Nene's absence makes the Washington Wizards a very different team

Rob Carr

The Washington Wizards have struggled mightily without Nene since he's been here, and that's really not surprising. But just how bad has it been? Pretty rough.

After Monday's 102-101 win over the struggling Knicks, the Wizards are three games below .500 at 10-13 on the year. Asked after Saturday's loss to the Clippers what the main things the team is missing right now are, Randy Wittman said, simply, "Nene." While being careful not to make excuses for the team's poor performance, he went on to compare Washington without Nene and Bradley Beal to Los Angeles without Chris Paul and Blake Griffin.

A lot of what is currently ailing the Wizards can be tied to the absence of the team's starting big man, who is expected -- though not confirmed -- to return to the lineup against the Brooklyn Nets on Wednesday. Since he left the court midway through a loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, corner threes have become fewer and farther between and no one, guard, wing or big, can consistently get all the way to the rim unless they're being guarded by a human traffic cone and one of the worst defensive centers in the NBA.

In the four games Washington has played since Nene went down, the offense has scored a measly 95.6 points per 100 possessions. For the sake of comparison, the Milwaukee Bucks, who have the NBA's worst offensive rating this year, are scoring 94.2 points per 100 possessions. Four games is a small sample size, but none of the teams the Wizards have faced have been especially great defensive clubs. Washington just can't seem to score at a good clip without Nene.

Last year, the difference was just as stark. Washington scored 6.1 more points per 100 possessions with Nene on the court throughout the course of the 2012-13 season. The team's offense was atrocious for much of the year and it was at its absolute worst any time Nene sat before John Wall made his season debut. Washington scored at a rate of 89.1 points per 100 possessions in October, November and December with Nene off the court and 103.2 when he was on it. Essentially, Washington scored like an expansion team with Nene sat and one of the league's better offenses when he played.

Nene's passing may be even more valuable to the team than his scoring. Nearly 18 percent of Washington's assists come from Nene when he's on the court, the highest percentage of anyone on the team who hasn't played significant minutes at point guard (Wall, Eric Maynor and Garrett Temple). No one on the Wizards is a particularly effective one-on-one scorer and the team's role players experience a dramatic drop off in shooting efficiency when they get away from spotting up for corner three pointers and shots at the rim.

Nene's absence is hurting the team's spacing far more than his reputation as a middling jump shooter would have you think. Nene is making just over 45 percent of his shots outside of the paint per NBA.com/stats, making him one of the NBA's better mid-range shooters this year, even if opposing teams still aren't aware of it yet. He's also excellent at cutting off the ball, forcing his defender to pay even closer attention to him than a traditional jump shooting power forward would command.

Trevor Booker, Jan Vesely, Kevin Seraphin and Chris Singleton, the players who are in line to receive the minutes Nene had been soaking up, are far worse than him at creating shots around the basket and hitting jumpers. Booker has been the most effective of the four, making almost 40 percent of his shots outside of the paint and averaging 12.4 points and 10.6 rebounds per 36 minutes this season. The caveat, though, is that teams routinely disregard Booker in order to help on drives or to crowd the paint when John Wall and Marcin Gortat run pick and rolls, so these jumpers are being attempted under less duress than the ones Nene takes.

Gortat, while choosing his words carefully, has spoken openly about his difficulty getting shots at the rim lately. As Mike has already covered, he's taking far more shots away from the basket than normal this season, and this trend seems to have worsened over the last week or so. Gortat credits the team's inability to execute in close games without Nene to a lack of maturity.

"We're just not mature enough. I don't think we don't execute well and we've just got to become a better team," Gortat said after the Clippers' game on Saturday. When asked if there was anything in particular that the team is missing without Nene in the lineup, Gorat responded, "No comment."

When Nene inevitably misses a few more games due to his nagging injuries, the Wizards are going to have to get creative or lucky if they're going to score at a decent clip. Bradley Beal's playmaking and ability to create decent shots in the half-court will help, but if the defense can't step it up and make up the difference, they're unlikely to win many games when Nene isn't in the lineup.

Such is the dilemma for the Wizards ... and such will be the dilemma as long as Nene's long-term contract is on the books.

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