It hasn’t been an ideal start to the season for the Washington Wizards. After they acquired Russell Westbrook, there was hope that he and Bradley Beal would propel the Wizards toward success — at least, more than they’ve experienced in recent years. Unfortunately, through their first 11 games of the 2020-21 season, that doesn’t appear to be the case.
But, can Washington get ahead of the issues that have plagued them, or even fix them? The Basketball Insiders team will look to answer that — not just for the Wizards, but for any franchise that’s struggled early this season — as we kick off our “Fixing” series. As we look at each team, we’ll address what’s been working, what hasn’t been working and what those teams might want to do going forward, whether it’s to save their season or look ahead to the next.
So, without further ado, let’s get to it.
It hasn’t been a terrible start for Washington, despite what their 3-8 record may indicate. As a team, they’ve averaged 120.5 points per game, good for second in the NBA. They’re also top-10 in team field goal percentage, three-point field goal percentage and free throw attempts per game.
Likewise, Beal has gotten off to a fantastic start. Through nine games, his 35.0 points per game lead the NBA. Beal, so far, has averaged five more points per game than he did last season and he’s doing so more efficiently, as he’s shot 48.9 percent from the field, 38.6 percent from three, and 87.2 percent from the free throw line. Also leading the league in field goal attempts, Beal is on his way to another career year and his third All-Star appearance.
Rui Hachimura and Denji Avdija have been inconsistent, but both have flashed early on and shown some serious promise as future Wizards. Hachimura has scored the ball more efficiently and is fourth on the team in scoring, averaging 13.6 points per game. His energy and passion have never been doubted, but his basketball IQ has sometimes been questioned and, while he still has room to improve here, he’s turned the ball over far less and has taken far more higher percentage shots this season.
Avdija, meanwhile, has had his rookie moments. While he’s struggled on defense, he’s done nothing but bring energy and compete on that end of the floor. On offense, he’s been better than expected this early in his career; he’s posted strong shooting numbers and recently posted his first 20-point game.
Washington may have also lucked out with two-way player Garrison Matthews. The second-year guard out of Lipscomb has only played four games, but he’s given solid minutes and looked like a potential sharpshooter off the bench. In their game against the Miami HEAT, Matthews finished with 22 points and went 4-7 behind the three-point line. Defensively, he may not be the most gifted, athletically, but, like Avdija, he’s brought energy on that end of the court and has given the Wizards solid minutes. Expect to see his role grow going forward.
What Isn’t Working?
Defense. Plain and simple, the defense has been a disaster.
The Wizards’ defense is the worst in the NBA, as they’ve given up 121.3 points per game. They’re so bad on defense, in fact, that Washington has managed to lose games in which they’ve scored 120, 124, 130, and 136 points.
Beal said it best when asked about the Wizards defense: “We can’t guard a parked car.” It’s hard to see Washington improving unless they commit as a team to getting more stops. And, in order to do that, they need to stop other teams from driving so easily: opponents are getting to the basket and getting point-blank shots too easily. Another way they can improve their defense is to stop fouling, as they’ve let opponents get to the free throw line a league-high 29.5 times per game.
It’s still early but, at this point, you’d have to say the Westbrook experiment hasn’t worked, either. It is weird to say that, since Westbrook has averaged a near triple-double, but it’s the truth nonetheless. His 19.3 points per game, eight fewer points than a season ago, have come extremely inefficiently as he’s shot 37.8 percent from the field, 30.3 percent from three and 65.7 percent from the free throw line. Defensively, Westbrook has played hard. But, more often than not, he goes for the gamble play and puts the rest of the defense at a disadvantage.
Unfortunately, the Wizards’ defensive woes may only get worse as they lost center Thomas Bryant for the rest of the season to a torn ACL. Prior to the injury, Bryant was third on the team in scoring, averaging 14.3 points per game, and was on pace to set career-high in both field goal and three-point field goal percentage. Robin Lopez and Moritz Wagner will be tasked with replacing him and the Wizards are likely to be granted a disabled player exception, but no one player is going to replace his production.
What Needs To Change?
The Wizards need to figure it out on defense. It’s hard to emphasize that enough, but, if they can’t even trend toward the league average, Washington will never push themselves into the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
In lieu of a defensive upgrade, the Wizards may need to assess their trade assets and look toward the future. Of course, the player that would garner the greatest return would be Beal, while both Hachimura and Avdija would net solid assets if the team doesn’t see them as part of the long term solution. Beal’s $34.5 million salary may be hard to move in theory, but the production he can bring on the court should have teams lining up to acquire his services.
On the flip side of that, Westbrook’s even larger contract with two seasons left is likely untradeable. If they feel as if they need to move him, Washington would almost certainly have to attach a draft asset and or young player, or attempt to package him with Beal for a significantly smaller return.
Lopez, Wagner, Ish Smith, Jerome Robinson, Raul Neto and Isaac Bonga are all in the last year of their contracts. As the trade deadline looms, Lopez and Robinson could potentially net them a future draft pick. But, overall, don’t expect anyone from that group to draw significant interest or net a significant upgrade for the Wizards’ roster.
Despite Thomas’ injury, the Wizards’ offense, helmed by Beal, would seem to provide a path out of the NBA basement. They’ll need to step it up on defense, but the opportunity is there if Washington can commit on that end of the court.
But, more likely, the 2020-21 season may prove another lost year for the Wizards. And, as much as it may hurt to trade their franchise star, Washington may have to part with Beal, completely tear down the roster and start fresh before they can find success again.