The evolution that began when the NBA changed illegal defense rules in 2001, accelerated when it banned hand checking on the perimeter, and hit turbo when teams began doing a little math is continuing in 2019-20.
Three-point attempts are at an all-time high, the Houston Rockets are engaged in a fascinating experiment by abandoning the age-old precept that teams must have a big man, and the NBA’s top two offenses employ similar offensive strategies.
As teams have learned that post-ups are among the game’s least efficient ways to score, the use of the play type has dwindled to near extinction. Big men still have a role, but coaches have been using them on the weakside block (often called the dunker spot) or in pick-and-roll or pick-and-pop sets. Wizards PG John Wall played in this kind of system (dribble drive motion) at Kentucky.
That dribble drive motion offense kept a big man close to the basket, but in a different role. Not posting up, but being available to catch and dunk when a penetrating guard drew a help defender.
As NBA defenses have learned counters, offenses have adapted yet again and the latest iteration is the five-out offense, which positions all five offensive players outside the three-point line at the start of a possession.
The league’s two best offenses this season play versions of five-out offense — the Dallas Mavericks a five-out motion system and the Houston Rockets a more iso heavy variation. Most NBA teams have five-out sets as part of their offense, including the Wizards.
In their loss to the Miami Heat last night, the Wizards ran five-out sets with small lineups, but also with center Moe Wagner in the game. Sometimes Wagner was parked in a corner. Others he came out to the top to provide ball screens. Either way, the paint was empty.
Five-out systems are designed to space the floor, open the lane and create room for dribble penetration, cuts, and other actions intended to attack the basket. Teams use these sets with a variety of lineups — the Nuggets employ five-out sets with massive center Nikola Jokic on the perimeter, usually to take advantage of his passing ability.
While it’s a fairly new thing, it’s not The Thing for every team or roster. The Lakers, for example, would be nuts to run five-out sets with Lebron James or Anthony Davis on the floor. Both are exceptional in post-up situations and in sets that start with them close to the basket. Similarly, the 76ers are big and lack shooting. Spreading the floor would accentuate their weaknesses.
For the Wizards, it’s hard to know whether it’s a system that makes sense for them because their roster and the young players on it are still unformed. Five-out sets work best when the players are nearly interchangeable. Ideally, all five players would be skilled ball handlers, effective shooters with range, and some level of competence attacking off the dribble and passing on the move. This is not the typical skill set of a big man, and that’s true of Washington’s bigs — Thomas Bryant, Moritz Wagner and Ian Mahinmi.
Washington’s perimeter players have at least some of the skills described above, but not all. Davis Bertans is a great shooter, but not very effective attacking closeouts with the dribble, and not a skilled passer on the move.
Troy Brown and Ish Smith have the requisite ball skills and vision, but are iffy shooters. Rui Hachimura is solid going to the bucket, but doesn’t have a consistent three-point shot and has shown only flashes of passing ability. Issac Bonga may have the shooting, but isn’t confident penetrating or playmaking. Jerome Robinson hasn’t demonstrated proficiency in any of the necessary areas — at least not yet.
Yes, there would be concerns with rim protection and defensive rebounding going with a lineup that small, but those are already problems for the Wizards, even when they’re playing their centers.
It could be that the normal improvement young players typically make from season to season and the return of a healthy John Wall to partner with Bradley Beal could pull the parts together in a way that maximizes the effectiveness of each.
While small lineups and five-out sets may be good in certain situations, my guess is the Wizards will lack the personnel to thrive on a consistent five-out diet — barring significant roster changes or major improvements. That Wall-Beal-Brown-Bertans-Hachimura group, for example doesn’t have defenders like P.J. Tucker or Covington nor a maniacal do-everything nut like Russell Westbrook. They don’t have a Draymond Green-like jack-of-all-trades who can defend any position, was borderline clairvoyant in his help rotations, and was also a first-rate facilitator on offense.
That said, the Wizards are smart to use five-out sets and would be wise to continue experimenting with different lineups over their final 19 games. Five-out is a good developmental system (player roles are interchangeable and ball-handling, shooting and passing duties can be spread more evenly) and making the playoffs is the remotest of fantasies at this point.
And, as they did in the loss to the Heat, they should try five-out sets with Thomas Bryant and Wagner on the floor because they’re young, reasonably skilled and filled with potential. In addition, it’s probable that Wall will need the help of big man screens to get into the paint and collapse defenses when he gets back on the floor next season. To expect him at peak performance level is about as fanciful as the idea of the Wizards creeping into the playoffs this season.
Even so, over the final 19 games it makes sense to dabble with it and try some different lineup packages, at least just to see how they work in actual games.
Player Production Average
Below are scores from my Player Production Average (PPA) metric. PPA is pace neutral, accounts for defense, includes a degree of difficulty factor, and a position/role adjustment. PPA credits players for doing things that help a team win and debits them for things that hurt — each in proper proportion.
In PPA, 100 is average, higher is better and replacement level is 45.
The position/role adjustment is designed to reflect how roles and on-court positioning affects individual abilities to produce certain stats. For now, I’m incorporating four positions/roles: point guards, wings, forwards and big men. I expect this adjustment to evolve as I continue to research it and analyze results.
Wizards PPA through March 7
- Beal’s scoring binge has continued and its raised his overall production to borderline All-NBA status. He still has some work to do to crack the top six guards, however. Currently, James Harden, Luka Doncic (both of whom play in five-out systems), Damian Lillard, Chris Paul, Ben Simmons, and Kemba Walker are ahead of him. Lebron James could be categorized as a guard as well, in which case Beal moves down another notch.
- According to the defense part of PPA, only Brown, Ish Smith, Gary Payton and Shabazz Napier rate as positive defenders this season.
- The playing time of Troy Brown continues to be a puzzle. Scott Brooks has given the newly acquired Jerome Robinson 21.5 minutes per game — two more than Brown has gotten since Robinson arrived. Even with some bad games, Brown has been the better player. Since both guys have the ability to play guard or serve as secondary ball handlers, it would seem to make sense to curtail the minutes of Napier or Smith — not one of the young players they’re theoretically trying to develop.