Washington Wizards: After Russell Westbrook trade, Tommy Sheppard deserves some respect

Washington Wizards Russell Westbrook. (Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images)
Washington Wizards Russell Westbrook. (Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images) /

When Tommy Sheppard inherited the general manager position with the Washington Wizards from his predecessor and former boss Ernie Grunfeld, many groaned and worried that the franchise was in for more of the same despite changing the guard. However, after two seasons and two MASSIVE trades, it’s obvious that Sheppard is not simply Grunfeld 2.0. Especially after making the trade that sent Russell Westbrook to the Los Angeles Lakers.

After just one season in D.C., the Russell Westbrook experience is over. It may have been short-lived, but it was an unparalleled rollercoaster ride of a season full of record-setting performances and an improbable playoff push. Russell Westbrook, the Washington Wizard, was a ferocious ball of willpower on the floor, forcing his (and his team’s) way forward. But it also wasn’t working, at least not on a large scale.

Last season was a defunct mess full of health and safety protocols and lacking practice time. But even with a healthy roster, the Wizards squad led by Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook wouldn’t truly compete with the Milwaukee Bucks, Brooklyn Nets, or Philadelphia 76ers. We’d seen their ceiling (or close to it), and it was a first-round exit.

To Sheppard’s credit, he seems to have recognized that. It’s probably one of the reasons Sheppard didn’t keep Scott Brooks — the man Westbrook would prefer were still coaching in D.C. — or Sam Cassell, the man at the top of Bradley Beal’s shortlist of head coaches. And it’s the reason he traded Russell Westbrook and his max contract across the country for three solid role players — Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Montrezl Harell — and a first-round pick.

By doing so, Sheppard has done a few things. He’s hit reset on a team that hit their ceiling last season without completely punting on the future. All these newly acquired players better match Beal’s timeline than a 32-year-old Westbrook. He created cap flexibility by getting the Wizards out of paying Westbrook up to $92 million over the next two seasons.

And he seems to have, at least for now, convinced Bradley Beal to stick around.

Sheppard eventually turned the pick from the Westbrook trade into Aaron Holiday. And I wouldn’t be surprised if Sheppard still has some deals to make. The Wizards currently lack a legitimate starting point guard and could use some general roster balancing. But even if they don’t make another trade this offseason and utilize free agency, Sheppard has already addressed immediate needs (three-point shooting, defense, wing depth) while retaining a fairly competitive roster.

By trading Russell Westbrook, Tommy Sheppard and the Washington Wizards are doubling down on Bradley Beal.

This makes two consecutive offseasons in which Tommy Sheppard has been able to trade contracts that were “immovable” or “untouchable”. Not for Sheppard, though. Last December, Sheppard traded John Wall’s albatross contract (and a 2023 first-round pick) for Westbrook. One offseason later, he flipped Westbook’s supermax for a small haul of role players (and a 2021 first-round pick). In both cases, Sheppard got good to great value for a player that most thought the Wizards were stuck with.

Sheppard and the entire front office deserve some credit beyond just executing a good trade. In the face of rumors that Bradley Beal, who has the opportunity to opt-out of his contract and hit free agency after this upcoming season, wants out of Washington, the front office didn’t panic. They didn’t punt at the first signs of a possibly unhappy superstar. Instead, they doubled down and committed to getting better pieces around the guy who they want to build around, the same guy who once said he wants to retire a Wizard and see his jersey in the rafters.

We shall see soon enough if Beal still feels that way. If he doesn’t, it might be time to hit the panic button in D.C. However, Sheppard is doing everything he can to convince Beal to stick around in the nation’s capital far beyond this season. So far, it seems to be working.

The true impact of this trade won’t be felt for some time. At this point, though, I can’t help but tip my hat to Sheppard for taking a big swing, a big swing that actually makes a ton of sense for the Wizards.

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