When last seen, the Wizards were … still in a holding pattern during a franchise makeover that involved transferring the keys to the franchise from John Wall to Bradley Beal. Coach Scott Brooks and a rag-tag roster showed up for the NBA restart without Beal, Wall and several other regulars. Last season’s brutal campaign included a more competitive-than-anticipated group, but the same lottery-bound results. Even with Beal posting the best scoring season of his career, the Wizards didn’t make the playoffs. They exited the bubble in wait-and-see mode, wondering if Wall would come back from his two-year injury absence the same player and if he’d be ready for a new role with Beal as the headliner. Ultimately, they will never find out after Wizards general manager Tommy Sheppard traded Wall and a protected first-round pick to Houston for former Kia MVP Russell Westbrook (and his equally massive contract). The deal ended a decade-long run with Wall, the former No. 1 overall pick and five-time All-Star who struggled to stay healthy his last few seasons in D.C.
What’s new? The Westbrook trade didn’t happen until the Wednesday before training camp began, but it was the blockbuster move that had been rumored for weeks. When Wall is healthy, he’s clearly one of the league’s best point guards — but Westbrook has been a cut above that during that same timeframe. A nine-time All-NBA selection, Westbrook remains one of the league’s most impactful players. Washington is hoping that dynamic combination of Westbrook and Beal will help lift an inexperienced roster (13 players have three years or less of NBA experience) into the mix for one of the play-in tournament spots. Veteran shooter Davis Bertans signed a five-year, $80 million deal and Robin Lopez and Raul Neto joined up, too. Draft prizes Deni Avdija (No. 9 overall pick) and Michigan State point guard Cassius Winston (No. 53 pick) join a group of unproven youngsters who will be folded into the culture shift that will be this unpredictable season in Washington.
What’s missing: A clear vision of the future. The Wizards are still operating on the tender footing that comes with the long-term uncertainty surrounding their franchise player (Beal has two years left before he hits free agency). Adding Westbrook is a sign that the organization is willing to convince Beal it is serious about building a playoff team around him. But there’s so much more work to be done. The roster-upgrading process is still in its infancy as the Wizards are figuring out exactly what they have in youngsters Troy Brown Jr., Rui Hachimura, Jerome Robinson, Moritz Wagner and Isaac Bonga. Sheppard spoke of a “cost certainty” in acquiring Westbrook, which is the only thing they can be certain of. Much of what Brooks and his staff do this season will be betting on the unknown.
POTENTIAL STARTING FIVE
Bradley Beal | 30.5 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 6.1 apg
A proven elite scorer with the potential to be an elite two-way player.
Russell Westbrook | 27.7 ppg, 7.9 rpg, 7.0 apg
Former MVP is still a game-changer and force 13 seasons into Hall of Fame career.
Thomas Bryant | 13.2 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 1.1 bpg
Rugged big man brings his lunch pail every night, but has limitations.
Rui Hachimura | 13.5 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 1.8 apg
Uneven rookie season hasn’t dimmed internal expectations for second-year forward.
Isaac Bonga | 5.0 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 1.2 apg
An underrated young talent (21 years old) whose defense is his biggest plus
Ish Smith | 10.9 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 4.9 apg
As reliable in his reserve role as Westbrook is spectacular in his as the starter.
Davis Bertans | 15.4 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 1.7 apg
Sweet-shooting big who found his niche as a force off the bench last season.
Troy Brown Jr. | 10.4 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 2.6 apg
Talented and versatile forward could easily fit into the starting spot instead of Bonga.
Moritz Wagner | 8.7 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 1.2 apg
Comes off his best season in years and sheds some of his quirkiness.
Washington Wizards, last 5 seasons
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions
Based strictly on the potential fireworks of a Beal-Westbrook backcourt, the Wizards have a fighting chance to slug their way into the playoff (or play-in tournament) mix this season. They immediately join the list of the league’s most electrifying and productive backcourt tandems. Chasing a playoff berth will also require Brooks working some of the same magic he did with Westbrook as his point guard in Oklahoma City (from 2008-15). Beal and Westbrook’s collective health will be of the utmost importance, given the lack of star power elsewhere and the Wizards’ depth issues. If Avdija winds up being ready earlier than expected, that will give the Wizards another unexpected boost. Either way, there should be just enough to keep this crew relevant in the playoff hunt this season.
Predicted finish: 36-36.
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