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Westbrook Defined The Wizards 2020 - 2021 Season

Updated: Jun 17, 2022

(Citations at End) (Per Casey Sykes)

Success is relative and lends itself to a wide range of responses depending upon who it is that one asks. While the ultimate measure of success in the NBA is to win a championship, there are a variety of milestones that an organization must surpass in order to accomplish this optimum goal. It follows that on a year to year basis, the way that an NBA team defines success is different and may not always equate to winning or even winning a championship that season.

As I pondered upon this phenomenon in the sport, I became curious to how a team like the Washington Wizards would approach the 2020 - 2021 NBA season and define their success. Since their exciting 7 game series with the Boston Celtics in the second round of the 2017 NBA playoffs, the performance of the franchise, as it pertains to winning, has declined in the succeeding years. In 2018, they finished as the 8 seed with a 43 - 39 record and were bounced from the playoffs in 6 games by the Toronto Raptors. In both 2019 and 2020, the Wizards missed the playoffs, sporting records of 32 - 50 and 25 - 47 respectively.

Thus, for a team coming off a poor performance in the Bubble, where they went 1-7, and consecutive seasons in which they have missed the playoffs, what would a successful season entail? By trading long time star John Wall for Russell Westbrook, the organization signaled that success would be defined as returning to the postseason.

Since entering the league in 2008, Russell Westbrook has been as close to a guaranteed postseason appearance as it comes for many of the game's great players. Westbrook’s rookie season, as well as the 2014 - 2015, where he and Kevin Durant missed a significant amount of time, are the only two instances in which teams led by Westbrook did not make the playoffs. It follows then that while there is debate over whether Westbrook can be a key player on a championship caliber team, over the duration of his career, he has consistently displayed his value as a player that can bring a team to the postseason.

Thus, for this paper, my focus is centered upon two areas. First, it is to illustrate the importance of a team building a culture of an unwavering commitment to winning, and second, to delineate how Russell Westbrook aligns with such ideals. This alignment is what makes Westbrook a positive externality for any NBA organization.

Making the postseason is relevant because it has implications that extend beyond just one season. It serves as a signal to potential trade targets and free agents that an organization is committed to not only winning, but also creating a culture that is focused on doing so. A franchise that routinely makes the playoffs is able to develop that reputation, and is also able to present itself as a viable trade destination for star players or marquee free agents.

In fact, the last three championships have been won primarily due to the fact that the Toronto Raptors, the Los Angeles Lakers, and the Milwuakee Bucks were organizations that had successfully built up the perception of being committed to winning. This made these organizations a tenable destination for star players via trade or free agent signing (Kawhi Leonard, Lebron James, Anthony Davis, and Jrue Holiday). Thus, the Wizards acquiring a player like Westbrook, whose presence guarantees a playoff appearance, is imperative to building the right reputation and culture.

Westbrook’s impact on the Wizards team culture and winning are substantiated through both qualitative and quantitative measures. Upon arriving in Washington, Bradley Beal, Rui Hachimura and others quickly felt Westbrook’s presence, and spoke glowingly of his leadership. Via The Undefeated, here is an excerpt of Bradley Beal’s thoughts on playing with Westbrook:

He's been great. It's been so ironic, because from the beginning of the year before the trade [for Westbrook], there's always the misconception of Russ. He doesn't get along with coaches or his team. It's just all about 'Me, me, me, me.' It's the complete opposite. And, like, I love everything about him. He's a great character guy. And his approach to the basketball game is what helped me have the year I'm having. And it helped us turn the year around. His level of accountability, you want that. He pushes himself to levels that you don't even think exist. And to be on the other side of that playing against him for years and seeing, 'Oh, how's he getting triple-doubles every game? There's no way he's getting it.' To actually see that night in and night out. He has a different mode. And it's all [mental]. And you can't teach that. It's either you have it or you don't.

But what I love about him is that he tries to bring it out of everybody. He tries to bring it out of the 15th guy. A guy who probably won't play that much. But when he gets that opportunity, he wants you to play exceptionally well. That's what I love about him. He just wants to win. He wants to be the best player he can be. He wants to uplift all his teammates. And that's one thing I stole from him is his mental approach to the game. I have a voice in my head and it's Russ saying, 'Keep going, B.' He's been terrific. I definitely tip my hat off to him because I can definitely see why he was MVP of the league.

Sincere statements like this help to emphasize the positive impact Westbrook’s presence has had on the team.

In my opinion, resilience is the key characteristic that is tethered to creating a culture and reputation of winning; it is also the word that best encapsulates Westbrook, and the Wizards 2020-2021 season. The resilience that Westbrook and the Wizards displayed this past season further substantiated the success that the organization had in working towards its optimum goal of a championship.

The season started very slowly for both Westbrook and the Wizards. In the Bubble, Russ was plagued by COVID-19, and a quad injury that had a noticeable impact on his physical health. Unfortunately for Russ, the lingering effects of this injury followed him into the 2020 - 2021 season. As seen below in his burst of speed and explosiveness going towards the rim:

(Per House of Highlights)

To further exacerbate the Wizards early season woes, COVID-19 decimated a significant portion of the roster (In addition to Thomas Bryant tearing his ACL, and being lost for the season). They had 7 players test positive for COVID, and as a result, multiple games were cancelled or played in which the full roster was not on display. This contributed to a very porous start to the season, and as a result, led to the team sitting at 17 - 32 on April 6th, with 23 games left in the season. At that moment, they were 7 games out of a playoff spot, and were projected by ESPN to have a 0.6 percent chance of making the postseason.

Despite the hole the Wizards found themselves in, Westbrook did not waver. He has been described by teammate Moe Wagner, as having “the heart of a lion,” and coach Scott Brooks/others credit him to helping the team stay focused through tough stretches of the season. Behind the leadership of Westbrook, the team never gave up, and once healthy began to hit a stride. (Below is a direct comparison of Westbrook's speed and explosiveness on the 1st game of the season versus in March)

(Per House of Highlights)

Washington finished the season 17 -6, and was able to surge to the 8 spot in the play-in tournament; a win over the Indiana Pacers helped the Wizards secure their first playoff bid in 2 seasons.

The resilience shown by the team, led by Westbrook during this final stretch of the season is the ultimate marker of success, of a champion, and of a player/organization committed to winning. This final stretch also illustrated that for any franchise in a precarious state, Russ is a proven key contributor that can help change the tide and bring that team back to the postseason. He establishes the right culture for younger players, and amplifies the image for the franchise.

In addition to the leadership, the resilience, and other qualitative metrics that depicted Westbrook’s value, triple doubles were the iconic metric and the key quantitative barometer that helped to substantiate the contribution Westbrook made to the Wizard’s on court success in winning games. This past season, Russ recorded 38 triple doubles, and produced astounding numbers of: 22.2 points per game, 11.5 rebounds per game, and 11.7 assists per game. The Wizards had a win percentage of 60.53% (or 23 - 15 record) in games in which Westbrook recorded a triple double. That would translate to a pace of about 49 wins for a typical 82 game season. Overall, the Wizards had a record of 30 - 35, or win percentage of 46.2 percent, in games that Westbrook played. This figure outpaced the performance of last year’s team by 11.5 basis points, and would have qualified them for the playoffs/play-in game, if stretched to the full 72 games. It can be surmised then that the addition of Westbrook, along with his strong on court production, helped the Wizards to experience a significant improvement in the team’s on court success.

In addition to the way in which Russ filled up the stat sheet and contributed to winning both on and off the court, he also broke Oscar Robertson’s lifetime record of 181 triple doubles in a Wizards jersey. Prior to Westbrook surpassing this achievement, the record had stood for 47 years, and was deemed as something that never would be broken.


(Per Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

When lifetime records are thought of, great players are visualized in the jersey in which they broke such records. Kobe Bryant scored 81 points in a Laker jersey, Lebron James surpassed Michael Jordan’s career scoring total in a Lakers jersey, Kareem Abdul Jabbar became the NBA’s all time leading scorer in a Lakers jersey. These amazing achievements are not only remembered by the player who did it, but also by the jersey that they wore, and the organization that they represented in the process.

In no way am I making a comparison between the storied Lakers and the Washington Wizards. Instead, I want to highlight some of the ramifications that extend beyond just Westbrook and this season. When people think of him and his triple doubles, such things cannot be mentioned without acknowledging that he broke the record in a Wizards jersey. He adds to the story, the legacy, and the culture painted of the Wizards, and he fortunately helps to illustrate the organization in a positive light. They get to say that a player accomplished a feat that may not be broken for another 50 years in their city, in their organization. Those are the types of things that help a franchise build towards becoming basketball royalty, or in smaller steps, help to strengthen the culture and reputation of the organization.

In sum, the focus of this paper was to substantiate the claim that Russell Westbrook is an asset to any NBA organization in search of creating an environment committed to winning. While I have been able to examine the different elements that make Russ unique, above anything else, Westbrook is an impeccable example for any person at any stage of their life to follow and admire. I believe that his grit, tenacity, and commitment to greatness makes him an asset to any NBA organization.

Citations:

  • Bueno, Zamir. “Los Angeles Lakers: Why They Should Not Trade for Russell Westbrook.” Hoops Habit, July 2021, https://hoopshabit.com/2021/07/24/lakers-trade-russell-westbrook/.

  • MarcJSpears. “Bradley Beal Opens up about the Wizards, Russell Westbrook and Social Justice.” The Undefeated, The Undefeated, 28 Apr. 2021, https://theundefeated.com/features/bradley-beal-opens-up-about-the-wizards-russell-westbrook-and-social-justice/.

  • Highlights, House of, director. Russell Westbrook OFFICIAL WIZARDS DEBUT 21 Pts 15 Ast Full Highlights vs 76ers | December 23, 2020. House of Highlights, Dec. 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T9QfqCiYu0w&ab_channel=HouseofHighlights.

  • Highlights, House of, director. Russell Westbrook Puts Bismack Biyombo on a Poster - Hornets vs Wizards | March 30, 2021. House of Highlights, Mar. 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CIoZGIDY2wA&ab_channel=HouseofHighlights.

  • Henry, George. “Russell Westbrook Breaks Oscar Robertson's Record as Wizards Fall to Hawks - The Boston Globe.” BostonGlobe.com, The Boston Globe, 11 May 2021, https://www.bostonglobe.com/2021/05/11/sports/russell-westbrook-breaks-oscar-robertsons-record-wizards-fall-hawks/.



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