The Wizards are 5-3 since the devastating February 23 game in Cleveland that saw Nene go down. That's a pretty good mark even if you include last night's difficult loss to the Bobcats. But can it keep up?
On the bright side, the offense has shot up since the loss of Nene (and Kevin Seraphin) because there have been more perimeter shooters on the floor at once than John Wall has ever seen in his career. The Wizards are scoring a little over 110 points per 100 possessions since then, good for eighth best in the league during that span and nine points better than their season average before the injuries, per NBA.com's stats page. The team is by and large doing everything they should: beating on bottom-rung teams while scoring a lot of points.
And there's definitely something to all this scoring. We're just now seeing what the offense is capable of when pairing Wall with a stretch 4 and even 5. Both Al Harrington and Drew Gooden have contributed more than anyone expected and trotting out lineups with three or four three-point marksmen has given Marcin Gortat complete command of the paint, a major key on pick and rolls.
The Wizards generally like to get both of their bigs out at the top to set a double screen for Wall to maneuver around. This allows one to pop out while the other (normally Gortat) dives to the rim. But in this case, Harrington -- who inbounded the ball -- becomes the trailer on this play rather than the second screen-setter.
Notice in the above screen-shot where the play starts off. Wall is way out near halfcourt, and Gortat sets the pick at the three-point line. This is a spread pick-and-roll look for Wall. He has shooters everywhere and one of the best roll men in the association setting a pick.
There's no way Norris Cole is fighting over that screen, which forces Birdman to hedge onto Wall a little longer than the Heat ideally want. The opposite wing -- Ray Allen in this case -- always helps on the roll, but the big man guarding the power forward -- Michael Beasley, in this situation -- used to has enough leeway to sag off his man (normally Nene or Trevor Booker) to clog up the middle. He doesn't when he also has to worry about Harrington's shooting.
Harrington's mere presence alone keeps Beasley honest, and Gortat has all of that real estate ahead of him to roll to the rim. LeBron rotates over late and the Wizards score.
That said, it's hard to take too much away from the offensive performance when the Wizards are going up against the No. 27 (76ers), No. 29 (Jazz) and No. 30 (Bucks) defenses all in that same stretch. Against powerhouses, the offense has gone flat while playing to the defense's hands. The Bobcats allow the fourth most field goal attempts from 15-19 feet, typically a reliable indicator of a strong defense. They go under screens, drop their big men on pick-and-roll coverages and deploy a pack-the-paint strategy. Good offenses can make the Bobcats pay for aggressively taking away the paint by hoisting up threes.
Yet the Wizards were getting a lot of possessions that looked like this:
Four attempts at penetrating the defense, all of which end miserably. Washington has become overly-reliant on dribble-drives, but what happens when teams are either staying home on shooters or the three-ball simply isn't falling? There's no semblance of misdirection or shooters running of screens, and that's only going to haunt them in a seven-game playoff series.
And it's not that the Wizards don't have the types of shooters or lack the creativity to ad-lib a few possessions here and there. But when you have a system that is as half-court oriented as Randy Wittman's, you get clumps of drag-it-out possessions that slow the game down and end with guards shooting jumpers late in the shot clock. Washington is still in the bottom half of the league in pace since Nene's injury, an inexcusable thing given their personnel.
Defensively, the Wizards have held their own, but it's not without the same caveat. They're beating up on poor offensive teams, and even then, they managed to somehow give up over 100 points to the Magic, Sixers and Bucks. But the team has withstood the loss to their anchor and is still sitting pretty with a top-ten defensive rating.
More surprisingly, the AARP unit of Harrington, Andre Miller and Gooden has held their own. The Wizards are allowing just 98 points per 100 possessions when the trio sees the floor together, per NBA.com's stats page. They all position themselves well when forcing side pick and rolls to the baseline, a practice known as ICE.
They haven't lit the world on fire, but they're not exactly hemorrhaging points at the level many of us feared.
But down low, the team is struggling. Opponents are shooting over 63 percent in the restricted area and a league leading 50 percent in the paint through this current stretch. This is where Nene provided so much relief. He was nimble enough to switch onto guards to prevent dribble penetration, but strong enough to keep bodies out of the paint.
You have to take the good with the bad. The reality is, the Wizards have beaten just one playoff team since Nene's injury, and it took three overtimes to do so. They are beating themselves at times, and Wall in particular has struggled to take care of the ball. He's up to 4.5 turnovers per game since Nene went down and is coughing the ball up on over 16 percent of the possessions he finishes via the pick and roll, per Synergy Sports Technology. For all the drawbacks that Nene often presents -- poor spacing, too many inefficient post-ups -- Washington could always use him as a crutch, for better or worse. He was is undoubtedly a better option at this point than anything besides Wall.
Still, it's early. Another week or two should give us a better picture of where this team stacks up against the playoff contenders in the Eastern Conference, and the schedule remains very easy. Nevertheless, the Wizards will need Nene come playoff time.