Back to the Oklahoma City Model? Where Hope Lies for the Washington Wizards
Your Washington Wizards sit at 17-19 with just under 44 percent of the regular season past them. Their sub-.500 effort, so far, has been good enough fifth-best in the Eastern Conference. Boston and Orlando, conference and league powers as recently as 2011, have had the pendulum swing on them. Philadelphia and Milwaukee, previously middling playoff teams in the East, have fallen off the map. New York and technically Detroit are unexpectedly bad. Indiana and technically Brooklyn are the only two teams that elevated themselves to contender status, talent-wise. Still very inferior to the West, it’s a drastically different world back East. Or as John Wall told TAI in early December:
“If you really look at it, you don’t see four to five teams like we have this year in the Eastern Conference that are starting to rebuild in the same year. It’s very rare that you see that. So that’s a huge coincidence to us.”
Well-known story: The 2008-09 Oklahoma City Thunder finished 23-59 in their first campaign after leaving Seattle via a process of discovery in the second NBA seasons for Kevin Durant and Jeff Green, and the first NBA season for Russell Westbrook.
The next season (James Harden’s rookie year): 50 wins, a fourth-place finish in the Northwest Division, and the eighth seed in the Western Conference playoffs (tied with the seventh-seed Spurs in win/loss record). The Thunder fell to the Lakers, 4-2, in the first round of the 2010 playoffs, but they were the feel-good story of the year. (And the good feelings in OKC continue, for the most part; they still yearn for the franchise’s first NBA title since the late-1970s … just like the Wizards).
The 50-win, 2009-10 Oklahoma City Thunder started the season with a 13-14 record, topped off with a loss to the Lakers in Los Angeles on December 22, 2009. OKC was up 61-54 at halftime and pooped the bed in the third quarter, getting outscored 34-31 by the Lakers. (Third quarter woes sound familiar?)
Seven of those first 13 wins came against teams that would go on to finish below the 30-win mark that season. OKC also picked up early-season wins against strong teams like Orlando, San Antonio, Miami, and Utah (those last three coming on the road). They also experienced 13-plus-point losses to the Magic, Lakers, Celtics, Cavaliers, and Mavericks. The Thunder then came together after that 13-14 start and ended 2009 with five wins in a row—three coming on the road—and an 18-14 record. At the start of 2010, however, OKC found themselves mostly in a rut—through the first 13 games of the new calendar year, they were 6-7 (24-21 overall).
Then came a nine-game winning streak. Momentum was built with three straight wins at home, and then on the road for five out of six games, all victories. After that 13-14 start, the Thunder rounded out their 2009-10 season with 37 wins and 18 losses.
OKC’s defensive rating didn’t noticeably change after the below-.500 start, but their offense did, going from scoring 102.5 points per 100 possessions in their first 27 games to scoring 107.4 points per 100 possessions in their final 55 games. How did the Thunder do this?
- They took better care of the ball (1.23 Ast/TO ratio to 1.39).
- They took less 3-pointers (16.2 per game to 14.4 per game—the fall off came on above-the-break 3-pointers; OKC took about the same amount of corner 3s per game).
- They attempted more field goals in the restricted area (26 FGAs/G to 28.4); and in the non-restricted area paint (10.3 FGAs/G to 11.3).
- They got to the free throw line more (25.9 attempts per game to 27.5 attempts per game).
An Oklahoma City Thunder team, desperate to progress, and fast, simply attacked the basket more.
Now, we might hear a lot of theories now about why the 2013-14 Wizards are one of the most jump-shooting-est teams in the league. (‘Coach wants me to take those shots,’ accuses Bradley Beal, essentially. And well, maybe that’s because Beal can’t really finish at the rim, yet.)
The fact remains: The Wizards are tied for 18th-most in the NBA (with the Milwaukee Bucks) in field goal attempts inside the restricted area per game (25.1). They attempt the fourth-fewest shots in the non-restricted area paint per game (9.9). And while OKC’s previous flaw was seemingly an over reliance on above-the-break 3-pointers (via Durant and Westbrook), Washington is over reliant on a more inefficient shot: the long midrange 2-pointer, where they attempt the second-most shots in the league (28.2 per game), but shoot them at a 35.9 percent clip (fifth-worst in the NBA).
Oklahoma City learned how to be tough an unforgiving Western Conference, and this surely had something to do with making the Conference Finals the very next season (2010-11) and the NBA Finals after that (2011-12). Washington is obviously further behind as a franchise due to varying reasons of self-inflicted ineptness. (OKC, for instance, was able to turn a late-first round draft pick (24th overall) into a prime-time player, Serge Ibaka; the Wizards are still trying to crack the draft-and-develop code.) However, the environment (i.e., John Wall’s “coincidence”) in which Washington lives provides the same opportunity, relative to talent, once provided to that below-.500 Oklahoma team.
Over the remaining 56 percent of the season, will Randy Wittman’s team be able to better fight and claw their way to the rim? Judging from his comments after last Saturday’s home loss to Houston (but before Monday’s road win in Chicago), the coach has a lot of fish to fry (past players overly amorous for jumpers):
“Until we hold each other accountable of what’s going on, on the floor and get it corrected… That starts with me, but it also starts in the locker room of having some leadership in there of … We just played the game, we shortcut everything, and when you do that, you get down 25. Now, we got pissed off … at me, at each other. Well, if that’s what it takes, that’s what it takes.
“The main point is at home here … We just have no—I don’t know what the term is—sense of urgency in coming home and protecting home. And, we don’t. We just go out and play like it’s an AAU game.”
John Wall recently agreed with his coach’s assessment of the locker room, telling CSN’s J. Michael:
“In the locker room, sometimes we play too much. We play around too much before the games, doing other stuff. I think in the visiting locker room you just sit in that locker room. You can’t really do much. It’s either there or the court.”
Of course, none of this exactly points the finger at Wall. The reality is that he’s either part of the problem himself or isn’t part of the solution, which is also a problem. The franchise is being built around John Wall, and the locker room environment falls on his shoulders.
Wall must be more of the leader that Wittman is looking for, and Wittman must be more of the coach that his team needs—from prompting increased attentiveness to defense, to devising a better offensive plan that puts his players closer to the basket, earning more free throws, and thus ultimately creating better looks from the perimeter. If Wittman’s players can’t realize that shooting too many jumpers and not getting to the charity stripe is getting them beat, and instead are giving the ‘Aww, shucks, they just aren’t falling’ excuse, then it’s Wittman’s fault.
The Wizards kick-off a five-game homestand against the two-time champion Miami Heat tonight. After that, a four game, West Coast road trip. On February 1, those Oklahoma City Thunder come to down. If Washington wants to make an impression on the league and show that a third team in the East does want to separate itself from the pack (while still lagging eons behind the Heat and Pacers), now is as good of a time as ever to wanna to be startin’ somethin’.
[stats via NBA.com/stats]