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The Russell Westbrook Trade Is Working Out — For The Wizards

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The blockbuster trade that brought Russell Westbrook to Los Angeles hasn’t yet worked out as intended for the Lakers, who are just 12-11 after a Tuesday night win over Sacramento. Though Westbrook has been better of late than he was during his disaster of a start, he’s still at a -2.7 overall rating in our RAPTOR metric, and he’s made for an expectedly awkward fit with LeBron James in halfcourt situations — when James has made it onto the floor. 

But the deal has worked out quite well for a different team — the one that traded Russ away.

In what became a five-team deal, the Washington Wizards received Montrezl Harrell, Kyle Kuzma and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope from the Lakers, Aaron Holiday from the Indiana Pacers and Spencer Dinwiddie from the Brooklyn Nets. Those five have formed a foundation around centerpiece Bradley Beal for a new Wizards team that sits 13-8, fourth in the East, with a 45 percent chance to make the playoffs in our model — 18 percentage points higher than the Lakers.

While several of the players the Lakers signed to replace them are playing key roles in the team’s defensive struggles, KCP and Kuzma are doing the opposite for a Washington defense that is both more sound and versatile than it was a year ago. And while L.A. is getting below-average offensive production from the point guard and center spots, Dinwiddie and Harrell are playing key roles as complementary scorers to Beal.

Dinwiddie, Harrell, Caldwell-Pope, Kuzma and Holiday essentially account for half of the Wizards’ nightly rotation, with 54.3 percent of the team’s minutes played. They rank first (Kuzma), third (Caldwell-Pope), fourth (Harrell), fifth (Dinwiddie) and ninth (Holiday) on the team in total minutes, and they have helped the team withstand the absences of players like Dāvis Bertāns, Rui Hachimura and Thomas Bryant.

They’ve also performed at a level that has largely justified the allocation of playing time by new coach Wes Unseld Jr. Nine Wizards qualify for the RAPTOR wins above replacement leaderboard, including all five players received in the Westbrook trade. That quintet is collectively responsible for 52.7 percent of those wins above replacement (3.9 of 7.4). Not only that, but for the most part, they’re also playing at a higher level than they did a year ago. Holiday is the only one whose total rating is down from a season ago, according to RAPTOR.

Most of the new Wizards have made a jump

Total RAPTOR rating this season vs. in 2020-21 for the five Washington Wizards acquired in the Russell Westbrook trade

TOTAL RAPTOR
PLAYER 2020-21 2021-22 DIFF.
Montrezl Harrell +3.3 +5.3 +2.0
Kyle Kuzma -3.1 -2.0 +1.1
Spencer Dinwiddie* +0.4 +0.4
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope +0.1 +0.1 0.0
Aaron Holiday -2.2 -4.6 -2.4

*Dinwiddie played only 64 minutes in 2020-21.

Stats through Nov. 30, 2021.

With Dinwiddie, the reason is obvious: He’s actually on the court. He appeared in just three games last season before partially tearing his ACL. The Nets teased a potential playoff return if they reached the NBA Finals, but they ended up losing in the second round because Kevin Durant wears shoes that are a size too big.

Dinwiddie hasn’t been quite as effective this season as he was during the two-year stretch in Brooklyn when he truly solidified his place in the league, but he has made important strides (so far) in a key area: 3-point shooting. After shooting just 32.6 percent from deep across parts of five seasons with the Nets, Dinwiddie is up to 36.6 percent this year. That’s more than 2 percentage points better than league average (34.3 percent), which strongly differentiates him from Westbrook, who last year shot 5.2 percentage points worse (31.5 percent) than the league average (36.7 percent) on roughly similar 3-point volume.

KCP and Kuzma (along with Deni Avdija off the bench) have afforded the Wizards a level of defensive versatility they didn’t really have last season. Caldwell-Pope ranks 11th in Bball-Index’s matchup difficulty metric among 38 “wing stoppers” who have played 250 or more minutes this season and 23rd out of 265 players overall. Kuzma checks in 67th on the same list (placing him inside the top 25 percent) while also ranking in the 91st percentile in defensive role versatility because of his ability to defend different types of forwards.

Washington is able to switch screens on the ball with both a touch more regularity (25.7 percent this year vs. 24.6 percent last year) and especially more success. When the Wizards switched pick and rolls last season, their defense yielded 1.131 points per possession, according to Second Spectrum; this season, that figure is down to 1.011 per possession. They’ve accordingly jumped from 21st in points allowed per possession that included a switched ball screen to a much more respectable 11th.

Their point-of-attack defense is also much improved with KCP (and Dinwiddie), rather than Westbrook, spending the majority of the time on lead ball-handlers. The Wizards yielded more drives than any team in the NBA last season and the sixth-most drives per 100 possessions. They’re now allowing around 1.5 drives and 10 fewer points per 100 possessions on those drives than they did a year ago — and that’s despite an apparent defensive downgrade at the center spot, where Robin Lopez’s minutes are now going to Harrell.

Harrell and (especially) Kuzma have also stepped up their game in the defensive rebounding department. Each is working on a career-high defensive rebound rate, while Kuzma has been one of the NBA’s most effective out-of-position rebounders this year. According to Second Spectrum, which calculates the percentage chance that any one player will grab a rebound given his position relative to other players on the floor at the time the ball comes off the rim, Kuzma has out-boarded expectations by the second-largest margin among 138 players who have been on the floor for at least 1,000 missed shots so far this year.

Where Harrell has really helped is in providing an additional scoring threat. Swapping out Westbrook for five role players has had the effect of destratifying the team’s offense. Last season, the only players with a usage rate higher than the league average (about 20 percent) were Beal (34.1) and Westbrook (30.2). Daniel Gafford was the next-closest player at 18.9 percent. This season, Dinwiddie (22.6 percent), Harrell (21.1) and Kuzma (20.0) join Beal (31.8) as above-average possession-users, and four of the other five players in the rotation check in between 16 and 19 percent. Harrell’s doing it while sporting career highs in both true shooting percentage (69.2) and free-throw rate (0.540), making him an even more effective secondary scorer than he was when he won Sixth Man of the Year in the 2019-20 season.

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Spamming defenses with Harrell pick and rolls has been an effective use of second-unit possessions, and it’s helped the Wizards offense stay afloat with Beal off the floor much better than they did a year ago: Washington scored only 102.1 points per 100 possessions with Beal off the court last season, per NBA Advanced Stats. This year, that figure is 105.4. The Wizards have scored 8.6 more points per 100 with Harrell in the game (109.0) than when he’s been on the bench (100.4) — the best mark on the team.

How sustainable all of this is remains to be seen, but it’s clear that at the moment, the swap is having its intended effect — for the Wizards, anyway. Washington looks like a threat to make the play-in tournament, if not the playoffs outright; our forecast has the Wiz finishing the season 42-40, a four-game improvement from the preseason predictions. Their chances of making the playoffs have accordingly jumped by 11 percentage points. The Lakers, meanwhile, are now projected to finish the season at 37-45 — five games worse than forecast in the preseason.

The Lakers wanted Westbrook to bring them another banner, but almost a third of the way through the season, L.A. is staring down a long road to even make the playoffs. Washington is still probably more of a fringe playoff team than a true contender, but it’s also one with a lot more flexibility — both on and off the court — than it had a year ago, this season and beyond. 

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

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