Margin for error.
It's a cliche, but when you're missing your two best players, your margin for error basically evaporates. It's not fair, but it's how it is. Whereas Gilbert Arenas or Caron Butler can make up for someone like Nick Young being out of position offensively, there's no luxury for that right now. Similarly, Gilbert can bail out Eddie Jordan's strange insistence on not playing Brendan Haywood or Roger Mason in the last 4:51 of a close game when both were playing so well.
But I guess what's so frustrating about this edition of the Arenas/Butler-less Wizards, as opposed to last year's edition, is their inconsistency (and believe me, I hate using that word, but I don't know how else to describe it). There will be some stretches where we'll run the Princeton offense, close out well on shooters defensively, and limit opponents to one shot. At other times (and it happens all too easily), the offense will bog down into one-on-five, we'll get too comfortable defensively as far as making aggressive double-teams and rotations, and we won't get back well in transition. Say what you want about last year's depressing group at the end of the year, but they kept most games close and didn't suffer from the types of breakdowns that get a team out of sync. They weren't good enough to run the Princeton consistently or play strong defense, but at least they were doing the same things the team did before all the injuries.
Take Monday, for example. Like Jake mentioned, we were running the offense in the first half. Roger Mason and DeShawn Stevenson were curling off baseline screens, and Brendan Haywood was in the right position to hand them off the ball. Mason won't be as hot hitting the shots every night, but he was getting the types of opportunities our offense provides. Haywood was scoring whenever he got a chance and rebounding whenever he didn't, and when nothing worked at the beginning of the shot clock, we found the right guy (Jamison) to make the play. It also meant we had solid defensive floor balance, so Golden State wasn't getting out in transition.
Then, in the fourth quarter, we completely abandoned this to run a million isolations for Nick Young. I don't want to make this sound like an indictment on Young himself. His role is to provide non-stop offense for short stretches when teams start figuring out the Princeton, so I can live with him dominating the ball for a few minutes at a time. But he's not Gilbert Arenas, who can have that fourth-quarter assassin role, and he shouldn't be in the game in position to continue dominating the ball. Eddie should have come back immediately with the starting five (Mason, Stevenson, Jamison, Blatche, Haywood) and gone back to the formula that was working. Instead, he stuck with Nick Young for too long, kept Haywood out mysteriously, and played right into Golden State's hands. The floor balance we had seen all night disappeared, and without Haywood to deter drives and clear out space, Golden State got a ton of easy layups and wide-open jumpers when the rest of our defenders overcompensated by sinking into the paint.
Normally, I can understand some deviation from the formula in the fourth quarter, because opponents do usually catch on if you don't make adjustments. But without a crunch-time scorer who can make plays outside of the offense, you can't really do that. The best chance is to rely on what got you the lead and keep doing it, because that's the only way you can maximize your depleted roster's potential. Eddie and the players didn't do that Monday, and it's the reason we lost.
My best guess at a diagnosis:
It's a combination of poor shooting combined with forcing the other team to shoot well. After ranking solidly in the middle of the pack in both of these categories, the Wizards are now 19th in effective field goal percentage and tied for 24th in opponents' effective field goal percentage. One of those numbers makes sense considering the injuries; the other is part of a larger problem.
Without Arenas and Butler, we're missing our two best mid-range shooters. More importantly, they're also our two best creators, and our third-best, Antonio Daniels, has been out as well. That eliminates the fluidity of the Princeton and forces everyone else to take tough jumpers they wouldn't normally take. This is all stuff we knew was going to happen.
But then how do you explain the improvement of our opponents' shooting? This was always the problem with the Wizards defense in the past. Teams would either get easy layups (particularly without Haywood in the game) or we'd sag so far into the lane that they would get open jumpers. Now, I think part of the problem is that our best perimeter defender (Stevenson) has been battling injuries, but other than that, I'm kind of baffled here.
I guess there are two explanations.
First, Brendan Haywood still isn't playing enough. I should rephrase that, actually. Brendan Haywood isn't playing at the right times. With the exception of the Denver game, he's gotten his 30 minutes, and sometimes more, but he's been out at critical junctures against Golden State and Philly, our two most gut-wrenching losses of this streak. Even though his effect isn't quite as dramatic as in the past, you can see how much he means to this defense. My two favorite numbers for there are the rebounding ones (so what if he isn't grabbing the rebound himself) and the fouls. To reiterate, teams are attempting 10 fewer free throws per-48 minutes with Haywood in the game, and when the game becomes a half-court struggle, like it often does at the end, these two traits are extremely valuable. Let him sit out in the second quarter if it means playing in the fourth.
Secondly, I think that our long jumpers are hampering our transition defense, though it might not necessarily show in fast break points. I know, I know, as Kevin has told me numerous times, there's no correlation between offensive and defensive efficiency, but I wonder about that when I watch this team, particularly in the last three games. The long jumpers, the forced shots, and the ragged offense is leaving us in a bad position when trying to match up in transition. I don't think it's an accident that the possession count for these last three games is 99 (Denver), 100 (Phoenix) and 103 (Golden State. Granted, those are the three fastest teams in basketball, but that's still above their average. More transition often means better shots, and since those three teams are used to playing that style, that's where so many of the easy shots are occurring. If we can get back to being that half-court team, I think we'll be more successful.
On the plus side, we are playing better. We just need to have better recognition on both ends of the court.