The Washington Wizards pulled the plug on their Russell Westbrook experiment this past offseason following an uneven first year together. There was a general lack of interest for the 2017 NBA Most Valuable Player despite him averaging a triple double over the course of an entire season for the fourth time in his career.
The Wizards eventually settled on a package from the Los Angeles Lakers that was highlighted by Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma, and Montrezl Harrell. The combined resumes of these three career role players pale in comparison to that of Westbrook, who is also a nine-time NBA All-Star and a member of the league’s 75th Anniversary Team.
It was initially perceived that the Wizards lost out on the deal, at the very least in terms of value, yet their on court production has told a completely different story.
In the absence of Westbrook’s rushed shot attempts and questionable decision-making that have now drawn the ire of the Laker fan base this season, Washington has adapted a more free-flowing offense. They have raced out to a surprising 6-3 win-loss record that has them just one game behind the Eastern Conference-leading Philadelphia 76ers.
This team still revolves around three-time NBA All-Star Bradley Beal, but the newfound depth that the Westbrook trade afforded them has helped reduce their reliance on his offensive talents. After back-to-back seasons where he averaged over 30 points per game, Beal’s scoring is down to 23.5 points a contest.
His field goal shooting has plummeted from 48.5% last year to a paltry 40% in his eight appearances this season though his assists have jumped back to 5.1 per game following a slight drop off last season. Based on his numbers alone, it would have been safe to assume that Washington was 3-6 instead of 6-3, but that is where this team has proved that they are different from their previous iterations.
Caldwell-Pope, a key rotation piece and perimeter defender in the Lakers’ run to the 2020 NBA title, has brought a newfound defensive intensity to this team. More often than not, he draws the task of covering the opposing team’s best scorer and he has generally found success in that role this year.
His best all-around game with the Wizards came in their 122-111 win over the Atlanta Hawks. Caldwell-Pope had a season high 21 points to go with eight rebounds while he also helped limit Atlanta’s star guard Trae Young to just 15 points on six-of-17 shooting from the field.
In their latest victory, a convincing 115-87 blowout versus the upstart Memphis Grizzlies, Caldwell-Pope bothered Ja Morant all throughout the contest into a season-low 11 points on 17 shots. Caldwell-Pope was solid on offense as well, hitting four three-pointers en route to 12 points and he also collected seven rebounds.
Fellow 2020 NBA champion Kyle Kuzma has surprisingly found his niche together with Caldwell-Pope on the defensive end as well. More known for his antics on offense, Kuzma has embraced his role with Washington as a hard-nosed forward.
The 26-year-old Kuzma is averaging 14 points and a career-best 9.4 rebounds per game. Prior to this season, his best rebounding year came in his rookie season where he averaged 6.3 a game. The newfound commitment of the 6’10 Kuzma to rebounding the ball has made him a valuable presence and helped them weather the brief absence of starting center Daniel Gafford due to injury.
Although he has emphasized rebounding, Kuzma remains a reliable scorer and has hit double figures in seven of his nine appearances this year. His best game of the season so far came in their 115-112 double overtime win against the Boston Celtics where he posted 17 points and 17 rebounds in 47 minutes.
However, among the players they received in the Westbrook trade, the biggest statistical impact has come from 2020 NBA Sixth Man of the Year Montrezl Harrell. In the wake of a successful three-year run with the Los Angeles Clippers, Harrell’s lone year with the Lakers was a disaster. He has bounced back strongly with averages of 18 points and 9.7 rebounds per game with the Wizards, quickly reestablishing himself as one of the best second unit scorers in the league.
Harrell has yet to score less than 10 points in his nine games this season and has already recorded more than 20 points four times this year–already a third of his total with the Lakers in the previous regular season.
He may not be the most effective or physically imposing defender, but the Wizards do not need Harrell to play that role on a team that prominently features Gafford and the newly converted defensive specialist Kuzma. This allows Harrell to thrive at what he does best and when he hits that level of comfort, he has proven that he can score with the best of them.
On paper, this Wizards team looks like a gang of misfits and outcasts from other postseason teams. Though it may be true to some extent, it is the experiences that they have drawn from those previous stops that have also enabled their early season success. This team is filled with veterans who know their roles and the limits of their abilities which makes them the perfect supporting cast for Beal.
This team remains a piece or two away from becoming a true postseason contender though they have a solid foundation of what promises to be a gritty yet entertaining team this year.
Washington may have lost some star power this past offseason, but instead of crumbling, they have become the latest proof that pulling together a band of superstars is not the only path to relevance in this league.