- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 3, 2021

PHILADELPHIA — Bradley Beal has been around long enough to understand how the NBA rumor mill works. For the past few years, from the moment he ascended to the ranks of the game’s elite players, he‘s seen his name in tweets, headlines and on talk shows — all speculating whether the all-star guard will be eventually traded. The conversation isn’t new by any means. 

So, Beal likely knew what he was doing Wednesday when he declined to outright say whether he wanted to stay with the Washington Wizards for the long term. 

He had to grasp the attention that his comments would bring. 

“[Shoot], they’re starting now,” Beal said of the trade rumors. “It doesn’t change anything. I mean, they’re definitely going to increase a lot more this year when we’re going into the last year of my deal.”

The Wizards‘ trying season is now officially over after the Philadelphia 76ers eliminated them in the first round of the NBA playoffs, but an even tougher offseason may be just beginning. At the forefront, the futures of general manager Tommy Sheppard and coach Scott Brooks have to be decided. Sheppard said Thursday no decision has been made on Brooks’ future, with the coach’s contract set to expire soon.

But looming larger over the Wizards‘ entire situation is Beal. The three-time All-Star is Washington’s best player, the player around whom the front office has spent the past two years rebuilding. Beal could change everything about the Wizards‘ future if he demands a trade this summer. And while the Wizards wouldn’t be obligated to give in, they likely would only be delaying the inevitable of Beal leaving. If he does want out, then the franchise must recoup pieces to essentially start over.

The Wizards have been on the clock to appease Beal from the second he signed a two-year, $72 million contract extension in October 2019. The end is now in sight and, so far, Washington’s end result this season was the same as the last time it made the playoffs in 2018: A first-round exit.

“We’re not even going to think about [my future] or even talk about it right now,” Beal said, later adding, “I haven’t thought about none of that, as of yet.”

But when Beal does speak about the Wizards, he still seems to light up. Even as he was coy Wednesday, the 27-year-old praised the fight the Wizards showed just to get into the playoffs after a terrible start to the year. He gushed about what it was like to play alongside Russell Westbrook, the star point guard Washington acquired before the season.

But what made Beal‘s comments so different after Washington’s Game 5 loss is that Beal usually goes out of his way to clarify that he doesn’t want to go anywhere else. He told The Athletic in March, “It’s like a little voice is honestly telling me, ‘Just keep going. Just keep going,” adding he would rather win in the District than elsewhere.

“It’ll feel more meaningful and powerful knowing that I grinded it out doing it in D.C,” he said in January 2020.

Before the season, Beal said that, ultimately, he just wants to win. And the question is whether the Wizards have made enough progress to convince him that they are the right place to do that. For all the roster changes — the influx of young talent like Rui Hachimura and Deni Avdija, the trading of John Wall for Westbrook — the Wizards still haven’t had a winning season since 2017-18.

Despite the speculation, Sheppard maintained Thursday that Beal isn’t going anywhere.

“We’ve built this team around Bradley, and that’s our intention moving forward,” the GM said. “We’ve had straight-line conversations with him that’s always been very transparent and very direct. That’s how it will continue. … It was very gratifying [Wednesday] to hear his comments about this year’s team. I think he‘s positive about moving forward in the future.”

Sheppard can offer Beal something that some teams are hesitant to do: input on major decisions. Teams normally cater to their superstars, but Beal has said that there’s no guarantee that if he were to be traded, he would get the same level of influence. 

Beal said he doesn’t take being the franchise cornerstone “for granted.” It motivates him to get better, he added.

Perhaps on Wednesday, Beal was trying to assert leverage over the Wizards. By not uttering those specific words — “I want to stay” — he ensured the Wizards would feel pressure to make upgrades in the offseason.

In the meantime, however, the rumor mill will churn along. 

“Ultimately, I’m in control,” Beal said. “I think my biggest thing is [that] people can report what they want but I know where my mind is, and I know if it’s not coming from the horse’s mouth, then it’s just going to be rumors.”

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