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Since starting the season at a miserable 17-32 mark, the Washington Wizards have won 12 of their last 14 games. The unlikely run gave the team a shot at the postseason that would’ve seemed laughable just mere weeks ago.
Now, the team is on the verge of making the play-in tournament. Let’s take a look at two key factors for the team and what has sparked Washington’s turnaround.
Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal Clicking
The Wizards traded former franchise icon John Wall to the Houston Rockets on Dec. 2, 2020. The 2020-21 NBA season began on Dec. 22, 2020. It’s not hard to fathom why the backcourt of Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal took a while to get back to their winning ways.
As they say, time heals all — and that’s certainly all it took for Westbrook and Beal.
“They don’t have that excuse bone that some players have,” said head coach Scott Brooks. “It’s easy to find it, there’s a lot. Travel, body hurts, ‘things I gotta deal with off the court,’ ‘I have a cold,’ ‘coach is not playing me,’ ‘I’m not getting shots. There are always excuses you can use but those two guys don’t use excuses. They lead. If you’re gonna have a chance to win back-to-backs [your two best players have to buy in].”
Westbrook was “only” averaging 21.8 points, 10.5 rebounds and 10.5 assists, though, his shooting numbers were poor at a 43.2/30.9/61.3 split.
— Washington Wizards (@WashWizards) May 1, 2021
However, since April 7, the former MVP is averaging more assists and boards on more efficient shooting. Whereas Westbrook was sporadically available to begin the year, Westbrook started all 14 of the team’s last games.
“I coached [Westbrook] in the shortened season,” Brooks said. “I don’t even know what year it was, we had like five games in seven nights. By the fifth night, we had three games in a row, I wasn’t even worried. I’ve said it many times, that young man is different in a way that I love.”
Furthermore, Westbrook has 27 consecutive double-doubles, which is the longest streak of his career. Westbrook is at 177 career triple-doubles after the team’s victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers, putting him just four shy of tying Oscar Robertson for most in league history.
“When you’re in this position and you get mentioned with greats like Oscar [Robertson], they compliment things you do for the game, it’s truly an honor,” Westbrook said. “It’s something I don’t take for granted.
“[Robertson] is someone that did more for the game, played in the era where it was tough being an African-American athlete in our game and he sacrificed so many things to play the game. I understand that and to me, I’m just grateful to be in the conversation with my name connected to his.”
Russell Westbrook has his 177th career triple-double tonight … after three quarters. Five more and he passes Oscar Robertson.
— Marc Stein (@TheSteinLine) May 1, 2021
In his short time with the Wizards, Westbrook is already the team’s all-time leader in triple-doubles.
“It’s really awesome,” Brooks said. “I can’t even think of any other words other than it’s pretty cool to see him, what he does. How he leads us off the court, on the court, in the locker room, in the hotel, on the bus, he’s just been terrific for our organization. I cannot be more happy for him and his family. He’s earned this. I’m hoping that he does get it … I’m thrilled. … He’s that good.”
The two-man lineup of Westbrook and Beal isn’t the team’s best, but it is the highest-rated of Washington’s six most-played two-man pairings.
And as always, Beal is completely dominating the season. His 31.3 points per game rank second in the NBA. One underrated aspect of Beal’s game is how he’s getting to the line and the rate at which he’s connecting. Beal is averaging 7.5 free throw attempts per game, which ranks second-most in his career. He’s making the most of those chances, shooting a career-high 90.1 percent from the line.
Role Players Stepping Up
While the team’s stars are playing stellar basketball, Washington has its role players to thank just as much for this spectacular run. Despite losing Thomas Bryant and Deni Avdija for the year, the Wizards still run deep.
Over the last 14 games, the Wizards’ bench is averaging 45.4 points per game, second-best in the league. That unit is also shooting a 54.8 percent clip from the floor, which ranks the best in the league.
Raul Neto, who Basketball Insiders talked to earlier this season, is averaging career-high numbers across the board and has slid into a starting role with the team.
“Just his consistent scrappiness. [Neto] just scraps,” Brooks said. “He grinds and plays every possession with a pure heart and he just competes. … [Neto] does a great job of driving and kicking … he’s consistent, love the guy. His teammates love him. He competes every day. Same demeanor game in and game out.”
Neto is averaging 8.4 points and 1.1 steals while shooting 46.6 percent from the floor and 38.8 percent from three. Furthermore, Neto’s been a pest on defense to counter Westbrook and Beal’s scoring punch. Neto is one of just a few players with a positive defensive box plus/minus, something that’s easily noticeable by watching the team play.
In fact, the Wizards are 11-5 when Neto scores more than 12 points this season.
“I think having everybody healthy and having consistency in that,” Neto said of what sparked the midseason turnaround. “Most of the games we’re having mostly everybody. We don’t have games where we have three or four guys out and it kills our rhythm. … And definitely [Westbrook] and [Beal]. They’re having an amazing stretch playing well every game and being huge for us. I think it shows that their leadership is important. Not only talking or doing what they do but playing well for us, it’s been huge for us.”
Another player that has been an unlikely marvel is Daniel Gafford. Gafford’s arrival alongside Chandler Hutchinson at the trade deadline helped spark the 12-2 run. After a disappointing stint with the Chicago Bulls, Gafford has been a surreal glue guy for the Wizards.
In the 14-game sample size, Gafford is averaging 10.8 points, 6.1 rebounds, 1.9 blocks and 0.8 steals per game in just over 18 minutes per night. During this time, Gafford boasts a whopping plus-23 net rating and a 104 defensive rating, both best on the team.
Gafford’s 5.1 box plus/minus is the best on the team, ranking ahead of Beal’s 3.4 and Westbrook’s 2.2.
Daniel Gafford dunked all over Kuzma 😤 pic.twitter.com/x8It8Agt9H
— ESPN (@espn) April 29, 2021
While Gafford has undoubtedly helped shore up the Wizards’ frontcourt, Robin Lopez and Alex Len both deserve credit for holding down the fort without Bryant.
Len arrived midseason after a short stint with the Toronto Raptors. After his arrival, Len became a starter at the center position and is averaging 7.6 points per game on a highly efficient 63.4 percent clip. Len splits the time at that position with Lopez, who is having a bounce-back season on the same field-goal percentage as Len.
Even rookie Anthony Gill is getting in on the fun in the frontcourt, averaging 9.3 points on 76.2 percent shooting in his last four games, earning expanded playing time.
“[Gafford] came in and gave us good minutes, Ish Smith came in and gave us good minutes,” Brooks said. “It seems like this last month and a half we’ve been playing good and then an out of nowhere guy would surface in any given game. I have confidence in any guy, that’s why I always tell them to stay ready. Recently, it’s been [Gill]. He hasn’t played all year but he stayed ready and he’s stepped up, that’s what you want. They put a lot of work in.”
And of course, fans can’t forget Davis Bertans and Rui Hachimura, with Bertans shooting over 40 percent from deep at a high rate while Hachimura continues to grow in his age-22 season.
Even if the Wizards don’t make it far in the postseason, fans of the team have to feel good about the way the team responded in the wake of adversity. Losing Bryant and Avdija is not a small deal, and one can only wonder how different the Wizards would look if Beal and Westbrook had a full training camp to click.
With a first-round pick in tow and a full offseason ahead, the Wizards’ once-dim future might be brighter than many once thought.
“I think we have a good team,” Brooks said. “We got some good players, continuity as a group. We’ve had guys step up any given game, like tonight it was [Gill] who stepped up and gave us good minutes.
“We’re healthy. We have a good team. We’ve had a lot of stuff go on and I think the biggest thing is we stayed with it. We still have nine games to go and we’re going to play how we’ve played. Every game, every day is important. It seems like every night someone is stepping up.”