You should know the story by now: the mid-range jumper is one of the least efficient shots in basketball, and the Wizards led the league in them last season. They have two young guards playing in a pick-and-roll heavy attack, and they're under a head coach who has never engineered a better than league-average offense.
So it comes to no surprise that Randy Wittman continues to scoff at critics of the strategy. He's done it in the past, and just recently went into detail about it with the Washington Post's Jorge Castillo:
"We're going to take open shots," Wittman emphasized. "If a team wants to give us mid-range open shots, we're going to take them. I'm going to tell a guy that has a wide-open 15-foot jumper to take three steps back and shoot a three? I'm not going to do that."
"What leads to that is when you have good ball movement," Wittman said after practice Monday. "That's when you get the close-outs and the ability to put the ball on the floor and get to it. So it's a byproduct, I think, of how we want to play, in terms of getting the ball swung from side to side and getting the defense to move and attacking the close-out to the rim.
"That's something we've got to keep doing because that's one of our goals that we want to get better at. I didn't think we got to the line enough as a team last year and that's been a positive."
A lot of this goes back to a topic Amin wrote about earlier last season on Bradley Beal's sampling period. To summarize, if player X is a key player, yet a poor ball handler, you'd rather run him through pick and rolls and familiarize him with how things unfold out of it than to restrict him to just spotting up on the perimeter or coming off screens. Beal doesn't play as well as he did in the postseason without all of those reps in the regular season. Learning where teams send help defenders or how to attack a defense that hangs back in the lane takes time, and it's worth it even if Beal never develops into a full-time ball handler.
The results weren't pretty. Beal struggled to probe in the lane, and once he saw even a sliver of daylight as he turned the corner on a pick and roll, he was shooting. So it'll be interesting to see how far Wittman stretches this out this season. Does he continue to deploy Beal as a ball handler at the same rate, or does he dial it back in order to salvage the offense?
If Washington happens to cut down on those midrange looks this season, it will have more to do with improvement from their young players than any philosophical change. And I think that's the biggest takeaway from all this. Wittman isn't saying he's against taking threes like Byron Scott has been preaching in LA, and he even discusses the need to attack the basket more.
But there's a catch-22 to all this. There's a lot more to advanced metrics than just shot location, and simply moving the ball around the perimeter isn't going to magically solve their free throw problem. John Schuhmann of NBA.com went into this a few weeks ago, noting that there isn't a correlation between ball movement and offensive efficiency. If you have the personnel, these things tend to work themselves out. Washington was in the top-10 in both ball and player movement last season according to his piece and they still finished in the bottom-5 in free throws attempted per-game last season.
The problem lies somewhere in the middle. I like the idea of giving the young guards the freedom to dictate what they want to do, but part of coaching is finding the right balance. Some structure is needed in this offense, and yearning for more ball movement would be selling this short. Attacking a close-out is a much easier vehicle to attacking the basket than having to break down a set defense, but if your entire offense is dependent on John Wall wreaking havoc in the lane, you're not solving anything.
I think Wittman is barking up the right tree. The half court offense has always been the problem, but not for a lack of ball movement. It's a lack of creativity -- but it's unclear how much that stood to improve with Beal still developing and Trevor Ariza functioning better as a standstill shooter. Still, the amount of dribble handoffs they ran and the amount of possessions ending in a failed post-up attempt certainly didn't help.
Now they have the pieces to do more. This will be the first time Wall has ever played with a player as dynamic as Pierce in the frontcourt, so there should be no reason not to play him at power forward if the offense starts to slip. And once this teams gets healthier, there will be plenty of shooters to help spread out the floor.
We'll see how this plays out. The Wizards are more talented than they were last season, and an extra year under Wall and Beal's belts should yield better results. But if the offense continues to fall into the same traps, we'll know why.