Neil Greenberg at the Washington Post's newish statistics blog has an entry with the following headline: "Here's why Wizards would be better off if John Wall would stop shooting."
On the surface, that's absurd. Wall led the league in assists (tied for third in assists per game) last year and was third in the NBA in total passes per game, so it's silly to say, as Greenberg concludes, that Wall "has to think more about passing the ball than shooting it."
To be fair, the actual argument in the piece is a little more complex. Essentially: Wall is an inefficient scorer because he is not a good shooter, yet takes a lot of shots anyway. He also controls the ball a ton, which is well supported by SportVU data. Thus, "it appears Wall is hurting the offense" by dribbling to generate his own shot instead of passing it.
Still, this is a faulty conclusion, one that illustrates the complications of using any advanced sports data of this kind. These tools are often very good at displaying a problem -- Wall is inefficient and the Wizards offense also isn't great -- but very bad at providing a road map to fixing it. If basketball were as simple as Wall trading shots for passes, the fix would have already been made. Unfortunately, that's not the case. There are teammates, the shot clock, the time of the game, execution of the set that's called and (most importantly) the defense to consider.
Also, Wall's doing fine as is. Basketball is about people playing the part of what they should be, not what they actually are. Why do players inch closer to someone who has hit two shots in a row even though the odds say they are horrible shooters on average? Why does a player think they can hit a difficult shot more easily if he's just made two in a row than if he's missed? It's because of human nature. I stress this all the time because it's true: the threat of a player being capable of shooting is far more dangerous than their actual shooting percentage. That threat -- which incorporates more than just a single average number -- forces the defense to divert resources away from another potential threat.
In Wall's case, the threat of his shooting, whether improved or not, did make a difference. It provides more space to manipulate the defense and set others up for easier looks. Via NBAWowy, only Marcin Gortat (weirdly enough), Al Harrington, Drew Gooden and Garrett Temple had better true shooting percentages playing without Wall than with him. The Wizards as a team posted a 54.4 percent true shooting percentage with Wall in the game and a 51.7 percent mark with him on the bench. More fundamentally, their offense was 5.4 points better per 100 possessions with Wall in than out. If Wall's inefficient shooting really was detrimental to the point that it was hurting his team, those numbers would be different.
The reality: Wall, despite his inefficiency, is by far the biggest priority for a defense because of his speed, vision and, if we're being honest, the threat of an improved jump shot. He was by far the best playmaker on the Wizards, whether for himself or others. Replacing Wall with a lesser playmaker makes everyone worse, not better.
Granted, that's comparing Wall to Not Wall when the actual discussion is about Current Wall versus Ideal Wall. Ideal Wall would be more efficient and would push the Wizards' offense to an even higher level than Current Wall already has.
But even here, the solution is more difficult than shooting less. Actually, it's likely more about shooting differently. Wall averaged more mid-range jumpers per game (6.4) than drives (6.2) during the regular season. If those numbers were more like four mid-range jumpers and eight drives per game, his effectiveness would likely improve. And it's doable: Wall averaged 8.5 drives per game in the playoffs. Of course, his team averaged a paltry 9.3 points per game on those eight and a half drives per game, which highlights another area Wall must grow to be more efficient: confidence finishing and creating around the basket.
System tweaks can also be made to maximize Wall's effectiveness. The Wizards know they need to lessen Wall's ball-handling load, which is one reason, among many, that they swapped Trevor Ariza's spot-up ability with Paul Pierce's still-functional off the dribble skills. There weren't many secondary play-creation options last year -- Bradley Beal was even less efficient than Wall, Gortat was far better in the pick and roll than the post, Ariza was just a spot-up-and-attack-closeout guy and Nene's scoring ability has dried up as he's grown older. Adding Pierce to initiate and/or finish sets is one way to drop Wall's high usage rate, which should also improve his efficiency.
And, of course, Wall could stand to exhibit better shot selection, especially early in the shot clock. He knows this, but fixing the bad habit of pulling up in the first 10 seconds of a possession must continue to be a priority.
But the bottom line is that nothing is as simple as looking at shot charts and coming to a conclusion. A deeper look -- one that must involve treating numbers as tools in a larger argument instead of the argument -- reveals the more nuanced, yet truthful take.
John Wall is very good already, and the path to making him even better involves more than just shooting less often.