Can Daniel Gafford still thrive without Russell Westbrook?

Daniel Gafford benefitted heavily from being with Russell Westbrook last season. It won't be easy for him to keep up the same pace this season. - Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports

The Washington Wizards played some of their best basketball in years during the second half of last season. The most influential catalyst was undoubtedly the play of Russell Westbrook, whose numbers improved across the board once the calendar hit March.

That run also coincided with the arrival of Daniel Gafford. Washington went 17-6 in games that the former Chicago Bulls big man played in. And while he didn’t get a ton of minutes, averaging just 17.7 minutes per contest in those games, his time on the court was always extremely impactful.

The elevated play from those two combined with the buy-in from the rest of the roster triggered over two months of spirited play in D.C.

Diving into the Westbrook-Gafford duo

The stats clearly back up their case. The Westbrook-Gafford tandem had a net rating of +11.6 when sharing the floor, which ranked first out of 57 Wizards two-man combinations with at least 20 games played together.

The fact that they were able to build such great chemistry makes perfect sense. Russ is an amazing passer and also had years of experience feeding a rim-running center in Steven Adams during his OKC days. Gafford in turn was able to clean up any defensive mistakes with his elite rim-protection.

But with Russell Westbrook no longer in a Wizards uniform, it’s fair to wonder just how effective Gafford will be next season without his best running-mate on the offensive side of the floor.

Gafford was off-the-charts efficient last year. He shot 68.4% from the field, which would have ranked third in the entire NBA had he qualified.

But the problem lies in the fact that he almost exclusively has to be set up in order to get involved in the offense. Gafford had no such playmaker during his time with the Bulls. And while he may have posted similar efficiency numbers, his opportunities were limited without someone to consistently feed him the ball where he can do the most damage. Having Russell Westbrook serve him lobs and drop passes on a silver platter was probably a big reason things clicked in Washington.

Gafford made a total of 94 field goals as a Wizard. Only 23 of those were unassisted, consisting mostly of offensive putbacks. Out of his 71 assisted baskets, nearly 60 percent of them came directly from a Westbrook assist. To put that into perspective, Bradley Beal, Ish Smith, and Raul Neto combined only accounted for just 34% of Gafford’s assisted baskets.

This isn’t to say that Daniel Gafford suddenly becomes dead weight on that end now that Russell Westbrook is gone. The Wizards do have Spencer Dinwiddie now and a much-improved playmaker in Bradley Beal. However, Westbrook is a different level of passer than those two, leading the NBA in assist percentage last year at 47.7% and holding that mantle for four of the past five seasons.

It’s definitely not unrealistic for Daniel Gafford to see a significant drop-off on offense, which could in turn affect the energy he brings on the defensive end. The onus is on Beal, Dinwiddie, and coach Wes Unseld Jr. to make sure to keep the big man involved the same way Westbrook did last season.

Why this all matters

It’s fair to make the argument that getting Daniel Gafford involved on offense isn’t as important as it seems. After all, his defensive potential is how he'll actually earn his money. He had the highest individual defensive rating on the team last season and an absurdly high block rate that rivaled Rudy Gobert. He can easily score 10 points per game and still make an impact.

But enabling Gafford on the offensive side of the floor raises his ceiling and playability immensely. There’s a stark difference between a 20-minute starting center who gets pulled during crunch time because he can’t shoot or score and a lethal lob-threat who you won’t hesitate to play til the buzzer sounds.

Pure paint scorers with mind-boggling per-minute numbers like Boban Marjanovic don't usually translate the same way with an increased workload. It takes a concerted effort to keep them engaged and their effectiveness can be negated in certain matchups. Gafford may be the penciled-in starter for the Wiz next season, but his flawless transition into the role is far from guaranteed.

Rim-running, shot-blocking big men are a dime a dozen in this league. The Wizards could turn Gafford closer to the next Clint Capela or DeAndre Jordan rather than another Nerlens Noel. It all depends on how they develop and empower him during the next couple of seasons.

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