Don't Be Offended by Washington's Offense When Defense is the Pillar | Wizards Blog Truth About It.net

Don’t Be Offended by Washington’s Offense When Defense is the Pillar

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Updated: November 18, 2014

[Original image via Mitchell Layton/MCT]

[Original image via Mitchell Layton/MCT]

The Washington Wizards have the second-best winning percentage in the Eastern Conference, fifth-best in the NBA. Almost three weeks into a 24-week season, it’s OK if no one really notices this rag tag crew of wily and well-traveled veterans accompanied by a youthful core—John Wall, Bradley Beal, and why hello, Otto Porter—that makes pillars of past rebuilds look like a pay-day loan scam next to a sound 401K.

A 7-2 start is a symmetrically packaged contrast to last season’s near panic button-inducing 2-7 start. But Washington’s only wins against “playoff” teams have come against the surprise Milwaukee Bucks (5-5) and the coached-into-competitive Orlando Magic (5-7); both teams are currently keeping the seventh and eighth spots in the East warn, likely for someone else. Washington’s two losses have come against the Heat in Miami (in the season opener with Nene suspended) and the Raptors in Toronto (a blowout being the most telltale blemish on the early-season resume).

However, the Wizards are beating the teams they are supposed to beat while Beal has been out with a broken wrist—and while they forage through the fog of missing 3-point shooting. Beal started practicing on Monday and could make his season debut against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Friday in the District. The third-year NBA player might not solve early-season aches with a magic elixir, but with Washington’s depth most thin in the backcourt, he could be the a pure-shooting placebo. Otherwise, please excuse the Wizards (and my dear Aunt Sally) for being plus-5 in the win column as they figure things out.

Last year’s Wizards stumbled, inconsistently, into the playoffs, at which point they became the NBA’s shiny new toy having upset the culture-tested Chicago Bulls. Washington’s alpha dog, John Wall, played below the regular season standards he set in those playoffs, mostly in the second round against the Indiana Pacers (with a single saving grace of 27 points in a Game 5 win). The fifth-year player, now officially getting paid max money, is off to a valiant start, merging a deep dig out of the trenches of a losing culture with heightened expectations like a dad putting chains on snow tires else the weekend trip to Chuck E. Cheese be ruined.

Thus far Wall’s PER (21.9) and Win-Shares Per 48 Minutes (.146) are at career-high rates, as are his assists (13.2) and steals (3.4) per 100 possessions. His 4.8 turnovers per 100 possessions is a career-low rate. Wall’s eFG% is down from last year (.447 from .473), but that’s mostly due to a drop off in 3-point percentage (.250 from .351), but he’s also attempting 2.1 less 3-pointers per 100 possessions and is instead more concentrated on running the team.

Still, Washington is still not without its warts—most prominently team turnovers and team offense, particularly of the long distance variety. Trevor Ariza is gone (top 5 in 3s made) and Martell Webster has been injured since the summer. Garrett Temple, stopgap utility infielder for the second half of a day-night doubleheader on a makeup date, leads the Wizards with 15 total 3-point makes. Temple started the season 14-for-27 but is just 1-for-11 over the last four games. Paul Pierce is second on the team with eight 3-point makes and the resurgent Rasual Butler has seven. John Wall (5), Otto Porter (4), sometimes Drew Gooden (3), and when he’s not going through growing pains, Glen Rice (1), have also proved capable of hitting from deep. No one on the current Wizards forster, however, aside from Pierce and Beal—focal points—is a spot-up and knock down 3-point shooter. There is no specialized gun for hire (something Webster could be if he bounces back from injury and an iffy prior year).

Last season, 23.5 percent of Washington’s points came via 3-pointers. That’s how the team was presumably built with Wall’s speed and passing as capable of spreading the floor as Dwight Howard’s post presence, if not more. But that 23.5 percent merely ranked in the middle of the NBA, tied for 14th with the L.A. Clippers. Washington and Golden State each shot 38 percent from deep in 2013-14, tied for fourth highest. In theory, Washington should have been attempting more 3-pointers. In reality, their 20.8 3-point attempts per game ranked just 19th most. Golden State attempted 24.8 3s per game, tied for sixth most. The hairs split with the Warriors being two points better on offense per 100 possessions than the Wizards were last season. Also worth noting that Wall’s speed has not impacted some statistics used to measure how fast a team plays (Pace—estimated possessions per 48 minutes), as Washington has hovered around the league average over the past three seasons.

This season Washington is scoring 102.7 points per 100 possessions, 0.6 points under last year’s mark thanks to less 3-point shooting, a lack of personnel, and early-season gelling. If anything Wittman’s offense seems to be consistently under a ceiling. The coach, and his pupils, would probably just posture that ‘guys gotta make shots’—38 percent from deep last season is now 32.8 percent. Defensively, the Wizards are also about the same this season, if not better—02.1 points per 100 possessions allowed (6th-best Def. Rtg.) is a notch better than last season’s 104.6 (8th best), even in losing their only veteran perimeter stopper in Ariza. Criticize Wittman’s offense if you will, but rest your head on a pillow of team defensive laurels, which is harder to re-culture than it is to de-program a team from a single, cancerous shot-jacker (or two).

The Wizards, so far, are allowing opponents to attempt just 23.2 shots in the restricted area per game, third lowest in the NBA. On those shots, opponents are shooting 58.9 percent, tied with San Antonio for 10th lowest. Washington also defends the NBA’s most efficient shot well—the corner 3-pointer. Opponents average 4.7 corner 3 attempts per game, tied for fifth lowest with Indiana, and make them 33.3 percent of the time, eighth lowest in the league. The Wizards are also in the lower fourth of the league in opponent points allowed off turnovers (13.9) and in allowing opponents to score in the paint (37.3).

What glares at Wizards watchers is not just the dearth in distance buckets, but the fact that now, 25.7 percent of Washington’s points come from midrange 2-point shots. That number was just 20.3 percent last season. A saving grace might be the fact that 61.1 percent of Washington’s 2-point makes are now assisted, compared to just 52.5 percent last season. The Wizards are also now getting 18.1 percent of their points from the free throw line—that was 15.2 percent in 2013-14. The ability to make free throws? Another story, another wart. Washington shoots 72.9 percent from the line, eighth-worst in the NBA and slightly worse that last season’s 73.1 percent.

If the Wizards shoot 79 percent on free throws instead and perhaps make an extra 3-pointer, Wittman’s offense would approach a healthy 103 points per game, good enough for a top 10 ranking, instead of its current 98.7 points per game, 17th overall in the league.

Details, semantics, midrange, no change. From 30,000 feet, Washington’s offense is not awe-inspiring. Creativity is normally only found under mossy rocks. Wittman’s Wizards need not that one superstar to provoke defenses, they have enough well-rounded tools. And perhaps that’s the problem: too many mouths to take what the spoon provides. Still a nice problem to have, until it isn’t. Meanwhile, beguile yourself with not one, but two big men in Nene and Gortat to force feed in the post; with a 37-year-old Pierce serving as the halfcourt offensive creative liaison; with Wall and Beal striving for the No. 1 backcourt title; with a bench finally ready for chess instead of checkers.

There’s still a fog that not even Wittman’s glasses and a well-placed squint can see through, but that doesn’t mean the sunshine won’t eventually clear the path down the highway. Lest we forget that defense, while not glamorous (nor well-explained by advanced statistics), wins championships, and on that front, Washington is at least in the conversation with the defenses of teams like Houston, Memphis, Indiana, and San Antonio. It’s not the Fun Street of yore (when defense was the criticism and playoff success was fleeting), but at least it’s a start, and one with a better chance at enduring success.

 

[Stats via Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com/stats]

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Kyle Weidie
Founder / Editor / Reporter / Writer at TAI
Kyle founded TAI in 2007 and has been weaving in and out the world of Wizards ever since, ducking WittmanFaces, jumping over G-Wiz, and avoiding stints on the DNP-Conditioning list. He has covered the Washington pro basketball team as a member of the media since 2009. Kyle currently lives in Brooklyn, NY with his wife, loves basketball, and has no pets.