WASHINGTON -- It's no secret that the Washington Wizards are struggling to score this year. Averaging a measly 95.7 points per 100 possessions, the Wizards are dead last in the NBA in offensive rating, and by quite a bit.
Washington's opponent during their most recent loss, the San Antonio Spurs, aren't having any problems scoring. The Spurs' offense is currently ranked fifth in the NBA on a points per possession basis. Yes, they still have their big three, but it would be a gross oversimplification to assign all of the credit for their success to a trio of guys in their 30s who rarely play more than 30 minutes on any given night.
As Washington fans saw during the team's 118-92 home loss to San Antonio, the Spurs role players are enormously productive. Matt Bonner, Danny Green, Tiago Splitter, et al lit up the Wizards to the tune of 77 of the team's 118 points, largely a result of a lot open three-pointers from the corner and high percentage shots in the lane. Theses role players are largely specialists who focus on shooting, rebounding or getting points in the paint, and little else.
San Antonio's success has been largely tied to coach Greg Popovich's ability to successfully use players who aren't necessarily well-rounded, but can do one or two things really well. Throughout the years, a lot of players have come to San Antonio and blossomed into quality NBA players, apparently out of nowhere. While not everyone who's come to San Antonio has worked out, the overwhelming majority have, and you'd be hard-pressed to name some players who left the Spurs and got better.
The key to the success of these role players is how they're used. It's not simply that Popovich can put the ball in the hands of Parker, Ginobli or Duncan and let them make plays, it's that he also keeps it out of the hands of the team's role player.
One example of this is the case of Green. Before the Spurs' game against the Wizards, it was brought up to Popovich that Green had mentioned hoping to handle the ball a bit more this season. Popovich immediately replied, "He's dreaming. You can tell him he's dreaming." He then went on to add that, "we're not going to allow him to do that. He's too loosey goosey with the ball. He's just fine doing what he's doing."
This manifested itself during the Spurs' utter dismantling of the Wizards' then-ninth-ranked defense. San Antonio finished the game with 15 turnovers to 32 assists. Parker, Duncan and Ginobli handled the majority of the playmaking duties, while former point guard Boris Diaw and Australian point guard Patty Mills picked up the slack. As a result, the team's role players were able to focus on hitting open shots and making easy passes that were made available by defensive breakdowns, which is largely how Splitter was able to end up with seven assists on the night despite barely (if ever) dribbling.
While Washington averages a lot of assists, this is largely a result of the team's difficulty scoring off the dribble. Basically, the Wizards pass the ball around until someone gets open, resulting in either an assist or a contested shot late in the shot clock (unsurprisingly, the young, speedy Wizards are only 23rd in the NBA in pace this season). This leads to a lot of contested shots from unskilled offensive players, something that leads to a miss or a turnover almost every time. In short, Washington's offense isn't allowing the team's specialists to play to their strengths, and the results are ugly.
Coach Randy Wittman believes the Wizards need to improve their ball movement. Speaking after the game, Wittman said that the Wizards should learn from the Spurs and incorporate more passing into their offense. The Wizards should "take a page out of that, the passing, the moving and cutting, is much more quicker, more effective than the dribbling," he said.
Unfortunately, while a motion and passing heavy offense like the one Wittman is apparently advocating can work, it requires a skill level that many of Washington's players don't posses. Other than Nene, none of the Washington big men are particularly adept passers, while Trevor Ariza is the only wing on the team who could be described as even an average passer. Even the best systems fall apart if they don't have the right personnel, and Washington's roster just isn't set up to function well in the absence of a ball dominant perimeter player who can dribble and pass. Yes, the team's offense fell apart in the second half of the game, resulting in a lot of Jordan Crawford and A.J. Price dribbling, but this was an effect, not a cause, of the Wizards' problems. The ball movement Wittman discussed actually was happening for the most part, but a disciplined San Antonio defense managed to do a good job of staying around the basket and preventing Washington's cutters from scoring. The easy looks the team had been feasting on went away and, as a result, the guards were forced to start trying to create shots on their own.
The Wizards' lack of playmakers and ball handlers is a problem that can't be laid at the feet of the coach or roster. Even Popovich, with all his brilliance and experience, couldn't turn a team that runs its offense through the likes of Price, Kevin Seraphin and a miscast bench gunner like Crawford into an average offensive squad.
In the NBA, coaches can have an enormous impact on a team's defense, but offense is still largely a result of the team's talent level and composition. This has been demonstrated time and time again, as defense-oriented coaches like Tom Thibodeau and Scott Skiles have repeatedly turned average or worse defenses into good ones almost overnight. At the same time, offensive geniuses like Mike D'Antoni and Eddie Jordan have flamed out when put in situations in which they've been forced to fit square pegs into round holes.
Once John Wall and Nene are back and healthy, Washington's offense will definitely improve. How much it improves is still an open question. If Wall can take the next step and become a truly elite point guard, though, he just might allow the team's offense to function a little bit more like San Antonio's.