Everybody Eats (On Both Sides of the Ball)

Bradley Beal (center) and the Wizards knocked off the Lakers on Monday night, stretching their winning streak to five consecutive games. (Photo: Adam Pantozzi, NBAE via Getty Images)

Throughout this entire season, The Wizards have been a talented basketball team, yet their record didn’t reflect it. It was just a matter of time before the results of the whole caught up with the sum of the parts.

In their last five games, the Wizards have defeated the Celtics, Rockets, Nuggets, Trail Blazers and Lakers. Not all of the margins of victory were close, none of those teams are truly bad (especially considering John Wall was motivated for obvious reasons), and four of those wins came against borderline Conference Finals contenders.

So what’s changed? We can all chalk it up to three things.

Westbrook is Back

No, not all the way back to his MVP form. But clearly, he’s playing much better lately than he was in the earlier portion of the season.

Westbrook has started to gain a better feel for his new teammates, but he’s also just healthier now than he’s been in awhile. The results speak for themselves. He’s only averaging 19.9 points, 9.7 rebounds, and 9.7 assists this season. But in this five-game winning streak, he’s recorded no fewer than nine rebounds and nine assists in each game while garnering three triple-doubles. He’s also scored at least 27 points and made more than half of his field goal attempts in each of his last two games. Oh, and for basketball purists, he’s stopped sitting out of the second half of back-to-backs.

Even in his best games, Westbrook has always been prone to some inconsistencies. He’ll take shots that make you scratch your head from time to time, you’ll be left wishing he could make more free throws, and he occasionally gets a bit turnover-crazy. But the fact of the matter is that the more energy he plays with, the better a Russell Westbrook team performs.

If he can be a reliable No. 2 option – or even 1a – behind Bradley Beal, the Wizards are a dangerous team.

Relatedly, Scott Brooks has seemingly unlocked how to get the most on-court value out of Beal and Westbrook. Lately, he’s been heavily staggering their play time, with Beal’s minutes coming in increments of nine-on and six-off and Westbrook playing in shorter spurts of six-on and three-off. Here’s roughly what it looks like.

  • Q1 12:00–6:00: Beal and Westbrook
  • Q1 6:00–3:00: Beal, no Westbrook
  • Q1 3:00–Q2 9:00: Westbrook, no Beal
  • Q2 9:00–6:00: Beal, no Westbrook
  • Q2 6:00–HALF: Beal and Westbrook
  • Repeat in 2nd half, unless game situation dictates otherwise

We’ll discuss some of the finer details of what makes this pattern so successful later. But broadly speaking, keeping at least one of them on the court at all times ensures that the offense runs smoothly at essentially all times, since they’re clearly the team’s top two playmakers. It also ensures that they each get as many opportunities as possible to function as the leader of the offense, as opposed to consistently reducing one’s role to less than they’re capable of – not to mention ensuring that backups don’t have to step into roles that are too big for them. It’s a methodology I’ll typically encourage for all teams, but one that the Wizards have rarely subscribed to – including during the John Wall era.

Commitment to Defense

Commitment maybe too strong of a word, because it didn’t always seem to be the problem. Nonetheless, the overall mentality surrounding defense has improved. Rotations have been fixed in ways that keep complimentary defenders on the floor at the same time (more on that shortly), players seem to be playing harder on that end of the court, and – maybe most importantly – they’re communicating more.

It’s crucial that each player knows who, what area of the court, and/or what function of the offense they’re assigned to guard at all times. In the age of “switching” on defense, that requires constant communication. This year in particular, it’s obvious how much or little players are talking to each other – without fans, you can hear them.

Ignoring the fact that Wizards defenders’ reaction times were often slow or they were sagging too far off their man, there had also clearly been confusion about who should guard whom on an alarmingly regular basis early this season. You could see it through wide open three-point shooters or defenders making last-ditch sprints to an open area, and you could practically hear the crickets chirping when the Wizards were on defense – a sign that they weren’t communicating.

Lately, and particularly during their five-game winning streak, those lapses have been much fewer and further between. A team with as much offensive firepower as Washington doesn’t have to be elite defensively to make the playoffs, but it also can’t be at the bottom of the league. The Wizards seem to have finally found the sweet spot.

Fine-Tuning the Rotation

Wizards fans like to pound Scott Brooks, but this admittedly wasn’t easy to accomplish. He’s had to make quite a few suboptimal changes this season.

The loss of Thomas Bryant was unfortunate, but it may have actually helped Brooks unlock the key to his starting lineup. He was forced to turn to Moe Wagner at times following Bryant’s injury, and Wagner repeatedly exerted maximum energy every time he took the court. Over time, that led to him drawing some starts.

All the while, as three of Washington’s core wing players from last season continued to fall short of expectations, Garrison Mathews began to show increased toughness on the defensive end, going along with the shooter’s touch he was already known to have.

Brooks was faced with a difficult dilemma, but it really boiled down to this.

Given the alpha-scorer’s mentality of Beal, Westbrook, and (to an extent) Rui Hachimura, what does this starting lineup really need: more skilled players on the offensive end, or (perhaps less talented) role players on that side of the ball who I know will give 110% on defense?

It eventually forced him to switch his lineups, moving Wagner and Mathews to the starting lineup, with Davis Bertans and rookie top-10 draft selection Deni Avdija leading the second unit. It’s a change I liked at the time, and it’s paid off.

To that end, Bertans and Avdija are still playing more minutes than Wagner and Mathews; they’re just coming in lineups that more closely align to their strengths, as outlined above. The same applies at center, namely with Robin Lopez.

Teams don’t often distribute minutes in the manner the Wizards have on multiple recent occasions. Last night against the Lakers, Lopez (30 minutes), Bertans (28), and Avdija (23) all played significantly more than Mathews (17) and Wagner (15). But there’s no rule that starters have to play “starters’ minutes” or that bench players have to be used like backups.

One change that Brooks has made strictly out of necessity is increasing Raul Neto’s play time. It’s hard to say whether it will remain once Ish Smith returns, but I believe it should.

Neto appears to be at worst the fourth-best shooter on this roster, whereas Ish Smith is among the worst. That’s not the be all, end all; but if we’re moving forward with the idea of staggering Beal and Westbrook’s minutes, a point guard with Smith’s skill set becomes significantly devalued relative to one who can shoot.

Neto can play with Beal or Westbrook as a co-point guard, or even a spot-up shooter.

Sticking with shooting, Brooks has also staggered Mathews and Bertans very effectively. While Bertans has a more “green light” than Mathews, they’re the top two pure shooters on this team – and it’s not very close. Given this team’s limitations from three-point range, one of them needs to be on the court at all times. The Wizards don’t need high-volume three-point shooting, but they at least need to have a shooter worth the defense’s attention on the floor. Brooks has found the formula to ensure that happens.

Some alignments worth experimenting with – although I admittedly haven’t zeroed in enough to see if they’re being used – are Avdija with Beal (no Westbrook) and Hachimura and Bertans with Westbrook (no Beal). They wouldn’t be particularly frequent groupings, but freeing up Avdija from Westbrook might allow him to handle the ball a bit more and shoot less; Hachimura runs the floor and seems like someone who could greatly benefit from being Westbrook’s lob/pick-and-roll partner; and Bertans is the type of shooter a driver like Westbrook needs, but some of those opportunities are lost with Beal as an option.

Frankly, the Wizards are in an enviable situation. Not only are their first and second units strong, but they have very capable and experienced players outside their rotation that they can turn to if needed. The key phase in this team’s development was creating those cohesive units. But now that those exist, they can sub nearly any given player in or out – without otherwise altering the integrity of those units – and not suffer a substantial dip in collective performance.

The Takeaway

One thing that can’t be said anymore – although the national media might do it anyway – is that Bradley Beal has no help, or more broadly that the Wizards are a bad team. This streak of success has dispelled that myth completely. With that stated, however, Washington will also be held to a higher standard going forward. Now that they’ve proven they’re capable of performing like a playoff team, that will likely be the measuring stick from now through April.

The Wizards can be a playoff team, but only if these three characteristics – star play from Westbrook, an active and communicative defense, and consistently cohesive on-court units – remain intact throughout the rest of the season. The formula has clearly been put in place; the Wizards simply need to execute it – and hope to not run into any unforeseen bad breaks.

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