Piscivorous Birds, Tropical Storms and the Reign of 2-Pointers in the Land of Wizards | Wizards Blog Truth About It.net

Piscivorous Birds, Tropical Storms and the Reign of 2-Pointers in the Land of Wizards

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Updated: December 3, 2014

[via Flickr user lizhaslam]

[via Flickr user lizhaslam]

On Monday evening, the storm broke. After ranking next-to-last in percentage of team shots taken that are 3-pointers, the Wizards let loose a deluge against the Miami Heat and now find themselves sitting in the catbird seat at fourth-to-last in this particular stat category. Fourth-to-last in a category that brought the Wizards much of their offensive success last season, with the corner 3 being an underutilized hallmark of an offense that sputtered when forced to run plays in the half court.

Never fear, though, the Wizards are still second in percentage of points that are 2-pointers, ahead of the 3-point eschewing Los Angeles Lakers (tonight’s opponent) and the Charlotte Hornets and behind only the Boston Celtics. Washington can also boast the fact that they proudly stand in fifth place in percentage of shots that are midrange. So they have going for them, which must be a wonderful thing.

So these stats sit there and stare you in the face and as Randy Wittman would tell you, “you spend too much time looking at the stats.” Because, y’know…. results are what counts.  But then you come back to the stats and you look at the pieces that the Wizards have and you wonder why sit in such a lowly (or lofty) position in respective stat categories.  Because while statistical analysis can turn into an periodic episode of navel gazing, it seems strange that the Wizards remain married to the the 17 footer long after Flip Saunders has departed for greener pastures.

Monday’s offensive explosion against the Heat was a relief both to the Twitterverse that types with every Kevin Seraphin hookshot and fans who are excited about the Wizards best start since players’ shorts barely creeped below mid-thigh. For despite success, the team’s offense was stagnant at best and borderline unwatchable against a New Orleans Pelicans team that also featured an offense that seemed content to continually throw up shots from 14-to-17 feet. In the post game press conference, Randy Wittman put an emphasis on the fact that the Wizards wings were not running with John Wall, thus denying him the option of penetrating and kicking out to a teammate sitting behind the arc. Instead, Wall was forced to hold the ball up, pounding it like young Earl Boykins, waiting for his fellows to run whichever play ended with the best possible Drew Gooden midrange shot.

Let’s take a moment to consider aesthetics. The reality is that playing “pretty” basketball is no more or less effective than being a defensively oriented “grind them down” team. This is why the championship Spurs teams of the early aughts are as beloved in San Antonio as the more recent “basketball as artistic expression” edition. Fans of the Memphis Grizzlies and the Chicago Bulls do not seem to mind that the mindset of the team is to put defense first and let the points fall where they may. Hence the Grizzlies enjoyably call their home the “Grindhouse” and any conversation about the Bulls usually starts and ends with a discussion of the coaching merits of Tom Thibodeau. (Or Derrick Rose’s health.) Winning, you see, helps.

This brings one back to the Wizards. EIC Kyle Weidie wrote an excellent piece on Monday on the Wizards offense and how much of the production stems from the effort put forth on the defensive end. At first blush, this appears to be a valid and cogent argument. The Wizards are a good—possibly great—defensive team and have been since Wittman replaced Flip Saunders. They allow no shots near the basket, defend pick-and-rolls, and dare the opposing offense to beat them with long-range attempts from the guard position. The question is, if these things are true (which they are): why haven’t the Wizards been able to establish a clear identity as a “defense first” team and why have fans failed to embrace the team as a “lunchpail in the trenches” unit that just shuts up and gets the job done? Why was the loudest cheering on Saturday’s game against the Pelicans reserved for Kris Humphries’ strip and slam in the fourth quarter (or potential chicken sandwiches) and not for the effective switching and closeouts that locked down every Pelican not named Anthony Davis? Why were fans delirious at the offensive outpouring against the Heat on Monday, but less appreciative of the work that went in to a hard fought win against a possible Western Conference playoff team?

The Pavlovian reasons are easy to identify. Offense is always more fun than defense, fans hold more disdain for the Heat than they do the Pelicans, and blowouts are imminently more satisfying than close wins when the competition is considered to be of a lesser stature. But the reason may lie deeper than just the armchair #HotSportsTake commentary. Consider for a moment that a team that features John Wall and Bradley Beal should probably never be considered “offensively challenged.” Thus, when play on the offensive end involves Wall standing around and Beal half-heartedly running his way through picks, one has to question whether this is the greatest use of their talents. “Encouraging the wings to run” begins to look like an empty excuse after the Wizards go through another set which results in a contested 17-footer from a player whose place is anywhere from 6-to-9 on the depth chart.

One can praise Wittman for his insistence on sharing the ball—and after Nick Young, Andray Blatche and JaVale McGee, one can understand why emphasis was placed on unselfishness. But one also has to consider that Wall and Beal are not the above players and while drilling unselfish play into them may have been the right move when they came into the league, the team might benefit from a more selfish approach from either party. One wants Beal taking the first open look he has (especially if it’s from 3), rather than dropping the ball down into the gaping maw of Kevin Seraphin.

The true culprit here is the failure of the offensive system to adapt, whether through player loss or injury. Wittman runs the same plays for Humphries that he does for Nene, yet the desired result fails to happen more often than not. Wittman emphasizes sharing the ball on the offensive end, but the sets seem to end with the fourth or fifth offensive option taking the shot. You can damn aesthetics to hell if you must, but shooting percentages tend not to lie.

The true concern surrounding the team (as much as anyone can have a concern for a team that is over .500 in December for the first time in 20 years) is whether the Wizards staff has demonstrated enough adaptability when given new tools or beset with injuries. One always returns to what is familiar and comfortable, but it seems strange to watch DeJuan Blair sit on the bench while Kevin Seraphin gobbles up minutes. It’s great that the Nene jumper was an effective diagrammed play, but it is useless in the hands of a Humphries who does not have the same passing acumen. It is natural to fear change, but it is an unfounded fear to avoid the devices at your disposal, or worse. Making a screwdriver into a hammer is an interesting experiment, but eventually you reach a point at which you need to use the tool for its intended purpose.

 

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Sean Fagan
Reporter / Writer/Gadfly at TAI
Based in Brooklyn, NY, Sean has contributed to TAI since the the dawn of Jan Vesely and has been on the Wizards beat since 2008. His work has been featured on ESPN, Yahoo and SI.com. He still believes that Mike Miller never got a fair shot.