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Wizards reflect on 2020-21 season, identify offseason goals
Following the Wizards’ first round playoff series with the Sixers, general manager Tommy Sheppard, head coach Scott Brooks and players came through MedStar Wizards Performance Center one more time before heading away for the offseason. Each checked in with staff, Sheppard and Brooks met with the media and players stopped by the Wizards Podcast Network’s Off The Bench podcast to look back on the season and preview the upcoming offseason. Here, we look at some of the key quotes and messages from Sheppard, Brooks and players as they begin their offseason.
Brooks, Bradley Beal, Russell Westbrook and Robin Lopez commented on what they’ll remember most about the unique season, the lessons they learned from the team and what made the team’s late-season turnaround possible.
BROOKS: I’ve been on enough teams as a player, as an assistant coach, as a head coach – I know there is always disappointment when you don’t finish where you want to finish. But there’s only going to be one happy team…But this season is going to rank up there with one of my favorite seasons. What we had to go through, like I’ve said many times – a lot of things are public, but there’s a lot of things that we went through that nobody knows. There are some things that players or coaches went through that I don’t even know. COVID has hit many walks of life and many of us in different ways. We’ve all had people that passed away from it, that devastated their families…For us to continue to play and fight for one another and have the injuries that we’ve had – to me, that’s going to go down as one of my favorite seasons to coach because of that. You want players that play with resiliency. You want players that play with grit and toughness and fight.
BEAL: Just from a business and approach standpoint, it was easy. It was easy to work with guys…Everybody wanted to learn. It pushed everybody to want to be better. It pushed everybody to pay more attention to film, pay more attention to detail and stay in the gym more. It’s just an encouraging year…I was fortunate. I was definitely proud of everybody. We have guys we brought up from the G League, guys that were in and out of lineups, we have guys who got minutes and didn’t get minutes – but they stayed the course. They didn’t show any ill will to teammates. That was great to be a part of and I’m happy with the way we competed.
LOPEZ: I definitely think it was all pretty indelible. It was all pretty integral to what we went through, but those last few months were really something else.
WESTBROOK: The resiliency that we had as a team and an organization. I think that shows a lot just because we went through a lot. There are so many ups and downs throughout the season, but me being here, COVID, everything else that’s going on in the world – to be able to fight and withstand everything else that’s going on and still make it to the playoffs shows the resiliency of the guys we have and the character of the group we have.
BROOKS: I’m proud of them. The players and the coaches and the medical and the performance – they are the engine. I’m just part of the ride. I love being part of the group. I’m proud of their commitment to our players…I’m proud of our staff. We did things differently this year. Being away from family members and traveling and testing early morning, late night. Not leaving the hotel on the road, not having meetings on the road, doing everything on Zoom knowing all my assistant coaches were down the hall from me. No team dinners, nothing. I’m proud of the group. I’m proud of the coaching staff, the medical team, the performance team, the sport scientists, our chef – everybody down the line. They are all part of our success. They’re all part of growing our team going into the future.
Appreciation for the team’s “no drama” environment was a common refrain during exit interviews – and while that feeling permeated the entire organization, it started with the team’s veteran leaders. All season long, Sheppard and Brooks credited Beal and Westbrook for their ability to lead the team – both by example and in the locker room – through all the trials and tribulations of the 2020-21 season.
SHEPPARD: Everything kind of starts with Bradley Beal. This franchise, moving forward, we put this team together around Bradley. We built that cornerstone and we were able to acquire Russell very late in the game…He and Bradley together have created an environment here that is second-to-none, I believe. There is no drama. There’s genuine brotherhood and everyone wants to get better. We bring it every single day.
BROOKS: I appreciate what Russell has brought to our organization. He’s come in here and really made us better. He’s challenged me, he’s challenged our staff, he’s challenged Brad, he’s challenged his teammates to be better. He brings that intensity, that professionalism that we need…He’s the gold standard for how you act as a professional on and off the court. I get to see it firsthand how he treats the flight attendants, how he treats our chef, how he treats everybody in our building. To me, that’s the sign of a true champion.
SHEPPARD: I think it speaks for itself, the production that Russell was able to add on the floor, his presence in the locker room…Russell has been tremendous. His presence continues to be very uplifting for everyone in this franchise. Certainly projecting forward, it’s something to look forward to as we continue to improve this community here.
While the Wizards’ success this season is largely credited to Beal and Westbrook’s play, the organization knows that further improvement will largely depend on the team’s young core to improve and develop during the offseason. The team’s last two first round picks, Rui Hachimura and Deni Avdija, each dealt with injuries throughout the season, but showed the flashes that the coaches and front office staff were looking for. Daniel Gafford, acquired at the trade deadline from Chicago, established himself as an important part of the franchise’s future as well – and will be joined in the frontcourt next season by Thomas Bryant, whose season was cut short due to an ACL injury.
BROOKS: Not a lot of players go into their first playoff series and have better numbers than their regular season. We had two of them: [Gafford] and Rui. First time in the playoffs and actually I think they played better…There’s no question (Rui is) going to continue to get better offensively. His jump shot is going to keep improving. I think he made a step in the right direction. His ball-handling skill is improving, still needs to get much better there. His defensive versatility is an area I see potential for big growth next season. But he needs to keep playing. He hasn’t played a lot of basketball in his NBA career. He’s been hurt last year and hurt this year, but I think those injuries are all behind him. I see potential for being a really solid fixture in our organization.
SHEPPARD: (Hachimura is) going to play for his country in the Olympics and that’s a great opportunity, a huge stage, a whole different ball of wax for him pressure-wise to have the world watching and to play against some of the best teams in the world. That’s great experience for us. It’s great experience to have him play in five playoff games.
BROOKS: I like (Avdija’s) potential. He played a good amount of minutes this year. There were some really good moments and there were some moments that you can tell he was 19. We still have a lot of hope in his future…Summer is going to be big for Rui and Deni. They’re not going to shy away from the work. That’s what they do. They work hard and they’re good kids. They want to come back better. Having leaders like Brad and Russell will help their development. They know what it takes. They get to see it every day.
While Hachimura will represent Japan in the Olympics this summer, Avdija will focus on continued rehab of his ankle fracture late in the season. Sheppard provided an update on his recovery and his plans to reintegrate Avdija back into game action this summer.
SHEPPARD: (Avdija is) in week six of an injury that we think he’ll be cleared from after 12 weeks. The most important thing to me is his therapy today…We’re very pleased with his progress. Our hope is to have him 100% ready by the time Summer League rolls around, but it’s not imperative that he play in Summer League. We’ll make that evaluation at the right time.
SHEPPARD: He’s out of the boot now and he’s able to do spot shooting. We’re not having him jump. He’s working out and his cardio, we’re trying to blow that out, make sure he keeps his lungs with him as he’s rehabbing. Lower body injuries are difficult because you can’t do a lot of running so you want to make sure you do everything you can to increase his cardio capacity while he’s doing this. He’s doing fantastic. Six weeks into the injury, I couldn’t tell you anything other than that we’re pleased with his progress and we look forward to where he’s at 12 weeks and see where he is and what he’s cleared to do. Certainly the goal is to have him, training camp next year, he’s going to be a very big piece of what we’re doing.
With the 2020-21 season now in the past, the team turns its attention toward preparation for next season. Sheppard and Brooks reflected on what they learned most from working with this group and what it taught them about the most pressing areas for improvement heading into the 2021-22 season.
SHEPPARD: We need to be a much better team this time next year to compete that the level we want to compete at. But I’ll say this, if you asked me that question this time last year, that was before we acquired Russell Westbrook, before we signed Davis Bertans back, before we brought Daniel Gafford in on a trade, before we drafted Deni (Avdija). There are a lot of things that happened at the end of last season that contributed to the way we were able to elevate this season. We’ve gotten better the last two years, our record has improved, we got to the playoffs this year. Now, I think that’s going to be the expectation moving forward. That’s where we want to be, but certainly we want to finish much higher than that.
BROOKS: We definitely need shooting. We’ve known that…I think when you have shooting, it kind of opens things up. I think we were third in the league in scoring. Scoring is really not the issue. There are things we can improve on. Shooting can open up some more ball movement. The league is a league of really talented offensive players. Every team switches, so you have to have attach players that can attack off the dribble. If you have those players, which we do, then you have to have shooting which can help those guys make passes where the lane is not clogged.
SHEPPARD: The success of this season, to me, was the cohesiveness that I saw amongst the players. The peer-to-peer, genuine love and brotherhood that they had for each other. The elevation of our franchise getting back to the playoffs after not being there for a couple years. I think that was one significant step. Now, with that, it becomes the expected next year. We have to build on that.