Wittman’s Heart-Shaped Boxes: A Mid-Range Love Story
You know, the man of my dreams might walk round the corner tomorrow. I’m older and wiser and I think I’d make a great girlfriend. I live in the realm of romantic possibility. —Stevie Nicks
It’s no secret. Washington’s offense, though predictably improved from last year, is still one of least impressive units in the NBA (currently ranked 21st out of 30)*. But what makes Washington’s offense (101.2 points scored per 100 possessions) so much less efficient than the NBA’s elite offenses (the top 7 units in the NBA all score over 107 points per 100 possessions)? The answer, buried beneath warded layers of coachspeak, is not readily discernible. Strap in.
Take What the Defense Gives You
To this observer, the failure of Randy Wittman’s offense begins with a maxim oft-repeated in a variety of pro sports, but basketball especially: “Take what the defense gives you.” It has been used by Wittman to explain hot-shooting comebacks, but conversely, it has also been used in attempts to blur the salience of shooting data when responding to seemingly innocuous questions. His stance (if the defense gives you an open shot, it’s a good shot) is almost as inarguable as it is indefensible.
The parade of horribles that Wittman imagines when crying “Analytical B.S.” into the æther is a relevant fear. Were all NBA coaches to strictly disallow shots that have been proven to be inefficient (particularly the 15-to-19 foot jump shot), the presumably immaculate offense would find itself fairly simple to defend. Guard the 3-point line, guard the paint, profit. The spreadsheet offense, in its purest form, is a fallacious basket-topia. But with Miami’s championship team (predicated on 3-point shooting and slashing drives to the hoop) as an example, it’s not hard to see why many have lobbied for increased deep shooting at the expense of one of basketball’s staples: the mid-range, two-point jump shot.
It may be easier to reconcile the use of the mid-range jumper as an equivalent to the NFL’s “smash mouth football” brand of ground game. At times, it is a necessary evil, the establishment of which opens up the offense for bigger, better plays. But even more so than the NFL, where teams are so large and salary-bound as to be increasingly similar, the NBA rewards the creative utilization of limited, differentiated talent (although many players fit into established roles).
Which is why the good teams take advantage of their strengths, and avoid their weaknesses, all the while taking what the defense gives them (which is of course the easiest part, and the least dependent on preparation). Great teams like the Spurs move the ball so well that the defense doesn’t “give” them anything. It’s too busy breaking.
The league’s “worst shot,” as noted recently by the Wall Street Journal and referenced above, is the 15-to-19 foot jump shot. League-wide, teams expect the fewest points per attempt (0.81) for this shot compared to shots from every other traditional distance (obviously we’re excluding half-court shots and their ilk … may you find peace, Gilbert Arenas). As one of the league’s worst offenses, it may not surprise you to learn that the Washington Wizards (as of Feb. 12, 2014) have attempted 871 such 15-to-19 foot shots, second only to the Charlotte Bobcats (892).
THE 15-TO-19 FOOT
MIDRANGE JUMP SHOT
ACCOUNTS FOR THE FEWEST
POINTS PER ATTEMPT:
A team so committed to shots of a certain range (and it is Washington’s second most-attempted shot range, behind shots within five feet of the basket) is presumably exploiting a roster strength. This is not the case with the Wizards.
The hard-to-swallow and indefensible reality of Washington’s shot selection is this: the Wizards take the second-most shots in the NBA from 15-to-19 feet (the “worst shot” in the NBA), and hit those shots only 36.6 percent of the time, good for the fourth-worst rate in the NBA. Not only are the Wizards ignoring their weakness in this inherently vulnerable area, they are exacerbating the issue by embracing it. If the defense is giving them this shot, it is because the defense knows that they will most likely take it, and that they will most likely miss.
But let’s get one thing straight: basing an offense around these kinds of shots is not necessarily a bad decision. It’s the context, and the personnel, which make or break a team’s reliance on the mid-range. While the 15-to-19 foot shot is, in a vacuum, the worst shot in the NBA, the NBA’s second-best offense (the Portland Trail Blazers) takes the third-most 15-to-19 foot shots. And, no surprise here, they make 43.7 percent of those shots (fourth-highest in the NBA).
THE WIZARDS TAKE
THE SECOND MOST SHOTS
BUT SHOOT FOURTH-WORST
FROM 15-TO-19 FEET IN THE NBA:
Here are the top five teams in the NBA from 15-19 feet in terms of field goal percentage:
- Phoenix Suns – 558 attempts, 45.3 percent
- Indiana Pacers – 764 attempts, 44.4 percent
- Oklahoma City Thunder – 733 attempts, 43.9 percent
- Portland Trailblazers – 821 attempts, 43.7 percent
- Dallas Mavericks – 682 attempts, 43.0 percent
All of these teams take a healthy amount of 15-to-19 foot shots, proving that the shot can be, in the right hands, a tool among other tools in one of those fancy metaphoric toolboxes that coaches, law professors, and corporate retreat leaders love to reference. The worst team (by season record) on the list, Phoenix, still has five more wins than the Washington, and plays in the Western Conference while Washington has played the 11th easiest schedule in the NBA.
Among the bottom five teams in field goal percentage for 15-to-19 foot shots (Timberwolves, Rockets, Jazz, Wizards, Nuggets), the Houston Rockets have taken by far the fewest attempts (206) and the Wizards have taken by far the most (871). Meanwhile, Houston (despite their failure from this range) is the sixth-most efficient offense in the NBA. Where the Wizards have blindly forged ahead, the Rockets have pared back, reconsidered, and attacked anew. The Rockets face the same NBA defenses that the Wizards face, and have taken less than a quarter of the 15-to-19 foot jumpers that Wittman so blithely allows when it’s “what the defense gives you.”
The Effort to Understand the Universe
By now, you’re most likely exhausted. So am I! Hopefully, though, you haven’t yet reached the alienation threshold. Because this is where the spreadsheet starts to involve humans, who as you know are the lucky inheritors of the sundry miscellany known as the genetic code. No two players are exactly alike. Although two players may be the same height, or play the same position, these surface factors alone would make it hard to describe the potentially tremendous difference between their roles, proficiencies, and inefficiencies on the court.
Sandwiched in between the Bobcats (892), Wizards (871), Cavaliers (821), and Knicks (820), the Portland Trail Blazers, as noted above, take the third-most attempts from 15-to-19 feet, and yet, unlike the other offenses in this unenviable Top 5, also do double duty as the second-best offense in the NBA. It may have something to do with personnel.
LaMarcus Aldridge, who has taken 395 of the discussed midrange attempts (most in the NBA, next closest is DeMar DeRozan with 273), also makes those shots at a more-than-respectable 42.5 percent. Damian Lillard has attempted 68 such shots, and has made 51.5 percent of them. Even the slightly inefficient Mo Williams, who has taken 103 such shots and has only hit 40.8 percent of them, would be a godsend on the Washington Wizards.
Because the two players on the Wizards who take the most 15-to-19 foot jumpers can’t hit them for shit.
John Wall and Bradley Beal, who take the sixth- and eight-most 15-to-19 foot jumpers in the NBA, respectively, are the reason that the Wizards embody the antithesis of inefficient offense. If you’ve been holding your pitchfork upright, it’s time to take aim. Wall has taken 238 shots from 15-to-19 feet, and only hits those shots 34.9 percent of the time. Beal, who has taken 208 shots from 15-to-19 feet, is not much better: 36.5 percent.
I do not here advocate that the Wizards should follow Dork Elvis and the Rockets into the Tron arcade console and declare war on the self-aware 15-to-19 foot shot (although it does seem to be going swimmingly in there)—it’s somewhat inimitable: Dwight Howard is the elite piece at the fulcrum of an offense that draws doubles down low (far more often than Nene or Marcin Gortat) and kicks the ball out for 3-pointers. Like the empty calories of moon pies or Frito-Lay potato products, these shots are fine in moderation. But the Wizards are a franchise that has resented its maliciously, and perhaps unfairly imposed characterization as an oblivious entertainment entity that molds players into Shaqtin’ a Fool candidates and drafts lanky, unready Europeans. The Wizards do themselves no favors when they urge young stars, and team cornerstones, to develop bad habits by way of validating grossly voluminous midrange attempts.
When asked earlier in the year about his shot selection, Bradley Beal claimed that his coach wanted him to take those shots. It was more than a punt. Randy Wittman wants to buy what your defense is selling. Washington’s offense revolves, more than any offense in the NBA outside of Charlotte, around a conclusively overused, under-performing shot. Knowing that variable is in place, a bottom-tier offense is almost a given. Other players, and other teams, may be able to execute the plays and sets which result in these shots. But Wittman has attempted to force-fit this brand of basketball on his Wizards.
When John Wall first started to let it fly from the elbows, many reacted with oscillating states of bemusement and rage, depending on their investment. But the Wizards were a bad team at the time, and if they were ever going to be a decent team, Wall needed to learn how to shoot the ball. It was heard ad nauseum on whichever broadcast you happened to be tuned into: “If John Wall ever learns how to…”
The Wizards are now that decent team, just good enough for the playoffs, and yet Wall and Beal are still shooting those in-game practice rep shots. Defenses are happy to oblige: the 15-foot shot is increasingly open as teams concentrate their defensive efforts on 3-pointers and the restricted area. Would the offense be better if Wall and Beal were better shooters? That’s almost a rhetorical question, but the obvious answer is yes. Unfortunately, they are not, and in the meantime their shot selection is the previously-owned weight strung to the cold, dead foot of potential offensive efficiency at the bottom of an anonymous American lake. The Wizards needs a new game plan. They need a chance to play to their strengths, not to bait themselves into irrelevancy.
Being the Best Me I Can Be
The Wizards do have strengths. This article has approached geek clichédom already, but let’s make it official. While the Wizards are toiling away, trying to be something they are not, they have almost accidentally become the sixth-best 3-point shooting team in the NBA. Bradley Beal, he of the He Got Game rumors and the Ray Allen release, is shooting 43.1 percent on 3s. That’s eighth-best in the NBA! Surely the Wizards are taking advantage of this roster strength. Well, about that … see, what had happened was … they were taking what the defense gave them, and then I don’t really know, but there are 15 teams in the NBA that take more 3-pointers than the Wizards.
The Wizards also hit shots within five feet at the fifth-best clip in the NBA (much of which is due to Marcin Gortat, as TAI’s Kyle Weidie deftly explained), but have not taken advantage of that competence, registering at a humble (but not hungry) 22nd overall in attempts within five feet. Washington has a roster tailor-made for the statistics scuba diver’s wet dream of 3-pointers and shots at the rim. Which isn’t to say the team should put all the 3-pointers and layups on an ark and wait for the rain to come, of course. The answer comes in the form of balance. By running increasingly more plays that result in shots at the rim and shots behind the arc, while decreasing plays that result in the long two-pointers that agitate the mob, the Wizards have the ability to be a better offensive team than they are.
Currently, the roster eschews its greatest strengths to marginalize itself through a grim determination to be something it is roundly not, like a legally blind poet with authority issues who joins the United States Air Force to be a jet pilot instead of accepting a creative writing residency in Martha’s Vineyard.
Question everything. Learn something. Answer nothing.
Well, “nothing” may not be enough, Euripides.
While the assertions above may read like conclusions, they are in reality far from it. Oh, to be a blogger! And one that dips a questing hand into the barely understood and easily abused morass of statistics to boot. Absent an opportunity to pull a Being John Malkovich, it is difficult to be the guarantor of paragraphs which tend to implicate a coach rather than his players. Do we know that the endgame of the sets Randy Wittman asks his players to run is a mid-range jump shot? When Bradley Beal fires up a hubris-imbued jumper, does he choose to ignore marching orders to probe the defense until a more paced and measured attempt can be made?
At times, Beal’s dribblings around the heart of the halfcourt have yielded good looks for Nene and Gortat, but otherwise, Beal has fired up only one #MaynorTime floater (and hit it!), and efforts to get shots a bit closer to the basket (10-14 feet, 36.7%) have been met with mostly the same, if slightly better, results. Wall’s numbers from 10-14 feet aren’t pretty either, as he hits just 34.1 percent from that range. Those floaters, though (6-for-8 on the season)!
JOHN WALL – 34.9%
BRADLEY BEAL – 36.5%
Part of the reason that Wall and Beal get so many 15-to-19 foot shots seems to be the prevalence of hand-off screens away from the paint, but another, perhaps more important reason is that open 15-to-19 foot shots are often the first look a player will get when progressing a possession within the 3-point line in a one-on-one situation. There may be another hypothetically better shot as the possession progresses, but John Wall and Bradley Beal do not yet exhibit the patience of a player like Chris Paul, who will sadistically measure a possession in coffee spoons until opportunity presents itself. It is this patience and proven discretion that makes Paul the poster boy for Kirk Goldsberry’s newest baby, the expected possession value (“EPV”) metric.
John Wall and Bradley Beal would most likely not take 200-plus shots that were forbidden by the play-caller, but Wittman certainly hasn’t masterminded every mid-range attempt that’s been fired up (especially those that are the result of breakdowns in halfcourt offense). Ultimately we must assume, with all the very tenuous veracity that implies, that the sheer volume of these vilified shots indicates complicity from the coach even as the players contribute to their propagation. If the defense is giving, the Wizards are taking. To improve their offense, the Wizards will likely have to pass on those initial gifts in order to generate their own, better opportunities. While Wittman’s Wizards may be enamored with the mid-range, the feeling isn’t mutual. Ain’t love grand?
*all stats current as of February 12, 2014, before Washington’s game against the Houston Rockets.
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