The Whiteboard: Best- and worst-case scenario for Wizards after Russell Westbrook trade

Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images /

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Much like the Houston Rockets are trying to keep James Harden happy with the John Wall trade, so too are the Washington Wizards hoping to satisfy Bradley Beal by adding Russell Westbrook to their backcourt. The situation is much less dire in D.C.; Beal, while admittedly a star, is not a perennial MVP candidate searching for his first title before his prime is over. Beal also isn’t seeking a trade to the Brooklyn Nets.

Even so, the Wizards know Beal has wasted away on far too many shorthanded teams over the last few seasons, and they also know that he’ll have dozens of suitors if he ever pushes for a trade. At 27 years old, coming off his highest-scoring season yet, he’s become the face of a rebuilding franchise. Getting him back to the playoffs and restoring Washington’s relevance is the top priority in order to keep Beal happy.

Enter Westbrook, the better and healthier point guard in the Wall trade. The question is, how does a former MVP who’s always envisioned himself as an alpha (often to the detriment of his teams) fit with Beal, a star whose naturally complementary skill-set makes him easy prey as the Robin to Russ’ Batman mentality?

Yesterday, we covered the best- and worst-case scenario for the Rockets following the Westbrook-Wall swap. Today, we’ll do the same for the Wizards.

Best-case scenario

Westbrook’s contract, repeated team failures whenever he tried to be the best player, defensive gambles and poor perimeter shooting have soured many on his actual value, but even with all those unavoidable flaws, he’s still one of the better point guards in the league. His arrival won’t vault Washington into the contender category in the East, but assuming he and Beal remain healthy, the Wizards should be a playoff team again in 2021.

Last season, in one of his most up-and-down, roller-coaster years yet, Russ still put up 27.2 points, 7.9 rebounds and 7.0 assists per game. His triple-double streak ended, and he only shot 25.8 percent from downtown, but he did help pick up the slack in January and February when Harden’s numbers took a nosedive. Having talent matters, especially if the goal is to simply return to the top eight in a weaker conference.

Putting him next to Beal, whose game would fit on any NBA roster, certainly isn’t the worst backcourt combo, even if Russ tries to do too much and play the hero. Beal’s career-high averages of 30.5 points and 6.1 assists per game last year will decline, but as a sharpshooter, secondary creator and go-to scorer, he can tailor his approach to remain effective alongside Westbrook’s more reckless approach.

Beal has only shot 35.1 and 35.3 percent from deep over the last two seasons, but those came without an established distributor like Wall on the court. In six seasons before Wall’s injuries, he never dipped below 37.5 percent from beyond the arc; it’s a safe bet he’ll get back to proper form with Westbrook setting him up. Give the ball to Russ, surround him with Beal, Davis Bertans and a host of shooters that ranked eighth in the league in 3-point efficiency last year, and suddenly that Wizards offense will be cooking.

Scott Brooks was something of a Westbrook Whisperer in OKC; if anyone can rein in Russ and help him learn a little give-and-take with Beal, it’s Brooks.

Russ-led teams may not be able to win in the playoffs, but don’t forget, he hasn’t been on a team that finished lower than a 45-win pace since 2009, and that was out West. Kevin Durant, James Harden and Serge Ibaka obviously had a lot to do with that, but even when Russ became the lone gunslinger in OKC, his teams still won 47, 48 and 49 games. Getting the Wizards past the Orlando Magic, Chicago Bulls and Atlanta Hawks and into 6-seed territory in the East isn’t out of the question.

Unfortunately, this team’s ceiling — as currently constructed — has “first-round playoff exit” written all over it. Even if they somehow bypass the Indiana Pacers for the 6-seed, they aren’t beating any of the five teams projected to finish ahead of them (Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors, Miami Heat, Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics).

This was never going to be a one-year fix, however, and the goal for the Wizards moving forward is keeping Beal happy by reconfiguring the roster around its new superstar duo. It’s only a matter of time before Beal wants more than just making the playoffs, but after the last few years of irrelevance, a return to the postseason with a shiny new point guard should be enough to tide him over another year.

Worst-case scenario

As high-powered as Washington’s offense was for most of the year, it only finished 16th in offensive rating. If Russ’ arrival doesn’t catapult them into elite territory on that end, their miserable defense will quickly become their downfall.

Last season, the Wizards ranked a dreadful 29th in defensive rating, and as much as the miserable defense narrative has clung to Harden, at this point, Russ is by far the worse defender. Adding a minus defender who constantly gambles to an already porous defense is a recipe for disaster, and in this worst-case scenario, it leads to the worst defense in the league.

Even in a top-heavy conference, that could be enough to doom Washington’s playoff hopes. Barring catastrophic injuries, the Bucks, Raptors, Celtics, Heat, Pacers, Sixers and Nets all figure to be playoff teams. That’s seven spots right there. All it takes is one unexpected team like the Magic, Bulls or Hawks to cast a pall on Washington’s already gloomy outlook.

If the Wizards miss the postseason in 2021, after trading away a beloved D.C. icon like Wall, Beal would only be under contract for one more year and could easily apply pressure on the front office to move him before he opts out in 2022 and leaves for nothing. Washington would then have to settle for a lesser deal for their beloved star, committing to a rebuild around whatever assets they can recover in a Beal trade, Rui Hachimura, Thomas Bryant, Deni Avdija, an overpaid Bertans and Westbrook’s gargantuan expiring deal.

That’s not a terrible cache to build around, especially depending on what kind of return the Wizards get for Beal, but this worst-case scenario doesn’t see the Wizards return to the playoffs and it means they won’t fully hit the rebuild button until midway through the 2021-22 campaign. That’s a lot of lost time for a franchise that may be placing its last hopes for a Beal-led contender in Westbrook’s 32-year-old hands.

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