There is a distinctly pronounced chance that the Washington Wizards will not be good this season. That sentiment is appropriate in both the context of the Eastern Conference as well as the context of the general NBA. The addition of Russell Westbrook, however, makes the Wizards a helluva lot more interesting and certainly a lot more fun.
That is not to say that the departure of John Wall was a welcomed or needed event in terms of basketball (meaning the financial aspect is a different story). Wall has looked surprisingly fresh thus far in preseason. At his best, he is a crafty finisher who puts nearly unparalleled pressure on the defense’s rim in transition. Of course, the fit next to Bradley Beal was never great–and that will remain an issue with Russell Westbrook now in the mix. However, there is a difference between the two that makes the situation in DC more fascinating than the return of Wall to the Wizards’ rotation would’ve been.
Westbrook, while in a clear decline, still has an NBA body and game more accustomed to modern play than Wall’s. That statement, debate it as you may, is a reflection upon just how much time Wall has missed over the last two seasons. The Wizards undoubtedly feel the pressure of winning while Bradley Beal is still married to the franchise.
Adapting Wall would’ve featured an element of maintenance that likely would have cost the team wins, and another season ending on the couch during the First Round of the playoffs would have continued the strain on the relationship with the star shooting guard. Westbrook is one of the fastest active point guards in transition, magnifying the pressure that defenses feel to protect their basket in a fast-paced offense. Take what peak Wall did and magnify it by a factor of five.
It isn’t just about the trade-off of Wall versus Westbrook, though. Washington re-upped Davis Bertans, who shot a blistering 42.4 percent from deep on a staggering 8.7 three-point attempts per game, and drafted forward Deni Avdija, whose mechanics and progression in Israel project as a potent shooter in the future. The greatest half-court terror that makes the Wizards far more interesting than a not-good-but-not-bad team should be is that they have adequate shooting to put Beal and Westbrook in spread pick-and-rolls. Now, what if Scott Brooks experiments with Rui Hachimura as the screener in a small-ball lineup? What if it’s Thomas Bryant as the screener and Brooks decides to alternate between pops and rolls? The spacing the Wizards have around Beal and Westbrook should open up the court for them to attack and will effectively make them that much more dangerous in isolation opportunities. In case you forgot, the Wizards were wildly potent on the offensive end of the floor last season despite their 25-47 record. Their offense has new tools and fits their stars far better.
Speaking of that 25-47 record, as good as their offense was last season, their defense was far worse. The Wizards gave up more than 150 points in regulation three times. Think about that. While I don’t expect the DC defense to be markedly better while they rely on youth to play significant roles, I do believe that Beal and Westbrook could buy in more on that side of the ball if they believe doing so can make a difference in their playoff chances. Maybe Westbrook’s rapid decline will make him slower and less engaged in guarding the perimeter, or maybe the lucrative nature of Washington’s transition game energizes him to be more aggressive in passing lanes and pressuring his man into live-ball turnovers. Maybe Beal buys into becoming a two-way superstar after being snubbed of all-star respect last season.
Regardless of what happens on the defensive side of the ball, the Wizards have revamped their offensive firepower with added shooting and one of the league’s most lethal up-tempto guards. The Wizards likely will not be a good team, but they should cause problems for man and zone defenses around the NBA. This team is too young to make noise in the East, but they’re in prime position to make the tail-end of the East’s playoff race an attraction worth monitoring.
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