December 17, 2020

Will the Washington Wizards’ New Backcourt Work?

For the first time in over a decade, the Wizards have shaken up their roster in a massive way by trading John Wall and a 2023 first-rounder to the Rockets in exchange for disgruntled guard Russell Westbrook.

It had become increasingly clear that Wall, who is coming off an Achilles injury, wanted out of Washington. The only way the Wizards could get rid of the former No. 1 pick was by either including a juicy asset and receiving a player with a similar cap figure. And by taking that option, Washington has reinvigorated their playoff hopes... for now. 

While that's all and good, that doesn't mean the Wizards' new backcourt pairing of Westbrook and Bradley Beal will work. And if it doesn't, then Beal could be the next to leave the nation's capital. 

Let's break down the two high-scoring guards' games to see if these two will mesh or if it'll be a ticking timebomb. 

Westbrook vs Wall

Before moving on to Beal’s new backcourt mate, let’s not diminish what Wall and Beal were able to accomplish in DC together. While they never won a championship, they were consistent playoff participants. But there was a ceiling the Wizards kept hitting, and they were unlikely to break through with Wall coming off perhaps the most debilitating injury an NBA player can suffer.

To see what could be in store, let’s take a look at Wall and Westbrook’s last fully healthy campaign:

Wall (2016-17): 23.1 points, 10.7 assists, 4.5 rebounds, 2 steals, 45.1 FG%, 32.7 3P%

Westbrook (2019-20): 27.7 points, 7.9 rebounds, 7 assists, 1.6 steals, 47.2 FG%, 25.8 3P%

It's been nearly four years since Wall was fully healthy and there's no guarantee that he'll be the same player and have the same explosiveness, but he does offer something that Westbrook doesn't: spacing. 

Beal enjoyed his best season playing with off-ball guard Ish Smith who could space the floor by knocking down 3-pointers. It’s safe to say that at the very least, Beal will have even less room to operate because Westbrook doesn’t hit a consistent jump shot. 

But that doesn’t mean this partnership won’t work. Even though they only lasted one season together, Westbrook and Harden were able to produce together because of Westbrook’s slashing ability creating its own gravitational pull.

While Wall was a solid pick-and-roll facilitator, producing 0.86 points per possession, good for 66th percentile league-wide in 2016-17, Westbrook is a notch better. Last season, in a Houston offense that clearly de-emphasized that aspect of the game, Russ was still able to produce 0.93 points per possession as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, good for the 73rd percentile in the NBA. Wall is a slightly better 3-point shooter, sure, teams still don’t fully respect his jumper.

And while Wall has looked impressively explosive in the preseason, Westbrook is healthy and looked as fast as ever last season in Houston.

Ultimately, if both players aren’t going to draw attention when attempting to space the floor, Westbrook's slight increase in efficiency should help Beal.

What's the Beal? 

Despite the swap of All-Star guards, there shouldn't be a massive change in Beal’s circumstances. He’s still a dude who poured in over 30 points per game last season. Westbrook, warts and all, is going to make the Wizards a playoff team and will be able to hold the fort down while Beal rests. Last season, the Wizards went from a solid offense with Beal on the court (113 points per 100 possessions), to a league-worst one (104.8 points per 100 possessions).

Westbrook’s presence will undoubtedly be a positive for a Wizards team that relied on Beal to do everything on a talent-laden roster that was missing its star point guard. No matter what, Beal is going to get his even if Air Bud is playing next to him. 

General manager Tommy Shepherd has surrounded his stars with solid floor-spacers in Davis Bertans, Troy Brown Jr. and even Thomas Bryant. Plus, their last two first-round picks Rui Hachimura and Deni Avdija are bursting with promise.

Outlook In The Eastern Conference

On the outside looking in, the Wizards have put themselves in a great position to return to the playoffs. Westbrook and Beal are no LeBron James and Anthony Davis, sure, but they provide an excellent one-two punch.

Looking at the rest of the Eastern Conference shows a difficult path to the promised land. The Celtics, Heat, Bucks, 76ers, Raptors, Nets, Pacers, plus a reloaded Hawks all appear to be in the playoff hunt. That is a lot of firepower to overcome for a team that is breaking in a new backcourt. 

The Wizards will need continued development from their young talent, specifically Brown and Hachimura, if they hope to field a stable, consistent team. And while Bryant is an intriguing big who spaces the floor and gobbles up rebounds, he needs to improve his defensive prowess as the last line of defense on a team with shaky perimeter stoppers other than Brown. 

When it comes down to it, Westbrook should be a better version of Wall. Westbrook will constantly put pressure on defenses while ingraining the team with his trademark high-level intensity.

However, unless Avdija or Hachimura turn into stars, there is a clear ceiling to this team. But with Westbrook in Washington, they should be able to come close to reaching their potential and making the playoffs for the first time since 2018.  

Photo: Getty Images/Lines Illustration