The Washington Wizards have spent decades trying to become relevant, a struggle that has continued as star players have arrived and departed. Even over the past 10 years — despite rebuilding behind all-star guards John Wall and Bradley Beal — the franchise missed the playoffs more often than not, with just two forays past the first round.

After trading Wall for Russell Westbrook this winter, the hope was that a dramatic shake-up would jump-start the organization’s quest back to playoff contention. Instead, the Wizards — at 6-17 and mired in last place in the Eastern Conference, with virtually no chance at a playoff spot — are struggling more than ever, with little hope of turning things around.

Why? Westbrook, despite his hefty $41.3 million salary, has been underwhelming this season, and the offense he adds does nothing to help Washington’s defense, which remains among the worst in the NBA. Beal, meanwhile, is doing everything a superstar should do on the offensive end, but he, too, is hurting the Wizards defensively. Together or separately, they have been unable to manufacture many wins, and the obstacles to improvement appear almost insurmountable without drastic measures.

Start with Westbrook, who has shown flashes of his former MVP form, but has already missed seven games, while his shooting metrics, never great to begin with, are in further decline. For example, his effective field goal rate is the lowest it has been relative to the league since 2009-10, his second year as a pro. His three-point shooting, while improved, is still below average compared with the rest of the NBA.

According to data from Synergy Sports, Westbrook ranks in the bottom 10 percent of the league for scoring efficiency in a variety of situations: in isolation plays, as the ballhandler during the pick and roll and when he’s down low in the post. Plus, Westbrook turns the ball over significantly more than anyone in the league (4.9 per game).

Advanced metrics such as Westbrook’s box score plus-minus and his value over a replacement player tell a similar story. (The former is an estimate of the points per 100 possessions a player contributes above a league-average player, translated to an average team. The latter is an estimate of the points per 100 team possessions a player contributes above a replacement-level player — for example, a player in the G League or a free agent — translated to an average team and prorated to an 82-game season.) In fact, Westbrook has been worth barely more than a replacement player this season.

Westbrook’s decline shouldn’t be surprising. Most NBA players peak around age 27, and the 32-year-old Westbrook has undergone multiple knee surgeries, including one this past offseason.

Not only is he on the downside of his career, the former MVP and triple-double machine also isn’t addressing Washington’s most glaring problem: its defense. Washington is allowing 115.5 points per 100 possessions, the league’s second-worst mark. With Westbrook and Beal on the court together, the Wizards’ defensive rating improves slightly to 111.4. But Washington has still been outscored by 9.6 points per 100 possessions in these situations, and that’s despite Beal leading the league in scoring with 32.8 points a night and passing Michael Jordan for the longest streak of 25-point games to start season a since 1976-77.

So the combination of these two superstars can’t overcome the team’s shortcomings on defense. Beal can’t save Washington on his own, either. The team has been outscored by almost seven points per 100 possessions when Beal is on the court with Westbrook active but on the bench.

2020-21 Washington Wizards (Entering Friday)
Minutes
Offensive rating
Defensive rating
Net rating
Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal on the court
316
111.4
121.0
-9.6
Beal on, Westbrook off
387
114.8
121.5
-6.7
Westbrook on, Beal off
161
106.5
100.3
+6.2
Both off
144
102.2
112.7
-10.5

Washington had similar struggles behind Beal a year ago; the Wizards were outscored by nearly five points per 100 possessions with Beal on the court last season, which improved to a minus-2.6 net rating when he was active but on the bench. In fact, the Wizards have been in the bottom five in defensive rating three years in a row and in the bottom 10 in four of the past five seasons.

Yes, these Wizards lost starting center Thomas Bryant to a season-ending knee injury, struggled through a coronavirus outbreak and have had only limited practice time. But every NBA team has dealt with injuries and the pandemic, and the fact that Washington continually finds itself out of contention points to a larger issue. Having already moved on from Wall, a true reboot is now in order, with Beal and, if possible, Westbrook, traded away for future assets.

Westbrook’s return probably would be nominal because of his performance and sizable contract. But Beal, who is under contract through the 2021-22 season, could fetch a handsome reward in a trade, not unlike the one New Orleans got for sending Jrue Holiday to Milwaukee in November. In that four-team trade, the Pelicans ended up with Steven Adams (via Oklahoma City) plus Eric Bledsoe, three future first-round picks and the right to swap two additional first-round picks with Milwaukee.

Over the past three full seasons (2017-18 to 2019-20), Beal has averaged more minutes and points per game plus a higher true shooting percentage than Holiday, with a higher value over a replacement player (9.4 vs. 7.8). A similar deal wouldn’t be out of the question and could go a long way to rebuilding this franchise from the ground up and making it truly relevant again.

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