There might not be any teams in the NBA in as tough of a pickle as the Washington Wizards. They can claim the league’s leading scorer this season, along with another perennial All Star and former MVP. They boast one of the most prolific three-point shooters in the league – although he’s been relatively cold from distance, compared to last season. And to top it off, they also have two young ex-top 10 picks and a couple additional recent lottery selections.
There’s star power and (at least theoretical) young assets. Yet, they sit outside of playoff contention, in danger of a third straight postseason-less finish.
What the heck is wrong with the Wizards, and why didn’t they do anything about it at the Trade Deadline?
No, trading Troy Brown Jr. and Moe Wagner for Daniel Gafford and Chandler Hutchison doesn’t count as “doing something” of significance. But it does reiterate some familiar questions in Washington.
Straight to the Point
I can tell you what the reason is not: Russell Westbrook.
There is an understandable loyalty amongst Washington’s fanbase to John Wall. We can debate until the cows come home whether trading him and a first-round pick for Westbrook was the best move to make, or whether it was handled properly. However, there is no argument that Wall is substantially better than Westbrook – if at all, and the opposite may in fact be closer to the truth.
John Wall was not going to save the Wizards from where they are now. He was not going to be – and has not been, in Houston – quite the same player he was during his prime. And even if he was, his ceiling was not higher than Westbrook’s. I discussed this extensively recently – feel free to weigh in if you disagree with my stance.
Westbrook entered Thursday averaging 21.7 points, 9.5 rebounds and 10.3 assists per game. That’s not without imperfections – such as a high turnover rate – but those statistics should still largely speak for themselves.
Are the Players to Blame?
There are certainly players that have disappointed. My midseason report cards are indicative of that, and those trends haven’t changed much since the restart after the All Star break. And frankly, Thursday’s trade with the Bulls – in which Washington surrendered its top (realistic) trade chip for little in return – is emblematic of this season.
The only trend that has changed – in some respect – is tied to Rui Hachimura. He was largely underutilized earlier this year, but his volume stats have improved recently. In his last seven games (including Thursday), Hachimura has averaged 18.9 points per game on 14.4 shot attempts and 54.5% shooting, along with 8.6 rebounds. That’s nearly All Star-level productivity!
Brooks is a Bad Look
The issues start at the top. You could cite coaching, the front office or ownership, and none of these answers would be incorrect. Each of the three has questionable qualifications, and that’s precisely what’s allowed them to come together in Washington.
Scott Brooks has had trouble making the most of his player personnel for years, dating back to his time in Oklahoma City. James Harden never averaged more than (roughly) 10 shot attempts per game in his three years with the Thunder. And that’s The Beard, who’s become a perennial MVP contender since leaving OKC.
Sure, the Thunder had good seasons. They made the playoffs in five of Brooks’ seven seasons in OKC, got to the Western Conference Finals three times, and made the NBA Finals in 2012. But that was with Kevin Durant, Westbrook, and a revolving door of highly-productive players/soon-to-be stars like Harden, Serge Ibaka, Reggie Jackson, Steven Adams and Enes Kanter. That’s simply a championship-contending roster.
Even back then, Brooks’ team had the same two-man, isolation tendencies on the offensive end that they’ve had with Bradley Beal and Westbrook – and even Wall, to some extent.
Take that Finals team – which isn’t even the most exaggerated example – as a case in point.
Now compare that to what we’ve seen from the Wizards so far this season.
Not too different, is it? Also consider that Beal isn’t Durant, and Washington’s defense isn’t any good – nor has it been at any point since Brooks arrived. Add it all up, and you get a team that’s .500 or worse.
Should We Trust Tommy?
The jury is still out on general manager Tommy Sheppard to some degree, but early returns aren’t great. Since taking over at roughly the midpoint of calendar year 2019, the Wizards are 40–75. That might be an oversimplification, but it certainly isn’t good.
They’ve also struggled in terms of player acquisitions.
- Draft Picks
- 2019: Rui Hachimura (No. 9); Admiral Schofield (No. 42)
- 2020: Deni Avdija (No. 9); Cassius Winston (No. 53)
- Trade Additions
- 2019–20: Johnathon Simmons (cash considerations); C.J. Miles (for Dwight Howard); Davis Bertans (for Aaron White); Moe Wagner, Isaac Bonga and Jemerrio Jones (cash considerations); Jerome Robinson (for Isaiah Thomas and Issuf Sanon); Shabazz Napier (for Jordan McRae)
- 2020–21: Russell Westbrook (for John Wall and a first-round draft pick); and Daniel Gafford and Chandler Hutchison (for Troy Brown Jr. and Moe Wagner)
- Free Agents
- 2019: Thomas Bryant (three years, $25M); Ish Smith (two years, $12M); Isaiah Thomas (one year, 2.3M)
- 2020: Davis Bertans (five years, $80M); Robin Lopez (one year, $7.3M); Anthony Gill (two years, $2.4M); Raul Neto (one year, $1.9M)
Let’s ignore the Wall-for-Westbrook trade for a moment. Over the last (almost) two years, the Wizards have acquired starters in Hachimura and Thomas Bryant, a top reserve in Davis Bertans, and a developmental piece in Deni Avdija. Everyone else they’ve added – Smith and Neto at point guard, as well as Lopez at center – is essentially a replacement-level placeholder. And Admiral Schofield… he isn’t even in the NBA anymore.
The cupboard had been rather bare when Sheppard took over. At the tail end of his tenure, Ernie Grunfeld traded numerous key contributors in the front court, and the 2018–19 season ended with elder statesmen like Trevor Ariza and Jeff Green and marginal veterans like Bobby Portis and Jabari Parker leading the frontline. Sheppard didn’t retain them, meaning there were lots of holes to fill. Sheppard technically did so, but the on-court product hasn’t improved as a result.
Sheppard will inevitably be graded based on whether Beal re-signs with the Wizards once he’s eligible for a super-max contract – or at least if they get fair value in the trade market. Still, Sheppard hasn’t improved what was seemingly a floundering organization since he took over. Don’t count him out, but the splash fans hoped for hasn’t come yet.
Here’s what it really boils down to. The owner oversees everything. The team as a whole is worse than the sum of its parts, the coach has failed to develop young talent and has a clear ceiling, and the franchise’s failure has extended across the tenures of two separate general managers.
No one is going to force Leonsis to sell the Wizards, but he should at least be held accountable. After all, he’s had to approve of everything the team has done.
What Should the Plan Be?
At this point, Washington has to play out this season. Once they fall out of playoff contention – which feels inevitable – they should ease off the veterans in favor of the youth amongst the roster. Westbrook and Beal will undeniably push to play, but Brooks should still limit their minutes a bit and sprinkle in some off-days for the star guards. Hachimura and Avdija, in particular, need to be given more opportunities in order to grow, as well as simply prove their worth.
Once the season ends, Brooks’ contract will expire. Washington must relieve him of his duties and inject a new voice into his position. They could hire someone with a wealth of coaching experience – perhaps someone Beal has experience with – or a younger coach with upside. Either way, Brooks can’t return next season.
From there, the Wizards currently have two clear roster needs: a center who can protect the rim, and a small forward who can shoot from long range – a need that could compound itself if Garrison Mathews isn’t retained this offseason.
As bleak as the Wizards’ outlook might currently seem, there’s a high likelihood that each of the above steps will be taken – at least to some degree. It’s fair to expect the Wizards to be better next year. There’s just a lot of work that needs to be done in order for them to get back into playoff contention.