Scott Brooks’ Rotational Mystery Tour Rolls On
Randy Wittman loved to stick to his guns; Scott Brooks prefers taking the barrel off one gun and sticking it on the other while jamming on the trigger from a third gun just for fun. While my weak gun analogy can’t continue, allow me to.
Wittman had an infuriating tendency to find a rotation he liked, or a group of guys he liked to play together, and throw them on the court time and again. He persisted, no matter how many times it was proven Kris Humphries was not a stretch-4. When advanced statistics were presented to him, he took the blissfully ignorant route. Then he was shown the door.
Brooks has taken a different approach in his four-plus months as the Wizards’ coach, routinely scrapping one rotation for another after just a single game. Early in the season, as the Wizards got off to a bad start that quickly became terrible before eventually reversing course, Brooks frequently varied his lineup rotations, most often with the first and second men off the bench.
In the first game of the season, Andrew Nicholson was the first man off the bench, coming in for Markieff Morris, who had just picked up his second foul less than seven minutes into the first quarter. The next two off the bench were Trey Burke (John Wall) and Kelly Oubre (Otto Porter), then Marcus Thornton (Bradley Beal) and Jason Smith (Marcin Gortat) started the second quarter. Morris was again the first player subbed out in the second game, replaced again by Nicholson, but by the third game, he was the final starter to get a rest. Washington ended the first quarter of Game 3 with a lineup of Burke, Thornton, Oubre, Morris, and Smith on the court.
The very first substitution Brooks made as the Wizards head coach created a lineup of Wall-Beal-Porter-Nicholson-Gortat. That five-man unit played together for eight minutes(1) over the first two games of the season, then played together for just 10 total minutes the rest of the way before Nicholson—who, again, was Brooks’ very first player off the bench—was traded as “please, take him off our hands” add-on to the Bojan Bogdanovic trade.
One more example: The lineup of Wall-Thornton-Porter-Morris-Gortat was used for 40 minutes in November, the most of any five-man unit aside from the starters, who played 215 minutes together. In December, that lineup was used for just 14 minutes, seventh-most among five-man lineups. In fairness, Beal missed all of three games and parts of two others in November compared to one and change in December, and Wall missed all of two games in November compared to none in December, but the point remains. Brooks is ready and willing to make an adjustment if he thinks his original plan isn’t working.
By the time January kicked into gear, Brooks had settled on his various groups. In November, the Wizards managed to throw together a whopping total of 139 five-man lineups over 15 games; in January, they used just 73 over 16 games. Again, there’s the added caveat of Wall and Beal being out for stretches in November but not December, forcing Brooks to fill minutes somehow, but that only slightly inflates the disparity.
Worth noting: Here are the average minutes per game the starting lineup of Wall-Beal-Porter-Morris-Gortat has played together, by month.
The BoBo Experience has helped alleviate some of the starting lineup’s burdens so far in March, and the addition of Brandon Jennings, paired with the improved play of Tomas Satoransky, should buy Wall and Beal an extra minute or two of rest per game going forward. But incorporating two new players into the rotation, especially two players who need the ball in their hands to be successful, isn’t an easy thing to do mid-season.
Yet, again, Brooks has thrived in this aspect. On Sunday evening against the Orlando Magic, a dragging one-sided affair that suddenly flipped and ended up turning into a dramatic one-point Wizards win, the Wizards needed a spark as their offense trudged through the mud and their defense took the night off. They found very little help defensively, no matter which lineup they used, but Brooks made a crucial adjustment to the bench that made all the difference.
First half: Oubre played 5:50, was minus-11. Satoransky didn't play.
Second half: Satoransky played 7:21, was plus-15. Oubre didn't play.
— Bryan Frantz (@BFrantz202) March 6, 2017
This is what Scott Brooks had to say about why he played Tomas Satoransky late. Is this a shot at Kelly Oubre? pic.twitter.com/7weJytYDXu
— Bryan Frantz (@BFrantz202) March 6, 2017
In the six games Bogdanovic has played with the Wizards, he and Tomas Satoransky have gone plus-23 when on the court together, the second-best plus/minus of any two-man unit on the Wizards in that time, behind only Beal-Morris (plus-28); conversely, Bogdanovic and Kelly Oubre have gone minus-20 together, the sixth-worst out of 75 two-man units(2) in that time. Satoransky has also been a part of seven two-man units with a positive plus/minus in those six games, while Oubre’s only positive plus/minus partner in that stretch is Jason Smith.
What Brooks has done better each game is surround Bogdanovic with teammates who can create offense, relegating Bogdanovic to a catch-and-shoot specialist. This seems bizarre and counterintuitive for a player who shoots .375 from beyond the arc and has never shot above .383 from 3-point range over the course of a season, but the third-year wing has also never played with players who can create like Wall, Beal, or even Jennings or Satoransky can. Aside from Wall, Bogdanovic has struggled to play alongside players who can’t create offense, and he’s thrived alongside players who initiate. And when he’s paired with a creator like Wall and one or two other spot-up shooters, it leaves a defense in shambles.
— J. Michael (@JMichaelCSN) March 6, 2017
“They put four 3-point shooters out around one of the best point guards in the world,” Magic coach Frank Vogel said after the game, in describing how Wall and the Wizards rallied in the second half. “We got switches, which they’re supposed to do, and he still got points racing down the lane. We over-helped a little bit, not a lot, and weren’t able to get to the shooters.”
“I’ve never played with a better point guard in my career or a shooting guard like Brad,” Bogdanovic said of John Wall. “Like I said, John is trying to involve all of us in the game.”
In his 6th game playing with John Wall, Bojan Bogdanovic has set a new career high for 3-pointers made. He's 8-for-10. https://t.co/vWFQY8eTRS
— Bryan Frantz (@BFrantz202) March 6, 2017
“Coach drew the play for John or Brad, I cannot remember right now, but he always puts me in the right spot so they cannot attack me,” Bogdanovic said of a key 3-pointer late in the game. “They tried to do that on Keef, that allowed me to shoot a couple wide-open shots tonight. Coach put me in the right position every time.”
“Hopefully he can keep it going…but so far, what he’s been doing for us, he’s a heck of a shooter,” Wall said on what Bogdanovic contributes. “It’s always good to have other options.”
John Wall likes shooters around him. Shooters improve when they play with John Wall. These things are common knowledge. But Wall and Bogdanovic can’t always play together, and though part of the appeal of Bogdanovic is how he can slide right in with the starters for stretches, the biggest role he was acquired to play is bench scorer. He needs to find players he can coexist with on the court, such as Satoransky and, eventually, Jennings.
Speaking of sliding right in with the starters, remember when, back in mid-December, Oubre began closing games instead of Morris? It seemed like Oubre might take over Morris’ role in the starting lineup eventually, but that never matriculated, and soon Brooks went back to the starters as the finishers. On Sunday, with a delicate balance at stake, Brooks closed with a lineup of Wall-Beal-Bogdanovic-Porter-Morris. It wasn’t the first time Gortat has been pushed out of the closing group, and it likely won’t be the last. It’s also likely Morris will take Gortat’s spot on the bench in the final minutes of close games at times.
And that’s OK. Brooks has an excellent feel for the game, and for this team, and he’s done a superb job of finding the right fit for everybody. When it was clear Marcus Thornton and Andrew Nicholson had no place in the rotation, he didn’t force them into the lineup because Ernie Grunfeld had prioritized them in free agency (Nicholson more than Thornton in this case, of course). He sat them on the bench and forgot about them, and he meanwhile somehow figured out how to turn Jason Smith into a legitimately useful piece.
There’s plenty more learning for Brooks and this group to do. The good news is the coach is willing to learn, and the players seem to be buying in. That’s something.