The best word to describe the mindset of both the Washington Wizards and their fans is progress. John Wall, finally healthy and re-signed, and Bradley Beal, finally shooting, make up a dynamic backcourt buoyed by a stable rotation of known veteran guys. The Wizards have done a good job of putting established pieces around Wall, using Wall's speed to utilize the others' offensive skills. The rotation is filled out with familiar names like Marcin Gortat, former recipient of Steve Nash passes, and Trevor Ariza, the 47% three-point specialist of the 2009 Lakers.
Having said that, this steady wave of optimism comes to a screeching halt when anyone brings up the Wizards' record. They're three games under .500 at 14-17 while playing in a dreadful Eastern Conference. While it may be good for the No. 5 seed in the East, the phrase "progress in Washington" sounds more political than anything else.
Nevertheless, just like in political office, financial changes are looming for the Wizards' front office. NBA fans call that "cap space," and boy, are the Wizards headed for some good times. For the sake of calculation, let's assume useful reserve guard Eric Maynor takes his player option (very likely) and that the Wizards extend Trevor Booker a qualifying offer, since Ted Leonsis has recently taken to appreciating advanced stats.
The Wizards would only have around $49 million committed to seven players. Let's say Trevor Ariza re-signs for a reasonable paycut (around $4M/year); that's eight players. The Wizards would therefore have around a good $10 million to commit to an upgrade along the roster (perhaps for Gortat) that could swing their identity one way or another—either as an offensive-minded, athletic dark horse, or a defensive stalwart, armed with both perimeter stoppers and an interior presence inside.
When talking about why the Wizards have underwhelmed, the big red (and blue) flag that's usually put forth is their pitiful rebounding stats. How can a team score if they’re 22nd in offensive rebounds? How can a team bully the perimeter if they can’t crowd the paint? They’re the third-worst rebounding team in the league! Pretty soon, when looking at stats, skepticism can turn to outright panic.
How can a team score if they’re 22nd in offensive rebounds? How can a team bully the perimeter if they can’t crowd the paint?
The Wizards are second-worst in defensive rebounding and can’t really block much either. A front line headlined by Gortat and Nene, two offensive-minded subpar rebounders, only reinforced by per-minute wonders (Trevor Booker) and aspiring rotation pieces (Jan Vesely, Al Harrington, Kevin Seraphin) will only add to that panic.
The only reason Washington's team plays to its record is because the team generally plays disciplined ball on both ends of the floor. They don't foul very much, and their opponents lead the league in fouling them right back. That same discipline might translate to a culture; yes, they’re in the bottom-third in overall offensive rebounds, but their offensive sets help them capitalize on their oppurtunities. Take a look at how Booker, who had nine offensive boards, demolished the Brooklyn Nets' zone defense last month in this clip.
That compilation was originally put up by The Brooklyn Game’s Devin Kharpertian to examine the Nets’ rotation, which was definitely off in that game. However, rotations alone won’t ensure such bountiful results; the Wizards’ sets have to put their bigs in the right places on the floor in order to crash the glass.
After the game, Kevin Garnett noticed that the atypical Wizards let “three or four guys each time” take chances to grab boards after every shot was put up. While their bigs aren't athletic, their perimeter guys (Martell Webster, Trevor Ariza, Beal, Wall) can still punish lazier, less calculated teams off the glass.
At a glance, Booker, a well-situated reserve, isn’t exactly what you’d call an elite rebounder, averaging 5.0 RPG for his career. But because of Washington’s generally good spacing, Booker has become a part of a Washington crew that’s in the top half of the league in both offensive and defensive rebounding rate, which factors how many actual oppurtunities the Wizards have to grab a rebound. The Wizards’ overall rebounding stats become much more defensible; their bigs are at least relatively intelligent, getting in the right spots to crash the glass.
Enter the "John Wall Effect." Mike Prada over at Bullets Forever coined this term to describe Wall's nifty slash-and-kick game and its ability to generate open shots, particularly in the corners and along the perimeter, for teammates like Ariza and Martell Webster. Experts definitely credit Wall for his distribution for most of Washington's offensive playbook. Prada noticed that once Wall returned from injury last year, passing lanes just seemed to open up at will in transition with Washington leading the league in transition three-point percentage.
Wall’s contributions to the players around him only work if a system, like Mike D’Antoni’s pick-and-roll or Erik Spoelstra’s assist-heavy scheme, works with every part moving and rotating correctly. Even LeBron James will readily admit that Miami's evolutionary offense would be better run if Dwayne Wade was available every night instead of every other night to establish the second option.
However, in no way is Washington's execution good enough to carry them to elite status alone right now. With the exception of Bradley Beal's shooting, no player around John Wall has a singularly-elite talent.
To contrast, I mentioned last week how Portland's seamless execution created one of the top offenses in the league, measured by pace. Without sufficient weapons surrounding Wall as the centerpiece, Washington clearly isn't on that tier at the moment.
At the end of the day, the Blazers can utilize role players because Damian Lillard, the head of the snake, has elite help in LaMarcus Aldridge, who's both an elite high-post player and rebounder. Once again, though, Washington fails to impress even with Wall's handiwork, only coming 21st in offensive efficiency, just above the suddenly-tanking Lakers. Prada's reasoning for this phenomenon is rather telling. The "easiest" culprit? The aforementioned offensive rebounding.
It becomes clear that Wall can work with others in the offense, but the problems that are out of Wall's control are around the paint, protecting the rim and helping teammates on defense on the other side of the floor. These are the main issues that the Wiz need to address in free agency instead of offensive flaws.
Portland's entire identity revolves around offense because every part is extremely focused on scoring the ball—currently, Washington's parts aren't of the same mold. Just last year, the Wizards finished fifth in defensive efficiency before trading for screen-and-roll maestro Marcin Gortat. They finished FIFTH even if they only won 29 games! The trade itself is understandable because Gortat is a solid contributor to an offense that still struggles, but the perimeter provided for a stingy group which shouldn't be ignored.
Wall may be top-five in assists per game and steals right now, but Beal and Otto Porter, both 20, still have loads of time to develop. The Blazers do currently have better marksmen, like Nicolas Batum, filling offensive roles than Washington, but most of it is because the Blazers are older and further developed. Washington has the right pieces in place to develop their offense and needs time for it to be implemented. Their defense may not be so lucky unless real changes are made to either their front line or to bolster their bench.
The Wizards' youth and financial flexibility can take them to similar heights as the Blazers or Pacers—provided the Wizards move in the right direction this coming summer.