You talk about Andray Blatche’s bad defense, you talk about JaVale McGee’s bad defense, you beat dead horses that really won’t die. That’s how things go with the Washington Wizards franchise these days.
Head coach Flip Saunders is not happy, evidenced by the manner in which he cut his press conference short after Wednesday night’s 109-97 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, making his team 0-17 on the road for the season. Saunders wasn’t particularly terse in dealing with the media after the game, as seen on Comcast’s coverage, but it’s something we’ve seen before. He was suddenly done answering questions in his own, subtly annoyed tone, and ‘poof’ … he was gone, as some media member tried to get in a question to no avail.
But before the abrupt ending, Saunders twice exclaimed how bad his team fared at defending Philadelphia’s pick and rolls and twice pinned most of the blame on his big men, saying, “bigs didn’t give enough help.” Nothing new here. After the loss to New Orleans on January 1, Saunders indicated that his team addressed defending pick and rolls in a soft manner. Not long after Saunders made that comment, I asked John Wall to assess the so-called “softness.”
“It’s not about defending soft,” he said. “You know, I think we were pressuring the ball, it’s just that we’re not doing a great job of hedging. You see when I came off the screen, they big men was there, and they was hedging pretty hard, making me pass the ball and pick up my dribble. I feel like when [Chris Paul] came off a screen, he just had freedom to do whatever he wants to … find teammates and scoring. We just got to do a better job of stepping up and making the guards pass the ball.”
According to Synergy Sports, through 33 games this season the Wizards, in charted plays that end in a field-goal attempt, turnover or free-throws, are allowing the pick-and-roll ball handler to score 0.88 points per possession (PPP), ranked 23rd in the league. They are allowing the P&R roll man to score 1.06 PPP, ranked 22nd in the league. Not the worst in the world, not the best — and worth saying that these stats don’t paint a complete picture of what action develops off of P&R possessions.
Against the Sixers on Wednesday, with a fully healthy squad and a couple days of practice to prepare, P&R ball handler plays accounted for just over 20-percent of the Wizards’ defensive possessions. Philadelphia scored on 68.4-percent of those possessions at the rate of 1.37 PPP. Sixer offensive possessions ended with the P&R roll man 5.3-percent of the time, and that man scored 80-percent of the time producing 1.4 PPP. Maybe rule number one in terms of defending pick and rolls is: Don’t leave the guards out on an island.
The Washington Post’s Mike Wise had a good profile on Saunders in Friday’s paper. My first reaction was … ‘Well, that is certainly well-placed and gleaming, considering the escalating hotness of Saunders’ seat.’ On the other hand, Wise’s well-crafted piece offers perspective … perspective that I’ve appreciated all along, Flip’s embracing of the role of teacher. One needs to look no further that the ‘willing to learn and implement’ Nick Young to know that Flip’s teaching methods have been successful to a specific extent.
But Wise almost paints a ‘woe is me’ picture of Saunders (likening him to an “umbrella-less man caught in a downpour, running toward a Metro stop to escape his miserable job downtown”), yet in the mold of someone who cares, who works hard, who loses sleep … over a depressing job. Teaching at the rate of $4 million this season is how Saunders’ deals with the misery that is the Washington Wizards.
Teaching is great, but this franchise also needs a coach, preferably one who doesn’t have to say, “You can’t coach effort.” Which is not to say that it’s easy to coach effort and that the team’s problems originate with Saunders — concerns regarding him certainly come third after players and management — but Wise’s piece glosses over the team’s issues as a basketball unit before last season’s gun incident.
It’s easy to point out the difficulties in the present of getting Andray Blatche or JaVale McGee to change their horribly bad habits. But why couldn’t Saunders get the veterans of last year’s team on his page?
Then you start pointing more fingers at management. Then you uncomfortably point fingers at how a sick owner’s dying wishes were to get his team one more championship, and how that goal might have set the franchise back in the long term. Then you point fingers back at Ernie Grunfeld … were his moves strapped by Abe Pollin’s request, or did he just fail in the execution?
Different players, different situations, same pattern.
On his blog, Ted Leonsis commended Wise’s piece and writes:
We are rebuilding our team. It isn’t like we are suddenly not a productive squad. We were a lottery team the last two years. The team has not been ultra competitive for many years.
We are 30 plus games into a long season and an even longer rebuild. We will see progress along with setbacks. That is the nature of these rebuild projects. Two steps forward, one step back. No short cuts. We have to have belief in what we are doing and stay with the program.
But what exactly is the program? Leonsis has been very clear about his ideals, but in specific terms of rebuilding … Is there more tearing down to be done? Does the team still need freshly acquired parts? Are they moving forward with old parts, including management and players? Is it a combination of everything? Wouldn’t phrases like, ‘It isn’t like we are suddenly not a productive squad,’ seemingly indicate that the order which has reigned over the previous several years is less than ideal? I don’t know.
What’s apparent is that something is still wrong with the culture of the franchise, much past hoping things will just ‘click’ like pounding on a rock. Flip’s words from Wise’s column:
“…what always happens with young teams, you see progress and then you’re back. It’s like that story about the rock, you know.”
“…the one where you keep pounding and pounding and pounding that rock. After 200 times, nothing happens. And you think that’s it. And then you hit it the 201st time and you start to see a crack. And hopefully, the older they get, the stinker games become less and less.”
This is about more than just treating player’s basketball IQ’s as rocks. It’s about their surroundings. It’s about NOT glossing things over with words like “stale,” “process,” and “patience.”
“Our main setbacks have come from injuries and uncertainty,” writes Leonsis.
It’s about admitting that rebuilding a team is about much more than that. And it’s not like Leonsis hasn’t, but ‘uncertainty’ is rather murky, is it not?
Right now, Wizards fans can only be complacent with their hope and resign themselves to little victories … such as, perhaps, Saunders cracking the ineptitude of Blatche and McGee on pick and roll defense at one point.
But the big picture is much more cloudy, accentuated by bothersome ways to lose games and a team (players, coaches and management), perpetually searching for, grasping for mental clarity, on and off the court.
Much easier written than enacted, but what else can one do when the rebuilding is so unclear?