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Wizards ready for fresh start with Bradley Beal, Russell Westbrook culture shift

Washington hopes to rebuild on the fly around holdover star Bradley Beal and newcomer Russell Westbrook.

Sekou Smith

Sekou Smith

Between Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal, the Wizards will have one of the league’s most explosive backcourts.

On the surface, Wednesday’s star point guard swap between Houston and Washington seems to make sense for both sides in a business of basketball sense.

The Wizards send five-time All-Star John Wall (and a future draft pick) to the Rockets to team up with James Harden. The Rockets send former Kia MVP and perennial All-NBA pick Russell Westbrook to the Wizards to team up with Bradley Beal. It doesn’t take long to dig up the silver linings on both sides.

This is a transactional move for the Rockets, who have been here before with Chris Paul and then Westbrook, in an attempt to find the right fit alongside Harden in a quest to push the organization into a championship realm. Now it’s Wall’s turn to see if he can fit into that space and inspire Harden to continue his title chase in Houston.

This is a cultural shift for the Wizards, an emotional parting of ways with Wall after a decade with the former No. 1 overall pick as the face of the franchise and a beloved figure in the D.C. community.

“Russell’s resume speaks for itself,” Wizards general manager Tommy Sheppard said in a Friday Zoom session with reporters. “It was an opportunity to make the Washington Wizards a better franchise, bring a lot of amazing accomplishments to our franchise and leadership qualities to our team.”

Critics will point to Westbrook being the first league MVP to be traded in back-to-back seasons (from Oklahoma City to Houston and now from Houston to Washington) as a reason to be wary of his fit alongside Beal.

The move has also been categorized as an exchange of slightly damaged but extremely high-priced goods, because of the massive salaries of both Wall and Westbrook.

Sheppard and Wizards coach Scott Brooks aren’t having it, as they took turns heaping tons of praise on Wall for his contributions on and off the court, and praising Westbrook’s ability to do the same.

“To acquire one of the very best point guards in the NBA you have to give up one of the very best point guards in the NBA,” Sheppard said. “I don’t take any of that lightly. And that’s the decision I felt put the Wizards in the best possible position to be successful this season.”

This notion that this deal was some sort of even swap, however, does a disservice to Westbrook, who has been among the league’s truly elite for the past decade. He’s one of only four active players to have accumulated nine or more All-NBA honors, joining LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Paul on that list, and one of only 28 players in NBA history to achieve that feat.

Is John Wall a better fit next to James Harden?

For all of the bellyaching about his fit alongside his old friend Harden, Westbrook was cooking last season before the March hiatus for the coronavirus pandemic.

By the time the season resumed in the Orlando bubble, a positive COVID-19 test and a quadriceps injury derailed Westbrook’s postseason as the Los Angeles Lakers ran the Rockets off the floor in the Western Conference semifinals.

In the aftermath, Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni departed, followed by general manager Daryl Morey, leaving Westbrook (who averaged 27.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 7.0 assists) as the convenient scapegoat for the Rockets doing the same thing they’ve done consistently in the Harden era: coming up short in the playoffs.

That’s not to suggest that Westbrook is free from responsibility. He’s never been the most efficient player and hasn’t fostered friendships beyond his very tight circle of teammates, a quality that Wizards coach Scott Brooks witnessed first-hand as head coach of the Thunder from 2008-2015.

In short, Westbrook’s a ruthless competitor with little time for making nice with other players or media. Beal compared him to Paul Pierce, who came to the Wizards at the tail end of his storied career and imparted critical leadership traits for both Wall and Beal to soak up.

“When you’re his teammate, you’re his teammate,” Beal said. “It was the same with Paul Pierce, right? He loves you to death. But when you’re against him, all bets are off. He’ll act like you are a bum on the street. He don’t know you. So that’s kind of the mentality he has when he comes on the court. He’s going to disrespect you and he’s going to attack you.”

Bradley Beal discusses his emotions once he learned of John Wall being traded.

It’s a quality that Brooks believes has served Westbrook well over the years, and one that he’ll bring with him to a roster with 13 players with three years or less of NBA experience.

“Russell’s gong into his 13th year,” Brooks said, “We have a lot of young players. Some of these guys were maybe 13 or 14 years old when Russell was just starting off and making a dent in the league with his toughness and style of play, a lot of us had never seen it before him. So I think he’s going to demand their attention.

“I know when I was growing up my favorite player was Julius Irving. And when I got a chance to play for Philadelphia and I met him for the first time, I was like ‘man, this is like my greatest day of my life.’ And I know, playing for that team, I didn’t want to disappoint him because I knew he was watching. It’s the same thing with Russell.

“These guys are going to have a lot of respect for him because they see how hard he plays, and they will see now how hard he works, You don’t just become a good player overnight. It takes a lot of work. Russel is as high a level an athlete as I’ve ever been around. He’s just going to be a great example for all our players. He and Brad have so many similarities, it’s just going to be fun to see it all take place.”

How Beal and Westbrook co-exist is the key for the Wizards, who joined the list of Southeast Division teams that includes Miami, Atlanta and Charlotte in making splashy moves in the days and weeks leading up to today’s start of training camp.

The sting of Wall’s departure was still fresh for Beal, who considers Wall a “brother for life,” after the first training camp practice Friday without Wall and with Westbrook in that familiar space.

“It’s been an emotional week,” Beal said, “It’s definitely been a tough 24, 48, 72 hours here. Just letting it kind of all seep in here and just realizing that your brother is no longer here with you no more. He’s off to something better. It’s a tough pill to swallow. I never get into the game of playing GM. It’s definitely a tough situation because John is my brother and our relationship goes far beyond basketball.

“I think that’s what’s so tough about it. We developed a bond since I was in high school. We’ve had great years together and it was definitely kind of shocking to see the news the other day. But you understand it’s a business. This is the business of basketball and Shep is the GM and he has to make these tough decisions and this is probably, definitely one of the toughest ones our organization has ever had to make.”

Beal continued by acknowledging the “spark” and “energy” Westbrook will bring.

So much of the narrative about Westbrook has centered on how he co-exists with his superstar teammates, much of it a false misguided perception that they didn’t enjoy playing with the player many people consider to be the most physically gifted point guard of this era.

Kevin Durant won his Kia MVP with Westbrook as his point guard in 2014. Paul George had his best season, earned All-NBA first team honors and finished third in the MVP race playing alongside Westbrook in 2019. And the fact that Durant, Westbrook and Harden teamed up as youngsters to make The Finals in 2012 (where they lost to the LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh-led Miami Heat) is proof that he’s been able to operate at a high level in an ensemble.

Sheppard and Brooks are betting on Westbrook being the perfect fit in a rebuilding effort centered around their rising star Beal, who finished second to Harden last season in the scoring race.

Beal is all in on the seismic shift as well.

Having been paired with Wall and knowing how often people tried to find cracks in their relationship and pit them against one another throughout the years, he knows how to avoid the nonsense. His new partner knows that routine well, having survived his own version of that drama in Oklahoma City with Durant and in Houston with Harden over “whose team” it was?

“I don’t think it’ll be a problem,” Beal said. “I’m hoping that he comes in with the energy and the focus that he always plays with. We just need him to play with that drive, that leadership and play like the MVP he’s been playing like, because we have a lot of young, talented guys who are hungry to win, who are hungry to get better.

“And I think just Russ’s energy and his approach, his mental approach to the game will be perfect for us. And I’ll feed off of it, too. I have a lot to learn from him. He’s a lot older than me. He’s an MVP, a nine-time All-NBA, he’s been there. So everything is there. It’s just a matter of us putting the pieces together. I’m never going to judge a book by its cover until I actually dive into playing with him, so … I love his aggression and his attack mentality and I just can’t wait.”

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Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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