Synergy Tells All Regarding the Wizards Offense, Or Lack Thereof | Wizards Blog Truth About

Synergy Tells All Regarding the Wizards Offense, Or Lack Thereof

Updated: March 31, 2015



There has been a lot of chatter about the offensive struggles of the 2014-15 Wizards; a lot of it is completely warranted given the team’s 20th-ranked offense. But there hasn’t been as much discussion about exactly how or why the Wizards offense falters.

There’s not much use picking the head coach’s brain about it, though; at the mere mention of offense, Randy Wittman turns ornery. His refusal to discuss the Wizards’ offensive woes is both perplexing and sad for the players. This up-and-coming team has significant potential with the proper leadership … but how can this band of upstarts reach their full potential if their leader only gives them lectures about defensive effort and, on the other side of the ball, never digs much deeper than ‘take what the defense gives you’ and ‘put the ball in the hoop’?

The main problem with the Wizards offense is that, besides the agonizing propensity for shooting long 2s, they have no real identity. Though the Wiz might claim their identity is to use their two “traditional bigs” in “traditional ways”—at least on defense—neither Nene nor Gortat are especially adept at being able to score with their backs to the basket.

What’s worse, the Wizards, after more than 70 games this season, and three years under Wittman’s direction, are still running plays the head coach has never seen before. What do the Wizards do on offense? And what could they be doing better, or more of? To answer those questions, I turned to Synergy Sports Technology.

By going beyond the play-by-play section of the box score, Synergy uses 11 different play type statistics to deconstruct all action on the court. On every play, Synergy analyzes transition, isolation, pick & roll: ball handler, pick & roll: roll man, post-up, spot-up, hand-off, cut, off-screen, putbacks, and more, to give an analysis of the final result. By cataloging all of the action that takes place in each play of every game, Synergy provides a comprehensive look at how players and teams execute on offense and defense.


There are no surprises here. Having one of the most athletic point guards in the NBA will lead to fast break scoring: The Wizards produce 16.7 transition plays per game, ranking them in the top 10 in the league, and those opportunities yield 1.16 points per possession (PPP) on 57.5 percent shooting, both good for fifth-best in the NBA. Credit Wittman, who is constantly seen on the sidelines of games waving his hand forward, pleading for his team to push the basketball up the floor.

However, the Wizards can improve on their transition offense by increasing their steals per game. Currently, they are ranked in the bottom 10 of the league at only 7.3 per game. Forcing more turnovers will allow the Wizards to turn their defense into easy offense. Everyone likes easy.


The way this Wizards team was constructed, isolation basketball was never really going to be an effective form of offense. There aren’t enough ball handlers, or players who can get off a good, clean shot without being spoon-fed by John Wall.

Speaking of Wall, he takes on the most isolation situations since he has the ball in his hands the majority of the time, but I don’t think even he would tell you that’s something that helps the team. Still, Wall is the only one who can create off the dribble, for himself or others, so to keep teams honest, and to elevate his game, he’s going to ISO.

The Wizards rank 28th in isolation possessions with just 5.4 per game, which is less than half as many as the league-leading Cleveland Cavaliers (12.5 per game). With Lebron James and Kyrie Irving, it makes a lot of sense for the Cavs to run this type of offense; any Wizard’s emulation makes little sense. The thing to know about the Wizards and ISOs is that they don’t shoot the ball particularly well (39.3%) and that they need to do a much better job of protecting the ball: 11.1 percent of their ISOs result in turnovers (4th-most).

Wittman tries his best to put Beal in ISO situations so that he ultimately improves as a go-to scorer, but he’s far from being particularly effective, and it’s not clear that Beal is improving with increased exposure.

The one positive thing that the Wizards can take away from this old wrinkle of their offense is that they rank fourth in shooting foul frequency at 13.2 percent, which can almost certainly be attributed to Paul Pierce’s crafty “old man at the Y” game. Wall will need to stay with his ISO action, especially at the end of quarters and games when the Wizards usually turn to him with no other option for a better shot. The way John Wall has put this Wizards team on his back in clutch situations over the last few games matches up with some of his clutch-time shooting numbers and a halfway decent 0.89 PPP in ISO situations.

Pick & Roll: Ball Handler

This may be the most troubling aspect of Washington’s offense. When a screen is set on the ball handler’s defender, good things are usually supposed to happen for the person dribbling the ball. In the Wizards’ offense, those possessions only yield 0.70 PPP, and there are only three teams in the NBA that score fewer points in those situations: the Jazz, Knicks and 76ers (not very good company, I know).

This is where #WittmanBall is a major detriment to the Wizards. When Wittman permits his team to take as many long 2s as they want, because they are open enough, it allows for players like Bradley Beal to come off complex screening designs only to settle for contested 2-point shots instead of attacking the rim—or shooting a 3. Washington’s two primary ball handlers, Wall and Beal, both shoot a good amount of midrange jumpers, but the difference is Wall shoots better than 40 percent on jumpers from 15-to-19 feet, while Beal only shoots 33.1 percent. The majority of the time Beal takes one of those midrange jumpers, it is a shot that he should be turning down in favor of attacking the basket and getting a look at the rim, where he shoots 59.5 percent (1% worse than Wall).

Part of the reason Wizards players are afraid to attack the painted area off of screens is because of the lack of spacing on the floor.

Pick & Roll: Roll Man

John Wall has over half the more than 1,000 ball handler possessions for the Wizards this season. But simply put, Wall needs to improve when it comes to his play after his defender is screened. One suggestion would be for the Wizards to allow more wing-on-wing screens instead of relying on traditional big-man screeners. Since the Wizards only have traditional big men on their roster, and no real 3-point-shooting stretch 4s of the modern NBA (Drew Gooden tries his best), it pretty much decreases certain aspects of a pick-and-pop game.

Humphries has worked often in the pick-and-pop game, and he’s really the only appropriate big to do so, making the impact of his injury felt a decent bit, even if Humphries is more conventional since he can’t extend all the way to the 3-point line. The potential threat of a pick-and-pop, instead of the bread-and-butter pick-and-roll, may allow for even the smallest slither of an increase in space for Wall to operate.

Take, for example, this beautiful “stack” play that is run by the Boston Celtics:


Celtics coach Brad Stevens ran the simple but deadly “Stack” play, setting up a ball-handling guard up top (Phil Pressey or Evan Turner), off-guard Marcus Smart, and center Kelly Olynyk in an “I” formation (i.e. “stacked”) at the top of the key. Each player presented his own danger. They have a small guy in the pick-and-roll, and they had a big guy who could pop back and shoot threes. Sometimes the small (guy) runs away, and the big would go to the basket — or if he wasn’t going to the basket, he was popping back. They hit a couple of shots that way.

h/t Devin Kharpertian,


Offensive Post-Ups

Because the Wizards’ top four bigs in the rotation are all conventional, 1990s-style big men, the Wizards run an excessive amount of post-up situations (11.4 per game, 7th in the NBA). Running a lot of post-ups doesn’t necessarily mean efficient offense, even if the attempts come closer to the rim.

The Memphis Grizzlies run the most post-up possessions in the NBA, but because they shoot 46.7 percent from the field on those plays, it works in the flow of their offense—and it should be the offense. The Wizards shoot only 42.7 percent on post-ups; that ends up being a detriment to the team when the ball is forced in the post after the team has wasted the first 10-to-15 seconds of the shot clock with useless action. This forces the Wizards bigs to take poor shots once the defense collapses.

One thing that I think all Wizards fans can agree on is the fact that this team does not really get a ton of love or respect from NBA referees on a nightly basis, especially in the post. Only 9.7 percent of their post-ups end in shooting fouls, ranking them in the bottom five of the NBA. Something isn’t adding up. There have been countless times were Nene will back his man down, use some of that nifty footwork that we have grown to love, get his defender off his feet, and the ref will not call the foul on contact. Nene has to be growing frustrated with the lack of respect from the referees. No doubt that Nene has to do a much better job handling these situations, and bitch a lot less about calls, but it’s likely that this frustration, coupled with his poor free throw shooting percentage, may be a large factor as to why he has shied away from attacking on post-ups and increased his amount of midrange jumpers.

Nene is shooting just 37 percent on shots 10-to-14 feet away from the basket, and his sharp decline in shooting touch makes Kris Humphries’ 17-game absence even more glaring. Nene has struggled over the last 14 games, ranking dead last in Net Points for the Wizards at minus-69. Net points is the best way to calculate both offensive and defensive ratings into one metric and is calculated by points produced-points allowed (where points allowed can be calculated by using the following formula): [(Defensive rating/100)*(.2* minutes played/(team minutes/5))*team possessions].

Somewhere, Charles Barkley’s head is spinning, but just know that Nene’s struggles over the last month have hurt the Wizards. This is the opposite of the boost this team received from him heading into the 2014 playoffs.


Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I would like to present to you Exhibit A in the case of Wizards fans vs. Randy Wittman: The Wizards shoot 41.3 percent from the field on spot-up shots (3rd in the NBA), yet only get 16.08 attempts per game, ranking them 27th in the NBA. Perhaps better ball movement, or even coaching players to pass up semi-open midrange pull-ups for better shots, would lead to more spot-ups. This stat is so egregious that Wizards fans can’t help but laugh to keep from crying.


Handoffs are defined as when the screen setter starts with the ball and hands it off to a player close by, basically increasing the effectiveness of the screener by enabling him to create more space for the player receiving the ball. The Wizards only run these type of plays at a frequency of 3.1 percent, so I’m not surprised if you don’t know what the hell they are.

The Wizards probably should run more handoffs, especially since the basketball “eye test” tells us that’s one of Beal’s most effective plays. The handoff accentuates both Wall and Beal’s athletic ability, which is superior to their opponents on most nights. Wizards handoffs could be run in a more effective manner if they weren’t happening 18-feet away from the basket, allowing the defenders to cut under screens from big men that strike no fear in shooting stroke from that distance.

What the Wizards bigs can do is pass. Nene, Gortat, and Drew Gooden are all really good at using their bodies to create openings, while also maintaining a soft touch on swinging the ball precisely. It would behoove the Wizards to run that handoff action either near the 3-point line, or near the basket, seeing as how 3s and lay ups are two of the major tenets of analytical basketball and will lead to an increase in the value expectancy on points per possession.


After transition buckets, the Wizards second-most used type of offensive play is the cut. The cut is an interior play where the scorer catches the ball while moving toward or parallel to the basket. The Wizards rank fifth in the NBA in points off of cuts because they create 8.25 shot attempts from this action.

This play type accentuates the Wizards’ strengths in their personnel, because of their traditional bigs—also, having the one of the NBA’s leader in assists running the point doesn’t hurt either. “The Polish Machine” ranks second in the entire NBA in possessions that end up in cuts with about 200 total cuts to the basket on the season. Gortat is a great cutter on secondary action, where he uses impeccable timing and proper floor spacing to create easy passing lanes for “Optimus Dime,” or point-forward Nene.

Wall doesn’t have a problem finding Gortat at the rim, but Gortat needs to do his teammates a favor and be better at finishing those attempts. As a team, the Wizards run a similar amount of cuts as teams like the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs, but those teams are much better in points per possession off cuts. With completion on only 63 percent of his cuts, Gortat is in the 58th percentile, basically around league average. Over the last week Beal has shown that he has the athletic ability to finish some of these back-door cuts at the rim; in order to add to Beal’s efficiency, the Wizards need to increase such opportunities for him.

Off Screens

Although the Wizards have the third-highest possessions that end in shots off screens, they rank 18th in the field goal percentage on said shots. This should be of no surprise given their willingness to settle for difficult, highly contested 2-point shots. Wittman has actually drawn up a nice web of complicated screening action for this Wizards team, but since he does not put an emphasis on proper shot selection,  and these screens create space just inside the arc, this play type is almost completely wasted.

Offensive Putbacks

For a team that starts two traditional big men, they don’t really get a lot of points from offensive putbacks. They only have about 170 points from putbacks on the season, not-so-good for 27th in the league. Now this is the one aspect of the game for which I’ll actually accept a Wittman #effort speech. Maybe this can be attributed to a systematic concept of getting back on defense because while the Wizards rank third in the NBA with a Defensive Rebounding Rate of 77.4, they rank just 17th in offensive rebounding rate of 24.6.

This is another area that can definitely be improved by getting the second-best rebounder on the team, Kris Humphries, and his 6.7 rebounds per game back.

After carefully analyzing every aspect of the Wizards offense, there are a few conclusions that can be drawn here. The things that the Wizards personnel allows them to do, they do semi-well. And the things they don’t do well are so glaring that it drives Wizards fans to bump their heads against a brick wall. No wonder Randy Wittman has developed a great case of ostrich-syndrome and decided that he’d rather put his head in the sand instead of actually putting his salary to good use and proactively thinking of ways to make the offense more adequate.

The Wizards boast a 100.2 DefRtg, fifth-best in the NBA, so even an adequate offense would be enough to keep this team afloat. The Wizards currently maintain an OffRtg of 101.8, ranking them just below the middle of the pack at 17th in the league. Historically speaking, only the 2004 Detroit Pistons have been able to actually win an NBA championship with an offensive efficiency rating lower than 12th in the league. I don’t think there is anyone inside the parameters of the beltway who is still thinking “championship” with this group, but it is worth mentioning that teams with below-average offenses can be successful in the postseason, if they are willing to open a dialogue on what their team does well offensively—and stick to an actual game plan. As long as Wittman refuses to at least acknowledge that there is a problem, this team will provide more of the same.

It is disappointing to grapple with the realization that due to their stunted growth, the Wizards may never reach their full potential for 2014-15. As I wrote back in February when their mini-swoon seemed like an aberration, not a full blown crisis: This Wizards team is fully submerged in the stage of denial, and the only way to begin the healing process is through admission.


Troy Haliburton on Twitter
Troy Haliburton
Troy Haliburton is a native Washingtonian, and graduate of Gonzaga College High School and Morehouse College. Bylines on bylines on bylines.

Will write for food.