This is part three of my series attempting to bring objective data into the evaluation of the job Scott Brooks is doing as coach of the Wizards. Here’s analysis of playing time and defense. Today: offense.
It’s an NBA truism that coaches have more impact on the defensive end. The thinking goes that a significant portion of offensive effectiveness is talent but that good defense is mostly about structure, teamwork, and communication.
I’ve never been fully convinced that’s correct at either end. Conversations I’ve had over the years with NBA coaches who’ve helmed elite defenses usually include a portion where they talk about constructing their defensive system around a great defensive talent, usually a big man.
In other words, scheme matters at both ends. It may be a bit more important on defense than offense, but it still makes a difference on the offensive end.
This is a long way of getting to one of the chief critiques of Brooks: he doesn’t have an offensive system and he’s over-reliant on stars like Bradley Beal to generate scoring opportunities.
Broadly speaking, the “no system” critique is wrong. The Wizards run offensive plays most trips down the court, as does every NBA team. The plays are less apparent because of how the game is played — teams don’t crouch in formations at a line of scrimmage like they do in football — and there’s often not a clear start to a basketball play. One of the failures of NBA broadcasts is how little analysts discuss the Xs and Os.
The Wizards run much of their halfcourt offense out of “horns” and modified horns. From horns (and modified horns), the team flows into pick-and-roll, dribble handoffs, isolations, and screening actions. Spend some time watching video carefully and it’s apparent their offensive system is cohesive, complementary and thorough.
What I mean is that the sets they run interact with each other in ways that make life difficult for defenders. If I was more adept at film editing, I’d post some examples. One that springs to mind is a nasty little set play they ran back when the team was healthy enough to play games. The play involved screening actions that looked the same as pindowns they commonly run for Beal, Davis Bertans and various wings.
In this case, it was for Bertans, and opposing defenders “recognized” the action and positioned themselves to deny Bertans the ability to come off the pindown, catch a pass and knock down a three. Unfortunately for them, the pindown was fake. Instead of popping out, Bertans flashed across the lane and got a wide-open layup.
This play was made possible by Bertans shooting prowess, as well as the number of screen sets they run for him. Brooks’ offensive system established a pattern and then ran a variation designed to exploit how defenders react to that pattern. That’s good offensive coaching, and the team’s offense has a lot of actions like that.
A similar effect makes an appearance in late-game after timeout sets. The Wizards run enough dribble handoffs with Beal that opponents think they recognize when it’s coming and try to wedge themselves between Beal and the ball. Brooks designed a fake handoff into a hard back cut that’s gotten Beal four open layup attempts in late-game situations so far this season.
But, you’re not here for anecdotes, you want data. So, what can we glean from the numbers?
One big takeaway is that the Wizards offense is not iso heavy. According to NBA tracking data, Washington is 10th in iso frequency, but it represents just 6.5% of their offensive plays. Their offense is dominated by spot-ups, transition, and pick-and-roll. If I back out transition plays, isos still represent just 7.8% of their halfcourt sets.
Here’s their offensive profile, including where they rank in the league and how often they run these actions:
- Spotup — 20th, 21.6%
- Transition — 5th, 17.6%
- PnR ball handler — 23rd, 15.6%
- Postup — 5th, 7.4%
- Cut — 13th, 7.0%
- Off screen — 1st, 7.0%
- Iso — 10th, 6.5%
- Misc. 7th, 6.4%
- Handoff — 21st, 4.2%
- PnR roll — 29th, 3.9%
- Putbacks — 25th, 3.9%
The Wizards have been efficient in their most common halfcourt actions — they rank fifth in spotup efficiency and fourth in PnR ball handler plays. They’re 26th so far in transition opportunities, which could be a small sample size fluke or could be an indication they should slow down a bit.
The data suggests they could optimize with more pick-and-roll (complicated a bit by the injury to Thomas Bryant), screening actions, and isos. (Gotta say, when I sat down to analyze the data, I didn’t think I’d be suggesting more isos.)
One area for improvement is the team’s late game offensive performance. In high- and very-high leverage situations, the Wizards rely heavily on Beal. This makes some sense because Beal is a formidable offensive weapon. His late-game performance suggests he could use some help. He’s taken more than twice as many late-game shots as any of his teammates, and it’s largely hurt — he’s shot 5-21 (with 2 threes) in higher leverage 4th quarter situations this season.
The Bryant injury is a complicator. He was 6-8 in these situations this season, with 4 of those baskets assisted — two from Beal and two from Russell Westbrook. With him out for the season, the Wizards no longer have an elite at-rim finisher who can catch and finish on the move. In late-game situations, I’d anticipate more small-ball sets with Rui Hachimura at five and Bertans at four.
Of course, the biggest opportunity for the Wizards to boost their offensive efficiency is with shot selection. Brooks wants the team to take “good shots,” which he defines as “open.” He — and presumably the team’s analytics staff — notes that good teams score from all areas of the court, and that the Splash Brothers Golden State Warriors took a lot of two-point jumpers en route to having an elite offense.
So, if a player feels open from 20 feet with 16 seconds on the shot clock, Brooks wants them to let it fly. This shows up a few ways in the data.
The Wizards are 7th in average shot distance despite just 36.4% of their field goal attempts coming from three-point range. Every team with a longer average shot distance takes at least 40% of their field goal attempts from three-point range. The Miami Heat and Milwaukee Bucks match the Wizards in average shot distance (15.1 feet) with 44.0% and 43.6% of their shots coming from three.
In part two, I wrote about POOP shots — two-point attempts from outside three feet. The Wizards defense leads the league in inducing POOP shots. The Wizards offense feasts on them. Only the Orlando Magic have a higher POOP percentage. Here’s the top five:
- Orlando Magic — 49.4%
- Washington Wizards — 45.9%
- Sacramento Kings — 41.2%
- San Antonio Spurs — 40.1%
- Los Angeles Clippers — 39.9%
While the Wizards offense is a strength, the data suggests Brooks could do more to boost efficiency and increase their relative advantage. Specifically, the team could slow down, run more of their higher efficiency offensive actions, and improve shot selection.