It’s been almost four months since the Los Angeles Lakers and the Washington Wizards agreed on a blockbuster deal that sent Russell Westbrook home to L.A. in exchange for Montrezl Harrell, Kyle Kuzma, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
Let’s revisit how major sports media outlets graded the trade:
Wizards: A. “Dealing him for three contributors replenishes the depth they were set to lose in free agency while also saving more than $6 million in 2021-22 salary.”
Lakers: D. “Maybe the Lakers will be the team to figure out the post-Thunder Westbrook fit. Much more likely, they’ll find out the same thing as the Funkes: It never works.”
Wizards: B+. “With Beal reportedly willing to stay in D.C., this deal allows the Wizards to build around him with role players while gaining some cap flexibility.”
Lakers: C. “Perhaps LeBron is growing tired of ball-handling responsibilities—at least Russ can help with that. Otherwise, the fit is messy offensively.”
Wizards: A-. “They weren’t going to win a title even with a Westbrook and Beal backcourt, so you might as well get top value for the point guard while you can.”
Lakers: C. “Yes, it’s another superstar in the mix with Bron and the Brow. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll all work out on the court.”
Wizards: B+. “Harrell’s contract expires after next season. Caldwell-Pope has less than $5 million guaranteed after next season. With Westbrook’s gargantuan salary gone, even with Kuzma in the fold, the Wizards could create up to $30 million in extra space next offseason to try to supplement Beal. What they’ll do with that flexibility remains to be seen, but remember, even with Westbrook, the Wizards barely made the playoffs. They didn’t have a roster worth keeping together. Now, they have the freedom to possibly build a better one.”
Lakers: C. “At best, Westbrook handling the ball means that James and Davis aren’t. At worst? He actively hinders them through his inability to shoot 3-pointers.”
Wizards: B+. “Not only do the Wizards have more pieces that can easily slide into the rotation, they also have more financial flexibility in the future.”
Lakers: C. “Westbrook’s flaws are just as obvious as his strengths. He is the worst high-volume 3-pointer shooter in NBA history, and opposing teams have essentially dared Westbrook to beat them from the outside, especially in the playoffs. The Lakers themselves employed that strategy against him in the bubble.”
Wizards: B+. “This move for the Washington Wizards is all about flexibility and not having to pay $40 million-plus to one guy over each of the next two seasons.”
Lakers: B. “So having the ability to mix and match three stars should keep the Lakers from seeing big drops with their offensive rating. And the Lakers have such a great defensive team identity, that Westbrook’s inconsistent defensive attention to detail shouldn’t hurt them too much.”
Two things are clear. First, there was consensus that Washington won the trade. Second, there’s a reason why The Athletic is in financial trouble. When you’re asking readers to pay for content, you better not write something as idiotic as giving the Lakers a ‘B’ on that trade.
We can simply look at the teams’ win-loss records and call it a day. After all, the most important thing to consider is simply whether the team got better. The Wizards are off to their best start in 7 years and are currently fourth in the East. The Lakers are a .500 team and sit at 8th place in the West. But merely looking at the standings fails to capture exactly how good Harrell, Kuzma, and KCP have been for the Wizards.
Almost everybody thought that Washington made the deal for cap flexibility with the end goal of signing Beal long-term—and that was probably the main driving force behind the trade—but nobody foresaw how much better they would be now. Oddsmakers had them at 33.5 wins; they’re already over one-third of that with less than a quarter of the games played.
Let’s start with Harrell. If the trade was a straight-up swap between Trezz and Russ, the Wizards would’ve still won by unanimous decision. Check out their per-36 minutes numbers:
Harrell: 21.9 PTS/11.5 TRB/2.9 AST/.646 FG%/.778 FT%
Westbrook: 20.2 PTS/8.5 TRB/8.7 AST/.431 FG%/.697 FT%
Westbrook is playing 7.4 minutes per game more than Harrell, so it’s important to highlight the per-36 minutes because it gives us a more accurate representation of their productivity. The advance stats back it up:
|PER||27.9 (4th)||16.2 (76th)|
|True Shooting %||.695 (3rd)||.510 (154th)|
|Win shares||3.2 (3rd)||0.7 (178th)|
|Win shares/48||.308 (3rd)||.046 (165th)|
|Box +/-||7.0 (6th)||-1.3 (118th)|
|Offensive rating||138.5 (1st)||99 (150+)|
|Defensive rating||104.9 (25+)||108 (150+)|
|VORP||1.2 (6th)||0.1 (150th)|
|RAPTOR WAR||2.0 (20th)||-0.1 (210th)|
(Stats from Basketball Reference and FiveThirtyEight)
The thing that stands out the most, apart from their rankings, is Harrell’s net rating (difference between offensive and defensive rating). The Wizards are outscoring opponents by a whopping 33.6 points per 100 possessions when he is on the floor. How good is that? Last year’s top two MVP vote-getters, Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid, had a net rating of +21 and +17, respectively; while Giannis Antetokounmpo had a net rating of +19 and +22 during his two MVP seasons. And it gets even more insane when compared to Westbrook. Russ has a minus-9 net rating, meaning Harrell is +42.6 over him!
Harrell has been the most consistent member of the Wizards, playing in all of the team’s 18 games and reaching double-digits every single time. He is averaging a career-high in rebounds (9.0), assists (2.3), and, perhaps most crucially, minutes (28.1). When asked why he’s playing better this year compared to last season, Trezz responded: “Montrezl Harrell is on the floor, brother. That’s the biggest difference.” (For transparency, it may be worth mentioning that he is also in his contract year.)
His hustle and energy have already won over the D.C. crowd:
While the MVP chants may be over the top, it’s not entirely nonsensical as Harrell currently ranks 10th in Basketball Reference’s MVP tracker. Either way, the fans clearly appreciate what he’s brought to the franchise. (Side note: Harrell at +1600 for Sixth Man of the Year at FanDuel looks like a steal. That’s practically betting that Tyler Herro will have a two-week slump at some point, which is a very, very plausible eventuality.)
Kuzma and KCP aren’t quite on the same level as Harrell, but together they’ve been mostly good enough to cover for Westbrook’s production:
KK+KCP: 23 PTS/12.9 TRB/3.9 AST/3.2 TOV/1.6 WS/0.2 VORP (avg)/0.35 RAPTOR WAR (avg)
Westbrook: 20 PTS/8.4 TRB/8.6 AST/4.9 TOV/0.7 WS/0.1 VORP/-0.1 RAPTOR WAR
The duo scores more points and grabs more boards, while committing less turnovers. (Interesting stat: even if you add Harrell’s 1.2 turnovers per game, the three of them would still average less combined turnovers compared to Russ!) Westbrook has the advantage in assists, though neither Kuzma nor KCP handles the ball nearly as much as Westbrook. Throw in the value-based stats and it’s basically a wash.
Once you consider the fit, then it swings into KK+KCP’s favor. Beal is the Wizards’ best player and he became a top-20 player once his usage rate went up to 30-plus percent in 2019 (when John Wall missed the season due to an Achilles injury). So the Wizards either had to get him (a) a true point guard who can relieve him of ballhandling duties and get him easier opportunities or (b) surround him with low-usage 3-and-D guys. Westbrook was neither, which is why something always felt off despite Washington’s 15-5 record to close out last season.
Although KK+KCP are only a hairline above league-average in terms of 3-point shooting this season (34.8% and 36.4%, respectively), they’re still much better than Westbrook (30.3%). KK+KCP take more than 7 more threes per game compared to Westbrook, which translates to 3 more makes per game. Kuzma and KCP each have better true shooting percentages than Westbrook and are outscoring him in the 4th quarter, averaging a combined 6.9 points to Russ’s 5.2, and have had their share of clutch moments this season.
Defense is where the duo truly outshines Westbrook. Kuzma and KCP each have better individual defensive ratings, defended field goal percentage, defensive box plus-minus, defensive win shares, and box RAPTOR defense than Westbrook. Together with Harrell, they’ve been responsible in transforming the Wizards’ 20th ranked defense into a top 7 one.
It’s no coincidence that Harrell, Kuzma, and KCP have all seen jumps in their production compared to last season. Not only are they playing more minutes, they’re benefitting from the change in scenery. “It’s very fun obviously,” Kuzma said. “From an individual standpoint, this is kind of what I wanted. An opportunity just to not be in someone’s shadows or have that type of logjam [from] a roster standpoint.”
It seemed improbable, but the Wizards have parlayed the Westbrook deal into immediate success. They’re picking up wins now and are on pace to fight for homecourt advantage in the first round. The trade netted them two starters and a sixth man who plays starter minutes, giving the team much-needed depth and players whose games fit perfectly with new coach Wes Unseld Jr.’s defense-oriented approach. Combined with what everybody saw as a short-swing move of unloading Westbrook’s prohibitive $44M salary and giving themselves financial flexibility next year to add another all-star alongside Beal, then the Wizards won the trade twice over.
Are they good enough to beat Brooklyn, Milwaukee, or Miami in the playoffs? That’s wishful thinking. But if they avoid those three in the first round, their chances of extending their season to May are still higher than Westbrook’s new team.