The Fundamentals: Wizards’ small-ball turn results in losses and unease

The Wizards' transition to a small-ball approach has created issues this season. 
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Only three teams this season have suffered from enough malaise to lose a game to the Los Angeles Lakers. The latest is easily the most confounding; a Wizards team anchored by a legitimate superstar with intentions of being a factor in the East’s second tier managed to gift the Lakers a 19-point first-half lead en route to a dispiriting loss. This marked the Wizards’ fifth defeat in their last six games, dropping Washington—which was two wins removed from the conference finals last season—to 12th place in the East.

This was to be a transformational season for the Wizards, who under Randy Wittman have committed fully to the concept of playing small. Last season’s frontcourt starters, Marcin Gortat and Nene, haven’t shared the court for a single minute. The floor is spread, the pace is up, and the talent in Washington should be singing.

Instead, they seem capable of projecting only at a dull frequency: 97.8 points per 100 possessions, an offense good for 25th in the league. One would expect that a team shifting smaller might suffer defensively, as the Wizards have. There would surely be a compromise to the team’s rebounding, as has been the case all season and was certainly in effect against the Lakers on Wednesday night. But the Wizards have somehow scored even less efficiently since their offensive reinvention, making last season’s plodding adequacy seem like a preferable alternative. 

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The basic ingredients—a dynamic point guard in John Wall, a four-out offense, and solid surrounding players—would seem to be there. Washington’s deficits, however, lie in the way their pace-and-space intentions are applied. Any team can better space the floor by adding shooters. The trick is to build a roster that can leverage that space into effective and consistent offense. NBA defenses are too good (and now too practiced in defending small-ball-style teams) to make a possession as easy as drive and kick. The player on the receiving end of Wall’s passes has to be able to 1) fire off a shot quickly from a high release point, 2) swing the ball cleanly to an open man, or 3) put the ball on the floor to attack the closeout with a productive play. These are not strengths of the Wizards’ supporting cast as it’s currently constructed, which results in scrambled, stunted plays and oodles of turnovers.

Smart, space-driven offenses are made by their momentum. Many defenses can collapse on Wall and scramble to recover to one shooter. It’s what happens after that point that define’s a possession’s outcome. This is especially pronounced in the case of the Wizards, who have added a reliable perimeter shooter to their starting lineup in Jared Dudley but still struggle to generate clean looks. When the ball swings to Dudley, defenders can close out hard knowing that he isn’t a threat to drive to the rim:

When the ball swings to Otto Porter (who has made just 26.3% of his threes this season), he tends to fire up a miss, take a mulligan by dishing off to a ballhandler, or drive into trouble:

The truth of the Wizards’ top four-out lineups is that only two players on the floor at a given time are reliable perimeter shooters, and of them only Bradley Beal can floor the ball while still projecting as a threat. This is a considerable problem. Even if Wall were playing his best basketball (which is far, far from the case), Washington still relies on an arrangement of players that spreads the floor without the collective skill set needed to make that spacing pay off. Defenses prioritize Beal, swarm Wall, mind Marcin Gortat, try to close out on Dudley, and live with most everything else. Making matters worse: the Wizards rank dead last in the league in effective field goal percentage on unguarded shots, according to Synergy Sports, due in large part to the shooters that defenses elect to leave unattended (Wall, Porter, Garrett Temple, Ramon Sessions, etc.).

When the Wizards regroup, they’re confronted again by the lack of secondary ballhandling that made for consistent problems last season. The offense all but has to run through Wall. Beal isn’t at the point where he can breathe life into a high pick-and-roll, given how easily he can be pressured into rushed shots and ballhandling mistakes. Sessions is a reasonable stopgap but by no means a solution. This makes Wall critical to the success of most every Wizards possession—a fact that makes his dismal shooting (27% outside the restricted area, according to and turnover rate (now 20% for the season) all the more debilitating.

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“Until I start playing better, we’re not going to do well,” Wall said (via the Washington Post). “It’s as simple as that.”

Attempts to combat those limitations by forcing the issue have created a rampant turnover problem. It would be easy and convenient to pin the Wizards’ turnover woes on their pace; the idea of a team going too fast is something that any basketball fan can readily understand. In practice, however, Washington has done an outstanding job of limiting its turnovers on the break (where they rank second in the league in turnover rate) and a miserable one of doing so in half-court situations (where they rank 29th). Wittman has changed his team’s lineups completely and transformed its fundamental style. Yet still its underlying problem remains: When the Wizards aren’t running, they aren’t scoring nearly enough.

Last season that issue was hedged by a top-five defense. The small-ball Wizards won’t duplicate that mark, though they’ll likely improve as the season progresses. Getting Alan Anderson (who has yet to play a game for the Wizards) and Nene back in the lineup will help in fielding a more complete team. Wall will play better, as the recent turn in his play confirms. Dudley’s presence has already proven to be a positive. Porter, for as poorly as he’s fared on offense, has shown he can contribute in the past. Beal is still learning. Time will help, too, in salvaging some of those possessions that are sound in process but lacking in chemistry:

All of that still may not be enough for the Wizards to play a significant role in this NBA season. There are real, logistical problems in the way Washington operates that are difficult to clean up without changes in personnel. The safety net of their team defense is gone and the shortcomings of this roster have been laid bare. What’s left is a team that, in the midst of its redefinition, clings to a clear vision with only imperfect means to execute it.