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Morning tip: Defensive abilities separate Wall and Beal from most backcourts

Morning tip: Defensive abilities separate Wall and Beal from most backcourts

Suddenly, out of nowhere, John Wall and Bradley Beal are the "in" backcourt again, and the lost 41-41 season that was 2015-16 is all forgotten. Bygones. 

Except, it shouldn't be. How quickly the narrative turned on a duo that was Wall's broken left hand and wrist from an Eastern Conference Finals appearance when he was undercut by Jeff Teague in Game 1 of the semifinals vs. the Atlanta Hawks.

It was a small sample size but in the 10 games of that playoff run that included sweep of heavily favored Toronto in the first round validated their claim to best backcourt in the East. 

Then came the fallout. Wall played through two bad knees last season -- both required surgery May 5 -- and still averaged 20 points and 10 assists. Beal played a career-low 55 games because of a stress reaction for the fourth year in a row to his lower right leg. 

Wall went from being an All-Star starter to a reserve again. Damian Lillard jumped him in the national conversation as being the better point guard, and that point was further cemented after he scored 41 points in an overtime win over the Wizards. No one ever talks about Beal, but he probably should've been a first-time All-Star this season. 

A 2-8 start this season understandably led to no attention and low expectations. But Wall was playing his way back into shape as he beat the timetable from returning from his surgeries. The Wizards won 17 games in a row at home before losing in overtime to the Cavaliers on Monday night. 

Going into tonight's game at the Brooklyn Nets, they have a chance to run the table until the All-Star break that begins after Feb. 16 with as many as 34 wins. A 50-win season would be in reach for the first time since 1979 when they were the Bullets and advanced to the NBA Finals. 

If someone has said: "If John Wall ever develops his mid-range game ..." they haven't been watching not just this season but the previous two.

If someone has said: "If Bradley Beal can develop his game off the bounce ..." they haven't been watching as he has set a career-high assists (nine) and reached eight twice already this season. 

[RELATED: Harlan calls Wiz-Cavs 'best regular season game' he's seen]

Wall is averaging career-highs across the board and has 30 double-doubles with no other guard in the East being anywhere near half that total. Beal has scored 41 or more points three times and had five or more assists 14 times. 

Statistically, an argument can be made for most top-flight players as there are enough numbers to support an argument for anyone. While they matter, the eye test still matters, too.

Most numbers, unfortunately, have to do with offense. When is the last time you've heard an analysis of the lock-and-trail technique of Beal? (For the record, it's pretty damn good. Isaiah Thomas? Not so much).

If anything beyond a player's individual stats matter -- creating for others, deflections, close outs -- then no one should be shocked by the ascension of Wall and Beal other than they're both healthy at the same time.

When Wall went out in that playoff series in 2015, did Beal shrink without his playmaker in that series with the Hawks? He averaged 23.7 points, 7.3 assists and 4.7 rebounds minus Wall before they lost in six games to the No. 1 seed. Wall returned to play through the broken hand to average a double-double wearing little protection.

Beal signed for $128 million this summer in what was a no-brainer negotiation for president Ernie Grunfeld. Where else was he going to find a 23-year-old shooter with his upside on the open market who is a two-way player? Let Beal walk with nothing in return and make a move to sign Dwyane Wade in free agency? There was no other choice but to max Beal. None. There was no better option on the market in terms of age, talent, attitude and upside. None. This decision was as easy as an uncontested layup and no need to debate this. None.

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The final number for Beal's contact was much bigger than what Wall signed for in 2013 under a much small salary cap ($80 million), but where else were the Wizards going to find a pass-first point guard who had a track record for making everyone around him better; who is 6-4 and can post up Thomas, Kyle Lowry, Kemba Walker and Kyrie Irving; and who can score just 10 points and still be the best player on the floor?

Smart contracts are more about the ceiling -- what a player can grow into during the life of a deal -- and not as much about where he's at during the moment he signed (Gordon Hayward). It's a futures market. There are players out there with more accomplishments, All-Star apperances and national reputations but where will they be during he life of the max deal. Will they still be max-worthy or will their returns diminish with age (Carmelo Anthony).

Beal's leg injuries never required surgery. It was an overuse injury that's cured by monitoring his workload not just in games but practices which have been tamped down under coach Scott Brooks. 

Now that he's at optimum health and Wall is, too, the it shows how such short-sighted views on both could've backfired. Now they're exploding into the NBA's national consciousness. How ridiculous are those early-season, "It's time to trade John Wall and start over" blog posts, sound? 

The roster had to be turned over to the two young stars to see what they were made of, having to co-exist and lead by example. They drew chuckles for making too much of a "funeral" game vs. the hated Celtics and dominated them. Wall was questioned for calling Monday's game the biggest regular season game of his career and then helped make it one of the most memorable finishes of all time in a showdown with LeBron James.

Maybe, instead of rolling those eyes use them to watch. Relatively speaking, it's easy to be a one-way player who scores 30 points a game. It's more difficult to defend Irving for an entire game, hold him to 8-for-24 shooting (yes, he did hit big shots in overtime) and average 23 points and 10.4 assists yourself like Wall. Or 22.2 points, 3.7 assists and 39% from three-point range like Beal who takes on equally tough assignments. 

Now that the Wizards are two years removed from Paul Pierce, the credit has no choice to go where it belongs. All the barriers have been removed. It's their team, and they're just not the future. Wall and Beal are the now. 

[RELATED: What's been the reason for Wizards' turnaround this season?]

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How John Wall's injury affects the Wizards' many decisions this summer

How John Wall's injury affects the Wizards' many decisions this summer

With the 2018-19 season in the rearview for the Washington Wizards, we at NBC Sports Washington are analyzing the five biggest questions of what should be the most consequential offseason they have had in years...

NO. 4: HOW WILL JOHN WALL'S CONTRACT AFFECT ROSTER CONSTRUCTION?

Though there are several events this summer that could ultimately define the Wizards' offseason, one storyline will hang over everything and factor into just about every decision made by the front office and whomever ends up leading it as the team's new general manager. That is the future of John Wall, who is set to miss at least most of next season due to a ruptured left Achilles, in what will be the first year of his supermax contract.

Wall had surgery on Feb. 12. Even if he returns one year after going under the knife, he will still miss roughly 50 games next season. When he does come back, there are no guarantees he will be the same player. He turns 29 in September and a ruptured Achilles is a very serious injury, especially for a guy whose game has traditionally been reliant on speed.

The Wizards, of course, hope Wall will regain his peak form, but even if that happens it is unlikely to be the case right away. It may not be until the 2020-21 season until the Wizards get a true read on Wall post-surgery and how much value he can provide while making the money he is due. 

Speaking of the money, Wall will still take up a considerable chunk of the salary cap despite not playing. He is set to earn 35 percent of the cap next season, which right now is projected at about $37.8 million. Though that could technically fluctuate based on the final cap number, the percentage is what matters. The Wizards will basically have to build a roster with only 65 percent of the cap at their disposal.

There is an argument that Wall's injury is one of the biggest roster-building obstacles in NBA history. Supermax contracts, ones that allow players to make a contract that begins at 35 percent of the salary cap, are a new concept. And no one else has suffered such a serious injury while getting paid that type of money. 

It may not be quite what the Brooklyn Nets overcame in the fallout of their infamous trade with the Boston Celtics, the one that resulted in a net loss of three first round picks. But it's a bad situation, one that will require some creativity from whomever is tasked with pulling the Wizards out of it.

The long-term ramifications will depend on how Wall plays when he returns, but the short-term effect will clearly be felt. First, the Wizards have to have an insurance policy at point guard and a good one if they hope to compete for the playoffs. Maybe that is as simple as re-signing Tomas Satoransky, but regardless they have to shore up that position, knowing Wall's status.

Second, the Wizards need to find bargains to fill out the rest of their roster. They will have to find some cheap players simply to reach the 13-player minimum with Bradley Beal's max deal also on the books. Beal will earn roughly $27.1 million next season.

The biggest question as it pertains to Wall may deal with the NBA Draft on June 20. What if the Wizards get some luck in the May 14 draft lottery, but not enough to get the No. 1 pick (i.e. Zion Williamson), and Ja Morant is the best player on the board? Morant, of course, is the Murray State superstar who lit up the NCAA Tournament in March.

Morant is dynamic and has serious star potential, and he plays point guard. Wall was already asked about the potential of the Wizards drafting a point guard with a high pick. He said he would be fine with it, but that when he returns that draft pick can "be a great back-up" to him.

If the Wizards picked Morant, or even Coby White of North Carolina, it would arguably be the smart move to make. They need to select the best player available, no matter the position. 

But if they do take a point guard, that will present a unique dynamic to their locker room, especially if that player turns into a star. What if Morant comes in and lights it up as a rookie? How will Wall deal with that? And could you then put Morant on the bench when Wall returns, as Wall suggests they would?

Those are hypothetical scenarios that can be addressed if they actually enter the equation this summer and beyond. But there is no question that, even as Wall is sidelined with an injury, his presence will loom over the Wizards in many ways.

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An important summer of decisions for the Wizards, from free agents to Scott Brooks

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An important summer of decisions for the Wizards, from free agents to Scott Brooks

With the 2018-19 season in the rearview for the Washington Wizards, we at NBC Sports Washington are analyzing the five biggest questions of what should be the most consequential offseason they have had in years...

NO. 3: WHICH FREE AGENTS AND COACHES WILL RETURN?

The Wizards enter this summer with only six players under contract for the 2019-20 season and that includes Jabari Parker's team option worth $20 million that is certain to be declined. With Parker accounted for, that essentially gives them eight impending free agents to decided on.

Eight players is more than half of a 15-man NBA roster and that is not to mention Dwight Howard's player option worth $5.6 million. If he opts out, they could have nine open spots.

Whomever the Wizards choose to replace Ernie Grunfeld as team architect will determine who will stay and who will go. Before they make that call, and they remain relatively early in the process, it is difficult to project which players will be back.

If they promote senior VP of basketball operations Tommy Sheppard from interim general manager to long-term status, that will mean a different course than if they go completely outside of the organization. Everyone has their own philosophies and a brand new voice would have no ties to those currently on the roster.

The same could apply to the coaching staff. Head coach Scott Brooks was not assured of his return at the end of the season and owner Ted Leonsis indicated that would be up to the next GM.

As far as the players go, each will present pros and cons. Some have more upside while some are older. Some will be more expensive to retain while some might be worth bringing back based on their relative cost.

Some could also depend on what the Wizards accomplish in the draft. They have the sixth-best odds and could luck into a top-four pick. Most mock drafts have this year's class top-heavy with wings and forwards. A top pick could affect how they view others at the same position.

Here is a look at each of the Wizards' free agents...

Tomas Satoransky, PG (RFA): Satoransky has a good chance of coming back because he can be a restricted free agent and most teams would like to have a player like him. He's versatile, committed on defense and an unselfish passer. He's also a point guard and, with John Wall set to miss most of next season, they need a good back-up plan if they hope to still compete for the playoffs.

If Sheppard assumes the full-time GM role, expect signing Satoransky before he hits restricted free agency to be a top priority. Even if an outside person takes over, Satoransky could very well still come back. But what could end Satoransky's time in Washington is his price tag. Will he get starting point guard money, or will he be had at a lower price?

Thomas Bryant, C (RFA): Like Satoransky, Bryant may be immune from a new GM wanting to move on and make change for the sake of change. The reasons to bring him back far outweigh the reasons not to. He's only 21 (he turns 22 in July) and has obvious potential. He's a young big man who gives an honest effort every night and has a great attitude. Those guys don't grow on trees.

Bryant also loves playing in Washington. But as a restricted free agent, he could field some nice offers and cash in on what was a breakout year. As a former second round pick with only two years of NBA experience, his contract situation could also be very complicated.  

If Sheppard takes the reins moving forward, signing Bryant will be a major goal. But even if someone from the outside comes in, it seems likely the Wizards will make an effort to keep him.

Jabari Parker, PF: Parker really genuinely enjoyed playing in Washington and would like to return. He proved a good fit offensively as a complement to Bradley Beal and has potential to get better at only 24 years old.

But Parker's price will be important and difficult to gauge until he starts talking to teams. Will anyone pay him $10 million-plus annually? It's really hard to tell based on how his stock has fallen and his injury history. Also, a new GM could choose to move on in favor of defense or something else.

Bobby Portis, PF/C (RFA): Portis is likely to be the most expensive of all of the Wizards' free agents to keep. The fact he can be a restricted free agent helps their cause, but he is reportedly looking for upwards of $16 million annually and it's just hard to see the Wizards paying that.

Now, Portis may also have the highest upside of any of these guys. He's only 24, is fast, can rebound and shoot. In fact, he can shoot very well for a big man and could turn into one of the more accurate stretch-fours in the league. But is that enough to pay him a big deal?

Trevor Ariza, SF: The biggest questions for Ariza's future center around price, whether the new GM wants to win now and whether Ariza wants to play for a contender. He made $15 million this past season which would be way too much for the Wizards to pay to bring him back. If that price comes down considerably for a guy who turns 34 in June, then maybe. 

But if a new GM wants to tear it all down and start over and sees missing the playoffs next season as not the worst thing, Ariza wouldn't help that cause. And Ariza may very well want to chase another ring this summer, something he couldn't do in Washington. That said, as he moves into his mid-30s, money may be the most important priority, as he only has so much time left to make an NBA salary.

Sam Dekker, PF (RFA): Dekker was in and out of the rotation, but overall played some of the best basketball of his young career so far during his four months with the Wizards. Helping his cause to return are a few things. For one, he is young and turns 25 in May. Secondly, he might be cheap and the Wizards will need some inexpensive players to fill roster spots next season.

Granted, a new GM from outside of the organization could want to clear out anyone that they can in order to start over with their own players. Dekker could be seen as expendable.

Chasson Randle, PG (RFA): For Randle, it is much of the same as Dekker. He's a young player with some upside to get better and he's not going to cost much. That is extra important for him as a point guard with Wall's injury in the equation. They can only apply so many resources to the position.

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