As Tom Ziller wrote earlier today for SBNation.com, the Wizards' road issues, at least in comparison to their relative success at home, can be explained in part by a lack of effort. The statistical categories that see the biggest discrepancy in the two venues are the ones most commonly associated with effort. As Ziller writes:
Three of the four most impactful negative road splits the Wizards have seen this season are shooting defense, defensive rebounding and offensive rebounding. That tells me the Wizards aren't playing as hard on the road. That tells me that it's not just a mental issue, or a random oddity of noise. It's effort. What the Wizards give on the home floor doesn't travel, and it's leading to an embarrassing campaign.
Ziller is right on point in pretty much every facet of his article, except for one thing: the part where he writes that it's not a mental issue. I agree wholeheartedly that the Wizards don't exert the same amount of effort on the road, at least when it comes to the little things that win games like defensive rotations, boxing out, screen-setting, getting a hand up in a shooters' face, etc. However, I think it's very much a mental issue, and one that's not quite as simple as them not playing hard.
We forget so often that sports is such a mental game. Most of the time, professionals are good at maintaining their concentration when things don't go their way, but even on this level, there are varying degrees at play. Some players are just better at not letting failure in one capacity snowball into their play in another.
The Wizards, due to their youth and, frankly, their personnel, have a tendency to let failure snowball. This is a young team, full of players who have little experience being in the roles they are in right now. For many of these guys, there's a direct correlation between good things happening and the effort they give. At home, when the crowd is cheering, the players are sleeping in their own beds and the arena music is familiar, good things tend to happen more. A shot you miss on the road may go in at home, which affects ones confidence. On this team, the players give far more effort and attention to detail when they are confident.
But when that shot misses? Now, there start to be more problems. Heads are hung, possessions linger and minds are clouded by what happened rather than what is happening. There's a common phenomenon for this, and it's known as "feeling sorry for yourself." Flip Saunders has used this phrase several times this season, and it came out again after the loss to Memphis. Maybe you don't see it manifest itself physically, but it's definitely happening beneath the surface.
So to clarify: the effort problem is there, but it's most definitely a mental one. It's not a good thing that so many players on this team see their effort level depend so heavily on their performance. The very best players in the league find a way to shove out the mental frustration and focus on the upcoming task at hand. However, it's still a notable clarification that needs to be pointed out when thinking about a solution to those problems.
What is that solution, then? Besides playing better, there's a serious lack of on-court leadership that needs to be addressed. I found Andray Blatche's recent radio comments on this subject very interesting. When asked which player is the leader of the team, Blatche said that there's really no on-court leader, which is part of the problem. He said nobody wants to tell each other they messed up, in part because the players want to simply move on to the next frame.
As weird as it sounds, I sort of get where Blatche is coming from, at least in terms of the importance of playing frame-by-frame. But when you let issues go unaddressed, those thoughts linger in your head, preventing you from playing frame-by-frame basketball. The better solution is to have someone mention that mistake out in the open, deal with it then and then enter the next possession with a clear head. Deal with the problem right away instead of letting it fester.
Doing that will clear the mind more effectively. Once that happens, you'll start to see better effort and attention to detail.