It hasn’t been an ideal start to the season for the Washington Wizards. After they acquired Russell Westbrook, there was hope that he and Bradley Beal would propel the Wizards toward success — at least, more than they’ve experienced in recent years. Unfortunately, through their first 11 games of the 2020-21 season, that doesn’t appear to be the case.
But, can Washington get ahead of the issues that have plagued them, or even fix them? The Basketball Insiders team will look to answer that — not just for the Wizards, but for any franchise that’s struggled early this season — as we kick off our “Fixing” series. As we look at each team, we’ll address what’s been working, what hasn’t been working and what those teams might want to do going forward, whether it’s to save their season or look ahead to the next.
So, without further ado, let’s get to it.
It hasn’t been a terrible start for Washington, despite what their 3-8 record may indicate. As a team, they’ve averaged 120.5 points per game, good for second in the NBA. They’re also top-10 in team field goal percentage, three-point field goal percentage and free throw attempts per game.
Likewise, Beal has gotten off to a fantastic start. Through nine games, his 35.0 points per game lead the NBA. Beal, so far, has averaged five more points per game than he did last season and he’s doing so more efficiently, as he’s shot 48.9 percent from the field, 38.6 percent from three, and 87.2 percent from the free throw line. Also leading the league in field goal attempts, Beal is on his way to another career year and his third All-Star appearance.
Rui Hachimura and Denji Avdija have been inconsistent, but both have flashed early on and shown some serious promise as future Wizards. Hachimura has scored the ball more efficiently and is fourth on the team in scoring, averaging 13.6 points per game. His energy and passion have never been doubted, but his basketball IQ has sometimes been questioned and, while he still has room to improve here, he’s turned the ball over far less and has taken far more higher percentage shots this season.
Avdija, meanwhile, has had his rookie moments. While he’s struggled on defense, he’s done nothing but bring energy and compete on that end of the floor. On offense, he’s been better than expected this early in his career; he’s posted strong shooting numbers and recently posted his first 20-point game.
Washington may have also lucked out with two-way player Garrison Matthews. The second-year guard out of Lipscomb has only played four games, but he’s given solid minutes and looked like a potential sharpshooter off the bench. In their game against the Miami HEAT, Matthews finished with 22 points and went 4-7 behind the three-point line. Defensively, he may not be the most gifted, athletically, but, like Avdija, he’s brought energy on that end of the court and has given the Wizards solid minutes. Expect to see his role grow going forward.
What Isn’t Working?
Defense. Plain and simple, the defense has been a disaster.
The Wizards’ defense is the worst in the NBA, as they’ve given up 121.3 points per game. They’re so bad on defense, in fact, that Washington has managed to lose games in which they’ve scored 120, 124, 130, and 136 points.
Beal said it best when asked about the Wizards defense: “We can’t guard a parked car.” It’s hard to see Washington improving unless they commit as a team to getting more stops. And, in order to do that, they need to stop other teams from driving so easily: opponents are getting to the basket and getting point-blank shots too easily. Another way they can improve their defense is to stop fouling, as they’ve let opponents get to the free throw line a league-high 29.5 times per game.
It’s still early but, at this point, you’d have to say the Westbrook experiment hasn’t worked, either. It is weird to say that, since Westbrook has averaged a near triple-double, but it’s the truth nonetheless. His 19.3 points per game, eight fewer points than a season ago, have come extremely inefficiently as he’s shot 37.8 percent from the field, 30.3 percent from three and 65.7 percent from the free throw line. Defensively, Westbrook has played hard. But, more often than not, he goes for the gamble play and puts the rest of the defense at a disadvantage.
Unfortunately, the Wizards’ defensive woes may only get worse as they lost center Thomas Bryant for the rest of the season to a torn ACL. Prior to the injury, Bryant was third on the team in scoring, averaging 14.3 points per game, and was on pace to set career-high in both field goal and three-point field goal percentage. Robin Lopez and Moritz Wagner will be tasked with replacing him and the Wizards are likely to be granted a disabled player exception, but no one player is going to replace his production.
What Needs To Change?
The Wizards need to figure it out on defense. It’s hard to emphasize that enough, but, if they can’t even trend toward the league average, Washington will never push themselves into the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
In lieu of a defensive upgrade, the Wizards may need to assess their trade assets and look toward the future. Of course, the player that would garner the greatest return would be Beal, while both Hachimura and Avdija would net solid assets if the team doesn’t see them as part of the long term solution. Beal’s $34.5 million salary may be hard to move in theory, but the production he can bring on the court should have teams lining up to acquire his services.
On the flip side of that, Westbrook’s even larger contract with two seasons left is likely untradeable. If they feel as if they need to move him, Washington would almost certainly have to attach a draft asset and or young player, or attempt to package him with Beal for a significantly smaller return.
Lopez, Wagner, Ish Smith, Jerome Robinson, Raul Neto and Isaac Bonga are all in the last year of their contracts. As the trade deadline looms, Lopez and Robinson could potentially net them a future draft pick. But, overall, don’t expect anyone from that group to draw significant interest or net a significant upgrade for the Wizards’ roster.
Despite Thomas’ injury, the Wizards’ offense, helmed by Beal, would seem to provide a path out of the NBA basement. They’ll need to step it up on defense, but the opportunity is there if Washington can commit on that end of the court.
But, more likely, the 2020-21 season may prove another lost year for the Wizards. And, as much as it may hurt to trade their franchise star, Washington may have to part with Beal, completely tear down the roster and start fresh before they can find success again.
Mavericks are expected to pick up Willie Cauley-Stein’s $4.1 million option
Per ESPN’s Tim MacMahon, the Dallas Mavericks are planning to pick up center Willie Cauley-Stein’s $4.1 million option for the 2021-22 NBA season. The deadline is tomorrow. Last season, in 53 games played, the seven-foot big man averaged 5.3 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. The sixth-year player also shot 63.2 percent from the field last season.
On July 8, 2019, Cauley-Stein signed a two-year, $4.46 million contract with the Golden State Warriors. Then, on January 25, 2020, Cauley-Stein was traded to the Mavericks for a 2020 second-round pick. If everything goes smoothly, the 27-year-old center is set to earn $4.1 million next season. The 2015 sixth overall pick’s contract consumes less than three percent of the team’s total salary cap.
Source says Mavs are leaning toward picking up center Willie Cauley-Stein's $4.1 million option for next season. Deadline is Sunday and Mavs are waiting to see if situation unexpectedly materializes to make that cap space worth parting with a big man they like.
— Tim MacMahon (@espn_macmahon) July 31, 2021
This news comes right after Dallas received center Moses Brown from the Boston Celtics. Brown is a seven-foot-two, 2019 undrafted player out of UCLA. In 2021, Brown was named to the All-NBA G League First Team and All-Defensive Team. On March 28, 2021, the 21-year-old center signed a four-year, $6.8 million contract with the Thunder.
However, on June 18, 2021, the Oklahoma City Thunder traded Brown, Al Horford, and a 2023 second-round pick to the Celtics for Kemba Walker, a 2021 first-round pick, and a 2025 second-round pick. With Boston, Brown was set to earn $1,701,593 next season. Of course, the Mavs’ organization is finalizing a trade to send Josh Richardson to the Celtics as well. In other news, today is Mavs’ owner Mark Cuban’s 63rd birthday.
Referencing Spotrac’s 2021-22 luxury tax totals, the Mavs’ current luxury tax space is $52,326,531. The 2021 NBA salary cap maximum is $112,414,000. Their current cap space is $27,595,632. Cauley-Stein’s contract is recognized as a club option, not a player option or guaranteed money. Richardson’s deadline is also tomorrow, so because he is getting traded to Boston, the team will not collect his $11,615,328 player option.
Plus, Jalen Brunson’s deadline is also August 1st. His guaranteed value is $1,802,057. Leading into the 2021-22 season, Kristaps Porzingis has the highest cap figure on the team, which is an amount worth $31,650,600, consuming 22.73 percent of the team’s total salary cap. At the moment, Porzingis is a popular name in trade rumor articles. Bettors and NBA analysts are predicting a possible trade to the Brooklyn Nets, Sacramento Kings, or Philadelphia 76ers.
Lakers Need More Than Big Three
The Lakers have their “big three” after trading for Russell Westbrook but is he the right fit in Los Angeles? The former MVP has had an incredible career but he may not be the point guard the Lakers desperately need.
The Los Angeles Lakers have formed their three-headed monster as they pursue the franchise’s 18th championship next season. Just as the NBA Draft was getting started, the Lakers completed a deal with the Washington Wizards that landed them the 2016-17 league MVP, Russell Westbrook.
The deal sent Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell and the 21st overall pick in this year’s draft to Washington, paving the way for Westbrook to join fellow superstars LeBron James and Anthony Davis. While the Lakers added a dynamic point guard, not everyone is sold on the idea that the Lakers are the team to beat in the loaded Western Conference.
Over the past several weeks, the Lakers were rumored to be seeking perimeter shooting. Some reports had Los Angeles linked to guys like Chris Paul, Buddy Hield and DeMar DeRozan. When the dust settled, it was Washington that made the deal as Westbrook informed the front office that he preferred the Lakers as a destination.
The move is a homecoming of sorts, as Westbrook grew up in the area and spent two seasons playing at UCLA, leading the Bruins to the 2008 Final Four. He had a solid 2020-21 season, averaging 22.2 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 11.7 assists per game for the Wizards, who earned the No. 8 seed in the playoffs.
Oddly enough, this is the third straight offseason in which the 9-time All-Star has been traded. After leaving Oklahoma City, Westbrook was not able to find postseason success in Houston or Washington. Will that now change in Los Angeles?
For all of his accomplishments, Westbrook’s legacy has been defined by his play during the regular season. This past season, the point guard passed Oscar Robertson for the most triple-doubles in the history of the game. Out of his 184 triple-doubles, only 12 have come in the playoffs. By comparison, Magic Johnson has the most playoff career triple-doubles with 30, and James is next with 28. Now all three will have played for the Lakers during their careers.
The thing about triple-doubles (and this is especially the case with Westbrook) is that they don’t always translate to wins. They clearly help the team overall but some would argue that a more balanced attack is tougher to stop. History has shown that having a “big three” is almost a requirement to be considered a legitimate championship contender, but this trio in Los Angeles doesn’t exactly fit together like many of those others.
As talented and valuable as Westbrook has been over the course of his career, he needs to have the ball to be effective. His poor perimeter shooting has been the big hiccup in his game, and that is something that this Lakers team desperately needs. The problem isn’t that any of these three won’t share the ball. In fact, they had already discussed checking their egos even before this trade went down.
LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, and Anthony Davis got together at LeBron’s house two weeks ago and agreed to set aside their egos and focus on winning a championship in LA. Per @BA_Turner pic.twitter.com/CDhidtvHxv
— NBA Retweet (@RTNBA) July 30, 2021
Westbrook has never had a problem sharing the ball. He was able to co-exist with Durant in Oklahoma City, Harden in Houston and Beal in Washington. The difference in this scenario is that he will be occupying the same space as James and Davis. The concern is efficiency. Out of 34 players to average at least 20 points per game over the last four seasons, Westbrook ranked 33rd in true shooting percentage.
When James drives to the rim or when Davis is facing a double-team inside, how confident will they be in passing out to Westbrook for a three-pointer? Better yet, how patient will they be if the shot isn’t falling? We have already seen what happened with Danny Green and Caldwell-Pope.
Now that the Lakers have assembled their trio of stars, many fans are hopeful to witness an NBA Finals matchup where James and the Lakers meet Kevin Durant, James Harden, Kyrie Irving and the Brooklyn Nets. As juicy as that series would be, the Western Conference is a gauntlet. There is no guarantee that the Lakers will make it there.
What helps their path is that the crosstown rival Clippers will likely be without Kawhi Leonard next season. The Denver Nuggets will be without Jamal Murray and the Golden State Warriors might not be the Warriors from four years ago. There is also uncertainty surrounding Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers and some potential roster changeup with the Utah Jazz.
— Harrison Faigen (@hmfaigen) July 30, 2021
Considering all of the top-tier point guard talent available in free agency this summer, the Lakers may have been better off trying to do a sign-and-trade. Such a scenario would have hard-capped them but after this deal, they are just $12.6 million below the hard cap with just five players on the roster. Putting together a deal for Hield is still possible, but the Lakers will have to get creative. Adding a third team to this trade, in particular, is one way to accomplish that. Again, it is possible but it will be complicated.
In a perfect world, the Lakers could have worked with Toronto on a sign-and-trade for Kyle Lowry. Even though Lowry is older than Westbrook, the current window for Los Angeles to win with this group is closing fast. Lowry would be cheaper and a much better fit overall. His durability, toughness, defense and high basketball IQ would pay dividends for the Lakers. Adding in the fact that he is a much better shooter, one has to wonder why the Lakers wouldn’t pursue this route instead.
Westbrook is still going to help this team. He is a tremendous asset for them in the regular season, especially when James is on the bench or unable to play. Having another floor general on the court to generate offense is something they have not had since James arrived. If Los Angeles can land some above-average shooting to the roster, Westbrook could flourish in this role.
With James sliding to the power forward position and Davis playing more at center, the key for Los Angeles will be to surround these guys with shooters. The Lakers ranked 21st in three-point percentage and 25th in makes last season. Expect the organization to be busy when free agency starts next week. Targets will include guys like Duncan Robinson, JJ Redick, Norman Powell, Evan Fournier, Doug McDermott, Bryn Forbes, Patrick Mills, Reggie Bullock, Kendrick Nunn and Alec Burks.
Obviously, the Lakers are counting on their individual talent and figuring out the rest later. It likely means the end for Dennis Schröder. Can Alex Caruso fit in and where does this leave Talen Horton-Tucker? The rest of the roster is in limbo, but the star players and the front office both feel confident that they will land the other pieces that they need to raise another banner next summer.
Jazz offering Mike Conley $75 million over next three years
According to veteran NBA reporter Marc Stein, the Utah Jazz are preparing to offer point guard Mike Conley a three-year, $75 million contract to remain with the team. Of course, the exact amount is a ballpark figure. Stein stated, “Utah has made retaining Mike Conley its top priority, league sources say, and is preparing a three-year offer said to be in the $75 million range.” The 14-year NBA veteran is a significant piece to the Jazz’s championship window, playing alongside superstar teammates, such as center Rudy Gobert and guard Donovan Mitchell. He helped the Jazz finish their regular season with the league’s best record of 52-20 (.722).
Utah went on to defeat the Memphis Grizzlies in five games in the first round of the playoffs. Though, the team lost four games to two in the conference semifinals against the Los Angeles Clippers. In the 2020-21 NBA season, Conley averaged 16.2 points, 3.5 rebounds, and six assists per game in 51 games started. Then, in the postseason, he averaged 15.3 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 7.7 assists per game. The 33-year-old also shot 44.4 percent from the field in the regular season. Last season, the 2007 fourth overall pick earned his first NBA All-Star selection.
The Jazz will be pressing hard to re-sign Mike Conley, league sources say, and are preparing an offer estimated in the three-year, $75 million range.
More coming soon in my This Week In Basketball column you can get directly by signing up here: https://t.co/A6ycVm5PUQ
— Marc Stein (@TheSteinLine) July 30, 2021
On July 6, 2019, the Grizzlies traded Conley to the Jazz for Grayson Allen, Darius Bazley, Jae Crowder, Kyle Korver, and a 2020 first-round pick. Furthermore, the Jazz can still trade Bojan Bogdanovic and Joe Ingles this offseason, if they wanted to improve their current salary cap situation. Referencing Spotrac’s 2021-22 cap holds, Mike Conley’s cap figure is $39,344,900. Cap holds are for pending free agents. Conley earned $34,504,132 last season.
The team’s current luxury tax space is $11,173,027. In addition to the aforementioned cap figures, Mitchell and Gobert have a combined cap figure worth 51.34 percent of the team’s total salary cap. These two players’ contracts alone are consuming a huge chunk of the team’s cap. Plus, on November 23, 2020, Mitchell signed a contract extension with Utah. He is set to earn $28,103,550 next season. On December 20, 2020, Gobert signed a five-year, $205 million extension with the organization. He will earn $35,344,828 next season and $38,172,414 in the 2022-23 season.
However, if the team were to still trade Bogdanovic and possibly Ingles as well, this would clear up an additional 25.68 percent of the team’s salary cap. Bogdanovic’s future guaranteed cash amount total is $19,343,000. They are contributing role players who play together well with the team’s big three, but re-signing the most valuable players is the team’s main objective this offseason. Jazz general manager Justin Zanik might contemplate trading role players who are not worth their asking price. Competitive teams in both conferences have to trim the fat at some point.
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