System of a Down: Wizards Striving for Belief, Driving from Reality | Wizards Blog Truth About It.net

System of a Down: Wizards Striving for Belief, Driving from Reality

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Updated: March 12, 2015

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[via @SwedenDC]

For all the strategy, planning, and financial forecasting—even statistical analysis—that goes into running a pro basketball team these days, the final product surprisingly, pardon the expression, boils down to an ungodly amount of belief.

Presented as belief based on a system—those San Antonio Spurs are saints; Popovich for Pope—why we watch (and play) is really based on seeing (and doing) the unbelievable, set at the ever-shifting table of unpredictability. There are two simultaneous, competing theatrical productions; both are trying to make each other go off script; the final scene, or really any of the preceding scenes, are never written beforehand. #Sports. Specifically, basketball.

Do Randy Wittman’s boys just need to hit their jump shots and eat their vegetables? You betcha. In an offense that’s designed to operate in the perceived midrange “comfort zone” of several players on the roster—Bradley Beal, Nene, Marcin Gortat, even John Wall—they really have no other choice. They have to believe in the only system they know. At least at this stage, this season.

Randy’s coachspeak, pointed toward the media, is not necessarily intended to shift the conversation away from strategy or analytics, nor does it aim to obscure issues with blanket statements that lead to text messages from my Dad like this one after the recent Miami Heat game: “Can’t believe DC almost blew 35 pt lead last night. USA TODAY had big article few days ago where Whitman (sic) said effort is the problem.”

Randy Wittman, PR specialist.

The coach blames the defense because his toast, the team’s toast, is smothered with that butter. He doesn’t have any shame in punting offense and focusing on defense as a public-facing initiative. Even if it’s not at all endearing—the tug-of-war amidst Wittman’s elder school of thought: ‘I can roll up my sleeves, take care of business, all business’ versus ‘The gosh darn offense will take care of itself, mind yer business.’

The coach blames the (lacking) effort on his players because that’s the message he wants to send to them. (Thanks for sending, media.) You can’t control missed shots, you just gotta—what’s that you say—believe. Players are supposed to be able to control effort. Understandable, admirable. It’s a challenge, even if that effort can easily be dwarfed by a system. The system.

And that, for the Washington Wizards, has become clear as day.

Washington no longer ranks as highly in 3-point percentage as earlier in the season, but tied for 8th-best in the NBA (with Cleveland) at 35.6 percent should bring a certain sense of pride. Sure, the Wizards are caught at the crossroads of not having enough shooters (including not having a big man who can stretch the floor past the 3-point line), not investing enough in shooters, and disappointment from the shooters they have invested in.

John Wall has dished out the pass on 45.4 percent of Washington’s 3-point attempts and those passes have led to 47.4 percent of the team’s makes. Put differently, the Wizards shoot 2.9 percent better on 3s when Wall is passing the ball as opposed to someone else is.

The Wizards, of course, are still in the bottom five of the league in average 3-point attempts per game at 16.7. What a shame to waste what Wall can create. Even dead horses hope the shots just fall.

If one wanted to boil water into energy-creating steam, leaving energy deficient leftovers in the pot, the lack of 3-point shooting (and shooters) would be amongst the remnants—which have turned into pixels, which have turned into a steam-cloud of energy in critique of the Wizards.

The other most visible remnant is lack of driving. Ted Leonsis ripped the mirrors off his Ferrari, put a supreme J. Hildred Wall engine in it, and then went to Wal-Mart and filled that sucker with regular ol’ unleaded gasoline. Wall has learned how to maneuver the gas pedal in his car pacing the pack over the years, but he simply doesn’t have enough support behind other steering wheels on his driving team. Mostly, they’re stuck in traffic on the BW Parkway.

Mounted cameras in NBA arenas tracking players and the ball like missiles have helped us define a “drive” statistic like so: “any touch that starts at least 20 feet of the hoop and is dribbled within 10 feet of the hoop,” excluding fast breaks. Team points per game on drives, via NBA.com, incorporates directly-scored points, assists, and free throws created.

The Washington Wizards average 17.6 measly drives per game, third-fewest in the NBA and almost 10 drives below the league average. League-wide, the average is 1.07 team points per drive. That’s equal to or better than a third of NBA teams in average points per possession (PPP) in offensive transition (per Synergy play tracking on NBA.com).

John Wall drives 7.1 times per game, just less than the likes of Derrick Rose and Mike Conley and nestled outside of the top 30 in the NBA. The Wizards average 1.23 team points off Wall’s drives. By comparison, these players average more than 10 drives per game, benefitting their teams with extra highly productive possessions (ranked by team points per drive): James Harden (1.34), LeBron James (1.17), Ty Lawson (1.14), Jeff Teague (1.12). As you can see, when Wall does drive, the Wizards average more points than the Cavs do when LeBron James drives, or than the Hawks do when Jeff Teague rushes to the rack.

The Wizards? They average 1.11 team points per drive, tied with the OKC Thunder for 7th-most in the league. (For reference, the Wizards average 1.15 PPP in transition, tied with the Memphis Grizzlies for sixth-most in the NBA.) Washington can successfully drive, and score, but they won’t, or just can’t. Wittman begs for pace, desperately, from the sideline on a nightly basis. Hurry up and get into my quicksand, boys.

“I think we see the players the same way. He likes athletes, he likes speed, he likes defense,” said then-Milwaukee Bucks coach George Karl when Ernie Grunfeld was hired as the main decision-maker one season into Karl’s coaching tenure with Milwaukee in 1999.

Over eight seasons running the New York Knicks (1991-1999), Grunfeld’s construction focused on keeping intruders out—via walls, moats, and Patrick Ewing’s sweat. His Knicks generally finished in the NBA’s top 3 in Defensive Rating and below league average in Offensive Rating. When he was hired by the Bucks in ‘99, he inherited Karl, big on offense if you’re familiar. When Grunfeld was hired by the Wizards in 2003, he inherited the offensive-minded Eddie Jordan. When Grunfeld hired his only true new coach in forever in 2009, Flip Saunders, he already had built a roster inclined toward offense—for the coach (for Abe Pollin, for Gilbert Arenas).

The rise of Randy Wittman, supported by interim construction, brought an opportunity to believe in defense once again. Time-tested, mother-approved, defense wins championships. So that’s been the foundation of Washington’s culture change castle, brick by castle brick. It’s the franchise’s belief system. The creeping issue: part of the infrastructure designed to keep out attacks does not allow for the movement of weaponry for going on the attack. Create offense with defense is one mantra, but there’s something to be said about offensive aggression being part of not allowing opponents to even get near the castle walls.

The Wizards right now field the sixth-lowest Defensive Rating in the NBA (100.1) and a still-middle-of-the-pack Offensive Rating (102.1, ranked 16th).

Defense Ruled the Day in Charlotte,” went the title of team owner Ted Leonsis’ blog post after Washington’s most recent win against the Charlotte Hornets, the Wizards’ first against that franchise in six games.

“So, the Wizards only scored 11 points from the three-point arc and charity stripe. Odd stats. But we get a win easily. Go figure? We have won 2 of 3 now and sit in the 5th spot in the East, only 8 games over .500,” he proudly wrote, even if the inclusion of “only” in the final phrase bent against the preceding tide.

A signature win for the Washington Wizards, apparently, winners of five out of their last 13.

A starting point or stumbling block, meandering into the playoffs on a 46-win pace is what the system implemented by Leonsis, Grunfeld, and Wittman has allowed. That such will have more meaning in playoff-style basketball (also predicated upon matchups, and the Wizards really only match up well versus the Bulls), is Washington’s finger-crossing, gold coin-carrying, praise to the basketball gods belief.

But no need to get defensive. No need to knock the defense, either. I don’t know about your toast, but on mine the butter comes first, then the jelly.

Like everything, there is a balance. And if the Wizards keep stamping their John Hancock on anomaly wins without efficient points against what amounted (at the time) to the best sub-.500 team in basketball, they’re going to find themselves living check-to-check. Maybe they already are.

 

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Kyle Weidie
Founder / Editor / Reporter / Writer at TAI
Kyle founded TAI in 2007 and has been weaving in and out the world of Wizards ever since, ducking WittmanFaces, jumping over G-Wiz, and avoiding stints on the DNP-Conditioning list. He has covered the Washington pro basketball team as a member of the media since 2009. Kyle lives in D.C. with his wife, loves basketball, and has no pets.