Let’s take a closer look at perhaps the biggest move of the 2020 NBA Offseason.
The Good: The Washington Wizards are Poised to Make Some Noise in the East
This is gonna be fun.
The Washington Wizards suddenly have one of the most dangerous, electric backcourts in the NBA, and are poised to be a playoff team again. That is the difference that a one-man wrecking crew of basketball production like Russ Westbrook can make for a team. That is how Allen Iverson took a Sixers team otherwise headlined by Aaron McKie and Tyrone Hill to the playoffs year after year. That is why as a New Yorker I prayed for the Knicks to make this move first to bring in Westbrook, but per usual Dolan and company dropped the ball. Westbrook alone won’t win you a title, but he will make you relevant, something that both the Knicks and Wizards have long sought.
However, unlike Iverson’s Sixers teams and the current Knicks lineup, Westbrook is far from alone on an island in Washington. The 27.2 points per game he put up last year in Houston won’t even be the highest average of his teammates. He has a partner in crime in Bradley Beal who put up an eye-popping 30.5 points per game last year. And unlike the dynamic scoring guard Russ was paired with last year, this one actually fits his playing style, and I am excited to see how he and Beal mesh together.
James Harden and Russ Westbrook both need the ball. All the time. Bradley Beal built a great relationship with John Wall over the years because he is just as happy to carry the team on his back (as he did last season with the #5 usage in the league with Wall out for the year), as he is to spot up and sharp shoot (a career 38% from three). He has spent his entire career paired up with a ball dominant, hyper athletic point guard in John Wall, and has thrived and proven himself to be an unselfish player in the process. He is a tailor-made sidekick for Westbrook.
Let’s take a step back and look at the rest of the supporting cast in Washington. At the three, we have Davis Bertans, who shot a scorching 42.4% from three last year on almost 9 attempts per game. At the 4, you have a young talent in Rui Hachimura who is capable of stretching the floor and should take a leap forward in his second year in a fast-paced, Westbrook driven offense. At the 5 you have Thomas Bryant, another talented youngster who can stretch the floor and rim protect (backed up a similar player in Moritz Wagner and a crafty vet in Robin Lopez).
Is this a full-blown death lineup? No. But Westbrook is suddenly surrounded by unselfish players who won’t be afraid to stay out of the way when Russ wants to be the bull in the china shop, and will be able to jump out to the corners for open threes when Russ charges the lane and takes the whole damn defense down with him.
Russ also will be re-united with a coach that knows him better than any other, Scott Brooks. They spent seven successful seasons together in OKC, including a trip to the NBA finals. Brooks knows how to operate an offense that emphasizes Westbrook’s strengths, and he already has the respect of the intense, sometimes moody point guard. This is a (re)match made in heaven.
The Wizards finished an ugly 25 and 47 in 2020, without their franchise point guard in Wall. With John Wall, it is safe to say they would have been at least a .500 team, which in the 2020 season would have been good for a playoff spot (#7 in the East to be exact). Now with Russ Westbrook, a triple double machine who overshadows Wall statistically (with the exception of being a slightly worse 3-point shooter, though neither are snipers by any means) and in his winning pedigree, this team just got considerably better. I see the Wizards winning at least 48 games, good for a top 6 playoff position in the East and stealing a playoff series in the first round behind a wrecking ball performance by Westbrook. I see Westbrook and Beal both putting up 25+ per game, and Davis Bertans and Rui Hachimura taking big steps up with a ton of open looks thanks to the pair of All Star guards.
The Wizards have accomplished what I had hoped the Knicks would pull off for the past several years, and have re-emerged as a relevant, competent, playoff-bound franchise.
The Bad: The Rockets Just Got A Little Worse
In a press conference today, new Rockets head coach Stephen Silas told reporters that he has not spoken to James Harden since the Wall/Westbrook trade. That doesn’t seem like a great omen for the relationship between the rookie coach and his disgruntled star, who has famously already requested a trade.
While there are rumors that Harden had expressed a preference to play with John Wall over Russ Westbrook, the Rockets have still essentially made the exact same move for the third year in a row. Two years ago, Harden was paired up with backcourt mate Chris Paul. Three years ago, that duo made the Western Conference finals and came up just short of making it out of the West. They had less success the following year, with a second-round exit. Despite this reasonable success, the two had seen enough of each other, and no longer wanted to play together. Having two top-rate Alphas in the same backcourt was not working out. Both wanted to run the team their way. The team granted the wishes of their star guards, and swapped Chris Paul and his enormous contract to the OKC Thunder (along with a small army of draft picks) for Russ Westbrook (who had played several successful years with a young Harden years earlier in OKC).
So, having swapped a hard-headed, ball dominant point guard for an even more hard-headed, even more ball dominant point guard, one this time who can’t shoot, the Rockets were ready to try again. Shockingly, they had almost the exact same result. A second-round playoff exit, and two disgruntled star guards who had already had enough. This time, BOTH players requested trades after just ONE year.
So, in a stroke of brilliance, the Rockets newfound powers that be (after the dismissal of head coach Mike D’Antoni and GM Daryl Morey) decided to try something new. They traded their hard-headed, ball dominant point guard for a slightly less hard-headed, similarly ball dominant, and almost as poor shooting point guard, who by the way HASN’T PLAYED IN ALMOST TWO YEARS due to injury. Oh, they did a get a first-round pick as well, which will replace one of the two picks and two more pick swaps that they already lost the year prior in the trade for Westbrook.
So, the Rockets enter the 2021 season with a rookie head coach, a disgruntled star, and a new, bad-fit of a point guard coming off a catastrophic injury and nearly two year injury hiatus. The Rockets went 44 and 28 in last year’s shortened season, with a quick second round dismissal from the playoffs.
If unpopular, Trump-backing owner Tilman Fertita is somehow able to bury the hatchet with his star (after firing the head coach and highly regarded GM without consulting Harden beforehand earlier in the offseason), and James Harden does stick around the for the season, I think the Rockets have a similar result in 2021. They still have P.J. Tucker, and Demarcus Cousins could bring some energy and productivity if he can stay on the floor. Christian Wood has a lot of potential. Regardless of what Wall is or isn’t able to contribute, Harden can carry this team to at least 48 wins and a trip to the playoffs. I don’t see them winning a playoff series in a stacked Western Conference, but I wouldn’t even be surprised if they made it to the second round.
At best, they are right back to the mid-level playoff team they were last year, making no progress despite the major moves top to bottom that they made. But, that is a true best case scenario if everything works out as well as possible, which I honestly don’t see happening.
The Ugly: The Rockets are About to Get Even Worse
If the organization isn’t able to smooth things over with Harden, and it gets bad enough that they are forced to deal him (which is more likely than not), they are about to lose in yet another big trade. They are already down a first-round pick and swapping down in two more drafts, have a lack of depth and overall talent, and have a rookie head coach trying to turn around a toxic culture.
Let’s say Harden gets his way and is traded to his first choice destination, the Brooklyn Nets. They would likely be able to pick up Spencer Dinwiddie, Caris Levert, and a couple of first round picks (in one imaginary scenario). This would at least get them back to even on first round picks. This would most likley leave them with a starting unit of John Wall (for as long as he is healthy), Spencer Dinwiddie, Caris Levert, PJ Tucker, and either Christian Wood or Boogie Cousins at center.
Yes, there is some talent there, but they are not a playoff team. Even worse, they are mediocre. Not good enough to contend, but not quite bad enough maximize the potential of their first-round picks. Probably the worst possible place to be. At that point, their best bet may be to just pull a Sam Presti and trade every ounce of talent for draft picks and just hit the damn reset button.
I am happy for Scott Brooks and Russell Westbrook. They get a great opportunity to work and build something together again.
I am happy for Bradley Beal. He won’t have to put this franchise on his back again this season, and he has the best running mate he has had yet.
I am happy for Wizards fans. Their team is about to be relevant and make some noise.
I’m tired of James Harden, he tries to be a Lebron-style player/GM, but year after year teams up with the wrong guys and then tries to blame the Franchise.
I’m tired of Tilman Fertitta. He just fired one of the best GM’s in the league (who is already making moves in Philly) and alienated his team. He has set Stephen Silas up for failure.
I don’t believe this is the last we have heard from Houston, and I do expect to see another blockbuster move in the near future involving Harden. After that, I hope Houston fans are buckled up and ready for a decade of mediocrity.
Agree? Disagree? Couldn’t care less? Let me know! As always, thanks for checking out the blog!