What does Bradley Beal bring to the Phoenix Suns?

What does Bradley Beal bring to the Phoenix Suns?

When word began circulating last week that the under-new-management Washington Wizards might actually be ready to move longtime standard-bearer Bradley Beal, most of the immediate reaction focused on finances. You can understand why: The three-time All-Star guard owns the second-richest contract in the NBA, behind only newly minted champion Nikola Jokić, and one of only seven deals with an average annual value north of $50 million per year.

That gargantuan pact figured to make finding a new home for Beal exceptionally tricky, especially under a new collective bargaining agreement set to impose increasingly severe penalties on teams that run payrolls significantly above the luxury tax line. That Beal also owns the NBA’s only (and, I’d hazard a guess, its last) full no-trade clause, enabling him to refuse any swap that would land him in a destination he doesn’t like — a clause that would remain part of his contract on his next team — seemed to complicate matters even further.

As it turned out, the size and strictures of Beal’s deal didn’t make moving it harder. It actually simplified things.

The no-trade clause allowed Beal to pick his landing spot. He reportedly would’ve chosen either the Miami Heat or Phoenix Suns; according to Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald, the Heat (perhaps preferring to keep their powder dry for an even bigger target who may hit the market) never made the Wizards an offer that Washington liked better than the one on the table from Phoenix. That left the Suns, who already employed two megawatt talents in Devin Booker and Kevin Durant, and whose CEO, Josh Bartelstein, is the son of Beal’s longtime agent, Mark Bartelstein. With the destination selected and Beal holding the veto, then, all that was left to determine was his price tag; it doesn’t seem like there was much haggling.

The Wizards’ return for a three-time All-Star they’d just given a quarter-billion-dollar supermax contract is poised to be Chris Paul, Landry Shamet, “at least four second-round draft picks and multiple pick swaps,” likely to come in 2024 and 2026. (Brooklyn controls Phoenix’s first-round selections in 2023, 2025, 2027, 2028 and 2029 from the February blockbuster that landed Durant in the desert.) That package highlights how little leverage Washington had with Beal and Bartelstein holding all the cards, and how much new team president Michael Winger and Co. valued shedding the $150.6 million that Beal is guaranteed to make over the next three seasons, as well as his $57.1 million player option for 2026-27.

There’s plenty of movement and plenty of decisions still to come — chief among them, whether Paul ever suits up in the District or is promptly rerouted for more draft picks, young players and/or salary-cap flexibility, and the futures of Kristaps Porziņģis and Kyle Kuzma, both of whom hold player options for next season and can exercise them to enter unrestricted free agency on June 30. (Kuzma made it clear months ago that he’s going to do just that; Porzingis is “considering picking up his $36 million player option,” according to Yahoo Sports senior NBA reporter Jake Fischer.) For the moment, though, the only Wizard with a guaranteed, non-rookie-scale contract that extends past the end of next season is center Daniel Gafford, on the ledger for just $14.4 million in 2025-26. As David Aldridge of The Athletic put it: “The Wizards wanted to have all Beal Business off of their books in 12 months. Mission accomplished.”

For Washington, then, the Beal move is a franchise that’s had a nagging cold for the past half-dozen years taking its medicine — a hard swallow of a bitter pill, with an eye toward a hoped-for healthier tomorrow. The Suns, on the other hand, clearly aren’t all that worried about tomorrow.

Here’s what Bradley Beal’s game gives the Suns

After paying $4 billion for a franchise that made the NBA Finals in 2021, posted the league’s best record in 2022 and suffered an embarrassing home-court elimination at the hands of Luka Dončić and the Dallas Mavericks, Mat Ishbia immediately forked over every first-round draft pick he could for Durant … before suffering another embarrassing home-court elimination (this time at the hands of Jokić and the eventual champion Denver Nuggets) and firing head coach Monty Williams. Ishbia wants to win huge today, and he’s willing to pay through the nose if he thinks the deal gets him closer to making that happen. His eagerness to swing this trade despite the fiscal complications suggests that it might be worth re-evaluating what Beal brings to the table besides that hefty contract.

A pair of injury-plagued and “down” seasons on forgettable and largely irrelevant Wizards teams — during which he still averaged better than 23 points and six assists per game on roughly league-average true shooting percentages, for what it’s worth — have dimmed the shine on Beal’s game a bit. There’s still plenty there that sparkles, though, starting with a track record of star-level offensive production.

Only 20 players in NBA history have averaged 30 or more points per game in multiple seasons; Beal is one of them. Only 17 guards have averaged 25-5-5 for a full season; Beal is one of them. Over the past five seasons, only seven other players have combined offensive usage, shooting efficiency, facilitation and turnover avoidance at a higher level than Beal: Dončić, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Stephen Curry, LeBron James, Damian Lillard and Beal’s new teammates, Booker and Durant. With the exception of the 2021-22 season, in which a wrist injury limited him to 40 games, the Wizards boasted a top-10-caliber offense in Beal’s minutes in every season since 2015-16. That includes last season, when an aggressively meh Washington side scored a scorching 118 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions with Beal on the floor, according to Cleaning the Glass.

After entering the NBA out of Florida touted primarily as a catch-and-shoot marksman, Beal has steadily built himself over the years into an all-purpose offensive engine, capable of initiating and finishing possessions at a high level. A decade ago, he averaged fewer than five drives to the basket per game and shot under 40% on those attempts. Now, thanks to the strength and seasoning he’s added as a ball-handler over the years, he consistently ranks among the highestvolume drivers in the league, converting nearly 55% of his shots on those forays into the paint last season — part of an ongoing improvement as an interior finisher that’s seen him shoot 65% or better inside the restricted area in each of the past six seasons.

The threat of Beal’s rim pressure has helped open up his buttery midrange game, where he’s comfortable probing to get to his floater or stopping on a dime to raise up and rain fire. Beal shot 49% on pull-up 2-pointers last season; when he’s got it going, it almost doesn’t matter how tight you stick him:

There has been some first-blush blanching at Beal’s fit in Phoenix — at the idea of a Suns team led by two high-usage scoring threats, but with little in the way of depth or defensive steel, packaging the rest of its tradable material to bring back another high-usage scoring threat whom multiple advanced metrics grade as a net-negative defender. (For what it’s worth, Taylor Snarr’s estimated plus-minus has Beal above sea level on that end for the past two seasons.) What makes Beal such an enticing offensive weapon, though, is the variety of ways in which he can endanger a defense. In the absence of former backcourt mate John Wall, he developed into the kind of combo guard who can dominate possessions and create good shots on the ball, but he’s also perfectly capable of working well off it, too — and it’s reasonable to bet that his versatility will shine on a Phoenix team now likely to feature Booker on the ball full time.

Beal is instinctive and active moving without the ball, ranking in the 65th percentile or higher in points scored per play on cuts in four of the past five seasons, according to Synergy. He can manufacture points in the bonus, averaging more than six free-throw attempts per 36 minutes over the past five years and knocking them down at an 84.5% clip. Have a high-post playmaker who can act as a hub from the top of the floor? He’ll probably pair beautifully with Beal, who averaged 1.15 points per possession finished in the dribble handoff game last season. (Neither Williams’ Suns nor new head coach Frank Vogel’s Lakers ran a ton of DHO action, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Vogel experiment some with Durant, Booker or Beal working either end of a handoff, just to see what sorts of decisions it forces defenses to make and how much stress it might put them under.)

Want Beal to spot up opposite the pick-and-roll? The dude who drew Ray Allen comps coming out of college has shot 39.9% on nearly 2,400 catch-and-shoot 3-point looks since 2013, according to Second Spectrum’s shot tracking. Want him to run one? Over the past five seasons, the Wizards averaged 1.02 points per possession when either Beal or a teammate he passed to shot out of the pick-and-roll, according to Second Spectrum — 36th out of 195 players to run at least 1,000 pick-and-rolls in that span, nestled right between Jamal Murray and Jrue Holiday.

Beal demands defensive attention all over the court, has rarely shared the floor with teammates of commensurate offensive talent since Wall was waylaid by injuries and has still produced. In a slightly lower-usage role on a team featuring higher-end offensive threats capable of turning some of his low-efficiency pull-up 3s into higher-quality spot-up shots — like, say, Booker and Durant — it’s reasonable to think that his output and efficiency might play up even more. The Suns netted that player for the price of a 38-year-old point guard who’s sustained injuries in seven of his past nine postseason appearances — and who they were reportedly thinking hard about waiving outright — plus a fine-enough reserve guard who didn’t crack 1,000 minutes for the Suns last season. Doesn’t seem too bad!

Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal (3) in action during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Portland Trail Blazers, Friday, Feb. 3, 2023, in Washington. The Trail Blazers won 124-116. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

Bradley Beal is one of only 20 players in NBA history who have averaged 30 or more points per game in multiple seasons. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

The flaws that Bradley Beal brings to the Suns

That doesn’t mean there aren’t valid on-court concerns. As we’ve mentioned, Beal has often been a … well, let’s say indifferent defender in recent years, struggling to stick with his man around screens and rarely exhibiting consistent effort on that end of the floor. The hope would be that, if surrounded by quality defenders in an environment where spotty energy and sloppy execution aren’t tolerated, Beal’s want-to would revert to the level he showed during Washington’s second-round playoff runs in 2015 and 2017, when he looked the part of a legit two-way postseason performer capable of leveling up when the stakes get raised.

That was a long time ago, though, and hope in and of itself isn’t a plan. Vogel likely has his work cut out for him in crafting a championship-caliber defense.

The addition of Beal might not round out the Suns’ offense as much as it continues their double-down on high-volume inside-the-arc shooting. More than 45% of Beal’s shot attempts have come from midrange in each of the past three seasons, and he ranked 10th in the NBA in midrange shot attempts per game in 2022-23 (with Durant and Booker finishing second and fourth, respectively). Barring a stylistic shift/outward migration from one or more of Phoenix’s stars, there might be diminishing returns in terms of the team’s shot profile — that trading 2s for 3s “math problem” that came back to bite them in Game 1 against Denver.

Then there’s the small matter of actually getting everybody on the court. After battling injuries early in his career that, at one point, had him anticipating the need for playing-time restrictions for the rest of his career, Beal transformed into a workhorse for Washington, playing more minutes than anybody save Lillard between 2016 and 2021. In a perhaps related story, Beal has missed 84 games over the past two seasons.

Given Durant’s own persistent injury woes, you’d be forgiven for questioning the wisdom of pushing so many chips to the middle for another perimeter player with a worrying medical file who’s about to turn 30 — especially considering the major challenges Phoenix will face in filling out the roster around a quartet (Booker, Durant, Deandre Ayton, Beal) that, by itself, puts the Suns over the $162 million luxury tax line this season, with precious little breathing room beneath the $179.5 million “second apron” to add talent, and precious few mechanisms to use with which to add it. (Hence the reported additions of youngsters Jordan Goodwin and Isaiah Todd for a Phoenix team that needs all the live bodies it can find.)

That’s the thing, though: After matching Ayton’s offer sheet last summer and adding Durant in February, the Suns were going to face that kind of financial crunch anyway. While this path doesn’t alleviate the crunch, it does add a bankable three-level scorer, which is worth its weight in gold come April, May and June, but doesn’t come cheap. Phoenix’s brass appears to have evaluated it as worth the premium: As ESPN’s Brian Windhorst writes, “The more the Suns looked at it, sources said, the more they came to an understanding that if they were going to pierce the second apron, it was better to explode right through it.”

And while you’d probably still call Paul a better individual defender than Beal in a vacuum, a Booker-Beal tandem has the virtue of being bigger, burlier and perhaps better equipped to withstand postseason mismatch hunting. Find a credible power forward who could bump Durant down to the wing, and Phoenix could even field the kind of huge defensive lineups that helped Denver clamp down well enough to win it all.

With so little salary cap space, without a taxpayer midlevel exception after going over the second apron, and with hardly any draft picks through the end of the decade, finding that credible player won’t be easy; you don’t typically find postseason-caliber contributors willing to take minimum-salaried contracts. The trade is a gamble, and a massive one, entered into willingly by a team with a blinders-on focus on winning next season, “flexibility five years down the road” be damned. Maybe it’s not how you’d run your 2K franchise. There’s something to be said, though, for Ishbia and his front office deciding to get busy living rather than fretting over the sticker price.

Beal might be a second- or third-banana making superstar money. The Suns are betting, though, that he might also be good enough to be the missing piece that completes a championship-caliber picture. For a franchise that has never reached the top of the mountain, that would be priceless.

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