Better defense and good health. It’s not a clever motto, but it’s what the Washington Wizards need to have success in the 2020-2021 NBA season. (The Wizards open the season Wednesday at Philadelphia.)
“I think you are spot on with those two keys,” said Wizards general manager Tommy Sheppard. “With just those two things, it really increases our expectations of this team.”
On offense, the Wizards are a playoff team. Last season, the Wizards averaged over 115 points per game and were ranked seventh in scoring. With the addition of Russell Westbrook via trade to a backcourt that already included Bradley Beal, the Wizards are expected to play again at a high pace and rack up the points.
In a preseason poll of NBA general managers, Beal was ranked as the second-best shooting guard in the whole league, behind the Rockets’ James Harden. Beal, at 30.5 points per game, was second to Harden in scoring last season, and now some of the pressure and focus will be off him with Westbrook demanding attention.
Westbrook was acquired in a trade with the Rockets for John Wall. When he was healthy, Wall was one of the best point guards in the NBA, and he still might return to that level, but his injury problems the last three years were a big reason why the Wizards missed out on the playoffs in each of the last two seasons.
Wall accomplished a lot in D.C., including being a part of a run of four playoff appearances in five seasons, but now it is up to Westbrook to help push the Wizards franchise forward. In Westbrook, the Wizards have a former league MVP who is about to enter his 13th season, still producing at an elite level. The move to the Wizards also reunites Westbrook with Scott Brooks, for whom he played while in Oklahoma City.
“One thing I know about Scotty is just his personality,” said Westbrook. “He is a player’s coach, where you can have a conversation and talk about anything. I am also grateful for how he helped me develop early in my career. He allowed me to make mistakes and stayed with me and now I am back with him.”
Brooks helped Westbrook with the transition to a new team. As Westbrook noted, the Wizards are running some of the same plays that he ran when he was guiding the Thunder to three appearances in the NBA Western Conference Finals and one appearance in the Finals. It has allowed Westbrook, at times, to become a “player coach,” as he engages in every drill, right down to advising rookie Deni Avdija in an end-of-practice slam dunk competition.
“This year we are learning at a much faster pace,” Brooks said. “The guys that we brought know how to play, but they’ve raised the level, and the intensity level has been incredible. I just hope that we can continue this. This is how you get better, you get better by pushing each other in practice and then come game time, you’re pulling for each other.”
“Russ brings a definite focus and a persona about himself that resonates with the rest of the team in a good manner,” Beal said. “You have no choice but to feed off of his energy. It’s been nothing but positive vibes and the energy has been through the roof. Now coach probably has to stop us sometimes because we are going too hard.”
Beal and Westbrook were only on the court together for one half of the preseason finale against the Pistons, but they looked comfortable. Westbrook likes to push the pace, and that’s nothing new to Beal.
“It is about knowing where he likes his shots and where he likes to ball,” Beal said. “You know I’m easy to adapt to and I am not going to come in and say ‘I need this shot,’ or ‘I need the ball in specific spot.’ It doesn’t matter to me, and it really has been smooth getting to know Russ on the court.”
The Wizards are getting to know other players, too. By way of free agency, the Wizards signed center Robin Lopez from the Bucks, and Raul Neto from the Jazz. Lopez will help the Wizards with interior defense and rebounding, and will serve as a mentor to fourth-year starting center Thomas Bryant. Neto is an experienced point guard that plays with a defensive edge.
In the recent daft, with the No. 9 overall pick, the Wizards selected Avdija from Maccabi Tel Aviv in Israel, and in the second, they were able to get point guard Cassius Winston from Michigan State. While Winston, who had a spectacular college career, is considered a longer-term project, Avdija, who ESPN called the “steal of the draft,” is in the mix to start at small forward.
“The small forward position is going to be a pretty fluid position until somebody can really solidify it,” said Brooks. “And maybe we need to mix it up, depending on opponent, or what the second unit needs. We do have three or even four guys that bring something different.”
Isaac Bonga and Troy Brown Jr. are also options at small forward. Brown has demonstrated he can play multiple positions, including point guard. Brooks believes having three playmakers on the floor at the same time can make an offense more dangerous, and with the Wizards’ current makeup, that is now a possibility.
The starting power forward position belongs to second-year forward Rui Hachimura. An eye infection will sideline Hachimura for the first three weeks of the season, but the Wizards are excited to see what is next on his NBA journey. In his rookie season, Hachimura impressed with his inside work and his mid-range game, and now he has been working to become a more consistent 3-point shooter.
The Wizards’ top priority in the offseason was to re-sign forward Davis Bertans, who turns head with his 3-point shooting. Bertans was fourth in the NBA last season in three pointers made per game, but he also plays with a high basketball IQ and is probably not given enough credit for his passing ability and work on the defense end.
On paper, the Wizards have improved. Three seasons ago, the Wizards were close to the Eastern Conference Finals, but injuries to Wall stalled their progress. Now, it is Westbrook and Beal’s team. That’s a dynamic combination, but other teams, most notably the now-Kevin-Durant-led Brooklyn Nets, are also better … on paper. So, it will be decided on the court.
And that first game has come fast, with the 2019-2020 NBA seemingly only recently coming to a close with the Los Angeles Lakers winning the title in the Orlando, Florida, bubble on Oct. 11.
“It’s been a sprint to the starting line,” said Sheppard, the GM. “From draft to free agency to training camp and now the season, we have had to do in a month what usually takes places over three or four months. But I think it has brought everyone closer together and one thing you will notice, this team has great deal of love for each other and they really have each other’s back. I think we are going to surprise some people.”