Right Notes, Wrong Key: Wizards Pace-And-Space Offense | Wizards Blog Truth About It.net

Right Notes, Wrong Key: Wizards Pace-And-Space Offense

Updated: November 13, 2015


So, there’s this great old saw about a piano prodigy who sits and flawlessly bangs out an advanced tune in front of a master. When he’s finished, the master says something to the effect of “you’ve played the notes, now you’ve gotta learn the music.” The music, you see, is more than just the playing of some notes on a page. This is a concept you should incorporate into your way of thinking about the world, if only so that you can describe what the Washington Wizards are doing in their new pace-and-space attack.

It’s possible no innovation has ever hit the NBA quite like the small-ball, pace-and-space, stretch-4 trend. Over the course of just a few years, being able to put four shooters on the floor at all times has gone from a luxury to a virtual necessity, to such an extent that teams are doing genuinely strange, dramatic things to fit their square peg roster into the round hole of the current NBA zeitgeist. Last year, the Golden State Warriors were the only team to average more than 100 possessions per 48 minutes and walked away with a Larry O’Brien trophy. But those Warriors would rank 12th in pace this season with 15 teams are averaging more than 100 possessions per 48.

The Pacers, for example, are turning Paul George, one of the NBA’s great wings, into a dramatically undersized power forward, apparently valuing conformity to this trend over the inherent value of having an elite player playing at his natural position. If this works out in the long run, and to the extent that it works out at all, it will be more of a testament to George’s ability than it is to the sagacity of the idea—George could just as easily be run into the ground by the gruelling work required of an interior player, and a lesser player almost certainly would be.

The Wizards are attempting something far zanier than even that. Kris Humphries, bless his heart, is not at all a perimeter player. Despite that, the Wizards have decided that Humphries can bang home enough 3s to play out on the perimeter, thereby creating the coveted space that is a requisite part of the most exciting version of small ball—the version where offenses rain hellfire from deep until their opponent collapses, shudders, and goes belly up.

Returning to our little metaphor about the music, this way of thinking about small ball and its offensive benefits is akin to knowing only the notes. On paper and in a sort of For Dummies way, having a man on the perimeter who will knock down some 3s leads to increased space, and that space can be exploited. And so the Wizards have been starting Kris Humphries and giving minutes to Drew Gooden and an out-of-shape Jared Dudley, with the expectation that having these players on the floor will open up the game.

An idealized half-court version of this setup goes something like this: Bradley Beal, Otto Porter, and Kris Humphries station themselves around the perimeter, while John Wall and Marcin Gortat work a high pick-and-roll. Wall turns the corner, Gortat rolls hard to the hoop, and three defenders either stay pinned in place by the fear of an open 3-pointer, or sag into the lane to stop what can be an absolutely deadly Wall-Gortat two-man attack. If they stay pinned, John Wall has ample room to attack the lane or dish to the big man. If they collapse, Wall will find his open teammates in the corners, where they will catch, shoot, and bang home 3-pointers. A few of the former and the defense will sag. A few of the latter and the defense will stay pinned. This theoretical process operates like a pendulum and will always leave the defense vulnerable.

The music of small-ball basketball, though, is in all the ways it works in the grey areas, where the first action of the offense doesn’t create an immediate open look. Faster, smarter defenses will pick their poison and sag strategically, knowing which guys they can leave open and which passing lanes they can jump. The right pass from Wall might, under these circumstances, become a hockey assist, or just the key that unlocks a rapid sequence of multiple actions that stay a step ahead of the recovering defense.

That this has not generally happened in Washington’s new offense is evident. Part of it, of course, comes down to comfort—this is a new system and the players will need time to make it sing. Another part of it, though, is personnel. Humphries taught himself to shoot 3s, but here is a list of things Humphries is not comfortable doing: passing around the perimeter, using an escape dribble, dribbling into the lane, passing on the move, moving without the ball, shooting when not wide open, shooting on the move, finishing through contact, and making quick decisions with the ball.

But he can shoot 3s! Yes. Kris Humphries can shoot 3s. I think you will find, though, that the ability to shoot an open 3 is among the least important qualities for a player in this kind of offense. His limitations manifest themselves more often than his ability to shoot an open 3 does: Humphries is taking just under three 3-pointers per game on this young season, but he’s getting around 16.5 frontcourt touches per game. He’s only getting up six total shots per game. These numbers tell you a few things: at best, Humphries is knocking down one or two 3-pointers a game, shots that used to be long 2-point jumpers—this is an improvement, but amounts to a measly couple of points per game (up to 1.19 points per FGA this season, from 1.14 last season for Humphries). Second, Humphries is only attempting three shots inside the arc per game, a tiny number for an NBA starter at any position. Last thing: there are 10 or so frontcourt possessions per game where Humphries touches the ball but does not shoot. Those are 10 possessions in which his playmaking deficiencies matter a great deal. Compared to the six touches per game in which he attempts a shot, the stuff he does when he’s not shooting jumpers is significantly more important to the Wizards, especially given his status as the fifth scoring option out of five starters.

I bring up Humphries not to single him out as a bad basketball player, but to illustrate a point: the Wizards, by starting Humphries, have not set themselves up to play fast and in space. They have set themselves up to convert three of Kris Humphries’s long-2 attempts into 3-point attempts per game. What Humphries could not do to make Washington’s offense explosive in 2014-15, he still cannot do in 2015-16. It’s those deficiencies that have always kept his ceiling slightly below sixth-man material.

When the pace-and-space offense sings, it does so because the player catching the ball on the perimeter against a scrambling defense can exploit the vulnerabilities that are presented. Some small number of times the vulnerability will yield an open 3-pointer. The whole entire rest of the time, the vulnerability will be a driving lane, or another player open on the perimeter, or something that can only occur two passes down the line. If the Wizards (and Wizards fans) thought this style of play would turn John Wall into an 18-assists-a-night kind of point guard, that’s just ridiculous. Look around the league at the teams who successfully play this style—Golden State, Atlanta, San Antonio, Boston—and the thing you will notice is the lack of a single high-assists player. Why? Because the first pass almost never breaks open the defense. It is absolutely vital that Washington put players around the perimeter who can move the ball and attack. The Warriors, Hawks, and Celtics usually have good, smart passers at every position. San Antonio’s offense over the last few seasons kicked into its highest gear when Boris Diaw took the floor. The whole big adjustment the Spurs are having to make this season is incorporating a brilliant scorer (LaMarcus Aldridge) into their offense, and it’s tricky precisely because he isn’t all that comfortable with making quick passes.

What I’m saying, here, is this: If you are starting Kris Humphries, it should not be because you think he will unlock your attack. Generally speaking, it should be because your regular starting 4 is injured. That the Wizards may not have a better option is a rather stark indictment of their roster construction. On the other hand, insisting upon playing a style for which you do not have the right personnel is, generally, a dumb and bad thing to do.

So, OK, maybe giving more minutes to a guy who can make sharp passes (a healthy Jared Dudley, for example) will unlock a terrifying, unstoppable offense. This, though, will not solve all of Washington’s problems, and that’s because their biggest problem is that they aren’t defending. And this really cannot be overstated: the Wizards have just four difference-maker defenders on their entire roster, and one of them is coming off the bench. Wall, Beal, Porter, and Nene are good NBA defenders. Gortat, Humphries, Dudley, and Garrett Temple are average defenders. Ramon Sessions, Gary Neal, and Drew Gooden are calamitous, disastrously deficient defenders. Kelly Oubre is a rookie. DeJuan Blair is a garbage bag full of wet topsoil. The Wizards are having a very, very bad time on defense.

But, see, this is another area where their offense can be tweaked to help, and that, again, comes down to the subtle ways that playing fast is not the same thing as playing in the space afforded by having multiple shooters. Any team with the right personnel can space the floor—it’s simply a matter of positioning the right players around the perimeter and waiting for the defense to bend itself into trouble. Playing fast, as the Wizards have prioritized, means pushing the ball and getting quick shots, and it can be done with any five players who are willing and able to run. Playing in space might mean playing smaller lineups, but the tradeoff should be an increase in efficiency. Playing fast means more possessions against transition defense, but it also means more possessions for your opponent.

The Wizards have elected to do both of those things this season, which is cool and fun, but I wonder if they aren’t making the mistake of conflating the two, of thinking that they are, in fact, the same thing. Here’s what I mean, and we’re gonna go back to picking on Kris Humphries: an attribute that might make Humphries suitable for playing on the perimeter is a willingness and ability to shoot spot-up 3-pointers. An attribute that makes Humphries suitable for playing fast in transition is that he moves very well in a straight line and is a thunderous dunker. The problem, of course, is that Humphries isn’t yet very comfortable when shooting on the move. The way he threatens a defense is very different in different situations, and so his utilization needs to be different. If the Wizards believe his 3-point shooting genuinely helps open up their attack, then they really don’t need to run as often as they do—that benefit only makes sense in a half-court offense. They should run when it makes sense—when Humphries and/or Gortat are ahead of the ball or opposing defenders are behind it, and off of turnovers, blocked shots, and long rebounds. They should run when Humphries and Gortat can fill lanes and the spacing benefit of a stretch big isn’t needed.

The cumulative benefits of this might include fewer turnovers and fewer possessions all around, but they will almost certainly include fresher Wizards players who aren’t getting gassed hurling themselves into an attack they still aren’t especially well-armed to pull off. The Wizards, it turns out, can still be a pretty formidable defense—even with Humphries on the floor—when they are able to get their defense set. Wall, Beal, and Otto are bulldogs on the perimeter. They can switch as needed and swarm and funnel opposing ball-handlers, jump passing lanes, grab a defensive rebound, and tear ass up the court. This dynamic was evidenced in the opening part of the Spurs game, when the Wizards made shots at one end and harassed the Spurs at the other. It’s far easier to do off of made baskets, and made baskets are the result of good offense, not simply more of it. And the Wizards have possessions to spare—they currently lead the league in PACE and turnovers per game. The benefits to their defense of playing a bit slower will almost certainly more than make up for whatever challenges this presents for their offense.

If this new style is all based upon the run of success the team experienced in the playoffs, when Wall, Beal, Otto, Paul Pierce, and Gortat shared the floor, the Wizards appear to have misunderstood what triggered it in the first place. That lineup was able to threaten a defense because they had four guys who could take an open shot or make a quick pass or take a couple dribbles and get into the paint. That lineup could defend because they had four guys who could switch on defense as needed, close out under control on shooters, defend ball-handlers, and help out on the defensive glass. Kris Humphries has exactly one skill—his newest one—that suits him to this style of play. He is a defensive downgrade at his position and a woefully limited offensive player for a pace-and-space attack. Using him as the stretch component of an attempt at recapturing their postseason success is a mistake. Not all innovations are for everyone. Until the Wizards have the personnel to make allegro really work—or, alternately, until they’re willing to utilize outside-the-box lineups to make it work—they’ll be lucky to play the notes at all. Forget about the music.


Chris Thompson