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What the Wizards’ assist rate tells us about their performance

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NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Washington Wizards Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

When you think of the Wizards, the first name that pops up in anyone’s head of course is John Wall. And when you think of John Wall, and his importance to this team, his ability to create opportunities for his teammates is paramount for the Wizards’ success. Unfortunately Wall’s importance becomes amplified whenever he is not in the game.

ESPN Writer Ben Alamar wrote an interesting piece about how the Wizards assists rate correlates to their success on the court. There were some interesting tidbits from the article that speak to just how ineffective this team is passing the ball when Wall is not playing this season:

Assist rate paints a clear picture for the Wizards. When their number drops below 56 percent for a game (which is about league average), they win only a quarter of their games as opposed to their 67 percent winning percentage when they are above a 56 percent assist rate.

Wall did not play in two of the games in which the Wizards dropped below 56 percent assist rate, which points to a second issue with the Wizards, one that compounds the first. The Wizards' bench plays very little. Washington's starters all average over 30 minutes per game - of the 143 players in the NBA averaging between 20 and 30 minutes a game this season, none play for the Wizards). No Wizards reserve has a value over replacement player that is positive.

It’s certainly debatable if this is truly a barometer of how successful the Wizards are in games. During the month of December, a month that the Wizards went 10-5, the team’s assists percentage was only slightly above their season’s assist percentage, at 58.6 percent.

A better barometer of the team’s success has actually been the Wizards’ defense. The Wizards defensive rating is a 111.1 in losses and it drops all the way down to 100.8 in wins. The Wizards are also 7-1 when they give up less than 100 points in a game. From a statistical perspective, the defensive rating shows a larger variance than the assist rate, between wins and losses.

If anything this data certainly speaks to the team’s need to have a second ball distributor and give further evidence of how poorly the bench has played. As Alamar’s piece mentioned, there isn’t a player on the team that has an assist percentage anywhere close to Wall’s. The player that would presumably take the lead as the secondary distributor would be Wall’s primary backup, Trey Burke. Unfortunately that has not been the case. Wall’s assist percentage is at 44.3 while Burke’s is at 18.7. It’s very understandable why there is such a difference, Burke’s skill set is much different than Wall’s. Burke is more of a shoot-first guard who is not to great at setting teammates up.

The Wizards’ bench, which has been noted as being on a pace for futility, could benefit from having a better ball distributor, but an argument can also be made that perhaps the lack of assist percentage when Wall is not in the game is a result of the lack of talent that exists on the team.

The one player who leads the bench in potential assists and assists percentage is Tomas Satoransky. Unfortunately, Satoransky has struggled with his transition into the league, struggling with his shooting and decisiveness on the court. He is certainly effective as a passer, but there are other parts of his game that need to develop before he can take that role permanently.

NBA: Washington Wizards at Orlando Magic Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

The other issue with the Wizards’ inability to have another player to come anywhere close to maintaining Wall’s impact on the team’s assist rate is the lack of talent. Of all the players who come off the bench, Jason Smith and Trey Burke are the only players who shoot above 35 percent on catch and shoot opportunities. The lack of effectiveness on catch and shoot opportunities, as well as the lack of attempts the bench players take, greatly impacts the ability to maintain a higher assist rate.

So while the lack of assist rate brings a disturbing trend, it only highlights many of the issues that have become known with the Wizards team this season: poor bench play and lack of play makers outside of Wall, which has lead the Wizards to such a slow start this season. It would be nice to see Satoransky turn the corner soon, but ultimately upgrading the rest of the bench talent would do wonders as well.