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Expectations, Meet Reality: A Washington Wizards Season Preview

US Presswire

US Presswire


 
This year, for the first time, Hickory-High will be tackling the challenging of crafting season previews for all thirty NBA teams. Beginning today we’ll be rolling out these previews, one each day, leading up to Opening Night. This was a task of considerable size and complexity and it required the help of every member of our staff. The only guidelines given were that each writer approach team by staying true to their own style and the result is season previews of a difference sort. We hope you enjoy!

The Washington Wizards won 29 games last season, the most they’ve won since 2008. I feel like it’s sort of a backhanded compliment to the Wizards to consider 29 wins a success, but unfortunately that’s what it was. Pro sports teams fight the battle of expectations vs. reality on a yearly basis. Extremely bad NBA teams consistently bottom out to comical extremes, which is, in essence, nuking reality so that expectations might win out after, in the best-case scenario, four or five borderline-unwatchable seasons.

The Wiz fought the good fight, and it seems like things might be turning around. Washington drafted John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter, and basically no one else Jan Vesely during its darkest years, adding Emeka Okafor and Nene last season to bring size, rebounding, and maturity to a franchise that had been toeing the unwatchable line ever since Agent Zero brought a gun to work. The Wizards have been so bad, in fact, that using any advanced metrics to prove any point would look foolish. This is a team with one playoff series win in 30 years, a team that has picked in the top-six in the lottery four years in a row, a team that would have made it five years in a row if it wouldn’t have traded Ricky Rubio for Mike Miller and Randy Foye in 2009, a trade that actually happened.

30 Previews, 30 Days

9/29 – Orlando Magic
9/30 – Charlotte Bobcats
10/1 – Cleveland Cavaliers
10/2 – Phoenix Suns
10/3 – New Orleans Pelicans
10/4 – Sacramento Kings
10/5 – Washington Wizards
10/6 – Detroit Pistons
10/7 – Minnesota Timberwolves
10/8 – Portland Trail Blazers
10/9 – Toronto Raptors
10/10 – Philadelphia 76ers
10/11 – Milwaukee Bucks
10/12 – Dallas Mavericks
10/13 – Boston Celtics
10/14 – Utah Jazz
10/15 – Atlanta Hawks
10/16 – Los Angeles Lakers
10/17 – Houston Rockets
10/18 – Chicago Bulls
10/19 – Golden State Warriors
10/20 – Brooklyn Nets
10/21 – Indiana Pacers
10/22 – New York Knicks
10/23 – Memphis Grizzlies
10/24 – Los Angeles Clippers
10/25 – Denver Nuggets
10/26 – San Antonio Spurs
10/27 – Oklahoma City Thunder
10/28 – Miami Heat
All Previews

There’s a decently well-known scene in “(500) Days of Summer” in which, on the left, the main character’s expectations of a party he’s about to attend are sky-high. He’s not only going to the playoffs. He’s winning the title. (Or he’s getting back together with his ex, but stay with me here.) On the right, however, is what really happens. The party sucks, and he hates himself for going. (He’s the 2008-09 Wizards. Or really any Wizards team since the ‘80s.) Often, that’s the trick losing teams play on their fans, and the same trick bad executives sometimes play on themselves. We expect great things (or at least mediocrity) but instead we get trash. And before long, you begin to expect trash, which oftentimes is your return. That becomes the culture. You become the Pirates, you become the Browns, you become the Washington Wizards.

That said, Washington’s 2012-13 season was doomed from the start for reasons different from the ones that made the team nausea-inducing for five years. Fortunately for observers, the NBA season is long enough that we have a large sample size to judge players and teams. Unfortunately for bad teams, though, it’s also long enough that poor performance during less than half the season – say, 32 games out of 82 – can really send a team’s season to basketball hell. The poor Wizards became victims. John Wall was injured. And, to an extent, so was everyone else. Washington used 25 different starting lineups last season, and two of its five most-common lineups finished a combined 0-12.

Part of the team’s medical misfortune, though, was not exactly unexpected. Nene, after all, isn’t the most durable player in the league. Neither is Emeka Okafor, who miraculously stayed healthy enough to be one of only three Wizards to play more than 61 games. A huge slew of injuries to its starters, uh, “propelled” Washington to a 4-28 start. The season was over before Wall, who missed 33 games and only started 42, got the chance to put on his warm-ups. Things like that happen to a team led by Martell Webster in minutes played. Noteworthy, however, was Washington’s 25-25 record during the final 50 games of the season. Extrapolated for the sake of my argument, the Wizards’ 41-41 record would have been eighth-best in the East, good enough to be swept by Miami get a crack at the Heat in the playoffs.

The “same old Wizards” were essentially bad for different reasons. Their failures could in theory be attributed to bad luck. It’s difficult to predict injuries, even when they happen to historically injury-prone players. Washington’s main problems heading into the offseason, then, were avoiding injury and adding depth in case injury cannot be avoided. If at least one of those problems were solved, the team has a legit chance to make the playoffs. Simple enough. So, how’d they fare?

Washington was lucky to get the third pick in the lottery. Nabbing Porter goes a long way in addressing the team’s depth problem. He can shoot jumpers (and he certainly isn’t afraid to) which only surrounds Wall with more guys who can chuck it efficiently. I’m just being pragmatic here, but it won’t take much for Porter to outdo Jordan Crawford in terms of efficient scoring either in the starting role or coming off the bench. Seriously, trading Crawford to Boston was such a big win for Washington. Either Porter or Webster will come off the bench. Webster theoretically could relieve both Porter and Beal as the primary backup, followed by Trevor Ariza, Garrett Temple, and Glen Rice somewhere later. Suddenly that’s one (or two) less below-average players in Washington’s rotation. That goes a long way when (not if, in Washington’s case) an important starter goes down.

JohnWall_ShotChart

Red. Red everywhere.

It’s almost impossible to stress the shooting additions enough. Wall, Washington’s most important player, cannot shoot. He just can’t. Mechanically speaking, his jump shot is difficult to watch. Statistically, it’s really, really bad. His mid-range game isn’t exactly a threat and he’s not going to shoot the 3. As Washington’s primary offensive weapon, those are difficult weaknesses to overcome without the support of multiple players. But Wall’s connection with his bigs are more important. Synergy says the Wizards ran 339 pick-and-roll plays with Wall as the ball-handler last season, and the team scored only 0.79 points per play, which isn’t getting you far. Wall is often looking to shoot the jumper coming off a pick, which, for him, is also very bad. He took 360 jumpers last season and made 83 of them, according to NBA Stats. That’s good for 23.1%.

The simple solution is that Wall either needs to drive the ball coming off a screen or he needs to pass it. Avoid taking jumpers at all costs. Perhaps Beal and the other 3-point shooters could be the solution, but this goes back to the injury problem: we just don’t know. Beal and Wall played only 460 minutes together last season. Washington was 8 points per 100 possessions better when the pair played at the same time, which, not surprisingly, was the best differential among pairs involving Beal. (Beal and Nene were +5.5, also a good mark, but they played together for less than 700 minutes last season.)

In short, surrounding Wall with good shooters should make Washington better overall, and substituting Wall for A.J. Price should increase Beal’s production. Common sense, I’d say. Washington’s eFG% was higher than its opponents when Beal was paired with each of Washington’s four best players not named Bradley Beal last season. (A random fact I keep stumbling upon is that, other than Wall and Nene, the player that most showed up atop Washington’s list of most efficient players in X category was Webster. Generally, good things happened when he was on the floor.  Either he benefitted from playing on a terrible team, or he’s better than we think. I’m undecided.)

Unfortunately for Washington, adding more depth outside the draft this offseason was practically impossible, and it might continue to be difficult moving forward. The Wizards’ payroll is somehow higher than that of San Antonio, Dallas, Denver, Atlanta, and Houston. Good free agents would rather play for those teams than Washington (it goes back to the expectations vs. reality thing), let alone heading anywhere in New York or L.A. It’s also very difficult – right now, at least – to convince a free agent that, despite Washington’s terminally poor expectations, the reality might finally begin exceeding the expectations. The Wizards might actually be good this season… or, good for a usually terrible team playing in a top-heavy, mostly awful conference.

But back to the free agents: Washington’s bench might continue to be pitiful for a few years. No payroll, no winning culture, and no realistic title chances do not an attractive team make. Washington would theoretically have to overpay two or three times for even a J.J. Redick-level free agent. Okafor’s contract comes off the books this season, and Andray Blatche’s amnestied corpse comes off the year after. Washington might soon have money to spend, but by then the Wizards will have to choose if extending Beal is a good idea. Washington must be careful to avoid overspending on the free agent market, but it kind of has to in order to build a competitive team. This current crop of Wizards might be able to hang with the Raptors and Bucks of the world, but it surely can’t stand up to Miami or Indiana. At least right now.

When it comes down to it, though, if Washington finishes 7th or 8th in the East, all the expectations would be exceeded. The season would be a success. Fans would be happy, the players would be happy, ownership would probably be happy. Heck, that’s one less team looking to tank. Everyone wins. Isn’t that what it’s all about anyway?

  • nich obert

    Okafor really isn’t that injury prone. He has that lost final season in NOLA (with rumblings about how Tankitis kept flaring up at that), and he has played 67+ games in 6 of the other past 7 years. 67, 82,82,82, 72,27,79

    That’s durable for a 30mpg big man. At least in the upper 25%

    • Bobby Karalla

      First, thanks for commenting.

      I pulled Wall’s shooting numbers from the “Jump Shot” section on his stats.nba.com profile. Like Synergy, which can often wrongly categorize a play, it wouldn’t shock me if NBA Stats’ numbers disagree with figures from other sites. As for the shot chart itself, I simply generated an image of it from the same site. I did notice the 56-of-72 number, but I also noticed the 21-90 number on his “layup shots,” which might mean there’s a big problem with the way NBA.com labels shots. (He was almost 55% within 5 feet… how is that possible if he missed nearly 70 layups?)

      John Wall might generally be an improving shooter, but his eFG was more than 5 points below last year’s league average, and his offensive rating was a point below league average. It’s obvious he’s finally improving as a player (except for his 3-point shooting, his numbers are going up across the board year after year) but, like Westbrook, you’d rather him shoot 10 jumpers every night. Maybe I’m an idealist, but could you imagine how unguardable Wall could be if he developed even a respectable 3-point shot? He’s never been above 30%. It’s a bummer.

      Unfortunately, I filed the piece before (and I believe it was posted the morning of) Okafor’s neck injury. All of Washington’s important defensive numbers (rebounding percentages, efficiency numbers, etc.) were in the top 10, which really is impressive considering the team’s record, and Okafor played an understandably large role in that. Wall’s return also made a night-and-day difference. But for me, the most compelling aspect of the Wizards heading into this season was John Wall’s health and development, and how a (then-)healthy Wiz team could (and probably would) compete for a playoff spot in the East, defying the losing culture that has plagued Washington for years. Thanks again for the comment!

  • nich obert

    Wait where did you find those. John Wall shooting numbers?
    http://stats.nba.com/playerStats.html?PlayerID=202322&groupFeedtype=splitsShooting&MeasureType=Base&PerMode=Totals

    Doesn’t have him shooting 23% from a single zone, much less overall. Basketball Reference has him at 590 jumpers 37.7%, and his shooting form was like night and day from last year to this year, as written about by Zach Lowe and a few different guys at Bullets Forever
    5-9- 51%
    10-14- 38%
    15-19- 36%
    20-24- 39%
    25-29: 28.6% (only 21 shots)

    That 23% ignores pull up jump shot – 56/72, 78%, step back jump shot 8/10 80%, running jump shot 12/23, 53%

    They have him shooting 37.7% from 8-24 feet, 28.6% on 42 threes (from watching every game, I’d peg the number of threes that count as utter desperation heaves in the 10-12 range)

    Russel Westbrook shot 37% from 8-24 feet last year, Rubio shot 33% , Derrick Rose – 38% over his past 2 seasons.

    I thought at the beginning of the year – if Walll’s supposedly improved form can lead to 35% of 2pt jumpers, I’m going to consider it great progress. He got hurt and couldn’t play for months and I wrote that progress off. Then he comes back, his release is more consistent, his head stays level, he follows through, he squares his body to the basket, I’m like holy cow John Wall learned to shoot!! He exceeded my expectations slightly, but that’s enough to drag him out of the bottom of the barrel and make him a merely below average jump shooter, considering his court vision, ability to make guys better, ability to get to the rack and quarterback a solid (nigh elite last year) defense, I can take ‘below average’ for now. The thing is, with those mechanical fixes’ I’m having a hard time imagining him shooting under 40-2% on all 2pt Js this year, and I think we can expect his 3pt numbers to climb into that D-Rose 31-32% range.

    It’s not often you see a teams winning percentage quadruple based on one guy playing instead of sitting. IMO John wall is going to establish himself as one of the more complete guards in the league this year, and all it will take is another uptick in his shooting comparable to the one from last year. Easier said than done, but I expect everyone under 25 to make that kind of incremental improvement – especially after they grasp the technicalities, like Wall has with jump shooting form.

  • nich obert

    One last thing.. Martell Webster was phenomenal last year. The gluiest of glue guys, he was the most popular player in the locker room since Arenas first season (before he wore out his welcome, aka like 3 years before he got that huge contract. Ugh )

    He shot 3s at an elite elite level, and paired that with getting to the line more than any other spot up shooter in the league, along with a litany of ball handlers and bigs who you’d think would draw more fouls than a 4th scoring option spot up shooting 2/3

    His defense want great, it’s a drop off from Ariza who was fantastic on D (and shot over 40% on 3s after Wall came back, again- John wall really does make shooters excel) but he was league average on D. Plenty of effort, lot of talking, decently aware and skilled but not going to knock anyone’s socks off.

    He wasn’t much more valuable than his last season in Portland so I don’t think it was a fluke besides not expecting anyone to shoot 42% on a few hundred threes two years in a row (I think only a handful of guys have shot 40% on 3 on 3+ attempts a game multiple times in the last decade, Nash may have done it more than everyone else who did it multiple times combined)

    So.. Are you saying they’d have to pay JJ Redick a max contract? Carl Landry just signed for what everyone expected in Sacramento, Jarrett Jack got his MLE that everyone saw coming.. In Cleveland. Al Jefferson only got 2 guaranteed years at 13 mil In Charlotte. Maybe he’d sign for 10 a year in LA or something, but only 2 years with an option? At this stage of his career? I think you’re vastly overrating just how much bad teams have to overpay.

    Writing an article on the Wizards and not even mentioning defense is patently bizarre. They had a top 5 D almost all of last year, and the 2nd best in the NBA for that 42 game stretch where they went 24-18 before they started sitting guys. They also had the 2nd best 3pt% during that half season span! top 10 rebounding, top 10 FTAs, and the 9th best point differential in the NBA. That’s with Beal missing something like 15 of those games and Nene missing or playing under 20 minutes on half of them.

    It’s unfortunate that Okafor was such a vital cog. His absence is going to be comparable to the Pacers losing Hibbert. No. Really. The numbers don’t lie. Okafor was elite defensively and pulled his team up to their best defensive season ever, the best defense for a team with under 30 wins in god knows how long.

    Such a shame Wall missed that time. Think they’d have snuck into a 5-6 seed if he didn’t, at least that’s the level they played at once he returned (I try and write off the last 6 games as they had clearly packed it in to get a few ping pong balls and evaluate Wall with different combos of bench guys)

  • manu

    great article!
    and how much effort good and inside knowledge in the comment nich.
    you could habe written your own preview

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