The Washington Wizards have played themselves into Eastern Conference playoff contention behind John Wall, but a lousy bench and lack of front court athleticism may prove too much to overcome.
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
Halfway through the NBA season, the battle for low-end playoff spots is pitched. In the Western Conference, every team remains within striking difference of the No. 8 seed, with four franchises separated by just a game and a half. And in the East, things are even more jumbled, with three games separating the No. 5 seed from Draft Lottery-bound 11th place.
The Washington Wizards are one of the Eastern squads that could go either way, and with a 12-6 record over their last 18 games, they're starting to show signs that they could make a second-half push past rival mediocrities such as the Indiana Pacers, Charlotte Hornets, New York Knicks, and Chicago Bulls.
The Wizards' perimeter trio of John Wall, Bradley Beal, and Otto Porter might be as good as any in the league—the former top-three picks have matured as players, developed nice chemistry through continuity, and are shooting career-high effective field goal percentages this season. However, the team's lack of depth and frontcourt athleticism—ongoing problems Washington's front office has failed to solve over multiple seasons—could prove too much to overcome.
Let's take a closer look at the Wizards' hot streak, and see if their improved play is sustainable:
Good on the break, bad in the half court
Washington has a half court problem. The Wizards are the fourth-most efficient offense in the league on possessions following defensive rebounds, but the 21st-most efficient offense following opponent's made field goals. The main reason for their success in transition is fairly obvious: Wall is unguardable when he gets a head of steam, perhaps the fastest open court player in the NBA, and his teammates are very good at quickly getting him the ball after snagging defensive rebounds. From there, Wall's speed forces defenses into mismatches and blown assignments in the first seconds of the shot clock.
There's simply no good way to guard Wall in the open court. He shifts left to right so quickly while sprinting that no one defender can react quick enough to keep him in check. Sharpshooters Beal and Porter have developed an incredible chemistry with Wall in transition, racing to their spots behind the arc to spot up for kickouts as scrambled, collapsing defenders try to keep Wall out of the paint.
In the clip below, watch how Wall blows past his defender and gets to the rim before help can even recognize that he's taken off:
For Wizards to take a leap forward as a team, however, they'll have to solve some of their half court woes. A team with two 40 percent three-point shooters like Beal and Porter and an inside-outside stretch four like Markieff Morris should allow Wall to wreak havoc in half court pick-and-rolls. Yet despite all of that perimeter gravity, two things work against Washington: Wall's iffy pull-up jumper, and a lack of frontcourt bounce leaves them unable to create paint gravity on rolls and dives to the rim.
Marcin Gortat is a durable double-double machine, and has good pick-and-roll timing with Wall. But he's also 32 years old, playing huge minutes due to Ian Mahimi's ongoing knee injuries, and a below-the-rim player who isn't a great roll finisher. Couple that with Wall's inconsistent shooting, and defenders are able to sag off in isolation, go under screens on 1-5 pick-and-rolls, and help with rim-protecting bigs since Gortat is much more comfortable popping or short rolling off of screens.
Washington's three-out pick and pop might work better if Gortat was a bigger threat as a playmaker on the roll. Teams like the Denver Nuggets and Boston Celtics are able to create effective offenses without a lot of roll to the rim gravity because they have centers who are able to make reads out of the short roll and either score on the pop or find open cutters and shooters around the court. Gortat isn't elite as a mid-range jump shooter or passer, and not enough of a lob-catching threat to warrant hard weakside help.
The result? Opponents are able to stay home on shooters while containing Wall and Gortat just enough to make their half court offense stall:
It's easy to imagine how difficult the Wizards would be to defend if they had a more athletic playmaker at the center position. Portland's Mason Plumlee, for example, would be an incredible fit next to Wall, since he has the playmaking chops to pass on the roll while also having the athleticism to roll hard to the rim and drag defenders with him.
In the clip below, the Wizards manufacture that gravity in an interesting way that provides a peek into how easily they would get open looks if they just had a better rim-roller. The play is a simple 1-5 spread pick-and-roll, but it starts with a bit of misdirection, taking the ball out of Wall's hands for the initial action before having him run into the high screen from Gortat. This misdirection is easy to defend, but it gets the defense moving and thinking before Wall begins to attack on the move. More importantly, the Wizards place Jason Smith in the corner, daring the defense to over-help off of him:
Smith knocks down the open three, but more important than the make is the fact that he was able to get so open in the first place.This play created the illusion that the defense needed to sink into the paint, even if it would've been wiser just to stay home. Gortat wasn't ever open on the play, and therefore wasn't a threat that required two helpside defenders to tag him on the roll—but by getting the defense moving and giving them a "non-threat" in the corner, the defense over-reacted. Now imagine if you swapped Gortat for a high-flyer like Philadelphia's disgruntled Nerlens Noel, and replaced Smith with Morris. Wall's life would be much, much easier.
Low passes, high assists
Washington ranks No. 28 in the league in passes made per game, yet No. 9 in assists. That's reminiscent of head coach Scott Brooks' previous team, the Oklahoma City Thunder. Like the Thunder, the Wizards have an athletic point guard who has great vision and the strength to make cross-court passes. Wall is on the short list of players who are consistently able to make the most important pass in basketball, the cross-court assist to the opposite corner out of drives and pick-and-rolls:
LeBron James and James Harden are the only other two players that make that pass as routinely as Wall, and it's no surprise that both guys run two of the most efficient offenses in the NBA. The ability to skip a pass 25 feet across the court, on the run, with a flick of the wrist makes it nearly impossible for weak side defenders to venture too far off of their man and help in the paint. Every inch a defender sags off of the corner is another inch they have to close out when Wall rifles a pass at 60 miles per hour into the hands of a willing shooter.
This part of the reason why the Wizards throw so few passes—they simply don't need to in order to force opposing defenses to react. They operates their offense like a football team in that one action produces two or three reads, but doesn't flow into a secondary action or create any kind of continuity. Wall plays the role of quarterback, making the read with the ball in his hands for most of the possession. If the action doesn't work, they'll reset and run it again or try something slightly different. This style of offense is completely dependent on the playmaking ability of the player making the reads, and the ability of off-ball players to knock down shots.
Beal will occasionally take the reigns as quarterback of the offense. So will Morris, who isolates in the post or on the elbow with decent efficiency. But it's rare that one option segues into a second or third option automatically. Washington is much more mechanical than many teams in that regard, and that almost certainly contributes to their half court struggles.
Good starters, awful bench
It's difficult to say just how good a team is—or can be—when they have a fatal flaw. For Washington, said flaw is a complete lack of bench production. By almost every statistical measure, the Wizards have the worst bench in the NBA. Washington's reserves are ranked in the bottom five in points, rebounds, assists, and three-point FG percentage per 36 minutes. None of their rotation reserves have a positive NetRtg, with Kelly Oubre coming the closest at minus-7. Meanwhile, Morris is the only Washington starter with a negative NetRt—but not coincidentally, he plays by far the most minutes as the lone starter with four bench players.
This is a huge problem. For all of the good things Washington's starters can do, their bench routinely creates deficits that they just can't overcome. Unsurprisingly, Brooks plays his starters the second-most minutes of any team in the NBA, trailing only Tom Thibodeaux's Minnesota Timberwolves.
After Wizards general manager Ernie Grunfeld struck out on Kevin Durant—who didn't even bother to take a phone call—and Boston-bound Al Horford last summer, he pivoted to Mahinmi, who was the team's big money offseason signing and has played just 15 minutes this season. But even if his sore knees recover and he eventually returns, he won't make a very large impact for Washington's bench. The Wizards need scoring and athleticism; Mahimi, a good defensive center, provides little of either.
Journeyman gunner Marcus Thornton looks noticeably heavier than in previous years, and is having the worst season of his career. Oubre is athletic and has defensive potential, but also very young and probably not ready to be a consistent positive. Backup point guard Trey Burke can make shots, but runs Washington's offense about as well as he did the same job in Utah, which is to say not very well. Smith has blended in decently enough with the starting unit, but Washington's offense stalls completely when he is on the floor without the rest of the starters. The Wizards have started using him as a floor spacer and three-point shooter over the last few games with decent results, but that's likely not sustainable given that he is a career 30 percent shooter from behind the arc.
Washington has a nice core of fairly young perimeter players in Wall, Beal, and Porter, the latter of whom is having a breakout season. But beyond the team's top five guys, it lacks the talent to compete with the top teams in the Eastern Conference. Even if they make the playoffs—where starting units play the sort of extended minutes Brooks already has been forced to employ—they'll be exposed whenever players like Oubre, Smith, and Thornton check into games.
Bigger picture, Washington has some promise, but will remain stuck in mediocrity unless it can add some front court athleticism and bench production. Given the team's thin collection of assets—most of Washington's bench contracts would require sweeteners to move in a trade, and the franchise can't afford to deal its handful of productive players—it will be difficult, if not impossible, to make that happen. The Wizards will be interesting to watch for the rest of the season, and could even challenge one of the East's second-tier teams in a playoff season. But they're far, far away from competing with powers such as Cleveland and Toronto.
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