- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Kyle Kuzma set the record straight Tuesday: He said the “Capitol Boys” is not a nickname that the Washington Wizards forward is trying to have catch on. Nonetheless, two days earlier, Kuzma wrote “Capitol Boys out here” and included a lock emoji in reply to a tweet that pointed out that the 7-3 Wizards are top 10 in a number of statistical categories.

The original tweet Kuzma reacted to also included some shade.

“Unfortunately none of [the Wizards] are averaging a triple-double,” tweeted StatMuse, a website dedicated to stats.

The reference, of course, was a subtle dig at Russell Westbrook — the former Wizards point guard who became the NBA’s all-time triple-double leader last season. This offseason, Washington traded Westbrook, reportedly at his request, to the Los Angeles Lakers. In return, the Wizards got Kuzma and a package of other players.

And, perhaps surprisingly, the early returns have been nothing but favorable for the Wizards.

While the Wizards are off to their best start since the 2014-15 season, Westbrook has yet to find his groove alongside stars LeBron James and Anthony Davis in Los Angeles. The 32-year-old’s 18.8 points per game are his lowest scoring average since the second year of his career and he again leads the league in turnovers. Westbrook, with a field goal percentage of 41.1, has shot worse just once — his rookie season.

The Lakers are just 6-5.

“Most people probably thought we lost the trade,” Wizards guard Aaron Holiday said. “But I think we won it.”

Holiday was one of six players the Wizards got in the deal — which ballooned into a complicated five-team swap by the time it was finalized. Of those six players, five were legitimate NBA role players: Kuzma, Holiday, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Spencer Dinwiddie and Montrezl Harrell.

Each has proven invaluable for the Wizards. Harrell, for instance, is Washington’s second-leading scorer, behind only Bradley Beal with 17.7 points per game. Kuzma is nearly averaging a double-double with 14.1 points and 9.5 rebounds per contest. Dinwiddie and Caldwell-Pope are two reliable starters with proven NBA track records. 

Holiday, acquired from the Indiana Pacers, said the trade gave Washington players who like to “work hard, know how to play the game and really know how to play defense.” In many ways, that’s what was missing in past years. 

As great as Westbrook was for Washington — his post-All-Star break surge helped the Wizards make the playoffs as an eighth seed — the squad lacked needed depth and defense.  

Depth and defense have each contributed to Washington’s strong start this year.

After ranking 18th in 2020-21, the Wizards have the league’s fifth-best defense (103.1 defensive rating) this season.

They’re holding teams to a league-low 29.2% from beyond the arc.

Luck contributes to that — teams do, after all, miss open shots — Washington is only allowing teams to attempt 30.5 3-pointers per game: third-fewest in the league.

“It’s having the urgency to get to shooters,” Wizards coach Wes Unseld Jr. said, “understanding where those threats are at all times on the floor. Some of it is (our) gameplan: We’re going to run certain guys off (the line).”

“We’re doing a better job than I expected on the defensive side of the ball,” Kuzma said. 

It still may be too soon to declare the Wizards the definitive winner of the Westbrook trade.

Early on last year, the Houston Rockets looked to have outsmarted the Wizards when they acquired John Wall and a first-round pick for Westbrook. Wall was averaging more than 20 points per game, while Westbrook was slowed by a torn quad. 

That eventually flipped. A healthy Westbrook dominated down the stretch — even earning All-NBA consideration as he racked up triple-double after triple-double.

Wall? The point guard was shut down with a hamstring injury in the final weeks, and he has yet to play this year as the Rockets search to find a willing trade partner to take on the remaining two years and nearly $92 million left on his deal. (Good luck.)

But what has made Westbrook’s slow start with the Lakers glaring is that the former MVP does not appear to be injured like last season.

The Lakers brought in Westbrook so that he could to be something akin to an innings-eating reliever — someone who could take control of games to lighten the load on James and Davis. 

That has yet to happen, even as James has missed five games so far with injuries. Los Angeles is 2-3 in those games, but Westbrook is shooting just 39.8% and is a minus-42 in that span — meaning the Lakers have been outscored by 42 points when Westbrook is on the floor. 

“You gotta do that trade 10 out of 10 times,” Kuzma said last month. “If you have an opportunity to get five good basketball players for one, it makes sense. Granted, [Westbrook is] obviously a Hall of Fame player and everything. He‘s an unbelievable player. Don’t take that wrong.

“But especially for a team like Washington, if you look at the track record from the past couple of years, it hasn’t necessarily been enough ballplayers here. … It’s smart. You have to do it if you’re a (general manager).” 

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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