Eat, Pray, Launch: A Wizards Mid-Range Love Story
Nene will be sidelined for “approximately six weeks” with a sprained (meaning slightly torn) MCL. That means the Wizards are standing at the edge of icy waters, set to face their toughest test yet. The Wiz Kids have won just seven games without Nene since he joined the team at the trade deadline in March 2012 (he’s missed 42 games). Even as the fifth seed in the East, they can’t be expected to play .500 ball without Nene, given that the team has not been able to stay above that mark with him.
Randy Wittman will have to demonstrate how good of a coach he really is. This March, even if the Wizards string together W’s, Wittman will own the lowest career winning percentage (currently .354) of any coach after 500 games in NBA history. That bit of historical whoopsies! may not be entirely fair, given that Wittman has taken over for headless NBA teams as an interim coach time and time again*, but it doesn’t make it any less true.
*Wittman’s first and only direct hire for head coach came in 1999. The Cavaliers felt they needed to replace Mike Fratello (248-212 record in Cleveland), and turned to Randy Wittman, who promised an uptempo attack. “If we put an entertaining product on the floor,” Wittman said, “wins will come.” After going 62-101 in two seasons, Wittman was fired.
Wittman is a reliable disciplinarian (just ask Kevin Seraphin), but he’s clearly not Doc Rivers or Gregg Popovich with a clipboard. He’ll need to find a way to get the most out of his players to avoid getting chased out of the playoffs with a broom. The question, of course, is: How? Is it sermons chock-full of X’s and O’s? Empathy? A diet of game film on loop?
Perhaps it’s something even simpler: the right clues.
Giving players the right clues is one secret behind José Mourinho’s success in European football. Mourinho is currently the manager at Chelsea F.C. (top of the table in England’s Barclays Premier League), and Wittman ought to take a page from Mourinho’s ink-soaked notebook.
They call him “The Special One.”
José Mourinho was a scout in ’94 under FC Porto manager Sir Robert William “Bobby” Robson in Portugal’s top-flight soccer league. He worked his way up the chain of command, slowly but surely, after arriving at the club as a translator. Mourinho knew the sport well, and proved his worth by producing scouting reports that Robson, stunned, described as “absolutely first class.”
Mourinho’s deep understanding of soccer may have taken Robson by surprise, but he had grown up playing the game began scouting football clubs when he was just 14 years old, for his father, Felix Mourinho, a goal keeper for Vitoria Setubal (Portugal) in his younger days and the team’s general manager when wiser and more grey.
Life was great at Porto, for the most part, with Mourinho serving as a better assistant than translator—he couldn’t help but include strong opinions of his own, a disfavored trait for a translator tasked exclusively with translingual regurgitation. Robson’s Porto side reached the semi-finals of the 1994 Champions League and faced the great Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona at Camp Nou. Barcelona won convincingly, 3-0, but the Catalans tend to recognize talent when they see it. Two seasons later, Barcelona chairman Josep Lluís Núñez “unceremoniously sacked” manager Johan Cruyff and hired Robson as his substitute.
Mourinho packed his bags for the greener, richer pastures of Spain’s La Liga to join Robson, of course. At the time Mourinho was a hard-ass—some would call him arrogant (and still do)—but he was well-liked by both players and journalists. (Not unlike Randy Wittman.) But Mourinho was also a formidable strategist, and, probably, a better psychologist—reasons why he’s widely regarded as one of the best soccer managers of all time, having led some of the world’s best clubs in four countries to league titles.
Over at FourFourTwo (“the world’s favourite football magazine”), writer Andy Mittman explains why:
Mourinho claimed that he won over [Barcelona's] superstar players by guiding them, rather than being autocratic.
“You can’t help but learn when you coach players of this calibre,” he said. “You even learn about human relationships. Players of that level don’t accept what you tell them simply because of the authority of who’s telling them,” he said. “You have to prove what you say is right. The old story of ‘The Mister is always right’ is simply not applicable. Certainly it’s not with a player of a high level, which is the case at Barcelona. The coach is a guide. You provide clues; they interpret them. My philosophy is guidance and discovery.”
Can Wittman do the same?
(The Wrong) Shots Fired in D.C.
In December, J. Michael of CSN Washington tried to ask Wittman whether there was anything the 8-9 Wizards could do to improve their shot selection and find more opportunities at the rim. He was cut off.
“Yeah, you’re in the analytical bullshit, too, aren’t you?” Wittman mooed.
J. Michael pressed him, but Wittman insisted: “I can’t even comment.”
Today, only seven teams have attempted fewer shots inside five feet than the Wizards. But there’s a bigger problem with the way the team gets buckets. Randy Wittman’s offense is all about the mid-range jumper. Whether that’s by design, or slightly flawed execution by his players, is up for debate. What is clear is that Wittman’s offense is not effective—at least not as effective as it could be. The Wizards are currently 20th in the NBA in Offensive Rating (scoring 101.7 points per 100 possessions).
The Wizards are also second in the NBA in total mid-range field goal attempts (920) and mid-range field goal attempts per game (17.0), despite the mid-range jump shot accounting for the fewest points per attempt (0.81), as Conor Dirks pointed out in the first half of TAI’s offensive exposé. All those attempts would be OK if the Wizards were the Suns, the Blazers, the Pacers, or the Thunder—teams that knock down that shot about 44 percent of the time—but they’re not. The Wizards are tied for the fifth-worst field goal percentage in the NBA from 15-to-19 feet (36.7%).
Shot selection ends with the athletes on the hardwood, but the decision-making process begins with the head coach. It begins with Randy Wittman, who may be guilty of giving his players, his young stars, the wrong instruction.
“There may be times where I do probably fall in love with my jump shot a little bit too much,” Bradley Beal told the media in mid-January. “But, I mean, those are shots that Witt wants me to take. So, I’m gonna continue to take them.”
Beal has continued to take jumpers. Mid-range jumpers. He has attempted the eighth-most mid-range Js in the NBA (4.8 per game), but makes just 35.5 percent of those shots. He’s not alone. John Wall, the face of the franchise, is tripping the traps set by NBA defenses, too. Wall has attempted more mid-range shots than all but five players (taking 4.7 per game) even though he shoots 35.7 percent from that distance.
Wall and Beal see space behind perimeter defenders, they step into it, fire long 2-pointers and, more often than not, miss. It’s because Wittman tells his players, ‘Take what the defense gives you.’ And the defense will give players the mid-range jump shot, every time. Why not? It’s the worst shot in basketball, by the numbers (and preternaturally open because of the way defenses play screens in that area).
Let’s take a moment to watch Bradley Beal in action vs. Atlanta.
Beal shoots 30.9 percent from that mid-range zone. Twice he turned down opportunities to take open 3-pointers. Remember, Beal was the runner-up in the 3-point shooting contest at All-Star Weekend. He shoots 42.6 percent from that area above the break.
The bonus of the extra point is what pumps up a player’s game, a team’s performance over 48 minutes, and what prompts the TS% to ask the FG%, “DO YOU EVEN LIFT, BRO?”
Matthew Goldman, a UC San Diego economist, and Microsoft’s Justin M. Rao were at last year’s MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. Their report, “Live by the Three, Die by the Three,” shared some interesting findings, including that 3-point usage increases when teams are behind (no surprise) and decreases for teams playing with a lead. The kicker: “Teams get it right when losing and wrong when winning.”
Using detailed play-by-play data for six years of NBA games, we empirically quantify the true value of 3-pointers relative to 2-pointers as a function of score margin and time remaining. We do so by calculating the impact a made shot of each type has on the chance the team wins the game for all the game states in our sample. It is not uncommon for a made 3-pointer to be worth as much as 1.8 and as little as 1.2 times the “win value” of a made 2-pointer.
Randy Wittman needs to coach his players to take exactly what they want.
What they should want is more 3-pointers.
- Fact: The Wizards shoot 38.2 percent from 3 on the season, the second-best mark in the NBA.
- Fact: The Wizards 3-point percentage is about 10 points higher in wins than it is in losses.
- Fact: The Wizards take an almost equal number of 3-point attempts in wins and losses.
- Fact: The Wizards rank in the bottom half (17th) in 3-point attempts.
The problems and inefficiencies in Wittman’s offensive design (including a slow pace, ranked 18th) often rear their ugly heads during the clutch (defined by NBA.com as the last five minutes of games with the score differential at five points or less). During the clutch, the Wizards attempt the most shots per game in the NBA (9.3), however, they shoot the lowest percentage (35.6%).
It’s not an issue of sample size. The Wizards actually lead the league in minutes that qualify for this clutch definition (169), which means they often find themselves in close games … and miss a lot of shots in close games. All those missed chances add up to a 4-8 record in games decided by three points or fewer, and a 2-6 record in overtime.
I’m not saying the Wizards should ban the mid-range jumper outright, but there are two great benefits from better shot selection:
- Extra drives to the hoop, which more often lead to chances at the free throw line. The Wizards are 25th in free throw attempts per game and 26th in free throw rate. Beal, for example, attempts barely any free throws (2.1 per game) because he spends most of his time 15 feet or more away from the basket. He drives to the hoop as many times per game (3.1) as Nick Young. Those mid-range shots are open for Beal because the defense is choosing to surrender a low-percentage, low value shot, and not risking a defensive foul.
- The chance for more 3-pointers (and more points per shot attempt). Wall may shoot just 32.9 percent from 3 this year, but that is still a career-high (and he’s making 34.5 percent of his 3s over the past two months). Beal, Trevor Ariza and Martell Webster shoot better than 40 percent from 3.
Things happen fast out there, and not everything goes according to plan, but if Wittman could get his guys to turn a couple of the long 2-pointers they love so much into 3s, the Wizards could see a huge difference in the standings, especially with Nene out of the rotation. It may be as simple as saying, “Brad, stay aggressive, don’t settle for the jumper.” Or “John, if you’re open from downtown, take the shot!”
In a way, it’s actually very simple. The best coaches know how to get their players to listen. Don’t insist on inefficiency. Be flexible. Play to your strengths. José Mourinho understood that early. George Karl, who won 60 percent of the games he coached, knew how to adapt.
“We’re kind of trying to play not against the strength of a good defensive team, and the weakest part of the defensive team is normally in transition,” Karl told Dan Patrick on his radio show last season, when still the head coach of the Denver Nuggets (which led the league in attempts at the rim and transition baskets).
“I watch a soccer team like Spain play and so much of what they do is they don’t hold the ball,” Karl continued. “They ping the ball around and make quick decisions. And I’m sure they have great plays and great actions, but it’s basically don’t let the defense feel like they can zone in on you because you’re making quick decisions.”
Wittman’s Washington Wizards shoot about the same percentage from mid-range and 3 (see chart below). They’re shooting themselves in the foot by not aiming for the extra point.
The game done changed, Coach
“I was reading,” Doug Collins told Sean Deveny of Sporting News, “where a general manager was watching and a guy took a 3, missed it and said, ‘Boy, that’s a great shot,’ and then a guy came down and hit a 2 and he said, ‘That’s a bad shot.’ The one that went in was a bad shot? Well, that’s tough to coach in a circumstance like that, when you are going to be gauged on every shot.”
Wittman is a lot like Collins, in this respect. He’s used to being on the floor. He’d tell you he’s old school.
Adjusting to today’s NBA is a challenge for many players, coaches and front offices. And Wittman is not alone in rejecting, or looking past, analytics (see: Hollins, Lionel). But there is an opportunity for NBA front offices and analytics teams to work together with the coaching staff to maximize the effectiveness of their players. Just look how the Rockets updated their operating system (3-pointers and free throws) in a flash, while managing seemingly independent schools of thought: Daryl “Dork Elvis” Morey is a proud stat head, while head coach Kevin McHale (like Wittman) is a graduate of the School of Hard Knocks and Eye Tests.
Wittman has said his players don’t respect the game, but by pooh-poohing advanced stats, isn’t the head ball coach doing the same? Wittman’s players have had his back, but the Wizards’ performance over the next few weeks and into the playoffs will speak volumes about his ability to lead this team to the next level.