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Playmaking and the 2020-21 Washington Wizards

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2019 NBA All-Star Game
Wizards guards Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal were two of the game’s better offensive creators in recent years.
Photo by Kent Smith/NBAE via Getty Images

Perhaps one undersung aspect of the John Wall for Russell Westbrook trade is this: Westbrook has been among the NBA’s best offensive creators. This isn’t just the assists, which have been impressive, but accounts for his scoring too.

As Ben Taylor, author of Thinking Basketball and host of a podcast by the same name, has written and said many times, offensive creation is about more than assists and scoring. It’s about striking a balance between the two — threatening the defense enough with his ability to score while also forcing them to think twice about helping because of his effectiveness passing.

Building on extensive hand tracked data, Taylor designed a box score metric he creatively calls “box creation” to estimate how many scoring opportunities a player creates for his teammates per 100 team possessions. He compared the results to his hand-tracked “opportunities created” and found the differences to be quite small (to be specific, it’s off by 8 shots per 1000 possessions — approximately one shot per game-and-a-half).

One feature of box creation: it eliminates the Rondo assist where a player stands around with the ball while teammates run off screens until he finally passes the ball to someone who makes a shot. As Taylor writes, sometimes there’s an assist without creation and creation without an assist. Assists can be useful, but are an imperfect proxy for a player’s ability to create scoring opportunities for teammates.

The point: Westbrook has been among the game’s best playmakers. His creation dropped last season in Houston — James Harden had the ball and did a lot of the playmaking — but the all-time best score in box creation belongs to Westbrook in the 2016-17 season. Taylor’s formula credits Westbrook with 21.2 opportunities created per 100 team possessions. Other top all-time creators include Harden, Steve Nash, John Stockton, Magic Johnson, Stephen Curry and Chris Paul.

Last season, Westbrook’s box creation was 9.2, but two seasons ago in Oklahoma City was a robust 13.6. With some quality shooters and finishers in Wizards uniforms this season, I’d anticipate Westbrook’s creation numbers to go back up.

So far, I’ve focused on Westbrook, but it’s worth mention that Bradley Beal emerged as a quality creator as well. Last season, box creation credited him with 11.0 opportunities created for teammates per 100 team possessions — second among shooting guards behind James Harden.

Among all players, regardless of position, Beal ranked seventh behind Lebron James, Trae Young, Luka Doncic, Harden, Damian Lillard, and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Playmaking from the backcourt will be critical for the Wizards because they lack proven creators elsewhere on the roster. Ish Smith is their next best returning creator at just 5.8 opportunities per 100 team possessions. Here’s how the rest of the Wizards roster for this year rated last season in box creation (opportunities created per 100 team possessions):

  1. Beal 11.0
  2. Westbrook 9.2
  3. Smith 5.8
  4. Raul Neto 5.2
  5. Thomas Bryant 3.2
  6. Troy Brown Jr. 2.8
  7. Moritz Wagner 2.7
  8. Davis Bertans 2.6
  9. Jerome Robinson 2.3
  10. Rui Hachimura 1.9
  11. Garrison Mathews 1.4
  12. Robin Lopez 1.3
  13. Anzejs Pasecniks 1.1
  14. Isaac Bonga 0.8

Having two excellent playmakers in the backcourt puts the Wizards in a somewhat unique position. Few teams boast multiple quality creators. Last season, only the Houston Rockets (Harden and Westbrook), Los Angeles Clippers (Kawhi Leonard, Lou Williams and Paul George), Milwaukee Bucks (Giannis and Khris Middleton) and the Phoenix Suns (Devin Booker and Ricky Rubio) had two or more players with a box creation score of 8.0 or higher.

It’s still to be determined how Beal and Westbrook mesh, but in theory, a twin-pronged attack led by these two could make life a lot easier for their teammates and form the basis for a high-quality offense.