Matt Cianfrone is the newest contributor to Hickory-High. Over the next few weeks he’ll be offerring his Off-Season Help Guides, looking at how each team might upgrade itself in the draft or free-agency. You can follow him on Twitter, @Matt_Cianfrone.
The Washington Wizards jump-started their offseason “rebuilding” phase mid-season when they jettisoned Nick Young and JaVale McGee, finally freeing John Wall from two of the biggest head cases in the league. It signaled a departure from the team’s philosophy of potential being more important than basketball IQ and actual results. After the trades Wall was teamed with a veteran in Nene who always played hard and smart, giving Wall the experience of playing with at least one competent teammate he could consistently count on. This offseason is key for Washington if they want to be able to continue to grow and let Wall flourish as most people think he can. The team needs to adds more players like Nene – tough, smart and hard working – and not fall back into a trap of potential that someone like Andre Drummond would bring. Luckily for them there are multiple players who can help this plan in both the draft, and free agency.
Problem – Off-Ball Play
The Wizards’ problems are interesting in that the worst off them all occur off of the ball, no matter which end of the floor one looks at. Offensively the Wizards were bad in almost every area this season but two of the three worst areas in terms of points per possession took place off the ball, spot-ups and working off of screens.
On the other end of the floor the problem is even more glaring. For the season the Wizards ranked 15th overall in points per possession in the league by allowing only 0.88. Things were even better in four individual categories, as the team ranked in the top eleven in defending isolations, pick-and-roll ball handlers and roll men, and post ups. In two of those categories, post-ups and pick-and-roll ball handlers, the team was in the top five. Yet in all of the off the ball categories – spot-up opportunities, off screens, and off cuts- the team was 23rd or worse.
Offensively the problems are easy to explain. Washington was full of players who could not shoot. Not counting Trevor Booker, who was 1 for 2 for the year, the Wizards had six players shoot over 30% from three this season. Of those six players only Chris Singleton played in 66 games. Cartier Martin only played 17 games, Roger Mason only played in 52, Mo Evans played in only 24, Nick Young was traded, and Morris Almond played in only 4 games. Things only got worse when looking at the minutes each player played. Mason only played 13.4, Evans only 14.3, and Almond 16.8. Even Singleton and Martin only just passed the 20 minute per game mark at 21.7 and 23 minutes respectively. So the Wizards “shooter” became Jordan Crawford who played 27.4 minutes per game and shot over 4 threes per game. Unfortunately for Washington he only made 28.9 percent of those attempts. Even worse for Crawford he was the worst 3 point shooter in the league from the left wing, where he hit only 16 percent of shots according to Kirk Goldsberry.
Obviously these shooting woes contribute to the Wizard’s off ball offense struggles. It is hard to be successful in spot-up situations or when working off screens for open shots, if players are not good shooters to begin with. These problems allowed opponents to back up into the paint and cause problems for the Wizards penetrators and post scorers.
Defensively things are a bit harder to nail down. Looking at some clips from mySynergySports, two things stand out. First the team’s communication seems to be a problem. On many of the off screen attempts the Wizards’ defense does a terrible job of helping their teammate who is getting screened. On multiple plays it looked like the defender who was being screened had no idea a screen was coming. On others it looks as if some players are playing screens in a completely different way as others, either switching, going under or going over the top, away from help. On cuts defenders just allow their man to run right to the basket without following them, as if they expected a switch for some reason and did not get it.
The second thing that seems to contribute to the problem is how ineffectively the team closed out on shooters. Many times the Wizards closed out to the side of the shooter, without a hand up, or just plain lazy. This problem should be able to be fixed easily as most of it can be cured with some more effort. While it may not solve all the problems itself better closeouts should at least allow Washington to improve their defensive numbers a bit.
Free Agent Who Can Help - Courtney Lee
Lee is a restricted free agent so the Rockets may match any offers that he gets. However he is someone who the Wizards should take a long, hard look at attempting to acquire. Lee would be an instant upgrade at shooting guard over Crawford on both ends of the floor, especially in the areas the Wizards struggle. Lee has shot over 40 percent from three each of the last two seasons and for the year he was 0.14 points per possession better in spot-up situations than Crawford. This added dimension to the offense would make defenders have to stay home on Lee when Wall penetrates or Nene gets the ball in the post. The transition for Lee would be easy as well since spotting up was where he spent most of his time last season, 35.5% of his offensive possessions. Lee may not be as comfortable off of screens as Crawford, but the differences would be more than offset at the defensive end of the floor.
Lee held opponents to a 12.3 PER compared to Crawford’s opponent’s 16.6, and some of the difference can be attributed to spots where the Wizards as a group struggled with last season. In spot-up situations, of which the two defended 146 attempts, Lee allowed only 0.89 points per possession compared to Crawford’s 1.01. Things were similar in defending players off screens. Lee gave up only 0.72 points per game for the season which was good for 23rd in the league. Lee’s success in defending these possession types comes from strong close-outs. He uses his great leaping ability and quickness to get into a shooter’s face. Lee also works hard to get through screens and to get to spotting up shooters, even if they were not his responsibility in the first place. That energy and hustle would be a great thing for the Wizards to add, hoping it rubs off on people like Crawford and other youngsters on the team.
Rookie That Would Help – Bradley Beal
From most reports the Wizards choice will come down to Beal or Kentucky freshman Mike Kidd-Gilchrist; and either of them should be able to help the Wizards in plenty of ways. I chose Beal for this spot because of the offensive punch he would add, especially from behind the arc. Beal had a very interesting year at Florida and his similarity scores show that. At 6 foot 4 Beal was asked to play most of the season at small forward and by the end of the season he was even logging some minutes at power forward due to injuries for the Gators. The minutes logged at those positions allowed six of the top ten similarity scores to be small forwards, far from the comparisons to Ray Allen that followed him through his young career into the spotlight.
What that time at Florida and out of position did do though is allow Beal to become good at multiple aspects of the game, ones that would fit in Washington perfectly next season. Beal learned how to effectively move without the ball and around screens which on a team where he would be added offense behind Wall and Nene. Beal also learned how to rebound well, even as an undersized small forward. He will continue to be on the small side for his position in the NBA, so that experience of being effective against bigger and stronger players should serve him well.
While Beal did not show fantastic defensive skills he did show two things that are much needed by the Wizards, toughness and communication. What really struck me last season when Beal’s Gators came to Athens was how well he communicated. It was something that surprised me as the freshman was one of the most vocal members of the Florida team. That habit is something that the Wizards seem to lack and something that would help him to be able to work through screens and not lose his man off cuts, like some members of the team do. The toughness was obvious throughout the season as he led the team in rebounding even while playing out of position. Those characteristics would fit perfectly into a roster that has been cleansed of problems and give Wall a backcourt mate who complements his skills well and would grow with him perfectly.
Luckily for the Wizards where they pick in the draft provides a choice of two players who could seriously help their problems. Beal seems to fit in a bit more than Kidd-Gilchrist, but either player would add the toughness that Washington needs. As they team showed last season they are done hanging onto players because of “potential” only and the draft will allow them to continue to add high character players to their organization. What they must do is make sure whoever they do choose to add compliments Wall, as he is the present and future of the team and they need to be ready when the jump from very good to great happens.