Lemonade and Self-Sabotage: Washington's Woeful Offense | Wizards Blog Truth About It.net

Lemonade and Self-Sabotage: Washington’s Woeful Offense

Updated: December 2, 2014

[Ed. note: This is the “debut” post of Chris Thompson, heretofore and forevermore a mystery of the internet, but also a TAI contributor. Chris is a Virginia resident, Wizards fan, and an occasional Deadspin counterprogramming and food auteur. You may recognize him from his work on a previous D.C. Council, and “future you” may recognize him from several other posts which have yet to be written. Follow him on Twitter, @MadBastardsAll. —CD]

[original photo from KCustomables used with affection]

[original photo from KCustomables used with affection]

The 2014-15 Washington Wizards season, save some occasionally stifling defense, has so far resembled nothing so much as resistance training, occasionally rendered into elaborate performance art. Resistance training, you see, is all about burdening one’s actions, investing each movement with artificial weight, so that a goal that might otherwise be achieved naturally and intuitively is made challenging.

There is perhaps nothing in all of basketball that is so unnaturally burdened by a self-imposed resistance to success as Washington’s offense.

The numbers bear this out, of course. Even after their thorough domination of the Miami Heat on Monday, the Wizards are just 19th in Offensive Rating (points scored per 100 possessions) and have a meager Net Rating of just 3.4. But those numbers merely show the result of Washington’s commitment to self-sabotage. It’s really the how that boggles the mind.

Tuned-in NBA fans, and the most enlightened of team-builders, will tell you the two “best” shots in basketball are at the rim and behind the arc. A demonstrated disinterest in both has, of course, long been a persistent gripe with Randy Wittman’s “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” offense: Washington’s actions put actual and sincere effort into generating exactly the kinds of shots a sensible NBA defense would be all too happy to give away at a fraction of the cost. Lemonade, they are shouting, 25 cents! And Wittman is grumpily handing over a $10 bill and then grumbling about inflation while the plucky vendors shrug and share a fist-bump.

Ah yes, the numbers.

Washington’s efforts at generating points at the rim seem limited to what can be scavenged from live-ball turnovers and manufactured from backdoor cuts, but the sad reality is those aren’t particularly fertile avenues—the Wizards rank a disappointing 21st in field goal attempts per game from inside five feet, at just over 27 a night. What is missing, and desperately so, is an emphasis on and commitment to driving the ball to the rim. Some of this can be attributed to a lack of capable ball-handlers, most obviously during the portion of the season when Bradley Beal was injured. Garrett Temple is a dreadfully poor ball-handler, especially for a guard, but it’s hard to point to that excuse when teams like the Hawks (5th) and Bucks (6th) show up near the top of the NBA in drives per game while the Wizards rank a disastrous 28th. Are the Hawks’ and Bucks’ respective backcourts that much more capable of getting to the basket? Some of this comes down to whether teams’ heavy-use lineups feature frontcourt players capable of spreading the floor, but too much of Washington’s drive-averse offense seems due to a lack of emphasis. If the presence of traditional NBA big men requires a bit of offensive creativity in order to create driving lanes, then creativity is what’s called for, not a retreat to the mid-range.

Drives generate more than points at the basket. What teams like Houston and Dallas have figured out is that forcing the defense to collapse and scramble around a dribble-drive causes disarray and opens up opportunities for catch-and-shoot attempts from beyond the arc, where a team shooting at the league average is still generating 105 or so points per 100 possessions on those attempts. The Wizards are shooting a healthy 38.4 percent from 3, good for second in the NBA, but on just 15.3 attempts per game, the fourth-lowest rate in basketball. Even in Monday night’s demolition of the Heat, in which the Wizards seemed to overwhelm Erik Spoelstra’s squad with lights-out shooting, Washington attempted just 19 3s. At that paltry rate, the Wizards need exactly the sort of unlikely success (52.6 percent) they had to cobble together a dominant offensive showing. This is simple math stuff, here: the best mid-range shooting team in basketball (the Knicks, laughably, and illuminatingly) get just 95 points per 100 possessions on those shots, and I’m sure I don’t need to tell you whether 95 is greater than 105. Every time the Wizards pass up a 3-point look—even a lightly-contested look—and pass or dribble into a two-point jumper, they are lengthening their odds of outscoring their opponent, and dramatically so.

And the Wizards do that an awful lot. Washington is fourth in the NBA in attempts per game from 15-to-19 feet, where they are shooting a lukewarm 40 percent. John Wall is ninth in basketball in attempts from that range despite shooting a lousy 38 percent, and the recently-healthy Bradley Beal is hitting just over 31 percent of his attempts from that range. It’s hard enough to conjure a respectable offense from 15-to-19 feet even with all-time great mid-range artists like Carmelo Anthony (48.7 percent) and Kobe Bryant (47.3 percent), but surrendering nearly eight possessions a game to mid-range attempts from a House of Guards built mostly of bricks is tantamount to sabotage.

The Wiz are third in the NBA in attempts per game from 10-to-14 feet, where they are shooting a respectable but (for reasons described above) unhelpful 46 percent. They’re passing and dribbling their way into shots that they’re not particularly good at making when, even if they were the best in basketball, those shots would still pin their offensive production at suboptimal levels. Every possession ends in one of several ways, and the players, with instruction from their coach, are ultimately responsible for finding ways to produce favorable ends to possessions. And yet, 23 percent of Washington’s points come from the midrange, the fifth-most in basketball. They share the “top” six with the wayward doormats in New York, Indiana, Charlotte, Minnesota, and, of course, the Lakers. It’s not a happy place to be.

There’s no rule that says a competent NBA offense cannot include a heavy dose of mid-range attempts. Dirk Nowitzki and Monta Ellis are each in the top thirteen in attempts per game from 15-to-19 feet, but they connect on enough of those shots (54.8 percent and 45.5 percent, respectively) to make them relatively worthwhile, and within the context of a Dallas offense that generates just 12 attempts per game from that range. This is how good NBA offenses do it: mid-range shots are reserved only for those players who’ve demonstrated above-average marksmanship from that range. Everyone else lives off points in the paint and 3-pointers. Dirk and Monta feast from the mid-range, while Wall, Beal, and the Wizards’ offense needlessly starve. The Wizards, in their current rut, are a team that must make an uncommonly high percentage of their particular distribution of shots in order to score at a rate that doesn’t put enormous pressure on their defense.

It’s all part of a disconcertingly resilient ethos surrounding the team, one characterized by the cliché that says “you take what the defense gives you.” Clichés, by definition, betray a lack of original thought, and this particular one further reveals a flawed thought process.

In football, taking what the defense leaves available might be sound pragmatism—success can be measured by an accumulation of many small chunks of linear yardage without regard for the sexiness with which they are accrued. But basketball success requires that the ball go through the basket, and the defense measures its success by the degree to which it bullies or otherwise cajoles the offense into attempting a shot which is unlikely to go in and will not be worth a whole lot if it does. The defense does not “give you” baskets. What the defense gives you is as low a chance of scoring points as they can muster. This is not a thing to take. This is a thing to fling into the nearest drum-fire with a look of horrified disgust. Marriages have been torn apart by such inconsiderate and self-serving gift-giving.

Wittman has himself expressed faith in that ill-fitting “take whatever they give you” philosophy, and it has even spread beyond the team, showing up recently in an online Q&A with CSN’s J. Michael. We’re slowly buying in, after years of watching it in action. As Admiral Ackbar would tell you, this is a trap. It is a mistake to be lulled into thinking the appropriate response to a surplus availability of a certain kind of shot is to just get better at making that shot, especially when a team may never be good enough at it to move the needle much in their favor.

It’s good that Wall and Beal are improved jump-shooters, that Nene is a credible stretch player out to about 18 feet, that Otto Porter is a comfortable and capable mid-range sniper, that Drew Gooden is willing and able to rain open 20-footers, that Kris Humphries has a serviceable jumper. Those are all good things and would be good within any offense on any NBA team, because they allow otherwise unsuccessful possessions to be salvaged when better looks are unavailable. The long two-point attempt should not be the desired outcome in the halfcourt, and should rarely be taken with more than 10 seconds left on the shot clock.

What the Wizards need are direct orders to drive to the basket and a green light from 3. Fortunately, as TAI’s Kyle Weidie noted, it does seem to be swirling around in Wittman’s maelstrom basketball consciousness. Midrange jumpers will do in a pinch, but if the defense is giving them away, beware: some things really are too good to be true.


Chris Thompson