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NBA Daily: Depth Fueling Washington’s Turnaround

After a miserable start to the season, the Washington Wizards have won 12 of their last 14 and are close to a play-in berth. Tristan Tucker takes an in-depth look at two factors that are pushing the team over the edge.

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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.

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.”

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.

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.

During Washington’s hot streak, Lopez is connecting at a ridiculous 73 percent clip from the floor.

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.”

My name is Tristan Tucker and I am a basketball writer currently enrolled at North Carolina State University. I am the school paper's assistant sports editor and have written for SB Nation and Fansided. I joined Basketball Insiders in December of 2020.

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NBA Trade Rumors: Bradley Beal never requested a trade, remains committed to Wizards

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This NBA offseason has been a frustrating one for some die-hard fans, especially Washington Wizards‘ fans. On June 18, 2021, news broke concerning shooting guard Bradley Beal announcing his commitment to play for the USA Basketball Men’s National Team. A few weeks ago, it was reported by USA Basketball that Beal would not play in the Tokyo Olympics. And, this was because the 28-year-old three-time NBA All-Star had to enter the COVID-19 health and safety protocols. This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the Missouri native.

In an interview published by CBS Sports on July 15, 2021, regarding the chance to play for USA Basketball, Beal told CBS’ Michael Kaskey-Blomain, “It’s an honor. It’s something that you take for granted. Not a lot of guys in the league get this opportunity. We all know that. We didn’t live up to what we wanted to a few years ago (in the 2019 FIBA World Cup), and so now we have an opportunity to get back what’s rightfully ours.”

In 2010, Beal won the FIBA-Under 17 World Cup MVP. Though, everyone can see his passion for basketball. Needless to say, it is an awful experience for any athlete to have to bow out of the Olympics. In addition to this unfortunate news, there is all kinds of speculation across the Internet concerning Beal’s future with the Wizards. From Boston.com, it was reported two days ago that Beal would welcome a trade if he was moved to the Boston Celtics. The report also included three other teams: Golden State Warriors, Miami Heat, and Philadelphia 76ers. This latest news information was originally reported by Bleacher Report’s Jake Fischer. Last Saturday, Fischer stated, “Boston’s path to securing Beal would appear far more costly, as the Celtics’ offer almost certainly has to include Jaylen Brown and all of their future draft picks they are able to part with.”

Although the report could still be accurate, many fans are asking for more evidence to help support this claim. This is Beal’s team; he was drafted by Washington third overall in the 2012 NBA Draft. Would the Wizards be wiling to trade their star player for Jaylen Brown and potential future draft picks? This remains to be seen. Plus, everyone should keep in mind that although Beal was open to a trade, at least he never demanded an immediate trade. The latest news is likely just trade rumors and meaningless gossip.

Moreover, the 2020-21 Wizards finished 34-38 (.472), ranking third in the Southeast Division and eighth overall in the Eastern Conference. The team lost four games to one in the first round of the postseason against the 76ers. The Wizards have not appeared in the NBA Finals since the 1978-79 season, and they have not won the championship since the 1977-78 season, when they defeated the Seattle Supersonics in Game 7 105-99. Not to mention, the Wizards were called the Bullets back then.

After the season ended, the organization agreed to part ways with head coach Scott Brooks. Perhaps Coach Brooks leaving the team is leading Beal to ask more questions about his own future. Last season, in 60 games played, the six-foot-three guard averaged 31.3 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 4.4 assists per game. The 9-year NBA veteran also shot 48.5 percent from the field and 34.9 percent from beyond the arc. In the 2021 All-Star Game, in 31 minutes played, Beal scored 26 points.

On October 17, 2019, Beal signed a two-year, $72 million extension with Washington. He earned $28.7 million this past season, and he will earn $34.5 million in the upcoming 2021-22 season. Beal’s player option for the 2022-23 season is also $37.2 million. So, folks should keep in mind that Beal is still showing his loyalty to the Wizards. He is only considering a trade request before the draft. The key word here is “considering.” Having said this, not even LeBron James is safe from a trade in this league. Ok, maybe only James is safe.

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Grizzlies trade Jonas Valanciunas to Pelicans for Eric Bledsoe, Steven Adams

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According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Andrew Lopez, the New Orleans Pelicans are shipping guard Eric Bledsoe, center Steven Adams, the Nos. 10 and 40 picks of the 2021 NBA Draft, and two future first-round picks to the Memphis Grizzlies for center Jonas Valanciunas and the Nos. 17 and 51 picks of this week’s upcoming draft. So, the Pelicans are giving up the Lakers’ 2022 first-round pick. Valanciunas, the 29-year-old veteran center, averaged 17.1 points, 12.5 rebounds, and 1.8 assists per game in 62 games played throughout the 2020-21 season. He also shot 59 percent from the field. The seven-foot Lithuanian also ranks fourth overall in true shooting percentage (.616) among active players. On July 11, 2019, Valanciunas signed a three-year, $45 million contract with the Grizzlies. He is set to earn $4 million next season.

Additionally, in 71 games played last season, Bledsoe averaged 12.2 points, 3.4 rebounds, and 3.8 assists. The six-foot-one guard also shot 42.1 percent from the field in the 2020-21 season. On November 23, 2020, as part of a four-team trade, Bledsoe and Adams were traded to the Pelicans from the Oklahoma City Thunder, along with two future first-round picks and the right to swap two additional first-round picks. Last season, in 71 games played, Bledsoe averaged 12.2 points, 3.4 rebounds, and 3.8 assists. His field goal percentage was 42.1 percent as well. The 11-year veteran is set to earn $18,125,000 in the 2021-22 season. Before he was traded to New Orleans, on March 4, 2019, the guard signed a four-year, $70 million extension. He earned his first All-Defensive second-team selection in the 2019-20 season.

Moreover, in 58 games played last season, Adams averaged 7.6 points, 8.9 rebounds, and 1.9 assists per game. The six-foot-eleven center ranks fifth among active players for effective field goal shooting percentage (.591). The eight-year veteran also ranks third in offensive rebounding percentage, with an active statistic of 14 percent. On November 23, 2020, the same day Adams was traded to the Pelicans, he signed a two-year, $35 million extension. For next season, he is projected to earn $17,073,171. To add to this trade news, the Grizzlies and Pelicans are swapping second-round picks in this year’s draft, too. Referencing NBA.com’s “Consensus Mock Draft” article, with the No. 10 pick of the draft, the Pelicans were originally expected to draft either Josh Giddey or Davion Mitchell at this number. However, plans have now changed.

From ESPN’s Bobby Marks, the trade will not be finalized until August 6th, and this is because of the annual salaries of these said players. Free agency will begin on August 2, 6:00 p.m. (EST). Furthermore, per Spotrac’s 2021-22 NBA salary cap table, next season’s luxury tax threshold is $136,606,000. The team’s current available luxury tax space is $22,555,195. The Pelicans and Grizzlies have a salary cap maximum of $112,414,000. Brandon Ingram, Bledsoe, and Adams had a combined cap percentage of 39.2 percent. Considering that Bledsoe and Adams are traded away, this will clear up $35,198,171 of dead cap space.

Yesterday, CBS Sports reported the news pertaining to Lonzo Ball’s desire to remain in New Orleans. With extra cap space, the team is expected to re-sign the 23-year-old guard. Likewise, for the Grizzlies, the teams has a luxury tax space of $37,019,952. Their current cap space is $8,321,229. As stated before, the transactions have not yet been finalized. The Grizzlies’ outgoing cap is now $14 million, but from the contracts of Adams and Bledsoe, they are bringing in $35,198,171.

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NBA Trade Rumors: Jazz considering trade offers for Bojan Bogdanovic, Joe Ingles, Royce O’Neale, and No. 30 pick of the 2021 NBA Draft

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Per one interesting announcement from Bleacher Report’s Jake Fischer, the Utah Jazz are open to trading forward Bojan Bogdanovic, forward-guard Joe Ingles, small forward Royce O’Neale, and the No. 30 pick of the 2021 NBA Draft. Fischer stated, “The Utah Jazz are known to be one of the few teams actually searching to move playoff-tested talent. Retaining Mike Conley is an offseason priority, sources said, and the Jazz have held numerous discussions with teams around the league about offloading salary to create for Conley in free agency.” Point guard Mike Conley is set to become a free agent this offseason. Though, general manager Justin Zanik will aim to re-sign the 33-year-old guard in the coming weeks. Conley earned $34.5 million in the 2020-21 season.

“League personnel most often mention Joe Ingles as the Jazz wing to watch, and Bojan Bogdanovic and Royce O’Neale are also considered available for trade as Utah narrows its focus towards building a contender around Donovan Mitchel. The Jazz are also open to discuss trading their No. 30 pick, sources said.” In the 2020-21 season, in 72 games played, Bogdanovic averaged 17 points, 3.9 rebounds, and 1.9 assists per game. On May 1, 2021, in the team’s 106-102 victory over the Toronto Raptors, the six-foot-seven Croatian scored a season-high 34 points, shooting 12-for-22, and he finished his performance with four rebounds and four assists as well. On July 7, 2019, he signed a four-year, $73 million contract with the Jazz.

In 67 games played last season, Ingles averaged 12.1 points, 3.6 rebounds, and 4.7 assists per game. The six-foot-eight forward is set to earn $14 million in the 2021-22 season. Plus, among the mentioned players, Royce O’Neale has contributed the least. In 71 games played last season, he averaged seven points, 6.8 rebounds, and 2.5 assists. On January 19, 2020, the forward signed a four-year, $36 million extension with the team. He will earn $8.6 million next season. According to The Athletic, in the team’s seventh workout for draft prospects, they viewed Quentin Grimes, David Duke, Matt Mitchell, and a few other players. In the first round, if the team chooses not to draft any of the players they are holding workouts for, the organization will trade the No. 30 pick.

Just for a reminder, retrieved from Spotrac, the 2021-22 NBA luxury tax threshold is $136,606,000. Utah’s active roster cap is $133,284,695, the maximum cap is $112,414,000, and the current cap space is $72,990,215. Furthermore, center Rudy Gobert currently has the highest guaranteed contract on the team. On December 20, 2020, Gobert signed a five-year, $205 million extension with the organization. Gobert is set to earn $35.3 million in the coming season, whereas Donovan Mitchell will earn $28.1 million. Gobert and Mitchell combined consume 47.6 percent of the team’s salary cap. For the upcoming 2021-22 season, the Jazz have a guaranteed total of $129,719,453. Based on the team’s future outlook, the Jazz will have to make a trade or two in order to retain their star players. This should go without saying.

NBA Analysis Network reported a few days ago that a potential Jazz-Knicks trade target is Bojan Bogdanovic. Greg Patuto proposed the Knicks receiving Bogdanovic, while the Jazz would receive Kevin Knox II, and the Nos. 19 and No. 32 picks of the 2021 NBA Draft. Now, this could still happen at some point during this draft week, but then again, sports bettors and fans alike understand that these news reports could be just rumors. The most intelligent, unforthcoming general managers know not to leave bread crumb trails for the media, especially leading into the offseason. They will do everything necessary to protect their foolproof plans.

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