Why fans are apologizing to Russell Westbrook for doubting the trade

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Why the Westbrook trade has been better than some expected originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

Want to know how loyal a fanbase can be to an athlete thought to be equally loyal to it? Look no further than the palpable outrage of Wizards fans back in December when the team traded John Wall for Russell Westbrook.

On paper, the trade was an automatic win for the Wizards. As good as Wall had been during his time in Washington, his resume simply didn’t and still doesn’t stack up to Westbrook’s, which included a league MVP award and triple-double averages in three separate seasons, even before doing it again in 2021. He’ll be in the Hall of Fame one day.

But in practice, the trade felt wrong, and different fans had different reasons for their displeasure, be it Wall’s philanthropy in D.C. and his dedication to the city on and off the court, the unfulfilled promise of him and Bradley Beal as a tandem and them finally getting a shot with new front-office leadership, Wall being on the verge of returning from injuries after two years and the team only speaking of how great he looked in practices, or even the sloppy execution of the trade which began with reports weeks earlier that the team denied and ended with unconfirmed rumors of why he was traded.

Then there was a subsection of fans who, looking at it strictly from a basketball perspective, simply thought Wall was the better of the two point guards for this Wizards team. Some of those same fans, who may have felt vindicated in their feelings after Westbrook’s slow start to the season, are probably coming around a little after his torrid second half. Now, in different corners of the internet, there are various kinds of "apology forms" that people can fill out to say sorry to the nine-time all-star.

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Admittedly, I was among those not thrilled by the trade, but I won’t be filling out a form. The reasons I didn’t like it don’t fall into any of the categories listed. 

I’ve always been of the opinion that no player is untradeable outside of maybe a select few you can count on one hand, but unless you’re completely blowing up the team, which the Wizards obviously were not, then you only trade a franchise player if he’s disgruntled or the move puts you on a championship track. Think when the Raptors traded one of the best players in franchise history, DeMar DeRozan, for Kawhi Leonard and won the title. I didn't, and still don't think that's what Wall-for-Westbrook accomplished. 

Under Wall and Beal, the Wizards’ ceiling was Eastern Conference Semifinals, coming close to the conference finals a couple of times. And while the window on that ceiling likely closed after Wall’s injuries, I still thought them to be a fringe playoff team even if he returned at less than 100% of his old self, because Beal had improved so much in his absence and Washington barely missed the playoffs without Wall in 2020. By adding Westbrook, I felt they’d essentially extended the timeline of the previous ceiling. My conclusion: other than delaying an inevitable rebuild, what was really the point? 

My other reason for not liking the trade is I wasn’t sure if it would help the team’s case to re-sign Beal when he’s eligible for free agency next summer. Not privy to the reasons why, all we’ve seen are star players choose to leave Westbrook’s side; Kevin Durant, Paul George and James Harden. With re-signing Beal among the team's top priorities and top of mind with any move made, the Westbrook trade was more faith-based than anecdotal on that front.

Now, if Westbrook ends up being the sole reason Beal re-signs, or if he leads the Wizards to a championship, I'll be the first to admit I was wrong, but as of now, that's not where I was off.

The part I got wrong about the trade is in my dismissiveness of the impact Westbrook appears to be having on the team’s culture in the interim, what a positive influence his go-hard-all-the-time mentality is for a team with a young nucleus still learning how to be professionals. It's not uncommon for young players on losing teams to develop bad habits and mail it in once they feel defeated. Westbrook hasn't allowed that. His teammates and the coaching staff have spoken nothing but glowingly of his leadership. The Wizards' turnaround from 17-32 to 34-38 while grabbing the 8th seed in the Eastern Conference and a spot in the play-in tournament directly correlates with Westbrook's own turnaround. 

Once he was healthy, which we now know he wasn’t at the start of the season, Westbrook kicked his game up to a level Wizards fans have watched him play at for years from afar but not for every single quarter of every single game like we have this year. Indeed, it’s been the rollercoaster ride we knew it’d be, but the surprise is that it's one you’re more than happy to get in line for again.

While the wins didn’t come as quickly as some had hoped, the potential was evident as the team continued to get healthy and grow an identity. His approach to the game was rubbing off as part of that identity. And as that process played out, the national attention that Westbrook himself, and his chase for Oscar Robertson’s all-time triple-double record, brought the team was immeasurable. They’re a team national sports pundits now describe as scary entering the postseason and regularly talk about more recently because of their play rather than drama. 

If this season has proved anything, it’s that all Wizards fans wanted was to see was a competitive team that gave itself a chance each game. At the very least, the Wizards appear to have that again. Washington faithful would've loved the chance to see that happen with Wall at the 1 again, but they'll take it with Westbrook manning the spot, too. Maybe the trade was poorly executed, but more and more it seems to have been a good move for Washington. Both things can be true.