Take a moment and ask yourself why the Washington Wizards were a good team last season. Rattling off the names of John Wall, Bradley Beal, Paul Pierce, Marcin Gortat, and more isn’t enough. What attribute, specifically, most accounted for Randy Wittman’s club winning 46 games and posting the league’s 12th-best net rating in 2014-15?
Defense is the answer, but a majority of NBA fans surely wouldn’t know it. Washington’s 100.0 defensive rating was a top-five mark last season, just .7 points per 100 possessions behind the Milwaukee Bucks’ second-ranked number.
Surprising, right? Wall is a world-class defender, and Nené still has his moments switching onto smaller ball handlers in late shot clock situations. But otherwise, there wasn’t a single player on the Wizards’ roster who would be universally considered as an obvious positive on that side of the ball. It’s certainly a testament to Wittman’s scheming that Washington managed an elite defense despite less than elite personnel, and also speaks well of the team’s general commitment and understanding, too.
Consistently stingy defense is indicative of this enviable amalgam more than anything else — good coaching paired with unwavering cohesion. And after a quiet summer that involved little roster turnover, there’s no reason to believe the Wizards won’t have it again in 2015-16. What will decide whether or not they could emerge as the top contender for the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Eastern Conference throne, then, is the other end of the floor – and a wholesale change in offensive philosophy ensures that Wall and company will have the chance to do it.
In Washington’s preseason win over over the Philadelphia 76ers earlier this week, the team scored 129 points. It connected on 15-of-26 from beyond the arc, dished 36 assists on 48 made field goals, and managed approximately 110 possessions. The Wizards’ breakneck, motion-heavy, space-filled offense stood in stark contract to their system from last season, when they ranked 19th in points per possession, 16th in pace, and 28th in three-point tries per field goal attempt.
And though the substandard competition and meaningless stakes are indeed worth noting, Washington’s new style of play also wasn’t an accident. As Wittman told Jorge Castillo of The Washington Post after the game, his players simply applied what they’d been working on in training camp to real game action.
“Well, it’s a start,” Wittman said. “You never know what to expect the first game. I was pleasantly surprised on a couple fronts. I thought our energy and commitment for what we are trying to do was there for 48 minutes.”
The eye test certainly certainly confirmed as much. The Wizards ran up and down the floor with abandon on Tuesday, pushing the tempo at every opportunity – whether in transition of the half court. Especially encouraging was a frequently used set that began with a dribble hand-off between Porter and Beal on the wing before Wall, who comes off a down screen on the weak side, takes the ball from Beal and initiates a quick-hitting high pick-and-roll with Gortat.
That was Washington’s first possession against Philadelphia, and many others throughout the game began with that initial hand-off on the side and an accompanying pin-down on the other. But just as encouraging as all of that movement and those stellar statistics, though, are the lineups Wittman employed and how the Wizards’ power forwards made a conscious effort to space the floor – both by launching from beyond the arc or simply positioning themselves behind it.
Both Kris Humphries and Drew Gooden were 2-of-4 on triples, while Porter – who played small-ball 4 for brief stretches – made all four of his long-range tries. Humphries started at power forward, too, a change that Wittman says isn’t yet set in stone but is nevertheless indicative of a long-term change in his opening lineup.
“I can view a lot of starting lineups with this team depending on who we’re playing,” Wittman said. “I’ll have to keep working at that, and look at Nene at the five and [Gortat] at the five and see what we can produce there.”
Under the postseason magnifying glass, Washington’s long-time interior tandem of Nené and Gortat proved unplayable. The pair posted a dismal 94.9 offensive rating in the playoffs, a sobering and perhaps unyielding reality of their limitations that helped open the door for downsized lineups featuring Pierce at power forward. That’s where the Wizards feasted offensively last spring, and Wittman is clearly using the blueprint laid out by those units as inspiration to helm his new offense.
It would be foolish to expect Washington to emerge as a top-tier offensive team this season. There are too many moving parts involved in this evolution for that to prove the case, and maybe not even enough raw talent on the Wizards’ roster. But maximizing the strengths of its best players is always the best way for any team to realize its utmost potential, and Washington is doing that by ensuring Wall and Beal will have as much room to operate as possible.
Will it result in a NBA Finals berth for Washington? Probably not. But what this major shift in ideology could do is make the Wizards more well-equipped than any other team in the East to capitalize on injury luck going against the prohibitive favorites, which is far more than what they could say last season.
*Statistical support for this post courtesy of nba.com/stats.
[Via The Washington Post]