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How John Wall’s movement, or lack thereof, sets the tone for the Wizards’ offense

Washington Wizards v Oklahoma City Thunder Photo by Layne Murdoch Sr./NBAE via Getty Images

Earlier this week, when Zach Lowe of ESPN wrote on who he felt deserved to be in the All-Star Game, he presented some startling numbers when arguing why John Wall should not make the cut:

“Wall is shooting 42 percent, his lowest mark since he was a rookie, and he just hasn’t played with enough vigor on either end of the floor. One measure of that: He has spent 76.57 percent of floor time either standing still or walking, the largest such share among all rotation players, according to tracking data from Second Spectrum. Dirk Nowitzki is right behind Wall, and he’s almost 40.”

Wait, what? How in the world is Wall, arguably one of the fastest players in the NBA spending nearly 77 percent of his time on the floor either standing still or walking? It’s not like he’s a guy on the edge of retirement or someone who just stands in the corner on offense.

He is, as he calls it, the “head of the snake” for the Wizards’ offense. Problem is, a snake isn’t very dangerous if the head isn’t moving and the rest of the body follows in kind. Thursday night’s loss to the Thunder was a prime example of how dangerous Washington can be when Wall’s moving and how pedestrian they can look when he isn’t.

The Good

It’s important to keep in mind that when we talk about pace, it’s not all about sprinting down court like Usain Bolt all time. The key is consistent movement, rather than just spurts of warp speed.

The Wizards emphasized pushing the pace against the Thunder after an offensively challenged first half in which they only scored 40 points. The strategy worked as they scored 27 points in the first 7:15 of the third quarter thanks in large part to Wall going back to what he does best. With the head of the snake moving, the rest of the offense got more dangerous.

On this play early in the third quarter, Wall keeps Paul George on his hip as he comes down the floor. By doing so, he forces Anthony Roberson to collapse on Wall which opens up Beal for an open three.

On the next possession, he once again decides against a manic attack on the rim, but pushes the ball up the floor just enough to create space for Markieff to step into a three at the top of the arc.

Later in the quarter, we see an excellent example of how activity begets activity. On the play below, Wall pulls out of a fast break and sets up a high screen-and-roll with Marcin Gortat, who collects the pass and kicks it out to Otto Porter, who chooses not to settle for a tough three in the corner, but steps past his man into an easy baseline shot.

Opportunities like this don’t happen unless the ball is moving and players are operating off of that movement. Again, it’s not always about playing at 100 miles an hour, it’s simply maintaining movement and creating momentum by getting the defense on its heels.

A few moments later, Wall sets up high, which allows him to build speed before changing gears to blow by Russell Westbrook and find Markieff Morris for an easy bucket.

The bad

At this point, the Wizards have trimmed a 19 point first half deficit down to one thanks their offensive eruption in the third quarter. But on the next possession, he shows how quickly it can all go wrong when he reverts to bad habits.

After several minutes of pace and activity, Wall walks the ball up the floor on this posession. He still manages to get isolated on Carmelo Anthony, but instead of attacking the basket against the 15-year veteran, he takes three dribbles (largely staying in place) before settling for a long jumper - the Wittman special.

It’s not the best use of Wall’s strengths and it’s not an efficient way of scoring the basketball. Per, John Wall is shooting 31.3 percent from the field on 7.2 pull up jumpers per game this season. That’s 0.626 points per possession in a league where even the least efficient team averages over a point per possession.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, it happened again, on the VERY NEXT PLAY.

The Thunder took control of the game and had a ten point lead with just over three minutes left. You would assume Wall would try to push the pace in an effort get as many possessions as possible, right? Wrong. He walks the ball up the floor and dribbles 11 times, largely in place, before settling for a three-point attempt.

This all goes back to what Lowe emphasized in his analysis of Wall:

He too often stands around when he doesn’t have the ball, or when a shot is in the air and he might be able to help on the glass. He switches constantly on defense to avoid chasing his guy around picks.

Again: most stars do this to varying degrees. Wall’s habits this season have drifted too far in the wrong direction. Teams take their cues from their best players, and the Wizards have spent a lot of this season playing casual, entitled basketball. Toss in Wall’s icy 2-point shooting, a small drop in assists and 11 missed games, and Love gets the tiebreaker.

Make no mistake about it; this Wizards’ roster was constructed around John Wall. Most of their players throughout the years have depended on Wall to create scoring opportunities for them, all the way from Trevor Ariza and Emeka Okafor to Otto Porter and Marcin Gortat. While he has accepted that burden in stride, he’s picked up bad habits along the way that are starting to drag the team down, especially in pivotal moments late in close games.

When the Wizards force missed shots and turnovers, the offense can be dynamic. The problem is, even when the Wizards are locked in defensively, there will be times when the opposition scores anyways. When that happens, it can grind Washington to a halt.

Opposing head coaches have always had the blueprint on how to slow Wall down: Prevent fast breaks, keep him from driving-and-kicking, and don’t let him get in the paint to score. In the past, he’s had greater success even though everyone knows the game plan.

Now, it isn’t working. Last season, the Wizards ranked fifth in the NBA in fast break points per game. This season they’re 14th. That amounts to 2.6 fewer points per game just in fast breaks alone. The Wizards are also only making 9.8 three-point field goals per game, the 11th-lowest total in the NBA. That’s a deadly flaw in the era of pace-and-space, especially considering they have one of the best penetrators in the league and two of the best shooters in the league on the wings. It’s big part of why they’re barely an above-average team on offense this season.

We’ve seen how good Washington can be when Wall is at his best. Last season, they were a top-ten team in offensive efficiency. He’s also had big moments in the playoffs, whether it was his 42 point outburst to close Washington’s first round series against the Hawks, or the 26-0 run the Wizards ran off in Game 4 of their series against the Celtics in the second round.

This season, we’ve also seen how bad things can get when he’s not at his best. He has to develop new counters to how teams are trying to keep him from doing what he does so well. He has to get more creative finding opportunities in transition. He also has to be willing to move without the basketball. When he’s stationary without the basketball in his hands, Washington is essentially playing four-on-five.

It’s going to be difficult for things to change if Wall continues to be near the top of the league in time of possession (8.6 minutes per game this season, third-most in the NBA) and in time spent standing or walking on the floor. Until he can find the right balance of speed and movement, the Wizards will continue to vacillate from elite to lottery-bound on the offensive end. As the head of the snake goes, so does the body.