Opening Statements: Wizards at Hornets, Game 51 | Wizards Blog Truth About

Opening Statements: Wizards at Hornets, Game 51

Updated: February 5, 2015


Teams: Wizards at Hornets
Time: 7:00 p.m. ET
Venue: Time Warner Cable Arena, Charlotte, NC
Television: CSN
Radio: WFED-AM 1500/WNEW-FM 99.1
Spread: Wizards favored by 2 points.

It can be difficult, as a sports fan, to avoid speaking—and even thinking—in the native tongue of herp-a-derp sportswriters and brand-conscious players: the language of CoachSpeak.

Here’s an example: While watching the Wizards lose to the Hornets Monday night, words like “energy” and “focus” and “momentum” may have seemed like they bypassed the mere nuts and bolts of the contest and made straight for the truest essence of the thing. This next sentence will seem like a fully credible way of describing that game: The Wizards didn’t come out with enough energy or focus and the Hornets seized momentum right from the opening whistle. How many times have you read virtually that same sentence?

If you can briefly set aside the notion that these loan-words have unique utility within American sports, it’s fun to observe the basic ambiguity of the concepts, their limitations as descriptors, and how they can ultimately obscure the facts of a given contest. “Pace” is a handy example. Even in the context of NBA basketball, “pace” is a word with too many meanings. To the analytics crowd, Pace is a statistical measure of the number of possessions generated per 48 minutes. That number is established on the court, where it might be affected by any number of factors, including roster makeup, offensive design, player efficiency, or simple (and grating) caution among shooters [stares daggers at Otto Porter]. But! Pace (the statistic) is also influenced by defensive success, and even defensive priorities—a team that generates more steals, blocks, and general live-ball turnovers will usually play at a faster Pace than one playing a more conservative style.

And when a coach says “pace,” he might be referring to any of those component pieces, or none of the above. He might be referring to pushing the ball up the floor in transition (undoubtedly a component of Pace), or he might be referring to ball movement or player movement, which are significantly less correlative with generating more possessions per 48 minutes. My point here is this: No one really knows what the hell Randy Wittman means when he says “I liked John’s pace tonight.” I have a hunch he means something like “tempo” but I’ll be damned if I’m gonna ask him.

Words like “pace” and “momentum” and “execution” are used by players and coaches in conversations with the sports media when they’d really rather not dig into what actually took place on the court. Coach Wittman says it as a fill-in for something like “John made pushing the ball up the court in transition a priority,” and the rest of us hear something like “faster pace = good.” Over time, the word comes to mean nothing so much as “the basketball men moved in fast motion and the ball went in the basket.” The Wizards’ radio broadcast has recently become a near-nightly sermon on the virtues of a concept (pace) that is now so broadly defined as to be virtually meaningless.

Let’s stick with pace, here (not necessarily Pace, the stat, but the general concept of why the basketball men should move fast between commercial breaks). The Hornets, tonight’s opponent, for all their brutal spacing and earthbound bigs and general dysfunction, do a couple of things well that tend to enforce upon their opponents a pace that suits Charlotte: they’re conservative and disciplined on defense; they’re the stingiest team in basketball with respect to turnovers; and they play at the eighth slowest Pace in basketball. These factors tend to frustrate teams like the Wizards, who generally need at least some of their chances to come from quick offense and in transition. Charlotte’s victory on Monday night was at least not impeded by the success they had at staying within that model: the Hornets turned the ball over just 11 times; they kept the total possessions shy of 93 (below each team’s regular Pace); and (to use Randy Wittman’s language) they “gave” the Wizards offense a steady diet of bad, inefficient shots.

Here, check it out:


To whatever extent Pace is an important factor in Washington’s overall offensive success, the Hornets succeeded in forcing the Wizards to play at a rate that is slower than normal, and the Wizards aren’t exactly speeding Bullets to begin with.

This game was part of a broader recent trend of Washington playing a disjointed, disorganized, seemingly-disinterested brand of basketball that has brought them in desperate need of the fixings of a stirring comeback. These comebacks avoid the kinds of lopsided scores that might more accurately depict the funk the Wizards have fallen into. The Hornets loss at home may not have been the nadir of that funk, but it was at least the impetus behind Randy Wittman’s “dirty” practice on Tuesday, presumably designed to reforge Washington’s competitive edge before the All-Star break.

From far enough away (or, conversely, from perhaps too close) Washington’s subsequent loss to the Hawks in Atlanta last night would seem to indicate that Wittman’s old-school tough-lovin’ missed the mark, and maybe time will tell, but I tend to think enough good happened in Atlanta to feel vaguely encouraged, especially given the context of Washington’s previous clashes with the Hawks, in which they played the part of Frozen Side of Beef to Atlanta’s Rocky Balboa. The final score was close, but that did require a stirring comeback, only this time it came well before garbage time, and for whole big sections of the game the Wizards played shot-for-shot with the best team in the NBA. After stinking out the joint in losses to Toronto and Charlotte, we’ll have to accept incremental improvement, and the loss in Atlanta provided some of it.

Rather than use the unverifiable CoachSpeak intangibles to assess the positive change from Monday to Wednesday, let’s try to talk in specifics about what happened. The Wizards had some limited success when they seemed to make a deliberate effort to force the ball up the court as quickly as possible, during the game’s early stages; Bradley Beal showed a glimpse of the attack mode he displayed in the playoffs, keeping his dribble and knifing all the way to the rim on several occasions; the team shot nearly twice as many free throws (30) as they did against Charlotte (16); and they outscored the Hawks in the paint (40-38) and on the break (12-2). They didn’t win the game, but if a narrow road loss to the NBA’s best team is at least marginally better than the same kind of loss to the Hornets at the Verizon Center, the “how” is probably measured by the ways in which Washington was able play a style and at a pace that more readily suit them and their personnel.

The game was also, notably, played at a faster statistical Pace (97.04). Throughout, Washington’s radio broadcast talked over and over again about inadequate pacing. No one listening had a clue what that meant, but everyone nodded. Which component part of Pace was unacceptable? Or, conversely, which alternate meaning of pace was being referenced? Who can know? It seems broadly agreed upon that Washington’s offense needs to play at a faster Pace, a faster pace, a faster other pace, and at a quicker tempo. At least.

So, here we are. The Wizards have a chance, tonight, to take whatever deficiencies informed Coach Wittman’s decision to run the “dirty” practice after Monday’s Hornets game, whatever was learned from that practice, whatever gains were made in last night’s Hawks game, and whatever was learned from that result, and apply it all to tonight’s rematch with Charlotte. The Hornets will want to keep the Wizards from attacking the basket, will want to limit their transition opportunities, and will generally favor the kind of snail’s-pace that suits Al Jefferson and the core of Charlotte’s offense. The Wizards will prefer to push the ball up the floor, incorporate ball and player movement, get to the rim, and generally play a quicker brand of basketball. In many ways it will be a race between the tortoise and the hare. Which team will play at the appropriate pace? Just what is the appropriate pace? No one knows. Literally, no one will ever know.

TAI’s Kyle Weidie joined the Queen City Hoops podcast, cleverly named “Hive Talk Live,” to preview the recently lopsided matchup between the Wizards and Hornets. Have a listen.


Chris Thompson