The most frustrating part of the Wizards' uneven start to the season is that they've shown they can play very well, for at least 36 minutes. They’ve outscored opponents by 98 points over the course of the first three quarters of games this season. That’s really good!
In the fourth quarter unfortunately, all of that changes. They’ve lost four games this season in which they’ve had at least a nine point lead in the fourth quarter, including back-to-back losses to Charlotte and Portland.
Clearly, the Wizards have a problem with finishing games, but the issues go a lot deeper than hollow discussions about how the team lacks a closer or they just aren’t clutch enough. To get to the root of the issue, you have to understand how the team has managed late-game situations over time.
Closing games has been a problem for years
Since Washington emerged as a playoff contending team, the Wizards have routinely started games well and finished them poorly. They flourish when they can get out in transition and control the tempo. That’s a lot harder to do in the fourth quarter when teams slow the game down. Their style naturally makes them a little susceptible to struggling late in games. As a result, the team’s lack of an elite isolation scorer and an elite isolation defender can be exploited.
Below, we’ve charted the team's net rating, which measures how many points a team outscores their opposition per 100 possessions, on a quarter-by-quarter basis. As you’ll see, the team generally gets off to a hot start, evens out during the middle of the game, and then crumbles down the stretch.
It looked like the team finally turned a corner last season, when they outscored their opponents in the fourth quarter after three years of being on the other end, but so far this season they’ve gone back to old habits in a bad way. Their net rating so far this season is -6.6. The only teams who have posted worse fourth-quarter numbers this season are the Heat, Bucks, Bulls, and Timberwolves.
The defense isn’t great, but it isn't the biggest problem
The Wizards haven’t been great on the defensive end late in games, but generally speaking they’re not the problem. Here’s how the team has ranked defensively in the fourth quarter over the last five years:
- 2013-14: 7th
- 2014-15: 25th
- 2015-16: 9th
- 2016-17: 12th
- 2017-18: 16th
Other than the team’s defensive struggles in the 2014-15 season, the team has been at least passable on that side of the ball on recent years. Even in clutch situations (where the scoring margin is within five points with under five minutes left in regulation or overtime) the defense has been okay, generally speaking, outside of this season.
- 2013-14: 13th
- 2014-15: 19th
- 2015-16: 18th
- 2016-17: 12th
- 2017-18: 25th
The offense, on the other hand, has been a hot mess every year save for last season. Here’s how the Wizards’ fourth-quarter offense has ranked over the last five years:
- 2013-14: 25th
- 2014-15: 26th
- 2015-16: 26th
- 2016-17: 6th!
- 2017-18: 29th
Washington’s offensive issues this season get even worse when it comes to tight games in the closing minutes. In the final five minutes of games where the margin is five points or less, the team’s offensive rating is 86.4. By comparison, the Bulls’ offensive rating this season is 93.7. The Wizards are only shooting 31.3 percent from the field in clutch situations, including only 6 of 46 on shots outside the paint.
Now, some of that is bad luck which will fix itself over time. For instance, this was a quality attempt by Beal to take the lead against Portland on Saturday that just rimmed out.
That kind of stuff can happen to anyone, even Michael Jordan in an NBA Finals game. At the same time, a lot of other stuff is correctable. Let’s take this late-game possession against the Lakers for instance:
In a vacuum, this shot is fine, but it's a lot harder to hit stepbacks jumpers on tired legs at the end of games pic.twitter.com/rsyLcqNYkp— Bullets Forever (@BulletsForever) November 27, 2017
Beal does an outstanding job of creating separation to get a clean look late in the shot clock, even though the Lakers are sending three players at him. But when that’s the way you have to get a clean look, especially on tired legs, it negates the value of getting open in the first place.
The only way to create cleaner looks that require less energy is to get more players involved, which brings us to the point you were all probably expecting us to write about.
Washington isn’t getting Otto Porter involved enough
Porter has been incredible shooting the ball all season, but he’s not getting the ball when the Wizards need it the most. He has only taken three shots in clutch situations all season. That’s less than Marcin Gortat, Markieff Morris, Kelly Oubre, and even Jodie Meeks.
The problem is two-fold. Obviously, Porter can’t get his own shot in the same way that Wall and Beal can, so when teams really commit to not helping off of him, it’s harder for him to get an open shot.
Still, the team is ignoring lots of other ways they can get him better engaged with the late-game offense. Why not try using Porter as the roll man in a pick-and-roll to create a mismatch? Or why not try to use Porter in a post-up to make the defense react? He’s shooting 14 of 21 in post-up situations this season. It's far more useful than burying him in the corner and hoping the defense makes a mistake.
It's also worth noting the Wizards would need to go smaller in crunch time to help Porter get better post-ups, but frankly, it’s probably time to make that shift. The small lineup with Oubre and Porter at the forward spots has a +22.5 net rating in 161 minutes of action this season. The lineup with Markieff Morris at the four is just a +1.2 in 169 minutes.
On Saturday’s Wizards broadcast, @karalawson20 said: “Otto Porter has been the best power forward on this team.”— Ben Falk (@bencfalk) November 27, 2017
Right on the nose: Wizards have had point differential of a 70 win team(!) in his ~300 minutes at PF, 52 win team at SF: https://t.co/uTXRmRt30u pic.twitter.com/bbjCtWM4C8
There is still hope
Whether you want to blame in on getting too puffed up on last season’s success, complacency, or bad luck, the Wizards’ late-game struggles are not a new phenomenon. The good news is, they’ve also shown they can correct those issues with all the same personnel they have now.
Don’t forget, just six months ago people were lauding Bradley Beal and John Wall for their late-game heroics to keep the season alive against the Celtics:
If anything, the Wizards are better equipped than ever to be a great team in late-game situations, because they’ve done it before and the players they should be relying on to get buckets have only gotten better. It shouldn’t be hard to construct and maintain a quality late-game offense when you have so many good options.