The Magic Of Washington’s Transition Game, And The Curse Of The Mid-Range
Now that many NBA teams have played at least seven or eight games, the sample size has grown large enough that it’s not comical to draw conclusions about what a team does and does not do well. And after seven games, it’s become safe to say that the Washington Wizards, of all teams, might be growing into corner 3 royalty. And to no one’s surprise, John Wall has a lot to do with it.
Only Houston shoots a higher volume of 3s per game than Washington, and only five teams shoot a higher percentage from deep, but therein lies the problem: The Wizards shoot 50% from both corners, yet it’s their own weaknesses that prevent them from being able to consistently take advantage of that strength outside of fast break opportunities.
To the right is Washington’s distribution of 3-point attempts this season and its performance from each spot. The Wizards shoot 11 percent better than the league average from either corner, yet more than half of their attempts come from either wing. Why stray so far from what works? Washington and Miami, for example, have taken the same number of 3s from both corners combined (64) this season. The Wizards have played one fewer game than the defending champs, but they also shoot 6 more 3s per game than Miami, and only one of those extra attempts comes from the corner. Washington is only able to easily find the corner in transition. It’s in their halfcourt game that the Wizards find themselves unable to reach their safe haven.
Shooting anywhere besides the corner would be alright for most teams, but the Wizards are so good at it that it’s puzzling why they stray from it so often. For example, against Dallas on Tuesday, Trevor Ariza was smoking hot from the corners, shooting 3-of-6 from those spots. Ariza is at his best in transition (as are the rest of Washington’s shooters), when he can benefit from the unbelievable open-court speed of John Wall.
Here we see Wall take only three dribbles to get from one 3-point arc to the other before drawing in the defenders (Vince Carter, most importantly, the man who’s responsible for guarding Ariza) and dishing a pass to the open shooter. Easy stuff. Three Dallas defenders simultaneously tried to cut off Wall, and no one was able to do so.
In the next clip, Wall was able to accelerate to an entirely different gear on his way to the basket, and en route he was able to again draw Ariza’s defender toward the rim and away from Washington’s most potent spot on the floor: the right corner. Ariza and Bradley Beal are especially lethal from that spot, hitting a combined 11-of-21 shots there this season. And it wasn’t only against the Mavericks, a relatively poor team in terms of transition defense, that Washington was able to excel off a miss. The Wizards did it against Miami, too.
Ariza was 3-of-3 from that same spot against Miami. Clearly, Wall is the lynchpin of Washington’s corner-3 attack — Ariza and Beal are the beneficiaries of a point guard with transcendent agility in transition. The pair are Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, in 3-point attempts in catch-and-shoot opportunities in the league, per SportVU, and both of them shoot higher than 45 percent in those situations. Wall, meanwhile, creates 24.3 points from his 9.6 assists per game. Only Chris Paul creates more points, and only Nate Wolters averages more than Wall’s 2.6 secondary assists per game. (Wall’s 19.4 assist opportunities per game is also second-best to Paul.) Where the Wizards run into trouble is in the halfcourt, specifically when Beal or Ariza are forced to put the ball on the floor, typically the end result of either a poor play design or bad execution.
Take this sequence against the Mavericks, for example. Nene receives a John Wall pass at the elbow and immediately looks to Ariza, left wide-open, in that dangerous right corner. Shawn Marion steps over to challenge Nene at the elbow (it feels like he receives more than the 5 elbow touches per game SportVU has him at) and deflects a sloppy pass, ultimately leading to a turnover.
In theory, the play was a good one. In the future, though, Nene must recognize that when the defense presses Wall off of his screen, Nene should immediately swing the ball to Ariza in that corner. Instead, Nene hesitated, and went with a chest pass against an active defender like Marion. Turnover. The Wiz had the look, though. (I’m not just hating on Nene. He does make some good passes, like this for example.)
If you can keep Beal off the arc, you’re in good shape. Unlike Ariza, who takes an enormous percentage of his shots from either very far away or very close to the rim, Beal takes five shots per game from between 15-19 feet, per NBA stats. Beal is constantly running off of screens and cutting toward and away from the basket — he moves 2.9 miles per game, the highest in the league. It’s understandable that he shoots so many mid-range shots, as teams are looking to run Beal off the 3-point line as much as possible (Oklahoma City fell victim to Beal’s 6-of-8 3-point shooting performance when the Thunder couldn’t effectively pressure his shot quickly enough), but Beal must develop some sort of consistent off-the-dribble jumper in order for Washington to continue its success from deep.
The shooting guard has not gotten off to an efficient start from the mid-range this season after performing generally well from 15-19 feet (40 percent) last season. I would guess it’s a sluggish start, as Beal was excellent last season when playing with Wall, and was not as statistically superior without him. Against the Mavericks, a team that has not done a brilliant job of running shooters off the line, Beal was only able to put up two 3-pointers — both of which came from passes by Nene, not Wall. Dallas defenders were violently closing out on Beal throughout the game, yet he was only able to reach the rim once, an area where he converts 59.3 percent of his attempts. Dallas made it a point to target Beal specifically, and it wouldn’t surprise me if more teams did in the future, especially after seeing what he did in Oklahoma City.
Regardless of how teams choose to defend Beal, Wall is the engine that keeps Washington moving forward, and he’s flanked by two of the game’s more dangerous corner shooters. Al Harrington’s shotchart aside, the Wizards have generally performed well from beyond the arc, and it’s the transition game that keeps that machine running. Bradley Beal and Trevor Ariza aren’t exactly difficult to defend by themselves, but it’s John Wall’s presence, particularly when he’s attacking the basket with blistering pace, that opens up the good looks from the perimeter that have propelled Washington to an above-average 3-point shooting start. The Wizards’ transition 3-point game should be the envy of the league (or of everyone except Miami, at least).
The season is becoming old enough now that trends begin popping up. Beal, for example, is struggling from outside the paint and inside the 3-point line, but if he gets a clean look, chances are it’s falling. Ariza is a distance-shooting monster in transition. And Wall is the spoon that stirs that savory stew.