The Washington Wizards stole the headlines on NBA draft night, trading nine-time all-star Russell Westbrook to the Los Angeles Lakers for three players and a draft pick in a deal that created significant financial flexibility.
The Wizards also added Gonzaga’s Corey Kispert with the No. 15 pick in the draft and traded the No. 22 pick they acquired from the Lakers to the Indiana Pacers for guard Aaron Holiday and the No. 31 pick, who was G League forward Isaiah Todd.
While the Wizards didn’t receive a star back in the deal, they took a big step toward reorienting their roster and salary cap sheet around Bradley Beal, making Westbrook an effective bridge between the Wall era and whatever comes next. Consider that at this time last year, Washington was on the hook for more than $130 million over three years for Wall. And before agreeing to trade Westbrook, Washington was set to pay him more than $90 million over the next two seasons.
Now they get Kuzma on a three-year, $39 million contract, Harrell on a one-year, $9.7 million contract and Caldwell-Pope with two years and $27 million remaining on his deal. All three are starting-caliber players with playoff experience on flexible contracts who are under 30 years old. All three provide value as both players and trade chips.
It took 12 months and two major trades, but Wizards General Manager Tommy Sheppard freed his organization from Wall’s cap-clogging contract and got a first-round pick back from the Lakers to offset the one he sent to the Rockets to acquire Westbrook. They were a tidy pair of moves that allow the Wizards to build around Beal without being hamstrung by ghosts from their past.
“We’ve always said you want to prepare for the big moment and be ready for the big moment,” Sheppard said Wednesday at a pre-draft news conference. “And you’ll know when that moment comes because people will be calling you about it. We don’t go intending to trade anybody on our roster. But when those moments present themselves in the last two years, I think we’ve shown we’re not shy to do anything that we think makes the Wizards better.”
While Beal has also been the subject of trade speculation, Sheppard said Wednesday that the three-time all-star guard had not requested a trade. For now, Beal appears content in Washington, even though the Wizards hired Wes Unseld Jr. to replace Scott Brooks as coach, rather than Philadelphia 76ers assistant Sam Cassell, who was Beal’s preferred candidate, according to a person with knowledge of the situation.
Despite Westbrook’s gaudy individual numbers, the Wizards dropped from 16th in 2019-20 to 17th in 2020-21 in offensive efficiency. What’s more, Unseld will be expected to turn around a defense that has struggled for years, and Westbrook at this stage in his career was bound to be part of the problem, rather than the solution, on that front.
Westbrook’s energy level, box score production and superstar swagger will be missed in Washington. But the 32-year-old all-star also suffered from inconsistent shooting, poor decision-making and minus defense that are fundamental flaws in the playoffs. Westbrook, who averaged 22.2 points, 11.5 rebounds and 11.7 assists for the Wizards, is now headed to his fourth team in four years.
“Thank you DC! You welcomed my family and I with open arms from day one,” Westbrook wrote Thursday on Twitter. “Everyone from the front office, to the training staff, the coaches, my teammates, and the fans. I’m grateful y’all took a chance on me and supported me every step of the way. I’m blessed to have been a part of such a stand up organization. It didn’t take long to make a home in DC, and I will forever be grateful and appreciative of my experience with the organization.”
The Lakers, who exploited Westbrook’s poor shooting in the 2020 playoffs, understand Westbrook’s deficiencies as well as anyone. At the same time, they happen to have two luxuries — LeBron James and Anthony Davis — who will reduce their reliance on Westbrook in key moments, allowing him to shift into more of a complementary role.
This is still a gamble for the Lakers, who are seeking a second championship in three years after sputtering out in the first round against the Phoenix Suns because of injury problems. Westbrook’s lack of shooting will compound their spacing problems, and Caldwell-Pope was a valued and reliable defensive piece during their 2020 title run. Kuzma and Harrell won’t be crippling losses: The former made real strides during his four years in Los Angeles but never developed into a bankable third scorer, while the latter’s defensive struggles led to a reduced role in the playoffs.
Kuzma, who averaged 12.9 points and 6.1 rebounds last season, should enjoy a greater offensive role in Washington. Harrell, the 2020 sixth man of the year, is an undersized big man who excels in the pick-and-roll and as an energetic offensive rebounder. The six-year pro averaged 13.5 points and 6.2 rebounds last season. The 28-year-old Caldwell-Pope is a prototypical three-and-D wing who averaged 9.7 points and shot 41 percent on three-pointers last season.
For the Wizards, the timing of this trade, even if it might feel abrupt, will give them a chance to build a team in Beal’s mold.
Kareem Copeland, Candace Buckner and Michael Lee contributed to this report.
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