The Washington Wizards have started out the season as poorly–even though this is one of their best starts in the past four years. The Wizards are a lowly 2-7 and have reached the pinnacle of disappointment after losing to the decomposing Cleveland Cavaliers who have had locker room issues and who’s best player has struggled early in the season.
The Wizards slogan for this year has been no more excuses and to their credit they haven’t really made any. Through the scrutiny that they’ve faced this season and how poorly they have played, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least bit to see some of them ducking their tails between their legs and running from the moment. But they’ve stuck through it, for the most part, and taken responsibility for their poor play.
Aside from Nene’s frustration after a loss to the Spurs, we really haven’t seen any dissension from the guys in the locker room. A vast majority of the public that care about the Wizards have been ready to can Randy Wittman since their initial 0-3 start to the season but the players have stuck behind him. Bradley Beal even gave a vote of confidence by stating that he thinks that it’s on the players to perform.
And, for the most part, he’s right. The Wizards do have the talent to perform at a high level but they just aren’t doing it. They’re executing things poorly on the court and not really fixing things off of it. The coaching does have something to do with that because it’s the coaches job to make sure they players know what they’re executing, but if Wittman is doing all that he can the players on the roster just have to make due.
But the mystery here is a really basic question–what is making the Wizards so bad? Well, there are plenty of factors that have contributed to their subpar record. There are some very fixable problems that the Wizards have, but they must get into the motion of fixing them sooner rather than later. If they dig themselves too deep of a hole the playoffs will be nothing but a pipe dream again. And this isn’t supposed to be a team that’s just fighting to get 30 wins on the season.
Problem #1: Rim Protection
Rim protection is the most essential part of an NBA defense. Shots at the rim have the highest conversion percentage in the NBA and are more valued than anything else. The best shots that you can get are rim shots, free throws and three point shots. Those are the shots that will eventually bring you extra points to put you ahead of the opposition.
The Wizards are giving up too many conversions at the rim. Opponents are shooting 67.1% at the rim against the Wiz this season. That’s the highest percentage in the NBA by an entire percentage point. The next worst conversion percentage is 66.1% given up by the Sacramento Kings–a notably horrid defensive team. The Wizards gave up 58% shooting at the rim last season which isn’t the best–it’s more in the middle of the pack. But that’s nine percent less than the conversion percentage they’re giving up this season.
That’s just the impact that Emeka Okafor had on this defense. Shots at the rim weren’t as easily converted because of his ability to sag back into the paint and defend shots coming from various angles. Marcin Gortat has really struggled with that so far this season as a Wizard. This could easily change because this is a new defensive system for him and he has to become accustom to playing a soft coverage.
Gortat had the tendency to hedge above screens in Phoenix–a defense that was terrible in it’s own right. Most of their bigs would give a hard show and give their opponent’s space to dart to the rim past their own man. If you play this more aggressive style of defense then your perimeter must have great communication skills and great help ability. The Suns lacked that last season and that’s why you saw their defense as bad as it was.
Gortat is doing the same thing here, but he isn’t crowding the ball handler in a double the way that you’d like. He’s gotten more and more used to softer coverages as the season has gone along, but he hasn’t mastered it yet. And this is reflected in the Wizards’ opponent’s shot distribution and percentage.
Most of the shots coming from the Wizards’ opponents are at the rim when they play. That’s really unacceptable for a team that was top 10 in the league in terms of defensive efficiency. They’re going to have to correct that if they want to get better.
When you look at the opponent’s shot chart in terms of conversion percentage, it gets worse.
The Wizards aren’t really forcing opponents into shots that they aren’t comfortable with. They’re shooting average marks throughout the entirety of the half court against the Wizards and that can’t happen against a good defense.
The only real good sign here for the Wiz is that they are second to last in terms of opponent shot attempts in the restricted area. How is this? Because the Wizards are good at forcing turnovers. They’re tops in the league at forcing turnovers with 18.1 opponent giveaways per game. The Wizards’ opponents aren’t getting as many shots off as they want to, which reflects good perimeter defending in most cases.
They’ve been able to pressure the ball well on the outside, but they haven’t been able to rotate to the rim. They’ve got to fix this issue by playing less aggressively and making sure someone is at the rim to defend it.
Problem #2: Free throw shooting
The Wizards most notable bad free throw outing was against the Thunder where they shot 13-26 from the free throw line. Remember, the best shots in the game are at the rim, free throws and three point shots. Missing free throws for the Wizards was crucial in this loss because they had plenty of chance to seal the game or blow it open.
But their struggle in that game was just a microcosm of their entire season. The Wizards are tied for last in free throw percentage per game shooting 69.2% from the line. Not only that, but they don’t draw many free throws per game either. They’re only shooting 20.9 free throws per game which would be a solid amount if they hit at least 72% of them.
But they haven’t and the struggles continue. Even John Wall, who has always been capable of drawing free throws, has struggled at getting to the line. He’s only averaged 4.2 free throws per game throughout this season after drawing 6.9 foul shots per game last season. That’s a big part of his offensive game and that’s part of the reason why we see him struggling.
The Wizards have to get the ball inside the paint more off of the drive and try to get their guards to the line. Shooting the midrange jump shot isn’t ideal, but that’s where most of the Wizards shots come from. They aren’t getting to the rim or getting to the line. That leads me to their next problem.
Problem #3: Shot selection and Offensive efficiency
The Wizards had the ninth ranked offense in the league just over a week ago. This week, they’re going to start off at dead last in the league according to NBA.com’s stats tool. They were hitting threes at a phenomenal rate and their midrange shots were actually falling. But, of course, that wouldn’t hold up. They’re still good at shooting threes but they aren’t getting the boost they need from the other two most influential shots.
The Wizards haven’t gotten to the rim enough this season and when you aren’t getting to the rim you aren’t going to draw free throws. They’re shooting 25 threes per game at a whopping 39.1%, but at the rim but they’re only shooting 26.8 shots at the rim per game at only 58.5%. That’s not nearly enough shots at the rim per game for a team with the perimeter athletes that they have. The distribution between the shots at the rim and three point shots shouldn’t be that close.
For example, the Philadelphia 76ers take the most shots in the restricted area in the league. They shoot 35.3 shots at the rim per game and shoot 59.3% on those shots. That’s a point expectancy of 41.8 points at the rim per game. The Wizards, on the other hand, shoot 26.8 shots per game at the rim at 58.5%. Their point expectancy for their shots at the rim this season is 31.6 points per game–an entire 10 point difference between the Sixers and themselves.
This is the Wizards shot distribution from this season.
As you can see, most of the Wizards shots come from the midrange area of the floor. They’re shooting a lot of threes, but their shot output at the rim should be a lot higher than it is in that chart. They need to focus on getting to the rim more in order to increase their efficiency and get their offense back to the way that it was previously.
The Wizards have a lot of work to do in order to get back into position to make the postseason. They’re going to have to fix this offense one step at a time and become a better defensive team as well. This isn’t going to be an easy task, by any means, but if they want to make the postseason berth they’ve dreamed of and soak the drought that they’ve seen since 2008, these things need to happen. If they can’t, well, we should see a complete overhaul of this roster, the front office and the coaching staff.