It’s crazy to think the Wizards are better without John Wall. Kevin Durant dismissed the idea when the Warriors were in DC, asserting that those stupid enough to think such thoughts “don’t know anything about basketball.”
The great Thomas Boswell, one of the best sports columnists on the planet, adjudged Durant to be correct.
The very idea is ridiculous, insane, stupid.
Except…the Wizards have performed better since Wall left the lineup. What’s more, they’ve been better because of, not despite, Wall being out with injury.
This is not necessarily a permanent condition. Wall’s productivity declined this season as he struggled with a sore knee. Despite that decline, there’s no reason to think he’s anything other than a terrific talent who was playing hurt. It shouldn’t shock that his team is better when a star playing hurt gets replaced by healthy professionals.
But, failing to understand why the team has thrived in his absence is to speed past avenues for Wall to improve as a player, and help the team make a leap from also-ran to contender
The Wizards’ improved performance hasn’t been due to the schedule (it’s been more difficult the past 17 games than it was when Wall was in the lineup), or to a player heroically “stepping up” his performance. Rather, they’ve transformed their offensive style, found a personality that works, and have put on a sustained display of “this is how you play the game.”
In their first 48 games, most of which featured Wall as the team’s dominant figure, the Wizards posted a decent 26-22 record with an offensive rating of 108.9 points per 100 possessions, and a defensive rating of 107.8. In his absence, the offense has been better by 3.7 points per 100 possessions, the defense worse by 1.6 points, and they’re 11-6 during that stretch.
The offensive improvement defies the “Wall Effect” narrative, which posits that Wall’s teammates have benefited from his ability to spoon feed them easy baskets. With Wall sidelined, the team transformed its offense with more and better passes.
Ball movement is up 12 percent since Wall’s injury. Productive passing (assists and secondary assists) has soared by 28 percent. In other words, the team isn’t just cycling the ball around the perimeter or making safe and easy passes. Rather, they’re using ball and player movement to create openings, and then helping each other with effective, efficient passes. It’s teamwork at its best.
Even better: the uptick in ball movement has not led to more turnovers.
This isn’t guesswork -- the tracking data at NBA.com shows that the Wizards have gotten more open and wide-open field goal attempts since Wall left the lineup, and that all of the improvement in team shooting has come on open and wide-open looks.
There’s a reasonable argument to be made that the shooting has been an unsustainable fluke. The only real way to answer that line of reasoning is to wait and see. But, there’s also reason to think the improved team shooting signals something real.
One factor in the team’s offensive surge is the relative ability of who’s taking the shots. Good as he’s been, a couple flaws in Wall’s game have persisted through the years: high turnovers, and poor shot selection. Specifically, he takes too many inefficient two-point jump shots -- particularly, early in the shot clock. With Wall sidelined, those suboptimal attempts have been redistributed to teammates who are better shooters. That has more than offset areas where Wall has been missed, such as the drop in trips to the free throw line, and the dip in efficiency of players (such as center Marcin Gortat) who work best with a superb passer like Wall.
And, there’s something else that needs to be mentioned: the outrageous efficiency of Otto Porter. Over the past several seasons, Porter had seemingly established himself as a low-usage, high-efficiency, good-at-everything cog in the lineup. A pervasive view among fans, around the league, and in the Wizards’ front office was that Porter was largely dependent on Wall, and that his efficiency was a function of open looks engineered by the All-Star point guard.
Since Wall’s injury, Porter’s usage has surged to an above average 21.3 percent. His efficiency has improved to a preposterous 129 points per 100 individual possessions. Is it a fluke? Probably not: when Wall has been on the floor the past couple seasons, Porter has been low-usage and extremely efficient. When Wall has been off the floor, Porter’s usage has been a bit above average, and while his efficiency declined, it was still excellent. In other words, one of the key findings from Wall’s absence -- should the Wizards choose to accept it -- is that Porter can carry a heavier load on offense without sacrificing efficiency or his jack-of-all trades game.
Another key development is the revelation of Tomas Satoransky. In his second season, the Czech guard has figured out how to contribute at a high level in the NBA. He doesn’t play anything like Wall, but he keeps the ball moving, takes (and makes) open shots, and uses his size to be an effective defender. He may not continue shooting this well, but he could be testament to how productive a player can be if he focuses on taking good shots and helping his teammates.
So, what should happen when Wall comes back from injury? Ideally, Wall has been learning while watching. The Wizards offense could get even better with a healthy Wall turning down two-point jumpers early in the shot clock, and instead using his penetration and passing to help teammates get more open shots. This is already something he does well, and continuing to swap his old bad shots for new good ones would make the Wizards brutal to defend.
He could also stand to learn a thing or two from how Tomas Satoransky continues to be a threat when the ball isn’t in his hands. Even if Wall isn’t shooting at the efficient rate Satoransky has in recent weeks, he can do a better job moving off the ball to stay involved. Wall led the league in time spent standing still or walking this season prior to going under the knife in late January. With Wall’s speed, quickness, and court sense there’s no reason he shouldn’t be able to thrive off the ball as well.
When Wall returns, the Wizards will be presented with a choice. They can return to playing the way they did before his injury. They can live with his poor shot selection because of his passing ability, end-to-end speed, and sometimes disruptive defense. Or, they can integrate him into the “Everybody Eats” offensive concept by asking him to shoot less and create more.
They should choose the latter course because it’s the best way for the team to improve enough to challenge the best teams in the East. The team has discovered untapped potential during Wall’s absence. It would be a shame to throw it all away when he has the ability to not only fit in, but enhance what the Wizards have done so well since he got hurt.