Russell Westbrook's wish has been granted.
Earlier this month, the Washington Wizards announced that they have acquired the nine-time All-Star and one-time MVP from the Houston Rockets for John Wall and a future lottery-protected first-round pick.
OFFICIAL: We've acquired G Russell Westbrook from the @HoustonRockets in exchange for G John Wall and a future lottery-protected first round pick- Washington Wizards (@WashWizards) December 3, 2020
It was reported earlier in the offseason that Westbrook wanted out of Houston, some of which had to do with him reportedly wanting a role similar to the one he had with the Oklahoma City Thunder, the franchise he spent the first 11 seasons of his career with.
As was the case with Chris Paul, Westbrook's game changed quite a bit in his short time with the Rockets. He still had a sky-high usage rating (34.4 percent) and was among the league's leading scorers (27.2 points per game) last season, but playing next to James Harden, who is the most prolific isolation scorer in the league, resulted in him having to play more without the ball in his hands.
As a result, his pick-and-roll frequency plummeted while his spot-up and isolation frequency spiked.
In Washington, Westbrook should look more like the player he was in Oklahoma City.
First and foremost, the Wizards have the personnel for him to play more to his strengths, starting with Bradley Beal. While Beal has developed into far more than a shooter - more on that in a bit - he's proven to be much more willing to play off-ball than Harden. Put it this way: Beal was assisted on a total of 267 baskets last season, according to NBA.com. That's almost as many baskets Harden has been assisted on over the last three seasons combined (316).
Not only is Beal a knockdown 3-point shooter, both from a standstill and off of screens, he's a smart cutter. The combination makes him someone teams have to account for at all times in the halfcourt.
In addition to Beal, the Wizards can pair Westbrook with one of the best stretch fours in the league in Davis Bertans, as well as a stretch five in Thomas Bryant, who made 42.5 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s last season. The Wizards won't play five-out to the same extent as the Rockets did last season when they went all-in on small ball, but this will likely be the most spacing Westbrook has ever played with in a traditional lineup in his career. Whereas he was surrounded by two limited shooters for most of his time in Oklahoma City, whether it was Thabo Sefolosha and Kendrick Perkins or Andre Roberson and Steven Adams, spacing won't be as much of an issue in Washington.
It should free Westbrook up to do what he does best - attack the basket with reckless abandon.
Westbrook's jump shot will always be a big question mark, but he's still one of the more dominant paint scorers in the league. According to NBA.com, Westbrook averaged 15.0 points per game in the paint last season. As NBA.com's John Schuhmann pointed out, he joined some impressive company in the process, becoming only the fifth player in the last 24 seasons to average at least 15.0 points per game in the paint in a single season.
The other players to do it? Shaquille O'Neal, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis and Dwight Howard.
The Rockets moving Clint Capela at the trade deadline to surround Westbrook and Harden with three 3-point shooters had something to do with that, but again, the Wizards should have enough shooting at every position to open up the paint for Westbrook in a similar way.
It helps that Westbrook is being reunited with Scott Brooks in Washington. Having coached Westbrook for seven seasons in Oklahoma City, Brooks should know how to get the most out of him. Brooks has already talked about how excited he is to coach Westbrook again, saying he's "one of the easiest guys I've ever coached."
So where can it go wrong?
There are a couple of ways.
The first? Brooks has to get Westbrook and Beal on the same page.
Beal has played next to a high usage point guard before in Wall, but he's coming off of a season that saw him thrive as Washington's primary ball handler. Sporting the fifth-highest usage rating in the league (34.4 percent), Beal averaged career highs of 30.5 points and 6.1 assists per game. The Wizards were one of the worst teams in the league despite Beal going Super Saiyan, but that had more to do with who was surrounding him than his ability to be the No. 1 option on a competitive team.
Because of his limitations as a shooter, Westbrook needs the ball in his hands to be effective. Again, Beal has proven to be a good enough shooter and cutter to share the backcourt with another high usage player, but Brooks will have his work cut out figuring out how they can both get theirs harmoniously.
One reason for optimism: Paul George had the best season of his career playing next to Westbrook in 2018-19. If Westbrook is willing to make some of the same sacrifices he did that season this season - Westbrook still averaged a triple-double but did so on the third-lowest usage rate of his career (30.9 percent) - it could work.
A promising sign is that Westbrook is saying all the right things heading into the season.
"It's going to be a learning process," Westbrook said of his fit with Beal. "Brad's going to have to learn me but most importantly I'm going to have to learn Brad because he's in a position where he can take off another step. My job is to make sure I help him and make the game easy for him."
The second way it could go wrong? Defence.
Offence wasn't actually the problem for the Wizards last season. They finished the season with an offensive rating of 110.2, ranking them 16th in the league, an impressive mark considering their personnel. It was on the other end where they struggled, giving up 114.7 points per 100 possessions, ranking them 29th in the league.
Westbrook is a capable defender - he's consistently among the league leaders in steals and has the size to guard multiple positions - but he's not going to be the one who transforms the Wizards into an above average defensive team. Washington's best bet at being competitive this season is turning games into track meets and running up the score.
It'll put a ceiling on the Wizards, but trading for Westbrook should move them up a tier in the Eastern Conference, from a team that could make the playoffs to a team that should make the playoffs.
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