With the Wizards' top offensive options injured, the team's role players had difficulty stepping up against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Wizards' 26 assists on 32 made field goals in last night's 94-84 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers can be interpreted in a few ways. On the one hand, good ball movement is a sign that a team is "playing the right way" and getting as many points as possible off of high-percentage shots and extra passes. At the same time, the team's poor offensive performance in spite of that great ball movement (84 points off of 90 shots and 35 percent shooting from the field) speaks volumes about how bad the Wizards were at creating off of the dribble and attacking Cleveland in one-on-one matchups.
This, of course, is where the Wizards miss their injured players. John Wall, the team's best playmaker, is out for a month. Nene, one of the best passing big men in the league, is day to day. Kevin Seraphin, an emerging post threat who made 47 percent of his shots from 3 to 9 feet last year, is battling a calf injury. In short, Washington has no one to turn to when the offense breaks down right now, forcing players like Trevor Booker and Emeka Okafor to step out of their comfort zones and take the kinds of difficult shots they normally don't attempt.
The absence of Wall, Seraphin, and Nene hurts the Wizards' role players in a few ways. First of all, Booker, Vesely, Okafor, etc. are at their best finishing plays, not creating them. Even if they aren't going up for a shot, none of the players that are currently healthy seem particularly comfortable setting up their teammates. Bradley Beal, Jordan Crawford and Trevor Ariza are above average passers, but lack experience (in Beal's case), judgement (in Crawford's), or handle (in Ariza's) to excel as a primary playmaker for long stretches. That Crawford and A.J. Price, two players who love to jack up low-percentage jump shots off of the dribble, led the team in field goal attempts says a lot about the inability of the role players to successfully convert on the team's initial set plays last night.
The Wizards' role players also become wildly inefficient when they're forced to put up shots that they're uncomfortable taking. Booker and Vesely in particular tend to limit their field goal attempts to dunks, layups, and open jumpers, shooting a high percentage as a result. However, they struggle when they're forced to go one on one, as Booker repeatedly did in the first half. The real value of a great player isn't their ability to score a lot of points as efficiently as possible; it's his ability to set up easy looks for his team's role players. (A note: this is why Houston's offense was usually better with Tracy McGrady on the floor, despite his consistently low true shooting percentage). Say what you will about Wall's poor shooting, but the amount of attention he draws from defenses and his ability to find teammates who are in a position to score never looked more valuable than it did in Cleveland last night.
The lack of a go-to playmaker has also hurt the team's already-shaky outside shooting. The Wizards made eight of their 32 three pointers last night, despite the presence of undersized Cleveland defenders like Kyrie Irving, Daniel Gibson, Alonzo Gee, and Dion Waiters. This was largely because they had very few open looks. Without dribble penetration or the defensive attention of a credible post-up threat, Washington wasn't able to free up its outside shooters for easy shots. Instead, we saw lots of contested and/or non-corner threes.
Things are only going to get tougher for the Wizards' offense as they square off against the Boston Celtics this Saturday. Although the pickings are pretty slim at this point, it's not inconceivable that they could sign a free agent (Shaun Livingston is available and would fit the team like a glove). But as the Wizards are currently constructed, their best bet would probably be to run a lot of plays for Martell Webster, since he's a bit better than Ariza at creating shots off of the dribble and can provide spacing for Booker's dives to the basket. Vesely got a bit stronger over the summer, too, and might be a better pick and roll finisher as a result.
But no matter what they do, though, the offense is unlikely to get much better until a few key players start coming back.