- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 3, 2020

For the second time in two offseasons, Russell Westbrook has a new home.

After Wednesday’s trade from the Rockets to the Washington Wizards, the former MVP will again have to adapt to new circumstances. Last year, Westbrook’s transition to the Rockets was anything but smooth, though he eventually found a rhythm that helped land him on the league’s third All-NBA team.

With Washington, Westbrook joins a team hungry to get back into the playoffs after a two-year absence. He’ll be paired with Bradley Beal, the Wizards star who rose to prominence once John Wall ruptured his Achilles tendon.

Here’s what lies ahead for Westbrook:

He’ll have to share the stage with Beal

Wednesday’s move was just as much about Beal as it was about Westbrook. Though Beal signed a two-year extension last year, the Wizards knew they had to upgrade their roster in order to show their star they are on the right path. The last thing Washington wants to happen is for Beal, a player other teams have clamored for, to demand a trade.

Wizards general manager Tommy Sheppard has called Beal a franchise cornerstone — and Westbrook will need to accept that. The 32-year-old faces questions whether he can.

Westbrook played for years with Kevin Durant and James Harden in Oklahoma City and shared the spotlight. But Durant’s decision to leave the Thunder in 2016 was partially because he was tired of playing with Westbrook, whose aggressive, sometimes reckless style can be aggravating. After Durant left, the Thunder became Westbrook’s team — so much so that he set the NBA’s record in usage rate (41.65) the following season, a year when he was named MVP.

This past season, Westbrook’s reunion with Harden didn’t work out. In the playoffs, the Rockets’ problems centered around opponents daring Westbrook to shoot — and his inability to make them pay. Westbrook shot 24.2% from deep and his points per game average (17.9) was almost 10 points lower than his regular season total (27.2).

His addition makes the Wizards favorites to make the playoffs

Despite Westbrook’s glaring flaws, he’s still an impact player — one whose presence raises the ceiling for the Wizards this season.

Westbrook works best in transition, when he’s able to push the pace and fly to the rim. That’s a style that the Wizards embraced last season, even with Wall sidelined. Washington had the seventh-highest pace in the NBA, and Westbrook should be able to help the club maintain — or surpass — that number.

Westbrook also has shooters around him with the Wizards, and with his vision, he will find them. Beal shot 38% off catch-and-shoot 3-pointers last season, while sharpshooter Davis Bertans drained 43.1% of those looks. Bertans made 171 shots from deep off on catch-and-shoot opportunities last season — the second-most in the league.

The Eastern Conference should be stronger than it was a year ago. The Milwaukee Bucks remain contenders. The Miami Heat, coming off a finals appearance, brought mostly everyone back. The Brooklyn Nets will likely become a threat with the return of Durant and guard Kyrie Irving. The Philadelphia 76ers retooled for what looks like the better.

But there’s room to make a push, and Washington could very well be one of the teams in the mix. That wasn’t as much of an expectation with Wall, whose previous Achilles injury presented too many questions.

Scott Brooks knows how to coach Westbrook

The trade reunites the point guard with his old Thunder coach. The duo spent seven years together in Oklahoma City, where Westbrook rose to be one of the league’s best point guards under Brooks’ watch.

Brooks has always had nothing but glowing praise for Westbrook. Last year, Brooks declared Westbrook will go down as one of the best point guards in league history, adding that Westbrook’s accomplishment of averaging a triple-double for a season was underrated. Brooks understands how to manage Westbrook’s fiery personality. He holds respect for the guard’s unquestionable work ethic.

“Russell’s accomplishments and honors on the court speak for themselves, but his drive and will to win are what separate him as a truly unique player,” Brooks said in a statement Wednesday.

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