Opening Statements: Wizards at Warriors, Game 71 | Wizards Blog Truth About

Opening Statements: Wizards at Warriors, Game 71

Updated: March 23, 2015

Washington Wizards vs Golden State Warriors - Dec. 8, 2012 - Truth About

A party line is often presented with an unrealistic single-mindedness, a clarity that belies a more complicated reality that would be inappropriate for public-facing discourse. When a party leader takes the podium, followers take heed, but others prepare their salt shakers. Eventually, if there are no kernels of truth left to season, people move on. The problem with Committee Chairman Randy Wittman’s adamant insistence that defense, not offense, was Washington’s issue after a 109-86 loss is that Wittman also happens to be a salaried head coach of an NBA team that is still playing basketball, a team that will have a chance to compete against a beatable opponent in the playoffs.

This familiar summary from Wittman isn’t just a poorly-seen or poorly-remembered reflection on an embarrassing loss. It’s an unhealthy party line that eats away at Washington’s ability to win games, and affects what remedy, if any, will be applied. The Wizards have only won once this year when scoring 86 points or fewer (an 83-80 win over New Orleans), and yet, here’s what the coach had to say about last night’s game.

“You should go in there and get a locker, alright. You should go in there and get a locker. Because that’s our problem. We’re [censored] talking about who’s getting shots instead of worrying about getting stops…

It has nothing do with offense. I don’t even know why you would bring that up, alright. It’s all about our focus from a defensive standpoint.

We come to a timeout, we’re worried about, ‘We turned the ball over there. Let’s look to throw it in the post—no let’s look to get some defensive stops. Now, you want to ask another offensive question? Because I’m not answering any offensive questions.”

It’s not the first time that Wittman has lashed out at a reasonable question, and it won’t be the last. Anyone who has asked the Wizards’ coach a question has at one point or another listened as the answer came back molten with indignant rage. That’s not the point. Last night’s addition to the scrapbook jumps a pile of cigar-smoking, laser-toting sharks, but it isn’t materially more or less silly than the last time Wittman refused to acknowledge that his offense was broken when questioned by the press.

After the loss to the Kings, Bradley Beal echoed his coach when speaking to the media:

“I think we were selfish defensively. We weren’t helping each other, especially in pick-and-rolls. We were doing concepts we weren’t even planning on doing tonight. It just creates a lot of opportunities for them, open 3s, easy layups, uncontested layups. We were just out of sync. We were out of character. We weren’t playing our style of basketball.”

Coaches say things, sometimes. What Wittman tells the media may not reflect the existential terror in his heart, or even his postgame debriefing to his team. But over the course of the year, Wittman’s players have toed the party line again and again. There’s no indication, in this case, that Wittman’s responses to media are in any way a matter of coy misdirection when he blames the Wizards fifth-ranked defense for loss after loss.

Back on March 4, 2015, Bradley Beal blamed defensive issues, specifically two of Wittman’s favorite ideological whipping boys, selfishness and “shortcuts,” for Washington losing 12 out of 15 games, despite obvious issues with the offense over that stretch. Wall and Pierce insisted that “defense” was the problem.

After a 99-97 win on March 6 against the Miami Heat, in which the Wizards almost blew a 67-39 halftime lead and barely scored 30 points in the second half,  Wittman and John Wall opened their press availability in eerily similar ways when asked essentially the same question:

“Movement, both player and ball. We stopped defending.” —Randy Wittman

“In the third quarter we didn’t move the ball as much, we didn’t defend.” —John Wall

These guys are professional. They listen to their coach. And their coach isn’t concerned about how the team plays offense, at least not about from where and from who the shots will come. It’s a nice idea, though. Wouldn’t everyone like to believe that through merely sharing the ball and shooting when open, a team could become more than the sum of its parts? That the offense will simply take care of itself? Sorry to disappoint any basketball idealists, but the rest of the league is putting real thought into imposing the “who” and the “where” and the “how” while the Wizards just read and rely on what’s available from opposing defenses on any given night.

As the quotes above hint at, “ball movement” is about as far Wittman will go in describing what the Wizards are doing on offense. But “ball movement” is not a cure-all, it’s not a panacea. It doesn’t, on its own, fix anything. And Washington’s brand of ball movement is particularly frustrating. Sure, the ball moves, but it’s not going anywhere. As John Schuhmann wrote in an important early season piece, ‘[t]here is no correlation between ball movement and offensive efficiency.” In other words, you can pass the ball all you want, but if you’re not passing it with purpose, and looking not just for the first open shot, but for the best shot you can get in 24 seconds, then all those aesthetically pleasing passes won’t mean shit. Some of the worst offenses in the NBA, including Philadelphia, lead the league in passes per minute, per Schuhmann’s data from SportVU.

It’s too late for the Wizards to make a change this season, either in the way their offense operates, or in who operates it from the sidelines. But continually blaming the defense when your team can’t break 90 points using an offensive philosophy that your roster can’t support is like treating a virgin for chlamydia. Whatever actually ails the team isn’t getting any better. Eventually, you have to score. And when the Wizards score, they win! Washington has scored 100 points or more 30 times this season. They are 26-4 in those games, and two of those losses were in overtime (to Toronto and Oklahoma City). It’s not all about the offense, but knowing that your defense is plenty good enough to win if you score 100 points should be motivation enough to try to score 100 points.

Joining me today is Jordan Ramirez (@JRAM_91) of the excellent Warriors blog Warriors World. He was kind enough to answer some questions about the Warriors’ coaching transition, their league-leading offense and defense, where Harrison Barnes is heading, and Draymond Green’s value. Let’s get it.

Teams: Wizards at Warriors
Time: 10:30 p.m. ET
Venue: Oracle Arena, Oakland, California
Television: CSN
Radio: WFED-AM 1500/WNEW-FM 99.1
Spread: Warriors fav’d by 11.5 points.

#1) Randy Wittman hasn’t aged well as Washington’s head coach.

He built a sturdy house, but the kids are either all grown up or have been replaced with older, taller folks who need higher ceilings. In part, he was kept on after John Wall and Nene vouched for him in exit interviews. Steph Curry was a Mark Jackson fan, as well. How much value does the respect of a star player hold when making a decision on the coach, and how long did it take for Curry to embrace new coach Steve Kerr? 

@JRAM_91: Thankfully, a star player’s opinion isn’t the only opinion that matters. While Stephen Curry’s fandom of Mark Jackson was noted, the problems and hostility that Jackson built with management—and some players—was too much to overcome. Curry loves Jackson, largely for his faith and humanistic coaching style, but it was clear that in regards to on-court performance he wasn’t the coach that would take this team to a championship.

There’s a reason players don’t make personnel decisions, and another reason why I believe coach’s shouldn’t hold dual positions either (See: Doc Rivers and Stan Van Gundy). Management understood Curry’s appreciation for Jackson, but the obvious stale relationship with the organization was the final straw. Jackson improved the franchise from the slums, but the “cooks in the kitchen” knew they could find a better coaching staff.

It didn’t take players long to acclimate themselves to Steve Kerr. He’s just as much a “players’ coach” as Jackson, but more stern as a tactician with the help of Alvin Gentry and Ron Adams. The sacred locker room that was once a concern when Jackson left was far overblown, and the team has benefitted incredibly since the hire. Winning cures all, but Kerr has the perfect personality to not only relate to his players, but make them better as well.

#2) Speaking of Kerr and Jackson, Kerr’s version of the Warriors has managed to maintain (and improve) the defensive efficiency Jackson’s Warriors team established, and has the 2014-15 team first in defensive efficiency compared to third last season.

What has been the biggest change in how the Warriors play offense between last season (12th) and this one (1st)?

@JRAM_91: Kerr made it known from his introductory press conference what his offense was going to look like. In the mold of Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich, the offense was to be based on ball movement, spacing, cuts and exploiting matchups. While that may seem elementary, the Warriors’ teams of previous seasons failed to consistently establish any such traits.

Kerr, with the help of Alvin Gentry, established a system based on all of the aforementioned philosophies, and the moving Andre Iguodala to the bench and starting Draymond Green has given both units the proper jolt and stability those units were lacking. A group of willing distributors—including center Andrew Bogut—has allowed Kerr’s system to flourish in ways Jackson’s couldn’t.

#3) Talk to me about Harrison Barnes.

The Wizards considered him at No. 3 in the 2012 NBA Draft, and after a few years of real disappointment with the Warriors, he’s turned himself into a useful player in a really unexpected, spreadsheety way, excelling at corner 3s and shots at the rim. Do you see Barnes eventually being able to handle the ball on his own on the wing, or will he be closer to a 2013-14 Trevor Ariza?

@JRAM_91: Ah, The Curious Case of Harrison Barnes. He’s in the midst of his most productive stretch of his career, flourishing in the absence of Klay Thompson with 19.6 PPG on 69 percent shooting in his last three games. He’s benefitted from being moved into the starting lineup and being the beneficiary of doubles to Curry and the attention given to Thompson. As opposed to previous seasons, he’s not asked to be a primary scorer, instead focusing on adjusting his game to whatever benefits the team the most.

He’s definitely forming into the Ariza role, which for this team is what he should be. Jackson unfairly put him in a position to dominate with the second unit last season when he clearly has trouble handling and creating on his own. He’s given shots with the starting unit, and is taking advantage with the numerous 3-point opportunities, rebounds and his ability to run the break.

He’s not a superstar, but he’s contributing at levels that were unforeseeable last season. That’s the beauty of what Kerr is building with the Warriors: letting the game come to each of his players, putting them in the best positions to succeed with their given skills instead of forcing the inverse. Fans still daydream about Andre Drummond, but Barnes seems to have finally found his way.

#4) And what about Draymond Green? I know there’s been some chatter of late about him being a “max” player, but I’m not sure that NBA precedent supports such a contract. Where do you come down on his value?

@JRAM_91Is Draymond Green a “max” player in the ideals of what we used to associate a max player with, no. Is Green a “max” player by today’s economics of the NBA, yes. We used to only associate “max” players with superstars; players who were the unquestioned leaders of their team and, simultaneously, a face of the NBA. Green is neither, but that doesn’t diminish his importance to his team. He’s the “heartbeat,” a dual-threat that has transformed into an invaluable member to the best team in the NBA.

I don’t believe Green will receive a maximum contract offer this summer, but if does, the Warriors can’t afford to let him go. Green has the versatility to contribute greatly on both ends with timely shooting, court vision and defensive prowess to guard any position. He’s the Swiss Army Knife of the team, and while he may not be a “max” player in what we’ve grown to learn of such a term, he’s as influential as one to Golden State.

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Conor Dirks
Reporter / Writer / Co-Editor at TAI
Conor has been with TAI since 2012, and aids in the seamless editorial process that brings you the kind of high-octane blogging you have come to expect from this rad website. The Wizards have been an assiduous companion throughout his years on the cosmic waiver wire. He lives in D.C. and is day-to-day.