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2021 in review: The Wizards begin and the year with the coronavirus, with playoff basketball and major offseason changes in between

The Washington Wizards returned to the playoffs for the first time since 2018. But it wasn’t enough for them to stand pat with their starting backcourt of Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal.

2021 Play-In Tournament - Indiana Pacers v Washington Wizards
The Washington Wizards made the NBA Playoffs for the first time in three years in 2021, led by their then-starting point guard Russell Westbrook.
Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

Another year is in the books, and welcome to the year 2022! Now that 2021 is complete, let’s go through a high-level perspective on what the Washington Wizards went through in the year that was.

NBA seasons and calendar years are never a good fit. We are covering about the latter half of one season to start the year, and covering the start of another season to end it. Thankfully, the Wizards, at least based on their record, are trending up in the standings, all things considered.

While I am criticized by some commenters for always writing about the coronavirus, the bottom line is that it is the one theme that makes this year complete, especially for the Wizards. They began and finished the year with a roster depleted by sick players.

In January, six players tested positive in an era where there were no vaccines available to young adults like NBA players, forcing the Wizards to postpone games for two weeks. And in December, nine players were affected by the coronavirus whether because of positive tests of general protocols, though only one game was delayed. Unlike November, vaccines are wildly available. But also, new and more virulent strains are spreading like wildfire.

In between, the Wizards saw one of the all-time greats make NBA history in their uniform, playoff basketball and a very hot season start along the way.

On the court, the Wizards finished the 2020-21 season with a 34-38 record, a very remarkable feat after beginning the season with a 3-8 record before their coronavirus outbreak and 4-12 to finish January 2021. After Bradley Beal represented Washington in the 2021 All-Star Game as a starter, the Wizards lost eight of their next nine games and ultimately fell to a 17-32 record after an April 5 loss to the Toronto Raptors. Things weren’t looking good, even with the Daniel Gafford trade coming in during late March.

But Washington went 17-7 the rest of the season. This wouldn’t have happened if superstar point guard Russell Westbrook didn’t play in peak form, where he averaged 22.9 points, 13.5 rebounds and 13.4 assists per game in April and May. Westbrook, already known for making triple doubles look easy, became the all-time leader in that mark. And he averaged a triple double for the fourth season in his career. Westbrook’s performance helped the Wizards earn a spot in the NBA’s play-in tournament, where they ultimately won the No. 8 seed in the East and lost in five games to the Philadelphia 76ers.

The Wizards made many major changes in the 2021 offseason. They let go of Scott Brooks as their head coach and hired Denver Nuggets assistant Wes Unseld, Jr., the son of the Wizards’ GOAT to take his place. Westbrook requested a trade to the Los Angeles Lakers, and Washington was able to get Montrezl Harrell, Kyle Kuzma and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in return at draft time. That move also incorporated a sign-and-trade that brought Spencer Dinwiddie to D.C. from the Brooklyn Nets to take his place. And Corey Kispert was drafted at No. 15 overall.

The summer was also a chance for Wizards fans to see Rui Hachimura represent his native Japan in the 2020 Olympics (yes, they were still called the 2020 Olympics) in Tokyo for the men’s basketball tournament. While Team Nippon didn’t win a single game in group play, Hachimura finished with 22.3 points and 6.7 rebounds per game and was among the Olympics’ leaders.

Wizards fans were highly anticipating Bradley Beal’s presence for the USA Basketball men’s national team (and be to play in the Olympics while being a Wizards player), but he had to miss the games at the last minute due to a positive coronavirus test.

There was speculation on Beal’s vaccination status. After all, I can assume that the entire American women’s basketball team was vaccinated, because 99 percent of the WNBA was — back before the delta and later, omicron variants started coming into circulation.

But no. He announced that he was not vaccinated on Media Day. While the Wizards didn’t admonish him publicly, Beal started losing favor with some fans, at least in our comments section. Most Wizards fans wanted an indoor vaccine mandate at the beginning of the season, even if it meant that Beal had to miss games like Kyrie Irving is for the Brooklyn Nets.

In the meantime, Washington’s big offseason moves paid dividends early in the 2021-22 NBA season. They raced to a 10-3 record, and some seemed hopeful about a 50-win regular season. While Beal started off cold, Harrell and Kuzma were among the team’s most consistent performers, especially early on. Washington has since cooled down after playing tougher opponents, but remains above .500 with an 18-17 record as of games played through Dec. 31.

And yes, that virus. COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations crept up in D.C. and nationwide, measures tightened in December like mandatory face masks, and eventually, an indoor event vaccine mandate which starts on Jan. 15. While Beal said that the upcoming indoor event mandate didn’t sway him, he finally got vaccinated, saving the Wizards a midseason crisis as they head into 2022.