We know who’s going to be bad in the NBA Eastern Conference. The New York Knicks, the Detroit Pistons, and the Cleveland Cavaliers all suck. The Chicago Bulls might suck if Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter, Jr., don’t improve. The Orlando Magic might suck without their best player, Jonathan Isaac, who’s out injured.
Last year, the Washington Wizards sucked.
I should say that differently. Last year, the Washington Wizards except for Bradley Beal sucked. Bradley Beal was amazing.
Did you know that only he, Maestro Damian Lillard, and James Harden averaged 30+ points per game last year? Did you know that only 15 players averaged 8+ three point attempts per game last year, including Beal? Did you know that only six players averaged at least 20 shots per game last year AND had a True Shooting percentage better than 57%? (Those six players are Beal, Luka Doncic, Kyrie Irving (20 games played), Trae Young, Harden, and Lillard.)
When we talk about Brad Beal, we’re talking about one of the best players in the NBA. His team sucked last year, but Beal himself was amazing. He dished out 6 dimes and grabbed 4 boards per game last year. Only nine players in the NBA averaged 20+ PPG, 6+ APG, and 4+ RPG: Harden, Beal, Dame, Trae, Luka, Kyrie, Russell Westbrook (who’s now on the Wizards with Beal), Devin Booker, and LeBron James.
But, are the Wizards? Are they a playoff team in the East this year?
Beal is a career 38 3PT% shooter and his new backcourt mate, Russell Westbrook, is one of the worst high-volume three point shooters in history. Beal ran the Wizards last year while John Wall was (still) injured, so he’ll have to learn how to share again since Westbrook is one of the most high-usage players in history, also. However, Westbrook shared the ball with James Harden last year, and he actually averaged more shot attempts with Harden than he had in the previous two years in Oklahoma City. Westbrook has also played with Harden, Paul George, and Kevin Durant, so I think he’ll be able to play with Bradley Beal.
Westbrook’s weakness is perimeter shooting, which Houston tried to compensate for last season by going ultra-small and using PJ Tucker as their center (Tucker can shoot from three). For a few months in the new year, before COVID-19 shut the league down, the Rockets looked fearsome with Westbrook avoiding long shots at all costs, and shooters surrounding him. Russell Westbrook had been “unlocked,” people said.
Russell Westbrook with Houston before the season was suspended:— Hilltop Hoops (@HilltopNBA) November 13, 2020
Friendly reminder of what he’s still capable of when fully healthy. pic.twitter.com/ngKraCD9OB
Can Washington replicate that? Can Unlocked Westbrook play in DC?
The Wizards will start Westbrook, Beal, Rui Hachimura (a tweener forward sophomore), Davis Bertans (the Latvian Laser, one of the best outside shooters in the NBA), and Thomas Bryant, their young center, who shot 40% from three last year.
Bryant is the interesting piece to this puzzle. Only 21 players last season averaged at least 7 rebounds and 2 three-point attempts per game, including 23 year old Thomas Bryant. Of those 21 players, Thomas Bryant was SECOND in three point percentage (40.7 3PT%), behind only the Big KAT, Karl-Anthony Towns. Bryant only took 9 shots per game last year, but out of everyone who averaged 9+ FGA per game last season, Bryant had the SIXTH BEST field goal percentage. He’s pretty good!
More importantly, he’s another shooter (presumably) who can get out of Westbrook’s way and spread the defense.
Beal, Bertans, and Bryant are all capable perimeter threats. Rui Hachimura: not so much. He shot under 30% from three in his rookie season. He had an okay year, but didn’t wow anyone. The Wizards new rookie, Deni Avdija, is considered NBA ready, but he too, has a suspect outside shot. He’s 6-foot-9, compared to Hachimura at 6-foot-8, and Avdija has playmaking abilities that Rui just doesn’t possess. It might not be a surprise if Avdija starts over Hachimura, since Avdija’s playmaking would mesh better with Beal and Westbrook than a still-developing sophomore tweener forward who can’t shoot or create offense. It’ll probably come down to who defends better, which brings up Troy Brown, another sophomore who will compete for minutes on the wing, and who shoots better than Hachimura (and, maybe Avdija), and defends better than them, too. He’s not a 3-and-D guy, even though that’s what Washington wants him to be, but he’s young and versatile, and that may mean more to this new Wizards team than what Hachimura and Avdija can provide.
Westbrook will be surrounded by at least three players who can shoot from outside, which is absolutely how you should try to play with Russell Westbrook. He’s at his best when he can drive and distribute, and rev the energy motor for the entire team. I have no doubt that Washington’s defense will be below average this year, but I also know that having Westbrook on the team will increase the level of competition that the Wizards bring to the court. They’ll be better on defense than last year simply because Westbrook demands it. (By the way, doesn’t this team scream “WE WILL TRADE FOR TREVOR ARIZA EVENTUALLY!”?)
Oh and quickly, Westbrook’s addition is terrific for Beal. When the Wizards were doing well and Wall was still healthy, Beal was shooting better than 40% on catch and shoot threes. He was still at 38% on catch and shoot threes last year, despite having no help. Playing with Westbrook and Bertans will help the floor open up for Beal, and give him better shots. If Washington can replicate the Rockets’ seeming dominance from early 2020, when Westbrook and Harden were jiving because there were shooters surrounding Russ, then there is no doubt in my mind that the Wizards will be in the playoffs.
This year’s Eastern Conference playoffs will be deeper with the play-in games, so ten teams will have a shot. The Heat, Bucks, Raptors, Celtics, Sixers, and Nets are definitely in. That’s six spots taken in the playoffs. I’m pretty sure that the Pacers, Hornets, Wizards, and Hawks will also be playoff teams, but I can find more reasons for the Pacers, Hornets and Hawks to miss the playoffs, than I can the Westbrook/Beal Wizards (Pacers: ‘Dipo implosion, front court doesn’t work; Hornets: still too young, but close; Hawks: not enough defense).
Westbrook and Beal could be the best guard tandem in the NBA next year (no kidding), competing with Dame Lillard and CJ McCollum, Chris Paul and Devin Booker, and Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet, but the league is focused on wings right now, and bigs that can defend like wings. Elite guard play may be a little undervalued. Westbrook and Beal together is a dynamic duo, probably better than Wall and Beal ever could have been.
A possibly unlocked Westbrook (or, Old School Russ), a still-improving Beal, a real outside shooting threat, and young bigs. I can think of a worse position to be in as a franchise.
See you in the playoffs, Wiz.