The Washington Wizards finished each of the last two seasons as an Eastern Conference playoff contender. They upset two higher seeded teams as a five seed, upsetting the Bulls in 2013-2014 in a five game series, and the Raptors in 2014-2015 in a four game sweep. They have looked very dominant at times during these years, but they have not been able to replicate their success despite the additions of Kelly Oubre Jr., Jared Dudley, and Gary Neal.
This raises questions as to what their issue is, or what their issues are. This is especially true with John Wall having a career season. Wall is an all-star for the third straight season, and he is averaging 19.7 points, 9.8 assists, 4.7 rebounds, and 2.1 steals per game.
Bradley Beal has missed 21 games, but the Wizards have dealt with injuries to him too. His on/off when he does play is only +0.2 points per 100 possessions when he does play, so he hasn’t been what is at fault.
Their individual players have all played fairly well besides Garrett Temple. Temple has been one of the worst players for this team for multiple years now. Temple’s efficiency is one of the worst in the entire NBA. It would be different if Temple was a star who does many things for the Wizards, but his role is to stretch the floor for Wall and Beal’s drives and Gortat’s post play.
Temple has only shot an adequate field goal percentage (43.6%) in the 2009-2010 season, and there is no reason to think that he will in the future. Why the Wizards still have him play 25.6 minutes per game confounds me when they have Beal, Gary Neal, Kelly Oubre Jr., Otto Porter, and Jared Dudley all capable of playing the wing positions.
Their main issue, however, is the fact that they don’t have a team with everyone geared towards the same style of play. Their teams of success from the 2014 and 2015 seasons were based on their size. This effort was led up front with the towering Marcin Gortat and Nene Hilario at the four and the five. At the small forward, they had length with Trevor Ariza in 2014 and Paul Pierce in 2015. In the back court, Wall was a physical nightmare for his match-up at 6’4″ and 195 pounds with blazing speed, and Beal was a respectable 6’5″ and 207 pounds.
The Wizards played a superior brand of traditional physical defense with this group, and had the 5th best defense in the league. And while Gortat, Wall, and Beal are still in the line-up, the defense is just not the same.
Their offense has actually improved from 103.7 points per 100 possessions (22nd in 2015,) to 104.6 points per 100 possessions (20th in 2016), but the defensive slip has cost them their status as a playoff team. The Wizards currently have the 19th best defense in the NBA, and teams that are below average in both offense in defense simply cannot have hopes of making the playoffs.
The Wizards, as so it would appear, have gotten caught in the latest small ball fad. They took out Nene from the starting line-up in favor of Jared Dudley, and while Dudley has helped out the offense, the defensive intensity as a team hasn’t been the same since Nene’s departure from the starting line-up. This is by no means Dudley’s fault, but it is the result of a team desperate for an identity.
Gortat, Nene, Kris Humphries, Drew Gooden, and DeJuan Blair have all played for the Wizard teams that utilized their size in previous years. This year, however, it appears as if head coach Randy Wittman wants them playing through the guards more. Just look at the usage rates. five of the six top players in usage for this team are guards or wings. The only player in the top six who operates in the paint is Nene, who comes off the bench.
Of the Wizards top six players in usage, only Sessions and Nene have a win shares rate higher than the league average (.100). Beal (.071), and Neal (.077) are considerably below the league average, yet they have very high usage by the Wizards. Those players combine for 51.5 minutes per game, so they are playing poorly for a long period of time as well.
This is different from the 2015 season for Washington when the rankings in usage percentage were generally proportional to production. Gortat is the exception in this scenario, because his role was to be the recipient of the offense instead of the creator. Gortat, for example would be the roll man on the pick and roll, or the recipient of a pass in the post. Once the ball was given to him, the ball was expected to go into the basket from there.
This team not only has its best players playing well, but it also has more distribution of usage. This is characteristic of an offense with multiple weapons and dimensions. Beal and Wall’s usage was only 48.6% of the offense in 2015 compared to 55.1% in 2016. That is a significant increase and can be attributed to the Wizards’ usage of the small ball fad.
Washington’s pace jumped from 18th in 2015 to 4th in 2016. Gortat, Nene, Humphries, Gooden, and their bigs aren’t meant to play fast, and they thrived playing at the moderate pace.
Their are some big men that play well in pace (i.e. Blake Griffin, Draymond Green, and even the newly acquired Markieff Morris,) but their core is not comprised of them. Everyone’s efficiency has been sacrificed in the name of this pace.
Their guards and wings, however, are limiting their potential by not pushing the pace. Wall is too quick and lacking of a jump shot to play in a half court heavy set. Otto Porter isn’t much without his athleticism either. Their shooters like Beal, Oubre Jr., Neal, and Dudley are going to be receiving passes from Wall, so if they aren’t keeping up with him, they simply won’t get the ball.
This creates two different groups that cannot coexist on Washington. The players who want to play fast and those who play slow. The Wizards were able to get away with it during the 2014 and 2015 seasons, but even then once could say they underperformed with records of 42-40 and 46-36 respectively over the two seasons.
So what is the best solution? Does Washington build on a team that plays slowly or one that plays quickly? The first step is playing defense. The Wizards, no matter what five players they have on the floor, need commitment to defense.
They should, however, build around a fast group. All of their big men are getting up there in age. Gortat is 32, Nene is 33, and Gooden is 34. They will all be very limited players or even out of the league within a few years, whereas Wall, Beal, Oubre Jr., Porter, and Markieff Morris have not hit their prime yet.
Now, the Wizards have already appeared to have gone in that direction anyways with their fast pace and insertion of Dudley into the starting line-up, but they cannot be done at this point.
After a commitment to defense, the Wizards need a young center. Young centers can play in small ball line-ups and are imperative to winning. Even the most successful fast teams like Golden State and the Los Angeles Clippers, utilize their mobile centers like Festus Ezeli for Golden State, and DeAndre Jordan for the Clippers. This young center should be one that can run up and down the court with their guards. Washington will be in a position to draft either Diamond Stone, Skal Labissiere, or Thomas Bryant. Hassan Whiteside, Timofey Mozgov, and Jordan Hill will all be unrestricted free agents as well.
After that, Washington needs to hire a new coach. Randy Wittman has proven this season that he cannot coach a fast paced team defensively. There are so many great fast paced coaches available: Marc Jackson, Jeff Hornacek, and Mike D’Antoni are just a few. Wittman did a good job taking this team from the rebuilding years to the playoffs, but they need a coach who fits their personnel to take them to contention.
This coach, then, needs to run an offense that puts their players in the best position to succeed offensively. Until John Wall develops a jump shot, he should not be taking 56.1% of his shots from beyond 16 feet. This is the kind of irresponsible play that Wall and/or Wittman have to be held accountable for.
The Wizards need to get their players shots at the rim. Only Nene has taken over 50% of his shots within three feet of the basket. Porter (24.1%), Temple (27.6%), Wall (28.2%), and Gortat (43.8%) need considerably more of their shots to be within that range of zero to three feet from the basket. Layups and dunks are the back bone of efficient offenses.
If the Wizards do these things, there is no doubt in my mind that they could be a top five team in the East again. Finding an identity is always a difficult process, but an identity, and the right identity, make all the difference in the NBA.