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The Wizards have a problem with their touches

A slower pace can limit the number of possessions and points given up on defense. But fewer possessions can also mean that players are stagnating on offense and not shooting the ball until later in the shot clock.

NBA: Utah Jazz at Washington Wizards Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

It wasn’t long ago when the Washington Wizards were 10-3, and when it seemed like they could be taking over the NBA. Washington, at the time, came off an impressive improbable win over the Cavaliers at Cleveland thanks to two beautiful out-of-timeout plays by coach wes Unseld Jr. with two beautiful three-pointers by Kyle Kuzma. Their record was 10-3.

And right around that time, the Wizards announced that Tommy Sheppard and Sashi Brown were both promoted and extended.

“Their combined efforts have put us in a position to compete now with an exciting and hard-working team while also having the flexibility to execute our long-term strategy of building a championship program that is a leader in the community,” Leonsis said.

Unfortunately, since then the Wizards have gone 5-10. As Bradley Beal once famously said: “it all starts from the top.” When the front office execs at the top are happy with a 13-game sample, why shouldn’t the guys on the roster be content as well?

The Wizards have shown much less intensity since then, and have recently struggled to beat the league-worst Detroit Pistons (last seen sitting at 4-22), and have been stomped at home by 25 points to a Utah Jazz team playing their third away game in four nights (after the Wizards had two days off).

Kevin Broom and I have discussed a bit a few of the issues the Wizards have. Kevin and Ron Oakes-Cunningham have also gone in more depth on some other issues in their excellent podcast.

Here, I want to touch on another small point. I want to touch on touches.

The NBA is providing league-wide data on team touches. This data shows that the Wizards are currently the slowest-paced team in the sense that their typical possession lasts league-longest 22.1 seconds.

Taken at face value, this is not a bad number: perhaps many players are touching the ball which leads to longer possessions.

However, the Wizards are:

  • second-from-last in the league in seconds-per-touch at 3.28 (Dallas is at 3.29, Golden State leads at 2.73).
  • fourth-from-last in the league in dribbles-per-touch at 2.45 (Knicks at 2.51, Golden State at 1.98).
  • 20th in the league in touches-per-48 minutes at 397.4 (Bucks are last at 382.3, Golden State at 438.9) (I’ve manually adjusted the NBA data that counts touches over whole games to account for overtimes).
  • 24th in the league in pace at 97 (76ers are last at 95.87, the Rockets are first at 101.31).

Remark 1: Trying to “normalize” the number of touches by adjusting to the pace seems a non-trivial task: simply dividing the total touches by the pace would mix the number of defensive possessions into the calculation and would also skew teams that run.

Remark 2: An interesting point is that some of the above observations are related to rebounding. Stay tuned for a follow-up post on that soon.

All this data seems to correlate well to the eye test. The Wizards' offense stagnates. There is little movement, so players that touch the ball need to dribble a lot and generally hold on to the ball longer until they get rid of the rock. This causes possessions to be longer. and this leads to a slower pace. It can also be a factor contributing to low field-goal percentages for difficult shots at the end of the clock.

This also has the effect of slowing the game down for the opponent by reducing the total number of possessions they obtain. This then reduces the opponents' total FGA and hence their score and can account for a skewed perception of improved defense.