The Wizards are not the NBA’s best team in many categories. You could argue that they have the nicest alternative courts/jerseys in the league or the most ridiculous looking mascot. Overall, the team’s quality in most areas ranges from pretty good to pretty bad. This is reflected in the team’s 17-22 record. However, Washington does rank first in one statistic: sideline out-of-bounds play efficiency.
They have scored 272 points on 256 possessions that begin with an sideline inbound, according to Synergy Sports as of January 5th. Their 1.026 points per possession on sideline out-of-bounds plays, aka SLOBs, just beats out the Dallas Mavericks for the league lead. They also ranked in the top five for baseline out-of-bounds play (BLOBs) efficiency until recently. Currently, the Wizards are 12th in that category where there is a much smaller sample size than for SLOBs.
Wes Unseld Jr. and his coaching staff deserve a ton of credit for their play designs. But the way they’ve created advantages for their players isn’t through complicated, multi-action designs. They’ve created simple sets that can change on the fly with whatever the defense is giving them.
“Just simplicity,” said Unseld Jr. when asked about why the team succeeds on out-of-bounds plays. “We had a lot of [out-of-bounds sets] and we’ve really trimmed it. Just being really good at a few things and understanding the wrinkles and options that you can play out of those sets. But it’s not a litany of plays, where guys maybe get a little confused or uncertain. So that’s part of the success.”
The tape bears out what Unseld Jr. explained. While the team will call special sets for certain situations, the Wizards employ four concepts in most of their inbound plays. The sideline out-of-bounds typically begin with a zipper screen for the guard to get the ball on the strongside wing or with a big setting backscreen at the free throw line then a downscreen for the guard receiving the inbound. They run their most baseline out-of-bounds plays out of a “four-across” set or (what I call) a Y-formation with two shooters in the corners, a player at the top of the key, and a player at the free throw line.
The simplicity of Washington’s out-of-bounds attack actually makes them hard to scout and, in turn, hard to stop. For example, the 4-across formation is one of the most common out-of-bounds calls at any level of basketball, but the Wizards find success by layering multiple options in the set. In the video, you’ll see six of Washington’s endless options that result in post ups for bigs, isolation opportunities for guards, and wide open threes for shooters. They run a screen-the-screener set out of this formation, but most of the plays involve just one quick screen to get an open shot.
On the sideline, Washington’s zipper entry puts the defense behind the ball and opens the middle of the floor. Again, the team has limitless possibilities after the zipper with a wide-pindown for Kristaps Porzingis being a favorite. KP can stepback for a three or curl into the paint off the screen.
Other sets that DC run make up for what they lack in optionality with matchup nightmares. Their Spain SLOB starts with two guards receiving screens at the free throw line to get the defense moving. The Spain action, in which a player sets a back screen for a teammate setting a ball screen, takes advantage of their guards’ ability to attack downhill and their bigs’ ability to shoot. With threatning shooters in the corners and an unsettled defense, the play is even harder to guard than in a normal half-court situation.
Similarly, Washington’s Y-formation BLOB puts the defense in a bad position and allows their talented bigs, namely Porzingis, to attack from the perimeter against a big concerned with a cutting guard.
“I think having Brad [Beal and Kyle Kuzma] in those situations helps,” explained Porzingis. “They’re so good downhill that they just open everything up for everybody else. I also like when I’m being put in a corner and then I’m coming off [a screen] and we get those switches or I can just curl and go. That’s a credit to Wes and the coaching staff.”
There’s no trophy for the team with the best sideline out-of-bounds scoring efficiency. Washington’s offensive and defensive ratings will matter much more to the team’s playoff hopes, obviously. They rank 17th and 14th in those categories, respectively according to Cleaning The Glass. However, being the best at something is cool and perhaps a sign of better things to come.