Tommy Sheppard Credit: All-Pro Reels

Few paths lead to the top of the NBA standings. The ones most frequently used involve tanking all the way to the bottom and hoping to get lucky and draft a generational talent or going out and signing upper echelon players via free agency. But the Wizards may be charting their own path to success without pursuing either option.

The optimism regarding the Wizards’ 7-3 start shows how far this team has come from being perennial basement dwellers in the NBA. This is just the fourth time a team has done so in the franchise’s entire history. One of main reasons for the success is the team’s depth compared to last season. During the offseason, general manager Tommy Sheppard made moves that allowed the Wizards to retool their roster instead of going into a full rebuild. Sheppard was able to pull off a five-team trade and acquire six players in order to completely revamp the Wizards roster.

“We were clear as we moved into the offseason that we would be aggressive in making moves that would improve our defense, shooting, and athleticism,” Sheppard told reporters after the trade was finalized back in August. “Starting with hiring Coach [Wes Unseld Jr.], then moving to the draft and the acquisition of these five players via trade, we feel confident that we have made significant progress in those areas.”

The Wizards acquired Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Aaron Holiday, Spencer Dinwiddie, and the draft rights to Isaiah Todd from the trade and sent All-NBA guard Russell Westbrook and three future second round picks to the Los Angeles Lakers. The Wizards also sent forward Chandler Hutchison to the San Antonio Spurs along with two other second round picks to the Spurs and Brooklyn Nets respectively.

The skeleton of that trade was the three players that came over from the Lakers in exchange for Westbrook, which would have been a nice haul in itself, but Sheppard did not stop there. He took the first round pick acquired from the Lakers and subsequently traded that pick to the Indiana Pacers for Holiday and the 31st pick in the 2021 draft, which the team used to draft Todd. To complete the transaction, the Wizards were able to add the Brooklyn Nets to the deal in order to complete the sign and trade for Dinwiddie. If the Wizards had not added Dinwiddie to that deal, they would not have had the requisite salary cap room to sign him outright as a free agent. 

“Each player that we acquired in this trade addresses a need for us in addition to bringing experience, toughness and a winning attitude that makes them ideal fits around Bradley and the rest of our returning roster,” Sheppard said. “Spencer’s athleticism allows him to score and make plays for others with Aaron’s hard-nosed style off the bench making a complementary pair of point guards. Kyle and KCP are proven three-and-D players with significant championship experience while Montrezl’s energy and effort personify the way we want to play every night.”

Sheppard’s offseason words have born fruit on the court, as Dinwiddie has started out averaging 15.9 points and 5.7 assists per game as the team’s point guard. The biggest attribute of Dinwiddie’s game has been his ability to protect the basketball—he only averaging 1.7 turnovers per game, significantly lower than the 4.8 turnovers per contest that Westbrook averaged last season. Spencer is a better fit next to Bradley Beal as he is adept at moving the ball around and can knock down open shots on the weak side of the offense, which keeps defenses honest as Beal works on the strong side. Holiday gives the Wizards depth at the guard position, and with his defensive prowess, he can play next to either Dinwiddie or Beal at either guard position coming off the bench.

The crux of that five-team trade and the biggest additions to the Wizards have been the trio of players that came over from the Lakers. Harrell is a former Sixth Man of the Year and has been nothing short of dominant in his first 10 games with team; he’s averaging 17.7 points per game and 9.1 rebounds while shooting 63 percent from the field. Harrell has a current Player Efficiency Rating of 25.81, which ranks him sixth in the entire NBA, just behind two-time MVP Stephen Curry. When asked why he is playing so much better this season than he did last year, Harrell kept it simple: “Montrezl Harrell is on the floor, brother. That’s the biggest difference.” 

Despite coming off the bench, Harrell is playing 30.3 minutes per contest and is proving himself to be invaluable from an energy standpoint. Standing at 6-foot-7, Harrell can finish around the rim and has 26 dunks on the season. That currently ranks third in the NBA and as many dunks as the rest of the Wizards roster has combined.

Harrell’s performance comes alongside the steady play of Kuzma and Caldwell-Pope, who are are averaging 14.1 and 9.3 points per game respectively. But their biggest impacts don’t show up in the stat sheets. It shows up on the defensive end. Both players have shown a level of consistency on the defensive end that the Wizards have not seen from their forwards in years past. They both have the requisite size and foot speed to keep up with NBA wing players who have become a mainstay in the modern era of basketball. Both players bring championship experience, as they were in the rotation of the Lakers when they won the 2020 NBA championship. With the Wizards, Kuzma has displayed the ability to rebound the basketball in a way he hasn’t before, averaging a career and team high 9.5 rebounds per game. Caldwell-Pope is shooting 40.4 percent from three-point range on 4.7 attempts per game and his proficient shot making opens up the floor for Beal and Dinwiddie to drive to the basket and have the necessary space they need to operate in the lane.

Ten games into the season and the Wizards have shown that they may be a team worth believing in. They have now climbed to fifth in the NBA in terms of defensive efficiency and their best player, Beal has not played up to his usual All-NBA potential yet this season. It should only get better when two key past contributors, Rui Hachimura and Thomas Bryant, return.

Photo by All-Pro Reels on Flickr, used under the Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0 license.