When last year’s Washington Wizards slayed the Raptors in four games and later found themselves in the second round against Atlanta, the league’s second-best squad at the time, many assumed the Wizards were to become the next breakthrough team to hit the Eastern Conference. The logic behind such thinking was sound, even if reality decided to paint a different picture.
The Wizards have played 25 games this season and are at a not-so-inspiring 11-14, heavily suggesting their supposed breakthrough is a dud, or at least on standby. Sure, there’s been injuries – and lots of them – but with superstar John Wall (hey, we all used this term last year!) available for all games, you would at least think he could have led his guys to playing .500 ball. Unfortunately, the problems are slightly deeper than just a lack of talent around him. Washington is 7-10 in Bradley Beal’s 17 appearances of the season and the hot start to his fourth year, where it looked like he’d take a similar leap like Jimmy Butler and Klay Thompson, is now long gone.
Beal’s 19.8 points is a 4.5 point increase from last season, just as he’s averaging a career-high in rebounds and made three’s a game, but he remains below average in terms of efficiency, and his PER is strikingly similar to that of previous years. Washington’s decline has, ironically, coincided with an increased focus on the three-pointer which was an area Randy Wittman took frequent critique for not exploring more beforehand. They’re 15th in three-pointers attempted a game, compared to 27th last year, and 12th in accuracy at 35.3% going into Monday’s game against Sacramento. The new dimension has them with a very similar 103 points per 100 possessions to last year’s 103.7 rate, which places them in the same area offensively last year. Unfortunately, this means two things:
- Their problem lies elsewhere (hint: On the other end of the court).
- Their offense isn’t good enough to overcome other areas of weaknesses like bad defense.
And yes, it’s the defense that’s fallen apart pretty drastic since last year. The Wizards were terrific at forcing the ball to stop in the hands of their opponents, allowing a league-worst 19.9 assists per game, making it far more difficult for teams to make efficient passes against them that would lead directly to scores.
This led to opponents’ eFG% of 48.1% (fifth best in the league from Washington’s point of view) which helped allow Washington’s unsexy offense to survive. While blocks and steals are always stats that one needs to be careful of, it’s never a good sign to rank last in the league, as Washington is now in the blocks department. As a team, the Wizards have 89 of them, 15 less than Hassan Whiteside.
Also breathing a lot of air into that survival tactic was the rebounding. Washington ranked eighth in rebounds and third in DREB%, minimizing offensive rebounding. This year, they’re dead-last in raw rebounds a game at just 40.4, and their DREB% is only ranked 16th. That last bit can be somewhat explained by Nene’s injury.
He’s missed 13 games due to his left calf, and in the 12 games he has played in, he’s been limited, averaging just 17.4 minutes a game. While Nene has never been a strong rebounder, he’s big, wide, and agile, and excellent at boxing out. With Washington missing that component, more of the rebounding responsibilities falls on Marcin Gortat, who, after all, is closing in on his 32nd birthday and never was a bulky guy who could push people aside.
His nine rebounds per game leads the team, but his TRB% of 16.8% falls outside the league’s Top 20 and with no other Wizard in double figure percentages with over 400 minutes played – though Kris Humphries and his 14.4% rate over 362 minutes falls close – it’s no wonder these Wizards are missing something on the backboard.
Let’s go back to injuries for a second, because it’s a point that needs to be made. This team wouldn’t be 11-14 if Beal and Nene were fully healthy all year long, even if Beal’s improvements appear to be marginal. But you still have to ask yourself if this team was going to live up to the expectations that were put at their feet going into this season.
Losing Paul Pierce, who worked as their closer in the playoffs, might be a bigger loss than what it appeared to be on the surface, especially seeing as third-year man Otto Porter still has some ways to go before solidifying himself as the team’s full-time solution at the three spot. He’s terrific around the rim, converting on 75.4% from within three feet, but primarily takes ineffective jump shots (193 of his 250 field goal attempts on the year have been jumpers) in hopes of finding himself some sense of rhythm.
Overall, these Wizards are for the most part victims of significant injuries and bad timing. But to fully reclaim their place in the Eastern Conference hierarchy, they will need to look at their roster from a long-term perspective. Beal has only managed to break the 70 games played barrier once in his career, and lord knows Nene has missed time. He’s gone through everything from a torn ACL to testicular cancer, and at 33, his body isn’t going to be feeling younger anytime soon.
If Washington is hell-bent on utilizing John Wall’s prime efficiently, as they should be, perhaps a minor re-tooling process should be in the cards.