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Wizards showing cause for concern in Bubble play

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Washington Wizards at Oklahoma City Thunder
Chris Paul dismantled the Wizards.
Photo by Kim Klement - Pool/Getty Images

I’ve spent The Bubble looking for signs of progress from the Wizards, and while those signs exist, the dispiriting losses to the New Orleans Pelicans and the Oklahoma City Thunder highlight how far the team still needs to go.

Losing isn’t what’s discouraging. It was clear in advance that the Wizards were the weakest team in Orlando, and then Davis Bertans and Bradley Beal didn’t come. In my pre-Bubble analysis, I had them as decisive underdogs in all eight games. They still might steal a win if the Boston Celtics or Milwaukee Bucks decide to rest their best players.

What would worry me if I worked for the Wizards is the lack of fundamental knowledge the team exhibits, and the lack of correction coming from the coaching staff. The lack of knowledge is somewhat expected — the team’s rotation averages 23 years of age in Orlando. But they should be showing more signs of cohesive play — working together to accomplish basics like getting good shots or defending.

A few things have stood out. Against New Orleans, a subpar defensive team, the Wizards failed repeatedly to initiate basic offensive sets in the second half. Despite the presence of two veteran PGs, they couldn’t manage to operate against the pressure applied by a team the rest of the league has handled with relative ease.

On multiple possessions, Washington couldn’t get the ball across halfcourt within the eight-second count. They were saved from 2-3 turnovers by the referees apparently forgetting about the rule.

Against the Thunder, it was striking how easily (and thoroughly) Chris Paul demolished every Wizards’ defensive scheme. OKC shredded Washington’s man defense, which inexplicably has gone back to constant switching, in the first quarter before Scott Brooks shifted to a 2-3 zone.

The zone confused OKC until Paul re-entered the game. One of the all-time great PGs, Paul put on a clinic by repeatedly edging into seams to draw the attention of two Wizards’ defenders. Then he’d whip a pass to a wide-open shooter or pass to a teammate running free to the rim. Washington’s zone defense never offered a counter. They just kept letting Paul do the same thing to create the same shots.

Eventually they switched back to man-to-man defensive schemes, which were nearly as incoherent.

One more example came in the fourth quarter of Washington’s loss to the Thunder when Jarrod Uthoff entered the game. Watch some of Uthoff’s G-League games and it’s clear he’s from the “play the right way” school. Set off-ball screens, cut, make the extra pass, box out, close out on shooters hard but under control, don’t force bad shots.

What happened with Uthoff on the floor would have played well with Yakety Sax. On possession after possession, he went to set screens for teammates but none of his teammates stayed in place long enough use his pick to get free.

During the game, I texted this observation to a respected coach and league analyst, who was watching the game. The reply was that the Wizards are “clueless.”

Ouch.

(I won’t get into our discussion of how little Wizards perimeter players seem to know about using screens. That’s a subject for another day.)

Some of this is surely because of youth. But this is on the coaching staff as well. They’ve been through two training camps, two-thirds of a season, and have been in a campus environment where there’s little to do but focus on basketball. And the team still can’t run a basic motion offense.

Not good.

Below are PPA scores from yesterday’s game. PPA is my overall production metric, which credits players for things they do to help a team win (score, rebound, assist, defend) and debits them for things that hurt (missed shots, turnovers, fouls, bad defense). In PPA, 100 is average and higher is better. The tables are sorted by TOTAL production for the game.

Wizards PPA

WAS MIN PPA
WAS MIN PPA
Jerome Robinson 29 114
Ish Smith 22 128
Troy Brown Jr. 29 74
Thomas Bryant 23 83
Rui Hachimura 26 72
Isaac Bonga 29 53
Moritz Wagner 21 55
Jarrod Uthoff 12 83
Admiral Schofield 24 29
Johnathan Williams 4 145
Jerian Grant 21 -89

Thunder PPA

OKC MIN PPA
OKC MIN PPA
Danilo Gallinari 22 379
Darius Bazley 26 321
Chris Paul 33 236
Hamidou Diallo 26 218
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander 36 133
Luguentz Dort 26 59
Mike Muscala 28 52
Deonte Burton 2 349
Devon Hall 2 0
Terrance Ferguson 19 -91
Abdel Nader 20 -90