While their season ended prematurely yet again, it's hard to ignore the positive developments made by the 2020-21 Washington Wizards.
They made the playoffs for the first time in three years — a low bar to clear, to be sure — resulting in a first-round playoff elimination by way of the 76ers. But most importantly, they turned an overwhelming negative into a resounding positive, turning around one of the worst starts in franchise history into a playoff appearance, to qualify for the play-in tournament after going 17-6 down the stretch to close out the regular season.
All in a season that began with so much uncertainty for the Wizards, who weeks before their season-opener traded franchise cornerstone John Wall to the Rocket, receiving perennial All-NBA'er Russell Westbrook, the foundation of a brand new backcourt, in return.
After a miserable start to his age 32 season, Westbrook began getting healthy — we'd later learn he'd been playing on a torn quad muscle at the start of the season — and quickly dashed growing concerns among Wizards fans that he may be washed, and they might have been sold damaged goods.
Westbrook and Beal began to gel, driving each other to new heights on a nightly basis as the Wizards racked up wins, proving they had a lethal new nucleus to build upon in what was suddenly an alluring future.
Once healthy, Westbrook took off like a rocket ship and would finish the season averaging 22.2 points, 11.7 assists and 11.5 rebounds per game; in other words, averaging a triple-double per game for the fourth time in his career, breaking Oscar Robertson's 47-year-old triple-doubles record in the process.
Beal set a new career high with 31.3 points per game, finishing second in the NBA in scoring for the second straight year, this time falling just shy of Stephen Curry's 32-point average.
At their finest hour, the Wizards won eight straight, smack-dab in the middle of a 12-2 run from April 7 to April 30. After such a roller-coaster season, Beal was asked to reflect on what he learned from playing with Westbrook in an appearance this week on the 'Knuckleheads' podcast, with hosts Quentin Richardson and Darius Miles.
"I would say it is crazy playing against him, right, because you're playing against him and you see him, you see his numbers, and you see him from afar," Beal told them. "You're like, there ain't no way he's doing this every night. There ain't no way he's doing it. He's padding his stats."
"And then to see him do it on a nightly basis with you, it's mind-blowing," he said. "Like, because it's energy after energy. It's like how do you do this every night? Like, [there's gonna be] nights you don't feel it. You don't wanna go out there. I ain't feeling it tonight. He channels himself to do it every single night.
"And I would say that's probably my biggest thing that I took from him, like his mentality and his approach to the game. Like, he knows he's a bad motherf***er when it comes to this game. Nothing nobody can tell him. There's nothing he feels like he's got to prove. Like he's doing what he knows how to do. He's doing what he's blessed to do."
"And that's one thing he told me on day one," Beal recalled. "He always just keeps telling me, 'Keep going, B. Keep going. Keep going. There's more you can do. There's more you can tap into.' And so, like, I channeled that. And I'm like, 'There is more you can do. I can do this on a nightly basis. I can score 30 consistently.'"
The Wizards are in a better place for it. While they still have to sort through a coaching search after parting with Scott Brooks, for once it feels like the Wizards are heading in a positive direction, not just stagnating with a good-but-not-great team.
Now they just have to produce meaningful results.