There was a period not long ago in which the Wizards were the NBA’s annual “better-in-the-playoffs” squad. In the postseason, Washington developed a formula reliant upon defense plus the playmaking of John Wall and Bradley Beal, and rode that to three second-round trips from 2014-17.
That backcourt existed as a permanent blur. They turned defense into offense like it was an open gym, and learned to play off one another brilliantly in the halfcourt. As Beal developed and Wall got better as a shooter, either player could drive the car and the offense would still run nicely. A more modern version of the team developed around them as time went on, which culminated in a seven-game series against the Celtics in 2017 with Kelly Oubre and Otto Porter starring alongside the two guards and playmakers like Bojan Bogdanovic and Tomas Satoransky coming off the bench. They lost that series but the next era of Wizards basketball was in sight.
Wall signed a supermax extension a few weeks after the Boston series that quickly became beset with bad luck. He hasn’t played more than half a season since due to various injuries, and in the process the rest of the young core from that 2017 squad has departed aside from Beal. Heading into the 2020-21 season, his rehab is finally over after separate knee, heel, and Achilles’ surgeries over the past three years, but instead of reuniting Wall and Beal on the court in Washington, the Wizards made a deal this week to flip Wall — along with a 2023 first-round pick — to Houston for Russell Westbrook.
In some ways, the on-court fit should be similar to how Beal co-existed with Wall. But in the time since Wall went down, it became clear Beal was a star in his own right, perhaps even better than Wall was at his peak. As the days dwindle on Beal’s contract and the Wizards go into emergency mode to avoid trading their franchise cornerstone, they likely couldn’t afford to wait any longer to get Wall healthy and playing at a high level.
Of course, it’s not even a sure thing Wall will ever do that again. The game has also changed in a way that demands that Wall expand his offensive game more to be a bigger shooting threat, though he’s never shot better than 35 percent from deep in a full, healthy season. The guy replacing him is no marksman either, but Westbrook should be more available than Wall and should operate alongside Beal in much the same way Wall did.
During the time Wall was out, Beal developed into a strong playmaker in his own right, making it less important to have someone like Wall initiate every set. Likewise, as Westbrook has evolved, he’s turned into less of a traditional playmaker and more of a scorer/bowling ball/Tasmanian devil. If the offense was always going to be two stars taking turns isolating and running pick-and-roll, Westbrook is probably better equipped to do that than Wall.
Beal showed us last season that even with a guard rotation of role players like Isaiah Thomas, Shabazz Napier and Ish Smith, he could still perform (at least offensively) at an All-Star level. Most impressively, Beal posted a career high in assists as well as free-throw rate, meaning he created shots for teammates at a higher level in addition to easy points for himself. Washington’s surprisingly good offense was 7.9 points better per 100 possessions when Beal played, backing up a long trend of Beal boosting the scoring efficiency of his Wizards teams. If all those improvements are real, it means Beal and Westbrook could find a nice balance, plus Beal is far more comfortable and accepting of an off-ball roll than James Harden was in Houston.
There are still areas where Westbrook could help Beal more than Wall could. At times, even as he created more foul shots, Beal still got stuck when he met strong defense at the rim. Beal has always been small for a wing, and though he’s grown more elusive and built up a better handle since being drafted, he still is a liability to get stuffed at the basket.
As an isolation scorer in 2019-20, Beal, who didn’t play in the Bubble, was just in the 61st percentile in efficiency, per Synergy. Because of his growth as a passer and foul-drawer, he was a bit better in the pick-and-roll (75th percentile), but still not elite. Now that he’s 27, it may be unrealistic to expect him to become an elite individual shot creator, even if his improvements from last year hold.
Where Beal excelled in 2019-20, as always, was off the catch. Few combine shooting touch, quickness and athletic ability like Beal.
That’s great news when it comes to Westbrook. There should be some comfort between the two as Westbrook goes to work in the pick and roll or isolation while Beal moves around off the ball to get open threes and layups. Few have succeeded in that role next to Westbrook in the past, but he’s also never played with someone whose skills align so well with it the way Beal’s do.
Mostly this is about having a capable, good player in the lineup next to Beal on a consistent basis. Last season was effectively a lost one for Washington, and one such year is probably the limit that a franchise can stomach while their best player is in his prime. There was no certainty Wall would ever be effective or healthy again coming off of an injury as devastating as an Achilles, and while some of those questions exist for Westbrook too (their contracts are the same length), they aren’t as worrisome, and in theory his play style could be a good mix with Beal’s.
After re-signing stretch forward Davis Bertans and adding Deni Avdija and Robin Lopez to the team, the Wizards figure to be a contender for the playoffs once again. If things fall right for them, they could shoot for the sixth seed, even, and avoid a play-in game. That just wasn’t going to be true of a team crossing its fingers that its star point guard can regain his form after such significant time off. There is an obvious emotional side to the Wall trade that is impossible for anyone outside of the nation’s capital to fully understand given his deep connection with that city and its people, and for fans that’s a significant reason for their frustration with this deal and is wholly understandable. From a basketball perspective though, if the Wizards wanted to keep their other star around for his prime, it was a move that gave them more opportunity to do so.
Only Beal knows what has to be done to keep him happy and patient with Washington, but it feels like that limit is approaching. Trading for Westbrook should buy Washington some time and could make them pretty good, too. Barring catastrophe, they should be at least be able to put a competitive squad on the floor on a nightly basis, and hopefully will find themselves on the upswing and with a path forward to start building around the new-and-improved Beal.