When the Washington Wizards re-signed Bradley Beal in July, the team ensured that its two best players are locked up for at least two seasons after this one. Former University of Kentucky star John Wall will not be an unrestricted free agent until the summer of 2019. In other words, time isn’t bearing down on the Wizards and forcing them to make hasty decisions. They can let these players develop together, if they so desire.
But then again, Wall is 26 years old and entering his prime as one of the league’s top point guards. Washington missed the playoffs last season and failed to land a big-time difference-maker in free agency or trade over the summer. And while it’s still early in the 2016-17 season, with the team sitting at 2-5, the star guard does not look like a happy camper.
Wall has been ejected from his past two games, most recently for shoving Boston Celtics guard Marcus Smart to the floor late in a blowout in Washington’s favor. It came on the same day he was fined $25,000 for “inappropriate interaction” with a referee in the previous game.
Over the summer, the team awarded the richest contract in franchise history to Wall’s back-court running mate, despite the fact that Wall admitted that he and Beal “have a tendency to dislike each other on the court.” While some have suggested that that could eat at a player, Wall has said all the right things. He claims he doesn’t care about the financial gap between him and his younger, less accomplished teammate. In fact, Wall, a three-time all-star himself, has expressed a desire to see Beal make the All-Star team.
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It’s possible these two can work out their differences and lead the team to great heights together. Or the Wizards could dangle Beal, a rising star now under contract through the 2020-21 season, as trade bait for a star truly on Wall’s level — a guy who just so happens to be good friends with the Wizards’ franchise player.
We’re talking about the Sacramento Kings’ mercurial center, DeMarcus Cousins.
The fifth overall pick of the 2010 NBA Draft and a two-time All-Star, Cousins has averaged 20 or more points in each of the past four seasons and has 10.7 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.2 blocks per game for his career. He made the 2010-11 first-team all-rookie team and was a second-team All-NBA player the past two seasons. But he’s the most penalized big man since his rookie year (3.9 per game), and Sacramento has never won more than 33 games with him on the roster, typically mired with a sub-.400 win percentage. Perhaps a change would be best for both parties.
A report earlier this week from The Sporting News has the Kings quietly shopping Cousins but other teams finding their price too high and Cousins’s attitude to be a problem.
“I’d take [Cousins], but you’d need a dominant personality to control him,” one Western Conference executive is quoted as saying. “I’ve been in that locker room. He’s a problem. They’d love to trade him but can’t. So they act like they won’t. They would, though — tomorrow.”
One team that should jump at the chance to acquire him is the Wizards, even if it costs them Beal and more. Basically, anyone but Wall should be made available in a trade.
As for that need for another personality to help “control” Cousins, he’d be reuniting with Wall, his former college teammate. The pair played for Kentucky during the 2009-10 season, with Wall and Cousins finishing first and second on the team in points with 616 and 575, respectively.
Cousins, despite his foul trouble, is one of the best centers in the league. He led the position in ESPN’s Real-Plus Minus metric (4.83) and finished No. 14 overall by the end of the regular season. His 64.3 field goal percentage is fifth best among players with at least five post touches per game this season, and his 60 possessions in the post led the league this year.
And not only is Cousins scoring a robust 0.96 points per possession (PPP) this season in the post, but his teammates are five for six on cuts to the basket on his passes. Last year, they were 16 for 24, indicating that Cousins has a high awareness on the court, especially when double- or triple-teamed.
Markieff Morris is the Wizards’ go-to guy in the post this season (16 points on 21 possessions), with Marcin Gortat second with 14 possessions, combining for just five passes out of the post. Perhaps that’s not surprising considering the Wizards average just 19.7 assists per game, sixth lowest in the NBA this year.
Cousins is also efficient at receiving the ball on the pick and roll, using his 6-foot-11, 270-pound frame to muscle his way to the rim. He’s scoring a league-high 1.25 PPP on pick-and-pops to the basket and is even better (1.75 PPP) on rolls to the basket. Gortat is barely above average (1.05 PPP) in these situations, and Morris languishes in the bottom 20 percent of the NBA (0.79 PPP).
Defensively, Cousins saved 33.6 points at the rim last season, ranking him No. 14 among NBA centers. Gortat’s rim protection saved the Wizards 26.9 points in 2015-16, but Morris’s cost his teams 7.2 points, making Cousins an improvement here, too.
In addition to saving points, opponents are more willing to go to the rim against Gortat (8.6 field goal attempts per game) this year than Cousins (6.9). And they are more effective against Gortat, too, shooting 61.7 percent compared to 54.8 percent against Cousins. The league average is 56.1 percent.
An improvement on defense would have a trickle-down effect in Washington. Not only would they allow fewer points — they currently have the ninth-highest defensive rating, allowing 105 points per 100 possessions — their defensive ineptitude has reduced the number of transition opportunities available to Washington. Transition plays accounted for 19 percent of the team’s possessions last season; this year, they account for just 12 percent.
And there is no denying there is chemistry in transition between Wall and Cousins. Per Synergy’s tracking stats, during their only year at Kentucky, Wall made eight passes in transition to Cousins, and Cousins scored on all eight.
Beal can’t be traded until Jan. 14, per the terms of the CBA, but to get a player like Cousins you have to give up value, too, and Beal is the top piece the Wizards can offer. A straight-up Beal-for-Cousins deal wouldn’t meet league trade requirements, nor are the Kings likely to bite on that offer, even with Beal’s potential. The Wizards would likely have to sweeten the pot with another player with upside (Kelly Oubre Jr. or Otto Porter Jr. perhaps), while absorbing an unsavory contract from Sacramento. (Just for example, salaries match closely enough if you traded Cousins and disgruntled swingman Rudy Gay for Beal and Porter.)
The Wizards had a limited number of options on the free agent market, forcing them to overpay for Beal’s services. Injury concerns aside — Beal has played 63 and 55 games, respectively, the past two seasons — he is underwhelming in terms of offensive performance. He is averaging 16 points per game for his career and is just a 39.4-percent career shooter from behind the arc.
Despite his potential, the Wizards actually saw little benefit to having Beal last season: Their offensive rating rose only from 102.4 to 103.6 when he was on the court, while their defensive rating improved from 105.2 to 102.4 when he was on the bench. Although this year, with him presumably healthy, that has reversed: The Wizards’ net rating is minus-0.2 with him, minus-9.7 without him.
If the Wizards swung a deal in which they kept Porter, of course, it would make the loss of Beal easier to swallow and perhaps even accelerate Porter’s emergence in the NBA.
Dating to last season, Porter scores 1.18 points per possession when sharing the court with Beal, a figure that improves to 1.23 with Beal on the bench. Not only does Porter’s effective field goal percentage get a boost from 54.5 to 55.8 percent, but he is also much more effective on drives to the basket, scoring 1.8 points per shot as opposed to 1.5 with Beal on the court.
It may seem crazy to discuss shaking up a team that dismantled a very good Boston Celtics squad Wednesday night, but the Wizards are a fringe playoff team with 36 projected wins and could need to make big changes if they’re going to get themselves back into contention.