How Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook play together is the least of the Wizards’ concerns this season. Keeping two ball-dominant guards happy will not be easy, but Westbrook and Beal have both thrived next to other All-Stars before. The bigger issue is the team’s supporting cast. Washington doesn’t have enough 3-and-D players to thrive.
The Wizards had an imbalanced roster last season, with the no. 16 offense in the NBA and the no. 29 defense. Everything began and ended with Beal and Davis Bertans. The former was second in the league in scoring (30.5 per game) and eighth in 3-point attempts (8.4). The latter was seventh (8.7) in attempts despite coming off the bench. The problem was that Beal regressed on defense with more offensive responsibility, and Bertans and the rest of the Wizards were even worse. Their games were an endless blur of made baskets on both ends. Washington actually had a losing record (4-5) when scoring more than 130 points.
Westbrook won’t fix that problem. While he’s a massive upgrade over the Wizards’ journeymen point guards (Isaiah Thomas and Shabazz Napier) from last season, he also doubles down on the rest of the roster’s strengths and weaknesses. Westbrook was never a great defender, even at his athletic peak. It’s hard to imagine him becoming a stopper and an engaged off-ball defender as he moves deeper into his 30s. The best-case scenario is that Westbrook can create easy shots for Beal and allow him to redistribute some energy back to defense, like what happened with Paul George in Oklahoma City.
But letting Westbrook run the offense creates problems of its own. It almost didn’t matter who Beal and Bertans played with last season, because they have unlimited shooting range and create space for everyone just by moving off the ball. Westbrook, on the other hand, needs space created for him. The Rockets clicked last season when they traded Clint Capela and played four shooters around him. The Wizards don’t have many shooters outside of Beal and Bertans. Those two averaged more 3-point attempts per game last season (17.1) than the rest of their teammates combined (15.5).
Westbrook had one of the most efficient offensive seasons of his career in his lone season in Houston (27.2 points per game on 47.2 percent shooting) largely because he played with so many 3-and-D players (P.J. Tucker, Danuel House Jr., Robert Covington, and Eric Gordon). That won’t happen in Washington. Scott Brooks will have to juggle offense and defense with his lineups. Spacing the floor for Westbrook will mean playing poor defenders, while their best defensive lineups won’t give him enough room to operate.
The key to the Wizards’ season is the development of their last three first-round picks—Troy Brown Jr. (no. 15 in 2018), Rui Hachimura (no. 9 in 2019), and Deni Avdija (no. 9 in 2020). All have talent. But the Wizards need them to be 3-and-D players even though none has shown they can actually space the floor. Brown (34.1 percent on 2.6 attempts per game) and Hachimura (28.7 percent on 1.8 attempts per game) were reluctant outside shooters last season, and that area also stands as one of the biggest question marks about Avdija’s game.
Tommy Sheppard took over for Ernie Grunfeld as the Wizards GM in 2019, but the organization’s draft philosophy has remained constant. They have tried to strike gold in the middle of the first round by gambling on skilled wings with size. But the reason those players didn’t go higher is that they didn’t shoot well before coming to the league:
Wizards Draft Picks Before the NBA - Per Game
The upside of a talented young player adding a consistent 3-point shot to their game is obvious. But it’s a gamble that rarely pays off, at least in the short term. There’s a line in the Coen brothers’ 2010 remake of True Grit where old sheriff Rooster Cogburn says: “I don’t believe in sermons or fairy tales or stories about money.” That’s how I feel about young players learning to shoot 3s in the NBA.
It’s not that Brown, Hachimura, or Avdija couldn’t learn eventually. None has a broken-looking shot, although Hachimura will need to add arc to expand his range. Brown and Hachimura also shoot well enough from the free throw line to have some confidence in their underlying shooting touch. The issue is that turning them into better 3-point shooters is about more than just taking a few steps back. It means changing who they are as players.
Brown is the perfect example. The third-year wing had the best stretch of his NBA career in the bubble, averaging 15.3 points on 37.9 percent shooting, 7.3 rebounds, 4.5 assists, and 1.1 steals per game. The big change was that he was given control of the offense with Beal and Bertans out. Brown is a point forward who is at his best with the ball in his hands. He almost doubled his touches in the bubble (64.5 per game) compared to the rest of the regular season (36.2).
Turning Brown into a 3-and-D player would mean changing everything about his game. He would have to go from a slasher who shoots when comfortable to a spot-up shooter who drives when defenders close out on him. But no one will do that until he proves he can make 3s at a high volume. His instincts when defenders play off him are to hold the ball and make plays off the dribble. The Wizards need him to rise up and fire every time that he’s open from deep.
It’s the same thing for Hachimura. He had a solid rookie season (13.5 points on 46.6 percent shooting and 6.1 rebounds per game) largely because Washington didn’t try to change him. They let him operate in the midrange and create his own shot instead of turning him into a spot-up shooter. Hachimura isn’t the kind of quick decision-maker who can instantly read the defense and make the next pass. He’s more deliberate and is better when he can survey the defense and get to his preferred spots on the floor. Per Synergy Sports, Hachimura was in the 17th percentile of players leaguewide in catch-and-shoot situations and in the 59th when shooting off the dribble.
Nor was Avdija a lottery pick because he was a great 3-and-D player at Maccabi Tel Aviv. He struggled in a smaller offensive role in the Euroleague last season, averaging 4.0 points per game on 43.6 percent shooting. The intrigue around him comes from his success in bigger roles in international play and in the Israeli League, where he won MVP after averaging 12.9 points on 52.6 percent shooting, 6.3 rebounds, and 2.7 assists per game. Avdija needs the ball to get into a rhythm. Sticking him in a corner and telling him to space the floor for someone else takes away the very things that make him good in the first place.
The issue goes beyond how these players fit with Westbrook. They would have had the same problem with John Wall. Drafting three wings who need the ball and can’t space the floor for each other was going to be tricky regardless of who is at point guard. There’s more potential synergy in a scenario where they had drafted two shooters around one ball-dominant player. Now the Wizards might not have room for any of their three prized youngsters.
Washington could afford to bring along Brown and Hachimura slowly last season—but that’s out the window now. They need to win big to convince Beal to stay. Westbrook hasn’t gone through a rebuild in a decade. And Brooks is in the last year of his contract. None have time to wait on younger players to figure it out. The Wizards went from a net rating of minus-8.2 with Hachimura on the floor last season to minus-1.8 without him. They will have no choice but to bench him if that trend continues. It’s possible they will trade some of their future assets for a more established 3-and-D player like they did two seasons ago, when they dealt Kelly Oubre Jr. to the Suns for Trevor Ariza.
One of the hardest parts about rebuilding in the NBA is maintaining a balance between developing younger players and remaining competitive. Patience for losing runs out quickly. Just ask Sam Hinkie. The key is to find youngsters who can start as 3-and-D players and grow their offensive games over time. The Wizards have been trying to develop players from the inside-out when it’s much easier to do it from the outside-in. Good outside shooting is the key that unlocks the rest of a young player’s game. And those players make everyone around them better while they are still developing. There’s no real downside to giving them minutes.
Players like Brown, Hachimura, and Avdija will have more growing pains. All were decent picks in a vacuum. But nothing happens in a vacuum in the NBA. There’s only so much time with the ball to go around in an offense. The biggest risk with developing Brown is that it makes Hachimura and Avdija less valuable. Rearrange the names in that sentence in any order and it still holds true. There’s an opportunity cost to drafting young players who need the ball. The Wizards are about to pay it.