Should the Westbrook-Beal Pairing Be a One-and-Done?
Evolution or Revolution is a series that analyzes whether a team needs a few tweaks or a fundamental reboot. This edition focuses on whether the Wizards should move forward with their superstars or look to start anew.
The Washington Wizards appeared on course to miss the playoffs for a third straight season until producing a late flourish.
Yet having come through the play-in tournament route thanks to victory over the Indiana Pacers on the road, Washington barely laid a glove on the Philadelphia 76ers.
Having compiled a 183-207 record while in charge, Scott Brooks is no longer leading the way. Finding the Wizards’ next head coach is a top priority for general manager Tommy Sheppard in what looks to be a pivotal offseason for a team with holes to fill and a lack of resources with which to plug them.
However, undoubtedly the No. 1 factor in shaping the outlook for the Wizards is the long-term future of Bradley Beal. The third overall pick in the 2012 draft has long been at the center of blockbuster trade speculation.
For now, though, Beal appears set to continue his backcourt partnership with triple-double machine Russell Westbrook. The duo provided Washington with a strong finish to the regular season, which offers a modicum of hope, but how can they upgrade to do more in the postseason?
Should He Stay or Should He Go Now?
The clock is ticking with Beal. Except maybe it isn’t. The three-time All-Star is under contract for one more season in Washington, which will have the opportunity to hand him an extension soon enough.
Yet the problem is Beal – a volume scorer who is a career 37.7% shooter from 3-point range in a league where teams crave such productivity – knows he is best served resisting the early option of a new deal. Even if he does plan to stay put, patience will pay off in the form of adding an extra year to any contract he eventually agrees to sign.
Beal averaged 29.9 points per 75 possessions in the 2020-21 season. Only two players – Joel Embiid and Stephen Curry – finished with a higher number, while that pair, along with Luka Doncic, were the only individuals to top his usage rate of 34.1%. He finished the regular season averaging a career-high 23.0 field goal attempts per game while shooting 48.5% overall and 34.9% from beyond the arc, then had 30.0 points per game in a short-lived playoff excursion.
The campaign provided a further demonstration of his ability to put up numbers, no matter what is happening around him. Beal’s name no doubt sits close to the top of the list when it comes to the most popular typed into online trade machine calculators, considering both his productivity and contract situation.
In a time when stars are aligning together, he’s a prime candidate to team with another leading name, or two, in the quest to secure a ring.
Then again, the 28-year-old was part of a Washington team that finished the regular season on a tear, going 17-9 from April 1 onwards to rise up the Eastern Conference standings. What he – and indeed the Wizards – must work out is whether that run was a fork-in-the-road moment, or just a temporary boost before they revert to the mean.
The Life and Times of Russ
As Washington’s playoff pursuit gathered pace in the closing weeks of the season, Westbrook broke an NBA record that had stood for 47 years. A fourth-quarter rebound against the Atlanta Hawks clinched the 182nd career triple-double for the point guard, taking him past Oscar Robertson on the all-time list.
Later that same night, he missed a potential game-winning attempt from 3-point range. Those two moments encapsulate Westbrook, a player who divides opinions while continuing to churn out numbers.
What defines him more than anything, however, is the bumper extension he signed when still with the Oklahoma City Thunder, worth a pretty $206.8 million. The reunion in Houston with James Harden ended after one season, with the Rockets having to take on John Wall’s mega deal in an exchange of contractual millstones weighing both teams down.
Westbrook working alongside Beal helped Washington tick at an impressive 116.6 points per game, which ranked third in the entire league. The former topped the list for assists (11.7), too, finishing well ahead of the Atlanta Hawks’ Trae Young.
Yet for all the positivity on the attack, the Wizards were a disaster on defense for much of the campaign. No team allowed more points per game (118.5), though that number did dip (117.1) from the start of April onwards. A small crumb of comfort in particularly lean times.
Still, the issue arose again in the playoffs, where they conceded points at an average of 121.9 per game. The only time they did not allow 120 against the 76ers was in Game 5 when Joel Embiid played for less than 12 minutes in Washington’s 122-114 home win.
Tightening up defensively will be a focus for the next coach, and while the offense performed far better, it’s not without some issues.
Shoot to Thrill
As the league continues to go with the flow of 3-point shooting, the Wizards opted to swim against the tide. They had 2,088 attempts from beyond the arc in the regular season – only the San Antonio Spurs took fewer.
Having signed a lucrative five-year extension, Davis Bertans managed part of what Washington paid him to do in attempting 428 3s. The problem, however, is he made just 39.5% of them, comfortably down on the previous season when he had tempted the team to spend big to keep him around.
Beal landed on 34.9% of his shots from deep – he has not finished above 40.0% in the category since 2016-17. And while Westbrook improved overall, his 86 makes from 273 attempts (31.5%) were hardly a beacon of hope in view of the team’s dim shooting numbers.
The Wizards will look to Rui Hachimura and Deni Avdija, selected in the first round in 2019 and 2020 respectively, to take on larger roles moving forward.
Avdija endured a shooting slump after the All-Star break, going just 27.2% from 3 as he wound up averaging 6.3 points. Hachimura (13.8 points per game) was more involved, but considering both were taken ninth overall, Washington will hope the early growing pains will ease as they settle into life in the NBA.
Part of the reason for having to retain such faith in the two youngsters is the lack of flexibility to make major moves in free agency.
Westbrook’s sizeable salary alone takes up 36.3% of the cap, which when added to the contributions going to Beal (28.3) and Bertans (13.1), leaves little room for manoeuvre.
The team needs to get better in two key facets: defense and shooting.
Thomas Bryant’s recovery from a partially torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee will boost the frontcourt options, though it remains to be seen if Robin Lopez will return. Raul Neto is another free agent who could come back, yet it is unlikely Washington will be the only team interested in the point guard.
Still, the future of the franchise will be dictated Beal’s contract decision.
As part of Team USA in the Olympics, Beal will be playing alongside some potential future teammates in the NBA. Sheppard must work out what to do with the 15th pick in the upcoming draft, yet the more important clock will continue ticking well after he makes his draft choice official on July 29. The longer Beal’s situation remains unclear beyond the 2021-22 campaign, the greater the risk of seeing him walk away without getting anything back.
If Beal is fully committed to the cause, the Wizards will have to tweak and tinker as best they can to try to get back in the playoffs again. Moving Westbrook would ease the salary strain, but good luck with that.
Any suspicion Beal could be ready to walk and Washington must be brave, take the proactive route and cash in on a prized asset before his value is completely lost. They are unlikely to be short of interested parties, potentially yielding even greater returns if it turns into something of a bidding war.
Perhaps it would be best for both sides if there was a parting of the ways.
Design by Briggs Clinard.