Enter Small Ball: Navigating Washington's Change in Philosophy | Wizards Blog Truth About It.net

Enter Small Ball: Navigating Washington’s Change in Philosophy

Updated: October 6, 2015


The Wizards will unveil a brand new offensive philosophy tonight. How drastic the change will be is still uncertain. Randy Wittman definitely won’t show his entire hand in the first preseason game against Philadelphia. “Don’t read anything into who we play tomorrow or who starts tomorrow,” the coach has already warned from his porch to those looking at his lawn via binoculars from afar.

Wizards fans are, nonetheless, excited about small ball talk. Perhaps overly excited. It’s D.C. sports, remember. Yes, there will certainly be more hallmarks of small ball—more running, more long-distance shooting. In the initial days of training camp, Wittman had his staff tape boxes around the 3-point line on the team’s practice floor, anchoring the corners and the wings: a telltale sign of change even if the coach played coy when asked about it. Visuals should help to condition players on new spacing, and the overall idea is to give the John Wall locomotive enough oxygen to breathe fire.

Wittman has even been talking #BasketballMath.

“We were below average in terms of all the numbers, points per game, points per 100 possessions, pace of play. All those things got to be better,” said the coach, as relayed in the Washington Post.

And excuse Wittman if he will gladly remind you that past personnel didn’t always allow for a small ball arrangement. Which came first, not having a stretch 4 or Nenê?

“We’re going to do some things differently offensively, with the personnel that we have, the versatility that we have now on this roster that I didn’t have last year,” went the coach’s Media Day refrain. Verifiable.

The ability to play smaller, run more, take (and hit) more 3s, and spread the court for Wall to melt defenses like butter or burn them like toast does not hinge on whether one Maybyner Rodney “Nenê” Hilário is in the starting lineup alongside Marcin Gortat, Bradley Beal, John Wall, and presumably Otto Porter. But, a more mobile 4 is a key cog in the small ball machine, so much to the point where Marcin Gortat is rather comfortable discussing it. A member of the press squad threw a soft ball in the trajectory of the St. Louis Arch in Gortat’s direction on Media Day.

What going into this season has you most fired up?

“I’m going to play probably as one big in the lineup,” the Polish big man claimed. “We might go with the four smaller guys, guys that want to shoot the ball, and I’m going to play inside. The whole paint’s going to be open for me, and it’s going to huge opportunity for me to work on my game and prove that I’m one of the better dominant big men in the league.”

Big words for Gortat to back up. And he’s capable, especially when receiving the ball on the move. But sometimes to be effective with a small lineup it helps to have a big man who can post. That’s not what Gortat does best. Well, actually: the pink elephant buried at the bottom of Randy Wittman’s toy chest full of action figures is that none of his bigs are effective with their backs to the basket. The team posted-up a bunch in comparison to the rest of the league, but wasn’t really good at it as a whole.

The Wizards ran Post-Up plays 10.5% of the time, seventh-most frequent in the NBA. They scored 0.81 points per Post-Up possession, ranked 23rd in the league. (NBA.com/stats)

NBA.com player tracking data defines a “Post-Up” as when a player receives the ball with his back to the basket within 15 feet of the rim and a possession-ending event occurs—a shot, drawn foul, or turnover.

Gortat posted-up 22.7 percent the time (216 possession-ending events). That’s in the range of Brook Lopez (22.3%) and Carmelo Anthony (22%), and even less than Kevin Love’s frequency (24.1%). Post-Ups accounted for 32.1 percent of Nenê’s possessions and 43.4 percent of Kevin Seraphin’s possessions last season. The NBA’s heaviest hitters on Post-Up frequency would include Al Jefferson (57.1%), Nikola Pekovic (55.8%), and Dwight Howard (49.2%).

Gortat averaged 0.87 points per possession (PPP) on Post-Ups, which compares with DeMarcus Cousins (0.87, 30% frequency) and Greg Monroe (0.87, 41.3% freq.). Nenê averaged 0.74 PPP, comparing with Dwight Howard (0.75, 49.2% freq.) and David West (0.74, 23% freq.). Seraphin averaged 0.82 PPP, comparing to Tim Duncan (0.81, 28.7% freq.), Jordan Hill (0.82, 17.5% freq.), and Robert Sacre (0.83, 37.2% freq.)

The NBA’s most efficient Post-Up scorers include LaMarcus Aldridge (0.96 PPP), Marc Gasol (0.95), Blake Griffin (0.95), Brook Lopez (0.94), and Al Jefferson (0.93).

Minds amongst Wizards brass, from old school grit to new school analytical, quickly became aware of the team’s weakness in post offense leading up to and during last season. The idea was once that, when on the floor together, Gortat and Nenê would dominate the paint defensively, and while they might get in each other’s way on offense, each player would be able to hit enough jumpers to space the floor. Under NBA defensive rules that allow for light zone play, the limited spacing that two traditional bigs offer became impractical. And when other teams went really small, a defensive advantage with Gortat and Nenê anchoring the paint suddenly became a disadvantage.

Ultimately, if you rely too much on Gortat and Nenê (together or apart), to hit jump shots in order to create spacing, you’re in trouble. Both players, along with their erstwhile teammate Seraphin, were often content settling for these attempts. Not that they can’t hit them. Mid-range jumpers from big men are often more reliable than shots from guards because of how set and open their looks tend to be.

Gortat, playing with four wing players, will be expected to continue to make teams pay for leaving him open. He was one of six NBA centers who attempted at least 200 shots from 8-to-16 feet in 2014-15. Here’s how Gortat compares, per NBA.com/stats:

Player FGM 8-16 ft. FGA 8-16 ft. FG%
Al Jefferson 138 327 42.2%
Marc Gasol 137 316 43.4%
Nikola Vucevic 132 283 46.6%
Brook Lopez 122 256 47.7%
Roy Hibbert 176 348 35.7%
Marcin Gortat 87 204 42.6%

Nenê shot 38.4 percent from 8-to-16, Seraphin shot 43 percent, and Humphries shot 45.8 percent.

For more of a variance, Gortat attempted:

  • 82 shots from 15-to-19-feet, made 41.5%
  • 107 shots from 10-to-14-feet, made 43%
  • 166 shots from 5-to-9-feet, made 36.7% (this is Gortat’s midrange, apparently)
  • 414 shots from within 5-feet, made 72%

Gortat’s ability to hit jumpers from beyond 10 feet, layered atop his athletic ability in the pick-and-roll, can be just as much a key to success with smaller lineups as having a 4-man who can hit 3s.

“I think me and Nenê, we automatically took away a lot of drives from Brad and John,” explained Gortat on Media Day. “You know these guys, obviously they can play, they can shoot the ball, but if we open up the paint for them, we don’t have to only rely on shooting from outside or post-ups. We can add more pick-and-rolls, we can add more transitional play, just penetration and finishes and layups around the rim.”

The core of the complaint about the Wizards taking too many long 2s, which is now apparently being addressed by Bradley Beal (because he, “looked at the stats”; no word from Wall’s end) is that 3-point shots are worth 50 percent more than 2-point shots. The Wizards are finally banking that the John Wall Effect will mean something to the shooting percentages of several teammates who are capable of knocking down the long ball. It’s about time.

More 3-point attempts should be a given, considering how Washington was a top 10 3-point percentage team last season, but bottom five in attempts per game, was covered ad nauseum by this blog and other outlets. But what’s often lost in this discussion is the role of the big man in Washington’s lineup and how Wittman will seek balance while integrating a new style of play. The pick-and-roll combination of Wall and Gortat with a spread offense should be more dangerous than it’s already proven to be. Wall has found an elbow jumper that helps in any P&R situation and probably will attack the rim more with one less big man drawing defenders into the paint. Gortat can finish at the rim, as we’ve covered, but is also great at kicking it to the corners; a Wizards wing or a hoping-to-be-stretch big man like Kris Humphries can also always patrol the baseline for secondary offensive action. Nenê is not that great of a roll man, but perhaps his willingness to pop, given more consistency in his jumper (think all the times he hit over Joakim Noah in the 2014 playoffs), will better open the lane for Wall and Beal to penetrate.

No big man on the Wizards last year was particularly adept at scoring as the offensive roll man. Again, this could be a spacing thing. The roll man play type tracking on NBA.com is defined as rolls to the basket, pops for a jump shot, or slips on screening action when a possession-ending event occurs.

Offensive Roll Man Action: P&R

Player Frequency PPP TO Frequency
Gortat 21.6% 1.01 9.2%
Humphries 17.2% 0.94 3.2%
Nenê 14.5% 0.92 12.7%
Seraphin 8.5% 0.76 4.0%

Some of the most proficient roll men in the NBA include Tyson Chandler (1.41 PPP, 21.5% Freq.), DeAndre Jordan (1.36, 12.0%), Chris Andersen (1.27, 22%), and Tristan Thompson (1.25, 18.6%). Gortat, however, put up a PPP close to Brandon Bass (1.03, 21.1%), Marc Gasol (1.02, 21.2%), and Tyler Hansbrough (1.02, 21.2%).

As a team the Wizards were not particularly adept at scoring as the pick-and-roll screener nor as the ball handler. On offensive roll man action they were average in frequency (6.7%, tied for 15th in the NBA) and below average in PPP (0.96, ranked 18th). On offensive ball handler action, they were below average in frequency (14.7%, ranked 18th) and in the NBA’s bottom four in PPP (0.71, ranked 27th). Worth noting that the play type details available to the public do not include secondary action created from pick-and-roll, nor data on pick-and-roll effectiveness by five-man units.

The preseason is here but Washington is far off from determining which lineup combinations will work best. Three bigs—Gortat, Nenê, and Humphries—are still in among the top seven most talented players on the Wizards, and Wittman will still often turn to his jumbo set in an attempt to make teams adjust.

Wittman gave a roundabout answer to a roundabout question about whether Nenê not starting would make the bench stronger (of course!), which was a thinly veiled probe into small ball insights.

“We’ll see if we’re going to be bringing Nenê off the bench,” Wittman said on Media Day. “Again, I think we have the versatility to play or start anyway we want. Sitting here today, I can tell you that you might see different starting lineups … and not be a set situation there. But yeah, no question. If he is a guy that is coming off the bench, to have a guy like that makes your bench even better.”

Garrett Temple, utility infielder and probably a coach-in-training, was even more diplomatic about the change in offensive philosophy.

“Ernie (Grunfeld) and Tommy (Shepherd) have done a great job of putting together a team that is built to play small but also play big,” Temple said. “Let’s not forget we still have Gortat and Nenê in there if you want to play big at times, but the game has gone to that. You see a team like Golden State winning a championship with the guy 6-foot-6, 6-foot-7 at center.”

Earlier in Media Day, Wittman made it known that his team was not Golden State. Indeed, they do not have a Draymond Green, whose 5-and-3-and-D player archetype is the next thing on trend in the NBA.

Nenê was neither diplomatic nor forceful about probes into small ball. He deferred.

“I know he (Randy Wittman) will use the players to depend on who will play. But I think the formations going to be the same … just with this specific team, you know, when you have a set form about it. I think he’s going to see, and he’s going to talk to our players, and see what happens,” said the single-named Brazilian entering his 14th year in the league. “If that’s what he’s thinking, then for sure. But I don’t want to say who’s going to start or who’s going to sit on the bench. What matters is if you’re going to give your best to the team. That’s what matters.”

“It might be a bigger change, it might be a bigger change for us,” Gortat said, when asked about the shift in coaching edict. “It’s no secret that me and Nenê, both of us are are not going to be able to keep up with John at the same time. Always one of us has to take the ball out and then sprint the whole court, and just run under the rim. Hopefully having the 4 man, who’s going to be able to take the ball out, is only going to sprint to the 3-point line and stop and be a threat automatically. It’s going to be a good opportunity for us, but again coach is going to figure out where we’re going to do.”

Give Nenê some credit, he is smarter than his pride and competitive nature—traits of so many players—would have you believe. In spite of Nenê’s insistence, just two offseasons ago, that he play 4 next to a traditional 5, I had to ask Nenê what he thought of this changing NBA; about this “small ball.”

“I think when they try to explore more space, and when you have a skilled big man and a quick point guard and great shooters in the corners, that’s the best way to do,”  Nenê said on Media Day—more elementary, less of a revelation. “The game is changing, it’s been changing. Just maybe be able to accept it and do our best.”

If Nenê can change, and Wittman can change, and Rocky can change, and Ivan Drago can change, then maybe the Wizards can change, too.


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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 currently lives in Brooklyn, NY with his wife, loves basketball, and has no pets.