Using analytics to break down the Wizards' season and John Wall's development

(Been writing some articles lately breaking down different teams using advanced stats, video clips, cap numbers, etc. This is the one I just recently wrote for the Wizards, and I'd love to hear what you guys think. I posted a similar piece on Bright Side Of The Sun last week. All numbers are up to date as of 2/22/2014.)

When the Wizards made a trade in late October bringing in center Marcin Gortat from Phoenix, the Washington front office made it clear that the plan for this season was for the team to play its way back into NBA relevance. The deal received mixed reviews from the Washington fanbase, with one side of fans that maligned the trade and another side that praised it. The side that opposed the deal knew that the addition of Gortat, the centerpiece of last season’s 25-57 Phoneix Suns team, wouldn’t be nearly enough to surpass Miami and Indiana in the East and rather hoped that the franchise would suffer one more year of losing in order to land a high pick in a packed 2014 draft. The group of fans who agreed with the trade hoped that Gortat would be the final piece the team needed to fight its way back to the playoffs after a five-year drought, and effectively establishing a "winning culture" within the franchise.

Although many consider being a "middle of the pack" NBA team to be the worst position to be in, the latter group of fans may also not be wrong in agreeing with the deal. A sports franchise can only withstand so many years of consistent failure or mediocrity before losing touch with its fanbase. And although the thought of establishing a "winning culture" may be an unquantifiable intangible trait, an argument can be made that it would be good for the young core of John Wall and Bradley Beal to form a habit of winning.

But as some might have expected, the addition of Gortat hasn’t helped move the needle quite as much as the Washington front office may have hoped. The Wizards currently stand at 27-28, good for just the 5th seed in a brittle Eastern Conference. Washington is also currently on pace to win only 39 games, just 10 wins better than the prior season where both Wall and Beal struggled to stay on the floor.

In hindsight, GM Ernie Grunfeld potentially could’ve flipped Emeka Okafor’s extremely attractive $14.5 million expiring (and more importantly, insured) contract and what would be the 17th pick in the NBA draft if the season ended today into a slightly better player than Gortat. It also doesn’t help Grunfeld’s case that Kendall Marshall, a throw-in by Phoenix in the trade who was almost immediately cut by Washington, is showing significant strides on the Lakers while the Wizards struggled to find a useful backup for John Wall before acquiring Andre Miller at the deadline.

But this is the roster that Washington is stuck with going forward, or at least until the end of this season. On paper this team looks like it should be at least a .500 team in this weak Eastern Conference, and has underachieved as of yet.

The Defense

Washington has been decent on the defensive side of the ball this season with a 102.3 defensive rating (ranked 12th in the league), but not as great as a team that runs out a traditionally tall lineup would hope. Coach Randy Wittman has his roster playing tough on defense, a respectable quality in any coach, but the team still lacks basic defensive disciplines. Washington is the 7th best team in the league at stealing the ball with 8.7 takeaways per game, but this number comes as a result of wing players gambling way too frequently. On almost every defensive trip it is easy to spot a Washington defender overplaying the passing lanes, often leading to an easy bucket for the opposing offense. Many of the Washington bigs also tend to look lost on pick-and-roll defense, allowing a below-average scoring percentage on plays where opposing screeners roll to the basket or fade out for a shot (teams score on 50.8% of these plays against Washington, according to Synergy Sports, ranking 17th in the league).

The size of both Nene and Gortat often intimidates opposing defenses from attacking the basket,[1] but teams also often succeed when going to the rim where Washington allows 61.5% on opponent’s attempts in the restricted area (ranked 21st). Washington generally struggles to defend the lane and misses basic defensive rotations, allowing opponents a 43.2% success rate in the paint and 68.1% when cutting into the lane (both numbers ranked 29th).

Having two traditional big men defending the lane does bring its own set of perks though. Washington grabs 76.1% of defensive rebounding opportunities (ranked 3rd), limiting opposing offenses on second chances each time down the floor. The Wizards’ bigs also defend post-ups at an above-average rate, allowing just a 43.2% completion percentage on such plays (ranked 10th, according to Synergy).

The Offense

Trotting out a traditionally tall lineup hurts the offensive significantly more than it helps the defense. Despite being able to improve its league-worst 97.8 offensive rating from last season, the Wizards' 101.7 rating this year is still just the 21st-ranked offense in the league. Much of the Wizards’ offensive woes have come as a result of the lack of floor spacing that its taller lineups have to offer. Having two bigs constantly planted in the lane has essentially rendered Washington’s pick-and-roll sets useless, scoring at a league-worst rate of 36.6% on pick-and-roll ball handler plays, according to Synergy. Especially in lineups where both Gortat and Nene are on the floor, neither of who has a shot to be respected more than ten feet from the basket, the Washington wings often run into a wall of opposing big men when dribbling off screens. These plays typically result in a 15-19-foot jumper, a shot that Washington takes 17 times a game (2nd most in the league) while completing them at an extremely inefficient rate of 36.7% (ranked 25th).

You’ll see here on this trip where Washington unsuccessfully executes two high screens on the same play. The first is with Bradley Beal trying to roll around screens set by both Gortat and Nene up near the 3-point line, a play that Washington runs a few times each game, but both Paul Millsap and Elton Brand know that there is no reason to defend the two screeners from this distance. Brand and Millsap both fall back to each elbow allowing Beal’s man, Kyle Korver, enough room to fall under the screens without getting cut off by either Nene or Gortat and sacrificing a wide-open 3 from Beal.

The Wizards try again on the other side of the floor where Wall attempts a simple high-screen-and-roll with Gortat. Gortat does a nice job of setting two screens to fight off Wall’s man, Jeff Teague, but Gortat’s man, Elton Brand, has dipped so far back into the paint knowing that Gortat shouldn’t be defended that far out anyway. It also doesn’t help that Nene is planted right under the basket, leaving Paul Millsap as a backup to defend the rim even if Wall manages to get by Brand. Wall has no room to move to the rim and ends up settling for an elbow jumper, and even though he makes the shot, smarter defenses would much prefer giving Wall an open long 2 rather than a clear route to the basket.

These sets work slightly better when either Trevor Booker or Kevin Seraphin takes the floor with one of the two Washington starting bigs. Both Booker and Seraphin have moderately respectable 10-15-foot jumpers, but again, smarter defenses will typically sacrifice leaving those two players open in an effort to deny the athletic Wizard wings a chance at the rim. Other NBA teams who also run traditionally tall lineups (Indiana, Portland, Memphis) often don’t face this problem because at least one of the two bigs on these teams typically has a jumper that demands a little bit more respect from the outside than that of the Washington big men.

Washington’s problem with floor spacing does sometimes have a reverse effect on defenses, however. The reason that the paint is always so packed when Washington has the ball is because both Nene and Gortat deserve a high amount of attention down low. Washington has several plays where it dumps the ball down low to either Nene or Gortat in hopes of drawing a double, temporarily leaving the Wizards’ wings open from behind the arc. These plays become especially tricky for defenses when both Nene and Gortat share the floor, where Washington’s 3-point rate jumps up from 38.2% to nearly 43% in such lineups.

These aren’t the kind of plays for an offense to consistently rely on though. While both Nene and Gortat are solid post players, neither is elite enough to draw wing defenders to double on every single play. Washington also only has three above-average 3-point shooters on its roster in Martell Webster, Bradley Beal, and Trevor Ariza,[2] and smarter defenders will often not help off of these players when planted behind the arc.

Not consistently being able to space the floor is still Washington’s biggest problem. The smaller 5-man lineups of Wall-Beal-Webster-Ariza-Nene/Gortat have looked promising in short stretches, but Wittman seems reluctant to abandon his taller lineups. Wittman may want to consider starting a lineup such as this and bringing either Nene or Gorat off the bench, especially considering that Washington’s bench players only have an offensive rating of 97.2, good for just 26th in the league.

The addition of Andre Miller at the deadline should give that number a slight boost though, replacing Garett Temple as the go-to point guard to back up John Wall. Temple is a decent defender, but his severe lack of shooting and playmaking ability causes for most opposing guards to typically play about 5 feet off of him, clogging the paint even more. There might not be a huge difference in the floor spacing with Miller running the bench offense, being a below-average jump-shooter, but at least he brings a great amount of offensive intelligence and playmaking that Temple does not have.

The Point Guard

And speaking of Wall, it seems that he reached the point in his career where he was so highly overrated coming out of Kentucky that he is now severely underrated as a pro. Anyone who’s watched the Wizards closely enough this season understands that Wall may have finally played his way into being one of the five best two-way point guards in this league. Wall brings everything to the table that a team would want its young franchise guard to provide: Supreme athleticism, strong defensive effort, complete unselfishness, a steadily improving jump shot, and top-tier passing and court vision.

While some may still have a few gripes with Wall’s game, one of his most flawed criticisms is that he doesn’t drive to the basket enough. We’ve already covered this, nobody on this team has room to drive to the basket. And a big reason why opposing big men never leave the paint to guard Washington’s bigs not only has to do with the Wizards’ lack of shooting, but also because defenses are scared to death of leaving the lane open for Wall to slice through. This clip is a pretty clear example of what Wall faces when he does choose to drive to the basket:

This is the mess that Wall runs into nearly every time he drives to the hoop, and only about 33% of Wall’s shots come in the restricted area because of this. It’s a shame that one of the league’s best athletes is often forced into chucking long 2s, where about 35% of his shots come from. Wall’s shooting has improved significantly this season though, and as soon as Washington is provided with enough floor spacing Wall will become a deadly offensive player.

Wall’s playmaking ability is also what has held back Washington from being what could potentially be one of the league’s very worst offenses without him. The Wizards’ offense completely falls off a cliff when Wall sits, dipping from a 104.5 offensive rating when he plays (a top-ten offensive rating) down to 92.8 when he sits (a number that ranks 30th in the league by about 4 points). The use of SportsVU player tracking has helped Wall’s case as well, showing that he creates 20.6 points by assist per game (ranked 4th most amongst point guards) as well as being credited with 1.9 secondary assists per game (ranked 3rd).

On the defensive end, Wall has become one of the league’s peskiest and more intelligent point guards this season, a quality highly lacking in some of the league’s more popular guards (I’m looking at you, Kyrie). Wall defends pick-and-roll ball handlers exceptionally well, allowing his opponents to hit only about 38% of their shots on such plays, according to Synergy. Wall however is also one of the biggest offenders of Washington players who gambles too frequently, and he would be much better served focusing on shutting down his man rather than playing the passing lanes.

Wall, still only 23 years old, is on pace to become one of the league’s ten best players in a few years, and Washington already has him locked up through the 2018-19 season. The addition of Bradley Beal last season provides Washington with a nice young core to build around, and the Wizards will have options heading into this summer on how they plan to do so. Gortat and Ariza both come off the books this summer, giving Washington a bit of wiggle room to add some nice new players via free agency. With Nene locked in through 2015-16, on a $13 million contract that will be difficult to move through a trade, the Wizards should seriously consider adding some more shooting to create better floor spacing and more flexibility in pick-and-roll sets. Wall is also one of the best point guards in the league on slash-and-kick plays, and this Washington squad could become lethal on offense if it is able to run out lineups with at least three above-average shooters surrounding Wall.

As mentioned before though, Randy Wittman seems to be pretty set on running out traditionally taller lineups. Wittman’s contract expires at the end of this season however, and Ernie Grunfeld should at least take a look at who else is available (George Karl is still unemployed, by the way). Speaking of Grunfeld, who has been a pretty polarizing character amongst the Washington fanbase, also has a contract that expires at the end of this season. Grunfeld has had his good and bad moments in Washington’s front office, but the Wizards probably wouldn’t be wrong in considering going down the road of hiring a more analytically-minded GM that so many other teams are looking for now. The Wizards have the young pieces in Wall and Beal to start developing into a serious threat in the East, and the Wizards’ fans should just hope that the front office doesn’t take too long to build a team worthy of contending.

[1] Washington only allows 24.4 field goals attempted in the restricted area per game, the 5th-lowest rate in the league.

[2] Washington hoped to add Al Harrington’s name to this list after signing him in the summer, but Harrington has only been able to play in 7 games so far this season due to knee issues. However, Harrington has recently claimed that he is finally ready to return to playing again.

This represents the view of the user who wrote the FanPost, and not the entire Bullets Forever community. We're a place of many opinions, not just one.

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