Key Legislature: Wizards 85 at Bucks 91 — Missing More Than Shots In A Make/Miss League | Wizards Blog Truth About It.net

Key Legislature: Wizards 85 at Bucks 91 — Missing More Than Shots In A Make/Miss League

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Updated: March 8, 2015

Truth About It.net’s Key Legislature: a quick run-down and the game’s defining moment(s)
for Washington Wizards contest No. 63 versus the Milwaukee Bucks in the land of Beast Ice.
via Chris Thompson (@MadBastardsAll) from Virginia.

DC Council Key Legislature

by Chris Thompson.

Coach Randy Wittman has a favorite expression that he returns to over and over again, virtually every time he talks about basketball with microphones around: “that’s what it boils down to.” There are some minor variations thrown in here and there—the words “basically” and “kinda” make regular guest appearances—but this basic thought shows up so often in his assessments of the Wizards’ play or his descriptions of parts of his basketball philosophy it almost functions as a 15th punctuation mark, unique to Wittman’s coach-speak, indicating not just the end of a sentence, but the whole and final expression of some core truth.

After a Saturday night loss in Milwaukee, in what was a miserable, grueling, joyless spectator event, Wittman broke out the phrase again, as was expected, describing the loss as the result of simple poor shooting. He shared a kernel of wisdom handed down from an older coach: the NBA is “a make/miss league,” and implied that this game, distilled to its essence, was decided by which team knocked down open shots. Everything else was at least equal, if not ultimately in the Wizards’ favor: the team played “the right way;” they moved the ball and “got it to the open guy;” defensively they “got into it” and showed good “fight.” And then they missed a bunch of shots and that was that.

That definition of the phrase “that’s what it boils down to”—exposing an essential distillation of a thing—works, rhetorically, and by definition, when the essence of the thing being examined is fundamentally simple. For example: if two basketball players are playing HORSE, it can be said that the contest boils down to who makes more shots. HORSE, you see, is only ever a make/miss contest.

This distillation method starts to fail little by little as the ingredients become more complex. If the players are allowed to defend one another, for example, then it becomes harder to boil it down to simple shot-making—maybe, instead of simply who made more shots, there’s also who played better defense. Then you add teammates, and now there’s the component of teamwork to appraise, and as the contest becomes more complex, things like focus and communication and trust and effort come into play. Add fouls, and referees, and a timer. Add a 3-point line, out-of-bounds areas, foul limits, spectators, non-basketball violations, another timer. Add injuries, minutes restrictions, trades, back-to-backs, travel, contracts. Now boiling it down no longer reveals an essence, but an opaque, sticky, bitter-flavored emulsified mud.

Add a coach.

It probably goes without saying that Randy Wittman isn’t fully articulating his appraisal of his team’s play and fortune when he tells a huddle of media members how things boil down. And, anyway, the way coaches talk about an event tends to follow a prioritized list of the event’s key components. Coach Wittman spends just a few minutes talking with the media, maybe he only gets to the first item on the list (in this case simple shot-making). Still, to a spectator or fan, hearing a game described in terms that ignore or obscure or (worst of all) are terminally ignorant of the difference between process and result can be teeth-grindingly frustrating.

The Wizards radio broadcast is an adorably reliable example of this phenomenon. When the Wizards are struggling or losing, it is not uncommon to hear Dave Johnson and Glenn Consor attach themselves to a short list of factors and boil the game down to one or two of them. “The Wizards need to control the pace” or “they’re not moving the ball” or “they need to be disruptive on defense” or “John is pounding the ball too much,” and (for the most part) completely miss that the adjustment they’re prescribing is not a process but a result. When the Wizards ball-movement grinds to a halt, for example, the solution isn’t they need to move the ball, because ball-movement, to the extent that it works to the benefit of the offense, is itself the result, if not one of several by-products, of other actions.

When the Wizards station a group of poor shooters and ball-handlers around the perimeter and try to work a simple high pick-and-roll against a dug-in defense, good and useful and helpful ball-movement is all but impossible. Ball movement is not the process, and, in fact, it might not even be a particularly helpful result: the Hawks and their buzzsaw offense pass the ball 323 times per game, good for fifth most in the NBA, but just above them in this stat, at over 327 passes per game, are the 76ers, practitioners of the very worst offense in basketball. No, ball movement is just an aesthetically pleasant way to introduce a lot of chaos into a basketball game, one that has been arbitrarily assigned some moral righteousness, probably because we’ve all seen “Hoosiers” one too many times.

It’s distracting and frustrating to hear broadcasters and commentators describe basketball like this, but it can cross over into downright distressing to hear it come from a coach, even if you allow for the likelihood that Coach Wittman is saving his more detailed analysis for his players. The Wizards shot poorly against the Bucks, it’s true: they missed more than they made from the restricted area, for example, and they missed a bunch of corner 3s, and those are generally the two best shooting spots on the floor. The shot chart isn’t especially pretty:

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While it’s true that the Wizards might have won the game if just a couple of those corner 3s had gone down, if they’d gotten a few friendly rolls from up close, if one or two more of their normal ration of midrange jumpers had fallen, this simplistic way of summing up the loss totally forgets the staggering number of times and ways that the offense broke down virtually the moment the Wizards crossed into the offensive half of the court. This sequence (helpfully captured by SB Nation’s Mike Prada on Twitter) sort of illustrates just how hard the Wizards made it on themselves:

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This is a single sequence from the third quarter, and it shows the kind of spacing deficit the Wizards have practically baked into their offense. John Wall passes the ball to Nene from just a few feet away, Garrett Temple doesn’t rotate anywhere to draw his man away, Gortat requires no attention beyond the free-throw line, and Nene is quickly triple-teamed. Five seconds later, the ball and several players have moved, but all of them to the opposite side of the floor, like water sloshing around the bottom of a boat. How does this happen? How can an offense be so disastrously clunky and disorganized that they do all the defense’s hard work for them like this? What were the offensive principles that stuffed first four players on the offensive strong-side, and then, five seconds later, all five players on the strong-side on the other side of the basket? It’s incredible, and it happens all the time.

This stuff is important context for any discussion of the Wizards’ poor shooting against Milwaukee, but it’s the specific way Saturday night’s performance and result fits into the season-long pattern of offensive ineptitude that goes wholly unacknowledged in the whole “make/miss league” reduction. Maybe the Wizards missed shots Saturday night, but how does that observation account for how snugly the result fits into their well-established history of sucking nearly that bad offensively, night-in and night-out, for months on end? This is the fifth time in nine games that the Wizards have failed to score 90 points. They’ve topped 100 points just four times in their last 20 games, and two of those came in games that went to overtime. They haven’t just been missing shots. They’ve been tying their own ankles together like it’s the thing to do.

Saturday night it was a thousand little things, accumulating as a big fat weight around the ankles of Washington’s offense. John Wall looked desperately tired. Paul Pierce had a hard time beating a close-out, more than once dribbling himself into trouble with no clear release valve. Garrett Temple overran the 3-point line when trailing Wall in transition, turning what would have been a like-old-times drive-and-kick 3-point chance into just another offensive reset. Rasual Butler was forced into a wild pull-up 27-footer when the team’s desperate lack of ball-handling wing players left him stranded as the shot clock wound to zero. Two of Drew Gooden’s four offensive rebounds came when, instead of gathering the ball and resetting the offense for a better shot or tapping it out to a teammate, he wildly slapped the ball basket-ward in ill-advised and ill-fated attempts at putbacks. John Wall and Ramon Sessions took turns short-circuiting drive opportunities with wild and hopeless floaters.

And Wittman’s summary furthermore fails to account for the fact that it was an unexpected combination of hot-shooting and bungling futility that brought the Wizards back into the game in the first place. The Bucks turned the ball over nine times in the third quarter, made just six field goals, and took exactly one trip to the free-throw line. Meanwhile, the Wizards hit five of nine 3-pointers and shot 53 percent from the floor. It was the only quarter the Wizards won, and it would have been won by any NBA team who happened to share the floor with the Bucks when they briefly turned into the Washington Generals. Had the Bucks not imploded, and had their implosion not coincided with a period of uncommonly hot shooting from the Wizards, this one would have been a massacre.

So, sure, the Wizards didn’t make enough shots to win. Coach Wittman, in a rare glass-is-half-full moment of generosity, spoke of this as a source of encouragement. The problem, of course, is that the Wizards have become a team that very rarely ever makes enough shots to win. Stripped of that context, sure, OK, look at the raw shooting numbers and arrange your mind around the simple fact that they made a lower percentage than they normally do. The coach may choose to boil it down, but this game and this Wizards season are stark reminders that reducing a substance rarely improves its clarity. It’s never just effort or just respecting the game or just valuing possessions or just making shots. Saturday’s result can’t be boiled down to shot-making, and the attempt to do so produces a murky sludge from which nothing of value can be extracted.

Now, having said all that, would it kill these guys to make some shots? I mean, seriously.

Chris Thompson