Those Passing Washington Wizards, Suddenly One of the NBA’s Most Selfless Teams
John Wall on Equal Opportunity Offense
You really can’t brag about the San Antonio Spurs enough, an act which lies somewhere beneath the ironic layer of non-marketability. In the superstar-fueled NBA, the common fan has for years dubbed the Spurs unwatchable. Certainly as such fans get more educated with an abundance of materials available online, the Spurs slowly gain more respect. Winning does that, too. But still, ratings mongers will tell you otherwise.
For Grantland.com, Kirk Goldberry writes:
“The NBA has worked brilliantly over the last two decades to create a product that the world can love. It’s emphasized its superstar players and its highlight-creating plays.
“Over this period, the San Antonio Spurs, who have perhaps been the league’s most steadily successful franchise over the last 15 years, have none of that stuff. Their roster is full of foreign names from faraway lands, it includes only one All-Star, and nobody averaging 20 points per game. Oh, and their coach is a brilliantly opaque curmudgeon.”
The Harvard College Sports Analysis Collective (HSAC), on their blog (harvardsportsanalysis.org) recently parsed through data now available via missile-tracking camera technology, with the Spurs in mind, to measure the ball movement of NBA teams (termed “pass score”) as well as player movement (termed “run score”). The authors of the analysis write:
“Announcers, fans, and analysts rave over the Spur’s superb unselfishness, but very little has been done to actually quantify how good their ball movement is. This has largely been due to the fact that no data has been available, but now with the release of SportVU data to the general public, there exists a way to quantify it.”
The data essentially calculated passes per possession while accounting for varying possession lengths amongst NBA teams. It showed that the Spurs were the “most passing” and “most moving” team during 2013-14 regular season. The average NBA pass score was minus-0.0003, the Spurs led the way with 1.7. The average NBA run score was 0.0006, and the Spurs again led the way by far with 2.6.
Only four NBA teams had a pass score above 1.0, and the Washington Wizards were one of them. The Top 4: Spurs (1.7), Bobcats (1.55), Clippers (1.09), Wizards (1.05).
There’s no direct correlation between so much passing/moving and winning. And as the analysis notes: “these metrics solely account for the relative quantity of passing and moving and don’t deal with the quality because there can be wasted passes and wasted movement.”
The Bucks, Jazz, 76ers, and Lakers (all among the worst teams in the league) are also in the top 10 in “pass score,” but so are playoff teams such as the Hawks and Mavericks.
The Wizards ranked 13th in regular season “run score” with 0.08, sandwiched between the Hawks (0.16) and Lakers (0.07). Considering the type of offense that Mike D’Antoni ran when it came to the Lakers, and Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer’s 18-year history with the Spurs organization, the company that Washington keeps in passing and ball movement comes as no surprise. Don Newman, in his second season as an assistant on Washington’s coaching staff, previously spent seven years as an assistant with the Spurs (and Newman hasn’t been the only entity crossing-over from the San Antonio organization to the Washington organization under Ted Leonsis’ reign, as TAI has written before).
Even more “traditional” advanced statistics show a drastic improvement in how Washington has moved and taken care of the ball since John Wall entered the league. Keeping much of the company mentioned above, the Spurs and Hawks ranked No. 1 and No. 2 respectively in the NBA this season in Assist Ratio (ASTRatio – number of assists per 100 possessions) at 19.1 and 19.0. The Wizards were in the neighborhood with an ASTRatio of 17.7 during the regular season, tied with the Chicago Bulls for seventh-best. Previously mentioned passing teams like the Clippers (18.4), Lakers (18.2), and Mavericks (18.1), along with the Heat (18.2), round out the NBA’s top 8 teams in ASTRatio.
Randy Wittman’s offense isn’t always the most creative finger painting in the class, but the various colors it reflects through equal opportunity is a thing of beauty. And Wittman’s offense should also be touted for what it hasn’t become: reckless under the thumb of Wall’s speed. During Wall’s rookie year, Washington’s ASTRatio of 15.0 ranked dead last in the NBA, and in Wall’s sophomore season, their 15.1 ratio was tied for fourth-worst. These numbers help reflect improvement in Wall, under Wittman, just as much as they reflect how far the Wizards have come since the me-ball days of Nick Young, Andray Blatche, JaVale McGee, and Jordan Crawford.
“It’s the makeup of your team, obviously,” said Wittman recently on the equal opportunity nature of his squad and how that compares to, say, an Atlanta or a San Antonio team. “That’s what coaches try to do, obviously, put their players in the best-case situations, and if you don’t have a LeBron James or a Carmelo Anthony or stuff, you got to play a different style, a different way. That’s kind of what we stress here. There’s not one guy that can carry our team. It’s a collective group, and yes, Atlanta plays a lot like us.”
“First of all, we have a lot of weapons,” said Marcin Gortat when asked to discuss the ‘sharing is caring’ environment. “We can score in many different ways. John, obviously on the fast break and in transition. Me and John on the pick-and-roll. Or Nene on the post-up. Shooting from the outside, you know, Trevor, Bradley, Martell. And occasionally posting me up with Nene [on the outside]. We have a lot of, lot of different weapons. Obviously [Indiana is] going to take away some things, we got to go to second, third, maybe fourth option, and make sure we’re going to execute well.”
Part testament to whatever has been suddenly constructed by Ernie Grunfeld (rumored to have one more unknown year left on his deal per the Washington Post’s Mike Wise), part testament to Wittman’s ability to keep it all together. The balance of offensive threats in Washington certainly makes it easier for players to trust each other and share the ball (and thus make more open shots). In addition to improvements in team play since in 2010, the Wizards and Wall have made great strides since the beginning of this season. Wall himself will tell you.
“Earlier in the season, me or Brad or Nene or those guys would try to do it on our own. I think now we understand we don’t have to,” Wall said after practice on Saturday. “We’ve got six or seven guys who scores in double-figures for a reason. Any given night, somebody can rep for a big night. And I think that’s a big help to our team. You can’t focus in on one guy, and other guys can step up pretty big. And that’s something you need on a team.”
Before, you could see pock marks lining Washington’s foundation. Now Wittman’s team makeup, and playoffs prom dress, is developing like a Cinderella. Whether they can keep it up will be seen as early as 7 p.m. EDT (luckily before midnight) on Monday evening out of Indiana. With both teams tough defensively and the Wizards on a roll,
the Pacers aren’t sitting as pretty as some might suspect in a series that could turn downright ugly (in an entertaining manner). If Wittman’s team has truly eschewed the hero-ball that sometimes reared its head against lesser opponents in much less meaningful games, they could be the belle of the Round 2 playoff ball.