WASHINGTON --Stop me if this sounds familiar.
With just under five minutes left in the third quarter, the Wizards found themselves trailing the Suns by just six points. The lead had swelled to double digits, but a nice Wizards stretch had cut the lead down. Steve Nash missed a three-pointer, and Caron Butler snared the rebound. Advancing the ball in transition, Butler made his way to the right side of the court, but Phoenix had three guys back. Time to pull it out and run offense, right? Instead, Butler sized up his defender, gave a couple cross-over dribbles, and launched a heavily-contested 20-foot jumper.
Predictably, it fell short, and Phoenix eventually got the rebound and pushed the lead back up to 8 on the next possession.
A similar sequence replayed itself several times this afternoon, but with names such as Gilbert Arenas, Randy Foye, Andray Blatche, Brendan Haywood and others instead of Butler. The end result was a 102-90 loss in which the Wizards' offense too often featured overdribbling and one-on-one play.
"We're not there as far as moving the ball," Saunders said. "We're just not there. The ball comes and we don't make that one extra pass."
Overall, the Wizards played a better game than they did against Indiana on Friday. They played harder on defense and had brief moments where the offense flowed much better. But for the second straight game, the Wizards had more turnovers (17) than assists (15), and took most of their shots off the dribble.
"If we're a hockey team, we'd have no hockey assists," Saunders said.
Wizards slow to pick up Saunders' philosophy
Historically, the Wizards have never been a club that posted high assist totals (since 2004/05, the Wizards have averaged just 19.5 assists per game). Remarkably, even with a lack of assists, the Wizards' offense was one of the best in the league because the Wizards didn't commit too many turnovers and they employed a system that opened the floor for the top players to score off the dribble.
Saunders, however, brought with him an offensive philosophy that preaches ball movement and quick passing in lieu of mad dashes to the rim. In Saunders' first year in Detroit, for example, the Pistons averaged 24 assists per game, up from 21.8 per contest in Larry Brown's last season.
But while the Pistons picked up Saunders' philosophy quickly, the Wizards still play like a team confused about what style they want to play. Arenas, for example, claimed before the season that he would not shoot nearly as many three-pointers and jumpers in transition, but so many of the Wizards' possessions today ended with Arenas launching a three or a long two-point jumper while being heavily contested. Butler, meanwhile, continues to try to break down his defender slowly instead of making decisive plays. The rest of the players aren't get open, and even when they do, they're often ignored while Arenas and Butler do their thing.
"I feel, and everyone else feels, that we got to pass the ball," DeShawn Stevenson said. "If we don't pass the ball, we aren't going to win. As good as Gilbert is and Caron is, if we give them the ball every play, we're not going to win."
"Team basketball is what wins in the NBA and that's what coach Saunders has been used to," Brendan Haywood said. "We have to get back to trying to mimic that atmosphere."
For their part, when asked about the low number of assists as compared to the high number of turnovers, Arenas and Butler both expressed concern, even though both continue to struggle with maintaining that balance on the court.
"It is concerning," Arenas said, as emphatically as any statement he made during his post-game media session. "That's been going on the last three games."
"When guys are more a part of the offense, the energy changes, so we definitely have to move the ball from side to side," Butler said.
There's no better way to illustrate the effect poor ball movement had on the Wizards' offense today than to see the number 39.1 on the stat sheet in the field-goal percentage column. Sometimes, you can overcome having fewer assists if it means you are getting by your defender off the dribble and shooting open shots, but that was not the Wizards today. When the passing lanes weren't there, the answer was to take contested jumpers, as Saunders noted in the post-game press conference.
"If you're taking contested shots, it probably means you're putting the ball on the floor and you're trying to take a shot on your own instead of creating a shot for somebody else," he said.
Sounds good in theory, but what about in practice?
As Stevenson implied repeatedly in his post-game media session, the importance of moving the ball has been driven into the players' minds ever since training camp. As the losses have piled up this season, the message has gotten louder. So why do the Wizards still fail to move the ball when the going gets tough?
Stevenson said part of the problem is that the Wizards' plays aren't working. Stevenson said Saunders designs set plays in order to accommodate ball movement or quick passing, but once the plays break down, which has happened too often to start the season, the Wizards give the ball to Arenas or Butler, hoping they will make a play for themselves.
"We run a play, and somebody forgets the play, or the play doesn't work," Stevenson said. "Then, at the end of the day, it's 'Throw it to Gilbert' or 'Throw it to Caron.'"
Several possessions bear this out, in particular, the possession after the Butler one described at the top of this post. The Wizards came out of a TV timeout hoping to get Arenas the ball coming off a curl, where he'd either shoot an open shot or pass to the big man setting the screen. However, Arenas couldn't get free, because the screen was weak and because Arenas couldn't shake Steve Nash. With the play broken down, Randy Foye tried to make a play on his own, but all that resulted was a fadeaway 19-foot jump shot that had no chance.
Like Stevenson, Haywood acknowledged that other teams make runs and dial up the intensity on defense for stretches so that the Wizards don't execute the initial play correctly. However, he said this is precisely the time the Wizards need to share the ball the most rather than simply trying to create shots on their own.
"It can't be [a situation where] their team makes a run and we just say 'Ok, it's [isolation] time.' That's where you have to execute the most," he said. "That's when you have to swing the ball around, set good screens, roll, have everybody on the floor touch the ball. Then, you end up with a wide open shot."
This all sounds great in theory, but why do so many possession during runs by the opposing team end in isolations?
"Sometimes, when you're really, really talented, and you have a team that has a bunch of guys who can score the ball, things get bogged down," Haywood said. "They feel like 'Okay, get out the way, I'm going to do this myself.'"
Butler agreed with Haywood's sentiment.
"Sometimes, when you fall behind, and you got players like myself and Gilbert on the court, we kind of take it upon ourselves to do something," Butler said. "But we got to continue to believe in our teammates, move the ball, gets it from side to side and trust that they'll make plays."
It's that trust that has proven to be elusive for the Wizards thus far. Not having Antawn Jamison and Mike Miller in the lineup hasn't helped -- everyone from Saunders to Arenas to Stevenson acknowledged that. But even if those guys were in there, the difficulty developing on-court trust doesn't surprise Foye, one of the team's new additions.
"If you're playing with a certain player for three, four years, you learn them," Foye said. "But if a guy just comes on, it takes a while. You're going to play well for two or three games and you're not going to play well the next three because teams are switching the way they're guarding us. We just have to get familiar with each other."
Clearly, that hasn't happened yet.
The alternate explanation (sort of)
So what does Arenas think is the problem here? As usual, he has a slightly different read on the situation. He acknowledges that the lack of assists is a problem and admitted that he played poorly in the second half today. He also cited the injuries to Jamison and Miller, saying that both help open up the floor because they can catch-and-shoot skillfully.
But for Arenas, the problem is that the rest of the team isn't being aggressive enough trying to make plays. Rather than suggesting that the Wizards need to improve their shot selection, Arenas said he thinks the team needs to shoot quicker. He cited the Suns as a team that consistently gets open shots because they confidently shoot right away when they are open.
"I say [the problem] is when we have shots open, we're not taking them," Arenas said, pausing for several seconds prior to answering the question. "We're trying to do the extra dribble or the extra get closer to the rim, or pass the ball, when we could just take the first shot."
Arenas agreed with Saunders' assertion that the Wizards are taking too many shots off the dribble, but he also seemed a bit envious when he compared Washington's situation to Phoenix's. Arenas mentioned how he heard Nash yelling at Grant Hill for pump-faking and stepping in for a two-point shot rather than catching-and-shooting. The obvious implication from Arenas was that he feels his teammates are being too indecisive. With his teammates being indecisive, Arenas ends up being the one having to take initiative, and that so far has meant calling his own number.
"Once we swing it to the weakside, we got to drive the ball and shoot our open shots," Arenas said. "When your four man [Oberto] has five assists, it kind of tells you something that he's making plays. We have to get that from the rest of the guys."
Arenas said that if the rest of the Wizards make quick, decisive decisions, the assists will come. In that case, he was asked specifically about his own assists, but he might as well have been talking about the entire teams'.
Newsflash: It's still early
Lest this all seems doom and gloom, there's still a fair bit of hope coming from the players and the coach. We are just seven games into the season, and the Wizards have lost two very important pieces to injury that should return soon. There was buzz around the locker room today that Jamison might be ready to play next Saturday against Detroit, and his ability to function without the ball in his hands will dramatically help the offense.
Butler also seemed very relaxed, joking about the new rims and how they affected his finishing ability around the rim (he estimated that he missed six layups tonight). When asked about the offensive flow, he said that it would come, so long as they continue to move the ball. Arenas, too, was optimistic, saying that "we still have offensive players" and that he was encouraged by the defensive improvement the team is showing.
But in case the players felt a switch was suddenly going to flip (no pun intended) and they would just get it, Saunders was there to remind them that it's not so simple.
"There's no magic wand with anything in sports," Saunders said. "It's one of those things you have to grind, you have to pound away."
For the Wizards' sake, that grinding can't take too much more time. We're only seven games into the season, but already, other Eastern Conference teams like Atlanta and Miami have started stronger than the Wizards. The longer it takes for the Wizards to pick up Flip Saunders' ball-movement-heavy system, the more ground they will have to make up to avoid being a bottom-rung playoff team. And being a bottom-rung playoff team couldn't have been what Ernie Grunfeld and company had in mind this season.