In Sports Illustrated's most recent issue, Chris Ballard provided an insightful look into the Warriors' recent ascent to NBA powerhouse. There are a bevy of factors, and the the role of a talented and deep roster cannot be understated. Yet, last year's roster looked mostly like this year's. The difference, as deftly chronicled by Ballard, is the change from Mark Jackson to Steve Kerr as head coach. Given the parallels between the two franchises, one can only hope that better leadership is in the Wizards' near future.
Randy Wittman deserves a ton of credit from Wizards fans, truly. Like Jackson, he took over a franchise whose sustained failures had made it somewhere between a league laughingstock and afterthought, depending on the year. Wittman built a no-nonsense culture, stressed consistent effort and tough defense. This is truly no small feat on the heels of the style-over-substance Eddie Jordan era and the affronts to the game of basketball courtesy of the likes of Swaggy P, 7-Day Dray, Steez, and Pierre. Wittman made the Wizards watchable.
But like Jackson, Wittman appears to have done all he can. He's an era or two behind the modern NBA, is openly disdainful of the most basic "advanced" basketball metrics, and his "paint-by-numbers" approach to positions and rotations continues to hurt the Wizards.
Consider Ballard's chronicling of Kerr's utilization of Harrison Barnes:
A talented 22-year-old forward, Barnes was coming off a miserable season. As the leader of the second unit, he was expected to score, and often out of isolation sets. It hadn’t worked. "The best players in the league shoot only 20%, 30% or so on iso plays," Kerr said when they met, at the Four Seasons in Miami. "Any idea how well you shot?"
Barnes grimaced. "Probably way lower than that?" he ventured.
Kerr nodded. "I don’t think you were used last year in a way that was best for you. But if you buy into what we’re saying, you have a chance to be successful."
Ballard continued :
After two weeks of training camp, Kerr knew that Barnes needed to start to fulfill his potential, so he could play off of Curry and Thompson.
Wittman too has a young swingman ill-suited to lead the second unit. His name is Otto Porter. Wittman's inability to integrate him into the Wizards rotation -- particularly alongside John Wall and Bradley Beal -- is stunting Porter's growth to the long-term detriment of the franchise. After all, with a roster far from contention for a championship, the development of the team's young talent has to be a primary aim of the Wizards' season. Porter is having a fine season; his unimpressive raw stats belie an efficiency obscured by a scant 18 minutes per game -- many of them at shooting guard while the small forward minutes go to Paul Pierce and 35 year-old Rasual Butler.
If he hadn't mentioned it in a pre-season interview, you wouldn't know that Wittman knew that Paul Pierce spent most of last season in Brooklyn playing as a stretch four. And yet, we've seen Pierce at the four for precious few moments. Wittman appears to see himself with four playable bigs and therefore concludes that Pierce's only floor time should come at small forward -- and Porter's should thus come as his backup. In truth, Pierce should be splitting time between the small and power forwards, while Nene should be playing a healthy chunk of his minutes as the backup center. Essentially, Wittman is choosing Kevin Seraphin over Porter -- a big mistake in both the short and long runs.
Porter isn't the only 21 year-old Wizard floundering under Wittman. Bradley Beal's playoff heroics last season overshadowed an uninspiring sophomore season. Beal's third year has been more of the same -- the same general efficiency numbers as his first two seasons, and the same lack of understanding of where his shots should be coming from. Beal shoots a blistering 44% from three -- good for 7th in the league among players who have attempted 100 or more. Yet , of this group he's 75th in effective field goal percentage and 79th in true shooting percentage because he's taking too many bad shots and not enough good ones.
Ballard chronicles the giant step forward that Klay Thompson has taken under Kerr. For one, Kerr recognized Thompson's abilities and tailored an offense to them. When he overthought the offensive design, Kerr quickly recognized his mistake and simplified his scheme -- a flexibility Wittman has never shown. Wall operating with a spaced floor would lead to only good things.
Wittman's shortcomings are well chronicled. Very, very well chronicled. Offensively, the Wizards run a ton of complicated action that culminates in shots that defenses basically want them to take. While they shoot it well at the rim and from beyond the arc, they lead the league in long two's -- the game's worst shot. The result is a below-average offense. Wittman's failure to address this is, quite honestly, inexcusable.
It's tough to watch Dave Joerger and Mike Budenholzer develop as star young coaches knowing that the Wizards could have had them both. Don't roll your eyes and call hindsight. Smart Wizards bloggers (Kevin Broom comes to mind) were on both when they were assistants. That Wittman was hired full-time after his interim stint and then extended speaks to Ernie Grunfeld's continued lack of imagination. As much responsibliity as Wittman bears for the Wizards' struggles (a lot), it is Grunfeld that assembled an unbalanced roster without enough shooting, particularly a solid backup for the oft-injured Beal.
The hope embedded in the Jackson-Wittman analogy is the hidden value that finding the Wizards' version of Kerr could unlock. An offense built around Wall in which the ball and players were in constant motion would a thing of beauty. The concern is that Ernie Grunfled isn't Warrior GM Bob Myers. Grunfeld -- who all too recently devoted resources to Jan Vesely, Chris Singleton, and Eric Maynor; who doesn't value second round picks, and hasn't found a good player outside the lottery since Michael Redd -- is still steering the ship. It hardly inspires confidence that if the Wizards were to move on from Wittman , that Grunfeld would be charged with finding his replacement.
Thus, the hopes of Wizards fans rest with Ted Leonsis. He must recognize, as new Warrior owner Joe Lacob did, that improvement upon a generation of ineptitude doesn't necessarily mean that the team is fulfilling its potential or is on a high enough trajectory. As Ballard noted, "Jackson was the right man at the right time. In many respects, though he was the wrong man for the long run." That rings true. Before long, the Wizards must make a change.