

Winger has experience in razing the framework of a franchise with a massive trade, but that shouldn’t have been his first task here. The Wizards should’ve cleaned house after Westbrook muscled his way out of his one-year rental and before mooring themselves to a contract for Beal that was too unpleasant for many teams to take on.

Because of the extension, Winger couldn’t land a lottery pick for Beal — and not even a first-rounder. Instead, the best Winger could do was give away the Wizards’ so-called “bedrock player” for a 38-year-old point guard (Chris Paul, who probably won’t play here), a little-used role player and some second-round picks. There are bad trades, and then there’s this — complete and total surrender.

Beal wins because he lands with a team where he’ll be the third star for a billionaire new owner who doesn’t mind throwing money around to chase a championship. Back here, however, all that remains is the wreckage of the most foolish provision ever written into a modern NBA contract. Leonsis wanted to show his commitment to a player, but he ended up crippling his own franchise.

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