While NBA contracts are guaranteed, and teams and players have an interest in -- at least the optics -- of committing to winning in one city, there are really two kinds of contract extensions in the NBA. The first is the kind that Damian Lillard agreed to this summer, a true four-year pact on top of two existing seasons. That deal ties Lillard to the Portland Trail Blazers for six total years. Unless he wants to, he isn't going anywhere.
The second is the kind that Russell Westbrook signed in 2016, the ones that exist for the sake of press releases and not much else. That summer, the Oklahoma City Thunder had just lost Kevin Durant to free agency, and Westbrook's contract was due to expire only a year later. Losing him and Durant in back-to-back summers would have been utterly disastrous for the franchise, so fans were overjoyed when the team announced that he had signed a three-year, $85.7 million deal.
That deal, however, was essentially a one-year extension. The first year of that supposed three-year contract was the upcoming season, for which he was already under contract. The last year included a player option, which virtually every superstar declines barring a serious injury.
The contract that Beal agreed to on Thursday is far closer to Westbrook's than Lillard's. The terms look great in a press release. Beal adds two years and $72 million to two existing seasons for a grand total of four years at around $130 million. The Wizards can now claim that any trade rumors are erroneous and that Beal is committed for the long haul.
In truth, this contract really doesn't change all that much. Prior to signing it, Beal had two years remaining on his deal, and after the Anthony Davis saga last season, there was real concern that Beal could use his impending 2021 free agency to push for a trade as soon as the deadline.
Technically speaking, he can't do that now. Any extension that includes raises greater than five percent makes a player ineligible to be traded for six months. Five percent raises are the most a team can give in an extend-and-trade arrangement, so the ineligibility clause exists to prevent that rule from being circumvented. That six-month grace period takes us past February's trade deadline, so Beal isn't eligible to be dealt until next summer.
But once the offseason comes, his situation is functionally no different than it was prior to signing this contract. The final year of this deal includes, you guessed it, a player option. So once this year passes, Beal and the Wizards are back to square one.
The extension still makes sense for both sides. The calculus is simple for Beal. He is a teammate of John Wall's, after all, so he has seen firsthand the financial benefits of signing early. In exchange for delaying his free agency by one year, he guarantees himself a staggering $72 million in the event of injury or declining performance.
For the moment, Washington appears to want to keep Beal for the long haul. In that sense, having him under contract for an extra year is obviously better than letting him hit free agency in 2021. It gives the Wizards extra time to sell Beal on their long-term plan, make trades that appeal to him, and potentially get lucky in the lottery and find him a running mate.
But let's say that doesn't happen, and at some point between the summers of 2020 and 2021, the Wizards determine (either independently or through Beal's coercion) that trading him is their best course of action. By getting Beal signed to this contract now, they will be able to make that move from a position of relative strength.
There is a real chance that this season proves disastrous and a full-scale rebuild proves inevitable. Prior to this extension, that realization would have forced the Wizards to trade Beal on an expiring contract. That not only makes him less valuable to any acquiring team, but gives Beal more leverage in dictating a destination. As Anthony Davis did, Beal could essentially pick his next team by refusing to commit to a long-term extension with prospective trade partners. Instead, the Wizards can reevaluate their situation in a year knowing that Beal still has two left under their control.
And if that time comes, they are likely to have more suitors than they do right now. Many of the teams that would have theoretically been interested in Beal in the past year have exhausted their asset supply.
So what might the market be for Beal in the offseason?
NBA rules state that teams must not be without first-round picks in back-to-back years. As such, the Los Angeles Lakers do not have a tradeable first-round pick. The Los Angeles Clippers only have one, their pick this season projected to fall at the bottom of the round, and they gave up their most promising young player in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to get Paul George.
Two of the picks that the Clippers sent out for George originally belonged to the Miami Heat, who themselves have only one tradeable first-round pick (either in 2025 or 2026). The Brooklyn Nets spent two first-round picks to create the cap space to sign Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, and though they got one back in the D'Angelo Russell sign-and-trade, that pick only conveys if the Golden State Warriors pick at No. 20 or worse. In other words, if the Warriors suffer any additional injuries, the Nets probably won't get that pick.
There simply isn't a strong market for Beal at the moment because most of the teams that were prepared to add a superstar already have. New suitors will replace them, but they haven't yet presented themselves. In a year, that could change.
The Warriors and Heat are both bound by hard caps this season thanks to their sign-and-trade acquisitions of Russell and Jimmy Butler, respectively. That makes blockbuster deals like this more difficult, but in a year, that will no longer be the case. Golden State could put Russell and draft picks on the table. The Heat gain access to more of their own picks in trades as well. Not only will the player they select in 2020 be immediately tradeable, but the seven-year rule opens up their 2027 first-round pick to be dealt as well. They could build an enticing package around those picks and some combination of Tyler Herro, Bam Adebayo and Justise Winslow.
Maybe a young, asset-rich team like the New Orleans Pelicans or Oklahoma City Thunder pop earlier than expected and want to push some of their chips into the center of the table for immediate star power. Maybe one of the hibernating big-market behemoths like the New York Knicks or Chicago Bulls lose their patience and make an ill-advised win-now deal. Maybe a contender even sees a reason to increase its risk profile.
The Denver Nuggets are often mentioned as a possible destination, but their reluctance to pay the luxury tax presents a problem. Perhaps an early playoff exit this summer forces their hand. Might the Boston Celtics be more willing to trade Jayson Tatum if he has another down year, and if he doesn't, does Jaylen Brown become redundant? If Ben Simmons sputters in the postseason yet again, could the Philadelphia 76ers make yet another all-in move by swapping him for Beal?
While every one of these things won't happen, the Wizards only need one or two situations to break their way to create a more robust trade market than they had prior to this extension.
Frankly, the Beal-Wizards partnership has already outlived its usefulness. The Wizards probably should have traded him to the Clippers when they had the chance this summer. The idea of Beal wasting another year of his prime on a lottery team is frustrating to those who want to see him thrive on a contender.
But the Wizards seem committed to avoiding a prolonged tank, and keeping Beal is their only hope of doing so. Beal, to his credit, is unusually loyal for an NBA superstar.
Bradley Beal: "It's easy to think it's all about money when it's not…It's legacy at the end of the day. This is where I've been for the last 7 years going on 8. I have the opportunity to be able to turn this thing around. A lot of people doubt that & I view it as a challenge."— Fred Katz (@FredKatz) October 17, 2019
But Kawhi Leonard once said he wanted to finish his career with the San Antonio Spurs. Most superstars only want to play for one franchise... until they don't. Eventually, the relationship between Beal and the Wizards is going to be tested. And when that time comes, both sides are going to be in a better position to move on if that's what they decide to do.