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Russell Westbrook, Wizards

Russell Westbrook and the Washington Wizards will be a player in the Eastern Conference

Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal now share a backcourt with the Washington Wizards. They also spearhead a Washington team that will be a player in the Eastern Conference this season.

First and foremost, the Wizards trading John Wall and a future first-round draft pick to the Houston Rockets for Westbrook is a worthwhile move on their end. Wall has unfortunately been plagued by injuries (his last game was December 26, 2018), and Washington gets a high-octane scorer in his prime to play alongside Beal.

Speaking of such, Westbrook and Beal make for a lethal duo.

Westbrook is one of the NBA’s premier scorers off the dribble. He attracts double-teams, gets to the rim with ease, and finishes with conviction. Beal fits next to that skill set. While the Florida Gator plays in isolation and is an elite scorer, he has also played off the ball in the past. Given where he is in his respective career, Beal would be an absurd number-two scoring option.

Now, this is Beal’s team, and he still may be the Wizards’ best player. It’s a matter of who the offense is going to feed off. Westbrook is accustomed to playing with high-profile scorers (Kevin Durant, Paul George, and James Harden). In all of those situations, he took attention off his star counterpart, which he’ll do for Beal.

Outside of a healthy Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving (Brooklyn Nets), Westbrook and Beal form the best star duo in the East.

Think about it this way: Washington, who was the ninth seed in the East last season, traded a player who wasn’t playing for a star guard. Furthermore, the puzzle pieces make for a compelling picture.

Soon-to-be second-year forward Rui Hachimura had a plausible rookie season. He finished with contact inside, put the ball on the floor, and looked like a seasoned veteran. The Gonzaga product averaged 13.5 points and 6.1 rebounds per game.

Rookie Deni Avdija, who the Wizards stole with the ninth pick in last month’s NBA Draft, brings an exciting skill set to the table. He’s a capable ball handler, has superb court finish, and gets to the rim and finishes through contact.

Davis Bertans, who the Wizards re-signed to a five-year, $80 million deal, is a deadeye shooter. Last season he averaged a career-best 15.4 points per game while shooting 42.4 percent from beyond the arc.

Washington has a budding center in Thomas Bryant. The big man gradually eased into the center position and has done a savvy job of finishing in the paint, hitting the boards, and defending the rim. Last season he averaged 13.2 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 1.1 blocks per game.

Westbrook and Beal will fly around the perimeter and play in isolation; Hachimura and Avdija will be secondary sources of offense likely in the form of slashers; Bertans will stretch the floor; Bryant will roam the paint; young wings Troy Brown and Jerome Robinson will provide bench scoring; Ish Smith is a starting-caliber point guard coming off the bench; Robin Lopez is a defensive-minded big man.

Washington was able to generate offense without Wall last season, as they were seventh in the NBA in points per game (114.4) and eighth in three-point shooting percentage (36.8 percent). At the same time, they were fourth in field goals attempted per game (90.9) and 21st in field goal percentage (45.7 percent). Having a proven commodity like Westbrook should help limit shots and boost their offensive efficiency.

Now, head coach Scott Brooks’ unit has to be better defensively, as they were 29th in the NBA last season in opponent points per game (119.1) and opponent field goal percentage (48.8 percent) and 27th in opponent three-point shooting percentage (37.6 percent).

That said, no team is perfect; there’s always going to be a flaw. The Wizards have star power, proven scorers, outside shooting, youngsters on the up, athletic forwards, and a reliable inside player. Why can’t they be a contender?

Let’s examine some of the playoff mainstays in the East. The Miami Heat, Milwaukee Bucks, Boston Celtics, and a healthy Brooklyn Nets squad are safe bets to return to the spring festivities. What about the rest of the field?

The Philadelphia 76ers have been unable to do damage in the playoffs with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons and are adjusting to Doc Rivers patrolling the sidelines. How is their situation starkly contrasting to the Wizards’?

The Indiana Pacers, a team with continuity, have been bounced out of the playoffs in the first round in five consecutive seasons and are rolling the same core out on the floor this season. Washington can’t finish with a better record than Indiana?

Yes, the Toronto Raptors are a year removed from an NBA championship and they have a talented, two-way core. However, they lost some frontline depth in free agency with Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol going to the West Coast. How much better are the Raptors than the Wizards?

Meanwhile, the Wizards have more star power and a deeper offensive arsenal than the Orlando Magic, who have lost in five games in the first round in each of the last two seasons. Behind Orlando is a bunch of young, rebuilding teams that are yet to break through.

The Eastern Conference is an ever-precarious grouping of teams. Washington has been stuck in a stagnated phase of being good enough to compete for the eight seed but not bad enough to enter a full-blown rebuild. Acquiring Westbrook makes their direction clear. Beal gets a star by his side, taking some attention off him and the rest of Washington’s now-deep depth chart.

The East just got thicker: the Washington Wizards are back in contention.