Four Games Down, How Washington and Atlanta Lineup Going Forward | Wizards Blog Truth About It.net

Four Games Down, How Washington and Atlanta Lineup Going Forward

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Updated: May 13, 2015

[via John Wall and @WashWizards]

[Wizards team picture, pre-Ramon Sessions, via John Wall and @WashWizards]

If you peruse this site-blog on occasion, you might notice that there is particular interest in data (‘analytics’ or ‘stats’) driven by lineups, or five-man units. We can parse individual numbers all we want, and even try to convey individual metrics in isolation from, but in connection to, team events (ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus, for example). But some of the best context, in my opinion, comes from how available team personnel (i.e., the combinations or rotations that coaches use) play together.

With the Wizards and Hawks tied at two games apiece heading into a crucial Game 5 this evening in Atlanta, it’s a good time to pause and assess how various lineups from each team have fared. (All data via NBA.com/stats.)

Washington’s starters (without John Wall)—Ramon Sessions, Bradley Beal, Paul Pierce, Nene, and Marcin Gortat—have gotten out-scored by seven points during their 36 total minutes (over Games 2 thru 4) versus Atlanta.

The starters, with Wall, were minus-9 over 12 minutes in Game 1. That conveys a trend not just involving the ‘small ball’ lineups Washington has incorporated more versus the Raptors in Round 1 and the so far Hawks in Round 2 (in comparison to the regular season), but also to the overall conundrum of strengths in personnel. Having two traditional big men like Nene and Gortat might put Washington at an advantage in the long run, but in shorter bursts, they can clog the court and constrict the offense.

Out of the 28 two-man combinations that saw 300 or more minutes together during the 2013-14 regular season, Nene and Gortat were tops on the Wizards in plus/minus per 48 minutes (+10.5). Over 226 minutes in last year’s playoffs versus the Bulls and Pacers, however, the duo was minus-5.1 points per 48 minutes.

Over the 2014-15 regular season, Nene and Gortat were plus-6.1 per 48 minutes as a duo, which ranked ninth-best in plus/minus amongst the top 30 Wizards two-man combinations in minutes played. In 112 minutes together thus far in the 2015 playoffs, Nene and Gortat are minus-3.9 points per 48. This speaks volumes as to how, as defense in the playoffs becomes more focused and gains more leverage from referees, dynamic offense becomes even more important. And thus having two big men on the court to defend at the same time (often against opposing small-ball lineups) is often a detriment overall.

Washington’s second-most-used five-man unit versus Atlanta (23 minutes) features Nene on the bench, Pierce and Otto Porter at the 4/3, and Sessions and Beal in the backcourt—they are an even-0 versus the Hawks during their court time.

Otherwise, these five next-most-used lineups have played 10-to-11 minutes together over the first four games of the series each (all have either Nene or Gortat at the 5, not both on the court at the same time):

  • +14 – Sessions, Beal, Porter, Gooden, Gortat
  • +2 – Bynum, Beal, Porter, Gooden, Nene
  • +1 – Sessions, Beal, Pierce, Porter, Nene
  • -3 – Wall, Beal, Pierce, Porter, Gortat
  • -9 – Bynum, Beal, Pierce, Porter, Nene

From Atlanta’s perspective, their starters (four of whom were All-Stars this season and all of whom were in January named the NBA’s Eastern Conference Player(s) of the Month)—Jeff Teague, DeMarre Carroll, Kyle Korver, Paul Millsap, and Al Horford—averaged 16 minutes per game together in the regular season to the tune of plus-3 per game in plus/minus. In four games versus the Wizards, Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer has played that unit about the same amount of time (15.9 minutes per game) to the tune of plus-6.5 per game—a total of plus-26 over 63 minutes in the series.

Because of their strong performance, there have been calls for Budenholzer to play his starters even more. While in Washington the opposite has happened. The Wizards’ unit of Wall, Beal, Pierce, Nene, and Gortat averaged 14.9 minutes per game over 40 regular season contests and plus-1.6 per game. Before Wall got hurt, they were averaging 13.2 minutes over five playoff games to the tune of minus-1.6 per game. And this does not account for how Kris Humphries, who played 33 percent of all of Washington’s minutes at the 4 during the regular season, has only played five minutes in the playoffs during one blowout win over the Raptors. Randy Wittman instead has opted for more floor-stretching from Drew Gooden or a small-ball lineup.

Budenholzer, named the NBA’s Coach of the Year, has been less relenting in his willingness to deviate from Atlanta’s regular season game plan—and it’s hard to argue with such success (60 wins is no joke). Wittman, whose team’s futility brought his job into question a handful of times during the regular season, has thrown caution into the wind and has made necessary adjustments for the playoffs—even if it means still getting criticized for not having done so before.

At some point you want to get more basic, throw up your hands, search for that combination of characters that looks like a hairless, gender-neutral being shrugging their shoulders, and say, ‘Maybe it IS just all about making shots.’ Indeed, this is the game of basketball.

We’ll leave you with this surface deduction from the aforementioned empty theater of small sample sizes: The Wizards’ best chance, without Wall, is that highly-productive lineup of Sessions, Beal, Porter, Gooden, and Gortat. Pierce, bless his heart—always—should be in at the end of games and other critical junctures, but the hardwood water coming from his faucet is cloudy. Pierce is past his prime as a defender and is not the cutting, rebounding, “utility infielder” (who can also hit 3s) that Otto Porter is. Gooden, for his part, can stretch the floor without sacrificing rebounding (too much; he’s still not the best defender).

Atlanta, as suspected, is best served doubling down on its starters, some of whom have been nursing injuries (for your consideration), but note that there’s not necessarily a significant drop-off, if any, from Jeff Teague (+1.1 per 48 over the series) to Dennis Schroder (+6.8). But, the drop-off from Al Horford (+9.2) to Pero Antic (-11.1), who started for an ailing Paul Millsap in Game 3, has gotten the Hawks in trouble, and their only other answer is Mike Muscala (+10.5 per 48 for the series) with the caveat that Muscala’s returns (he’s a second-year player) certainly diminish with increased time.

Where were we again?

Oh yeah, you see, it’s all about making shots, or defending shots … or just doing both at the same time with the right combination of players, i.e., this now-three-game series could still go either way. With or without John Wall, both teams are relatively evenly matched in their ability, and willingness, to move the ball in systems that do not benefit from a superstar scorer.

The difference in the regular season was 3-pointers—Atlanta averaged 9.4 more attempts and made 3.9 more per game than the Wizards. Now, in the playoffs, Washington has averaged 10.8 3-point makes per game, tied with the Warriors for the most and a hair above the Hawks (10.6). To say that small-ball from ‘Playoff Randy Wittman’ has been a true game-changer is quite the understatement (Bradley Beal’s new found willingness to pull-up from deep is also understated). The right combination of players has provided the Wizards with better balance to use the 3-point line as a weapon while defending that same space against teams like the Hawks, which used the real estate to become regular season deadly.

Now guys just gotta, well, make shots.

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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.