If you've had dinner outdoors during the pandemic, you know the feeling. You're isolated from the other customers. You have to put on your mask between bites. You squirt out some hand sanitizer when you're done using your utensils. It's certainly not the same, but hey, it's better than boiling pasta at home for the 126th consecutive night.
That must be what it feels like to be a Wizards fan right now. Sure, Russell Westbrook is a flawed player whose best days might be behind him, but he's surely an upgrade over John Wall, a disgruntled former All-Star who hasn't played an NBA game in two years. There's almost no doubt that Westbrook will help in the short term, but the question is whether he'll perform well enough -- and lead to enough winning -- for Bradley Beal, whose contract expires after the 2021-22 season, to plant his flag in the nation's capital for the foreseeable future.
On paper, Beal is an ideal teammate for Westbrook. He can space the floor by playing off the ball when Westbrook is on the court and become the primary ball-handler and facilitator when Westbrook sits. In late-game situations, Beal won't have three defenders draped upon him at all times with Westbrook as an alternative playmaker.
In fact, the Wizards roster as a whole seems like the perfect environment for Westbrook. They played at the fifth-highest pace in the league last season and have a lineup riddled with shooters, Davis Bertans chief among them after signing a five-year, $80 million deal this offseason. Another key will be that two of the three Wizards centers, Thomas Bryant and Moe Wagner, can both comfortably stretch to 3-point range. The Rockets traded away their only center to open up the lane for Westbrook, but the Wizards can maintain that spacing while still having a center on the floor.
Where Westbrook probably doesn't help much, however, is on defense. The Wizards narrowly missed having the worst defense in the league last season, allowing 114.7 points per 100 possessions. The only offseason addition that begins to address that area is Robin Lopez, but he's not exactly a 25-minute-per-game guy at this point in his career. That being said, if they can take small steps on defense, the offense should be enough to keep them in the playoff race in the East. Hell, they were right there last year even without being able to stop anyone.
Taking the temperature
Wizards believer: Goodbye John Wall, hello Russ! Goodbye lottery, hello postseason! I'm not saying the Wizards can challenge for the No. 6 seed, but I'm also not not saying it. Westbrook is the perfect addition to this team. Not only will he give Beal some necessary playmaking relief, but he'll also bring a determined, winning attitude to get the young players in line. Beal has the help he needs to sign with us long term, and as the young guys like Bryant, Rui Hachimura, Deni Avdija and Troy Brown progress, we'll be talking Eastern Conference finals in a matter of a few years.
Wizards skeptic: Pump the brakes there, buddy. We're talking about the worst defense in basketball, which made no discernible improvements on that end this offseason. You can score as many points as you want, but if you're not getting stops, you ain't winning games. It's that simple. Lopez probably won't play in crunch time, and if he does you're clogging things up for Westbrook on offense. Washington was dead-last in the NBA in defending the pick-and-roll, allowing 0.936 points per possession to ball-handlers and 1.237 points per possession to the roll man, according to Synergy Sports Technology, and they're going to get torched again this season.
Wizards believer: Yes, the defense was terrible last season, but you're underestimating the havoc that Westbrook brings. He may not be the best one-on-one defender, but he's a muscular ball of energy who picks up steals and wreaks general havoc on the court. All that stuff will help the defense, and lead to transition, where this could be the best team in the NBA with Westbrook surrounded by athletes and shooters.
And can we talk about this offense? Beal averaged 30 points per game last season. Westbrook averaged 27. Bertans might be the best 3-point shooter in the NBA. Bryant shot 41 percent from 3 last season and was an absolute animal in the bubble. Brown and Avdija are the perfect Swiss Army knife wings to insert into any lineup. And Hachimura shot 75 percent from 3-point range in the preseason! OK, it was just one game, but the form looked great. If they can get to the middle of the pack on defense, this offense will get the Wiz back to the postseason.
Wizards skeptic: You keep talking about how you don't have to worry about offense and the defense is what let you down. Have you looked at the numbers? The Wizards' offense was 16th in the NBA last season. Sixteenth! And if you look around the league, everyone's offense got better. On paper, the Westbrook-Beal pairing looks fine, but it's going to take a while for them to figure out their dynamic. Last year in Houston it only started clicking with Westbrook and Harden in February, and the Wizards can't afford to wait that long with the top seven seeds in the East basically sewed up, and Atlanta, Orlando, Charlotte, Chicago and Detroit all gunning for that final spot. Shoot, you'll be lucky to even get into a play-in series.
Which begs the question, is keeping Beal really the best thing for this team? Wouldn't they be better off cashing in the asset for young players and picks, putting up a bunch of losses this season and taking a shot at a top pick in the loaded 2021 draft? What does re-signing Beal bring you? Another five years of trying to get the eight seed? I say you spend the year trying to find the best deal, and pull the trigger.
Wizards believer: First of all ...
Second of all, look, superstars like Beal don't come around very often. He's 27 years old, which means he still has at least five more years in his prime, so you owe it to yourself to see how good you can be with him. Are the Wizards going to win the championship this year? Probably not. But you never know what's going to happen in the next few seasons. Look at the Heat -- nobody would have picked them to make it to the Finals last season. If you trade Beal for a bunch of picks, chances are you never get another player as good as him anyway, so what's the point? People love to hit the "tank" button at the first sign of trouble, but this team can be very dangerous for a long time if they keep developing their talent and making smart moves.
Eye on: Deni Avdija
It was somewhat surprising to see Avdija slip to the Wizards at No. 9 in June's draft, and he may have already won the starting small forward job with his size and versatile offensive skill set. He's still 19 years old, so some patience will be required, but this kid has been playing big-time competition overseas since he was an early teenager. The main knock on him in the draft was his shooting ability, but he looked great in the preseason, hitting 5 of 11 from deep, with a shooting form that projects consistency. More than anything, he's a competitor and he knows how to play basketball, two things that should serve him and the Wizards well in his rookie season.