My lasting memory of Washington's playoff run wasn't Paul Pierce's last-second heroics. It wasn't John Wall's untimely injury that might have cost them a shot at the Eastern Conference Finals or even the way they mopped up the Toronto Raptors in a four-game sweep.
It was all of their dry spells against Atlanta. Those double-digit deficits they had to constantly climb out of, the 21-point lead they nearly let evaporate in the fourth quarter of Game 3, and that ghastly 81-point performance in Game 5. Credit Randy Wittman for unearthing that explosive small-ball lineup, but we were always left wondering why he didn't use them more.
This is what I fear most about the construct of this Wizards team heading into the new season. They can go longer stretches playing small, but will the offense/defense tradeoff be enough to justify sitting the likes of Kris Humphries and Nene and dramatically altering the defense? And if they're dead-set on playing faster, why has there been so much made of Hump and Nene reinventing themselves as stretch-4's?
This is the conundrum Randy Wittman faces in training camp. All the right things are being said so far, but to really sweep away the remnants of their old offense, something drastic may need to happen. That something could come in the form of starting Jared Dudley.
If they intend on playing faster, why not start small?
"I think we were (16th in pace) last year and he wasn't excited," Wall said of Wittman who wants them to be elite in that area. "Probably top five the way we're trying to play."
Playing faster, as Wall mentioned on Tuesday, isn't just about filling your lane in transition and running to a spot along the three-point line. The Wizards could have accomplished that last year with Humphries, without an offseason to hone his shot, and simply instructed him to bomb more threes.
What Dudley will bring is an ability to catch the ball in a trailer-three situation and make instantaneous reads. If his defender sags into the lane, he'll pull up from above-the-break, but if his defender runs at him, he can catch the ball on the hop, take one escape dribble, and pull-up into an open 16-footer.
If the defense doesn't match up properly in transition, he can beat a rotation off the dribble, find a crease in the lane, and collapse the defense.
It's about having as many shooters on the floor that can do just enough off the bounce to beat their man closing out on them. Washington has had enough shooters come by that could only do two things: run the floor and shoot off the catch. With Humphries, it'll be more of the same, except he'll be playing a different position. That's a start, but not close to maximizing what they can do offensively.
Where does that leave Nene and Humphries?
Of all the players rumored to be in the mix for the stretch-4 spot, Nene strikes me as the least likely to gain much traction. You tend to move these players up a position, to the five, where it's easier to mask their physical limitations by playing them closer to the basket, and for the Brazilian, that seems like his best bet, per The Washington Posts' Jorge Castillo:
Nene is slated to play more center this season and Coach Randy Wittman has mentioned there could be some changes in the starting lineups this season depending on matchups, which means Nene could come off the bench on occasion.
But for Humphries, Washington looks to be taking the opposite approach, or at least that's what it seems, hoping that he'll provide enough outside shooting in order to keep those big lineups afloat.
In essence, they're envisioning him playing the Drew Gooden role, which means a lot of double screen and roll sets where he'll be the one popping out to the three and occasionally having to evade a closeout.
Without even a preseason game under our belts, it's impossible to know just how much Humphries has sped up his shot release. For now, we're relying on word of mouth and the very limited sample size of threes he took last season. To complicate matters even further, six of the seven attempts he took came from the corners, a spot on the floor more advantageous to wings than a big man whose goal is to take his defender as far from the basket as possible.
There is a solid foundation to build on, and a very good track record suggesting he can do more. He's quietly expanded his range in recent years, going 0-3 from 20-24 feet in 2012, to 17-28 (60.7 percent) in 2013, and 19-42 (45 percent) last season per NBA.com's stats page.
And while his shot mechanics look choppy, you can tell he made strides last year when it comes to speeding up the process between catching the ball and rising up for his release.
But it's never one fluid motion, and that can understandably bug some people. Instead of generating power for his shot through the dip -- basketball jargon for lowering the ball toward the knees off the catch -- he'll continue to stand upright while keeping the ball level with where he caught it. He'll then bring the ball up while bending his knees and go straight into his shot release.
That's passable if all he was asked to do was catch and shoot from a standstill position, but in a stretch-4 role, he'll be asked to move around the floor, screen and rescreen for ball handlers, and be able to turn, face the basket, and let it fly before a defender can make his recovery. Humphries has to be ready to do all of that. Rewatch the video of Drew Gooden's three's above. Notice how he already has his knees bent, ready to rise up for his shot before even catching the ball?
What about the defense?
We've long wondered how the Wizards manage to crack the top-10 in defensive rating year in and year out despite losing several key pieces, and it may just come down to consistently having five good defenders on the floor at once. In a vacuum, no one truly stands out other than Wall and perhaps Nene (though that's in serious jeopardy right now), but what they've always had is good positional defenders that don't have a target on their backs.
And that's a testament to Ernie Grunfeld, and to a larger extent, Randy Wittman, who hasn't been afraid to change up his schemes. He's utilized a help-and-recover scheme with Emeka Okafor and Nene, two bigs that were adept at walling off dribble penetration to a more traditional drop-back scheme that required funneling ball handlers into Marcin Gortat. He's swapped Trevor Ariza for Paul Pierce and showed no ill-effects, and had enough trust to sic the young Otto Porter out on an island against DeMar DeRozan in the playoffs.
There's no reason why they couldn't play small and succeed on the defensive end. The Bucks became a terror defensively with Dudley playing the 4, holding opponents to just 98.3 points per 100 possessions, a figure that would've led the league last season. They could switch all positions with ease, an area the Wizards will have trouble with considering their guards are all under 6'6", but that may be something that comes with the territory. This speaks towards the offense/defense tradeoff Wittman will have to balance out. Is he willing to let some things slide in the name of a better offense?
The downsides to this are obvious, and most can agree that fighting down low against players twice your size isn't the best way of easing a 30-year old coming off back surgery back into the fray. But if you're willing to start with a big lineup and then go small for longer stretches, who says you can't do the opposite?
This is an important development for Kris Humphries, a step in the right direction whether he starts or not. He can space the floor by his willingness to take the threes. It's not going to register in a defenders' head that he shoots a specific percentage from distance. What will register is that he's behind the line, open, and ready to launch.
That just might not be enough. Starting Jared Dudley won't be the be-all end-all, but it could be. The Wizards have a plethora of options trying out for the four position, but only one that has actual years of experience as a stretch four under his belt. And he very well may represent Washington's best chance at fully embracing small-ball.