The Washington Wizards and '3/D' wings

Rob Carr

A recent Grantland piece leads to a number of questions about the importance of Martell Webster and the need for role-playing wings that can shoot and defend.

The great Zach Lowe of Grantland has a piece up on the significant importance of "3 and D" wings -- the "New Age Shane Battiers," he calls them -- and the increasing difficulty in finding them. His nut graph:

There has long been the notion that wing shooters, or even "3-and-D" guys, are easy to find - that they're just sort of laying around, waiting for the Spurs to discover the next Bruce Bowen or Danny Green (another candidate). But in talking with GMs and personnel types at all levels, there is something close to broad agreement that players who have checked off all three boxes are relatively rare, that their development is unpredictable, and that the ones who have proven themselves probably don't earn enough money. "They are very, very hard to find," says Bob Myers, the Warriors' GM. "And they are probably undervalued."

Lowe then inducts a number of players into the club and a bunch of others that are on the verge (for young players) or the fringes (for veterans). He doesn't necessarily consider wings that are 3 OR D, but rather, are both or can be both.

My first thought is this: this was a great exercise. My second thought -- one that Lowe would agree with, to be clear -- is this: doesn't much of this depend on team dynamics?

The challenge of gauging one's "Battier-ness" is that members of the club seemingly come and go depending on team dynamics and shooting numbers. Take the inclusions of Caron Butler and Arron Afflalo, two players that have seen their roles change in opposite directions.

When Butler was with the Wizards, he was one of the key play-initiators. In 2010, Butler split his season with Washington and Dallas, two teams with two different systems. He averaged just under two three-point attempts per game, and only 50 percent of his made shots were assisted, per HoopData. Three years later, as a member of the Clippers, Butler averaged 4.3 three-point attempts in significantly fewer minutes per game and had nearly 83 percent of his field goals assisted. Butler has gotten older, and his team has changed. The Clippers have tons of play-initiators, so Butler has learned how to be a play-finisher.

Afflalo, meanwhile, has trended in the opposite direction. Three years ago, as a member of the Nuggets, 43 percent of Afflalo's attempts were threes, and 71 percent of his field goals were assisted, per HoopData. Last year, as a member of the Orlando Magic, only 26 percent of his attempts were threes, and just under 56 percent of his field goals were assisted. Afflalo went to a team with shot creators to one without them, and his distribution -- his Battier-ness, if you will -- changed.

How does one measure Battier-ness, then? It clearly cannot only be done using data, since team dynamics come into play. Those team dynamics -- combined with the frequent occurrence of an abnormally good or bad shooting year -- makes this designation complex.

***

This matters to the Wizards because of the two members leading Lowe' "Mid-Career Mysteries" section: Martell Webster and Trevor Ariza.

On Ariza, Lowe writes:

But Ariza played his best ball since those 2009 playoffs during the second half of this season. He finished with a career-best 36 percent mark from deep - above league average! - and shot a stunning 43 percent from long range when on the floor with John Wall, per NBA.com. Context is everything, and with a big-time shot creator running the point, Ariza looked like his peak-value self again. Can he play this way next season, too?

And on Webster:

Webster signed a one-year deal for a tiny slice of the midlevel exception and proceeded to blow away his career shooting numbers. He remains shaky and occasionally inattentive on defense, particularly off the ball, and he has to prove that last season's shooting numbers don't represent a total outlier. But he's worth monitoring in free agency, and the Wiz will make a hard push to bring him back.

The surprising success of those two players is why Ted Leonsis has crowed at those (like me) who were concerned about the Wizards' lack of shooting coming into the season. But why are both players on the list? More specifically, why are both players on the "Mid-Career Mysteries" section of the list?

This is where our discussion of team dynamics has practical application. How much have Ariza, Webster and other shooters benefited from playing with John Wall? Ariza's three-point percentage with Wall on the court is over 13 percentage points higher than with him off, per NBA.com's media-only stats page. Bradley Beal's difference is over 16 percentage points (34.1 percent with him off, 50 percent with him on). Garrett Temple's differential is 10 percentage points (37.2 percent vs. 27 percent).

And then there's Webster, who doesn't see a huge difference (43.3 percent with Wall; 41.1 percent without) in his percentages.

As usual, this only spurs more questions. Specifically:

  1. Can Wall turn non-Battiers into Battiers? Can he turn Battiers into Super-Battiers?
  2. Why is Webster's differential so small?
  3. Can Webster keep it up, or did he just have a good shooting year?
  4. With this team, is it better to emphasize the "D" part of 3/D, or the "3" part? (Lowe notes the difficulty of this question generally in this footnote).
  5. How much should the ideal Battier cost for this Wizards team?

The latter is the biggest question, and one that needs to be discussed as we move forward. Can the Wizards replace Webster's shooting production for less money in free agency, or is Webster himself important enough to keep at a higher salary number? How deep should the Wizards' pool of potential Battiers in free agency and the draft be? Do they add more players to their list of Potential Battiers because of Wall's ability to improve shooting percentages, or do they shallow it to only focus on the ones that are clearly Battiers and have the potential to turn into Super Battiers playing with Wall?

Lots of questions, so few clear answers. But these are critical questions to the Wizards' future, because there's no denying the importance of shooting anymore.

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