Editor’s note: This is the 50th post in DCIAB history. Thanks to all who’ve supported us and read our work thus far. Hopefully we don’t totally suck.
I was never a basketball fan in my youth, and thus never really developed a strong passion for the Chicago Bulls. Sure, I watched with joy as Ben Gordon tore through the Boston Celtics’ defense in game two for 42 points in a 118-115 loss. I also reminisced with fellow DCIABer Harry Kroll just last night about Andrés Nocioni, aka “That dude who played pretty well sometimes and hit a bunch of threes for the Bulls in NBA Live ’07”. I even own a pair of Ben Wallace’s shorts. They do not fit.
Nominally, I was a fan of the Bulls, but I just didn’t have the emotional connection with the team that I wanted. As I got more and more into basketball late in high school, I started watching a greater number of teams from around the league through nationally televised games. I started playing the wonderful NBA 2k series on my Xbox and enjoyed experimenting with some of the league’s unique players. By the end of my junior year, I was able to list on command the top seven or eight rotation players for all 30 NBA teams (I can no longer do this).
Through this basketball soul-searching, there was one team that always stuck out to me the most. One team whose players were quirky and fun to play with, yet a team whose bandwagon lay empty by the side of the road. A team that I would end up following for the last few years and whose games I would eventually start watching regularly. A team that I now annoyingly tweet about far too frequently for my followers’ tastes. That team was, and is, the Washington Wizards.
Nearly our entire readership hails from the Chicagoland area, so I suspect the majority of our readers are fans of the Chicago Bulls. Having watched the majority of the Wizards’ games this season, I feel pretty qualified to tell you what exactly this team is all about. Without further ado, here is your guide to the Washington Wizards.
SEASON IN REVIEW
Before the season even began, the makeup of this Wizards team changed in a big way. Center Emeka Okafor, a key member of last year’s starting five, went down with a brutal neck injury that has sidelined him for the entirety of the season. Okafor was crucial defensively for the Wizards and his injury quickly highlighted the team’s lack of frontcourt depth. Wizards GM Ernie Grunfeld (fans don’t like him) acted quickly, dealing their 2014 first round pick and the injured Okafor to the upstart Phoenix Suns. In return, the Suns sent over one of their best players, 30-year old center Marcin Gortat.
The Wizards began their season 2-7, finishing that run with a tough overtime loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers at home. The success (or lack thereof) of the Cavaliers has sort of become a benchmark for many Wizards fans. The Cavs have a super talented young backcourt and a bunch of failed or semi-failed draft picks around them, just like the Wizards. The franchises are similarly mocked by the national media (though that has been limited some with this Wizards playoff run) and are probably set to be partners in mediocrity for the foreseeable future. Losing this early game to their closest thing to a rival franchise was probably the low point of the season for Wizards fans.
After that rough start, the Wizards finally kicked into gear and started winning games. One notable stretch of the year came in mid-January, as the Wizards won three games in a row against the Bulls, Heat, and Bulls again to reach .500 for the third time this season. They fought to stay at or above that level for most of the remaining games, until finally sustaining their winning ways long enough to enter the last week of the season three games above .500.
At this time, the Wizards were slotted into the sixth seed and set for a date with the three seed Toronto Raptors, who beat them three out of four times this year. After a tough loss to the Charlotte Bobcats, the Wizards briefly fell into the seventh seed, but they won four-in-a-row to end their year. Through some strategic tanking by Miami and Brooklyn, the Wizards were able to finish in fifth place and now prepare for a date with your Chicago Bulls.
THE STARTING FIVE
This is one of two positions where the Wizards have an advantage over the Bulls. D.J. Augustin has been good since Chicago picked him up midseason, but John Wall is having a great year in his fourth NBA season.
For the first time in his career, Wall has played all 82 games of the regular season. He leads the league in total assists (721) and dishes out 8.7 assists per 36 minutes. Casual fans may not know this about Wall, but his jumper has improved greatly over the last two years. Wall shot 23.6 percent on three point shots in his first two years in the league. This year, he’s shooting just over 35 percent from beyond the arc even while taking two more threes per game.
His jumper has improved and his assists are up, but Wall is not without faults. He still turns the ball over too much to be the best passing guard in the league. Wall will also frequently lack the aggression Wizards fans want out of their best player. Wall goes through stretches where he will drive easily into the lane, have an open path to the hoop, then quickly pass out to a shooter instead of taking the easy layup. The hope for the Wizards is that his occasional lack of aggression is phased out due to playoff intensity.
Beyond the stats, here are two things I guarantee you’ll notice while watching Wall:
1. By far, Wall’s favorite spot on the court is the right elbow. He’ll frequently run a pick and roll with a big man at the top of the arc, then quickly dart to the elbow for a jumper. Trust me, you won’t be able to stop recognizing this jumper. Wall takes it two or three times a game, and it could be even more due to the way the Bulls’ big men sag off in PnR defense. His preference is clearly reflected in his shooting heat map, which is red in the areas Wall acquires most of his points:
Courtesy of Basketball-Reference
2. Wall is absolutely fantastic at cross-court skip passes to spot-up shooters. This is a big part of what makes John Wall my favorite NBA player, and you’ll almost certainly see a few awesome passes like this one over the course of the series:
Before the season began, the biased fan in me got a little too excited about the Wizards’ young shooting guard, Bradley Beal. In our NBA preview, I said the following about Brad:
Bradley Beal is going to breakout soooooo hard this year. Trust me on this. He might be better than John Wall. As a biased Wizards fan, I’m beyond thrilled.
WELP. Unfortunately for my excited preseason self, Beal has been about the same this year as he was last year, albeit in a slightly different role. He’s not even close to as good as Wall, but there’s still plenty of time for the young 20-year old to develop.
To my mild distaste, the Wizards spent much of this year trying to expand Beal’s basketball proficiencies at the cost of efficiency. Beal was thought of as more of a spot-up shooter than a ball handler coming into the league, and it would appear the Wizards are trying to change that. The main difference has come in an expanded role for Beal in PnR situations. More specifically, he’s being asked to create his own two-point field goals much more frequently.
In his rookie year, Beal took just over 450 shots from inside the arc, and over 64 percent of them were assisted by a teammate. This year, Beal has taken 800 two-point shots and just 51 percent were assisted. The reason for this is simple: Beal is taking a ton of midrange jumpers this year via the pick and roll.
Though that may help Beal in the future, it’s almost certainly not the most efficient way to use him now. Beal is a lights-out shooter from three point range, especially from the corners. As a Wizards fan, I’m hoping they limit his pick and roll play now that the playoffs have come, and allow him to do what he does best: shoot the dang three pointer.
One of the few Wizards with a heap of playoff experience, Trevor Ariza mans the small forward position for Washington. In my opinion, this is the only other position where the Wizards hold an edge over the Bulls. Ariza has been a lock-down defender for most of his career, but just recently he has become a knock-down shooter as well:
For those who may not be stat fans, “eFG %” represents the “Effective Field Goal Percentage” for a player. This is just the player’s shooting percentage calculated to account for three pointers being worth more than two pointers. The formula is (FGM + 0.5 * 3P FG) / FGA. 3PAr is the percentage of a player’s shot attempts that are three pointers.
Through this chart, you can see Ariza’s rise to becoming a prolific shooter. He’s no Kyle Korver, but his spot-up percentages from the corners and wings have greatly increased year-over-year. The majority of the Wizards’ offense comes from two places: Ariza/Beal threes/jumpers and John Wall running the pick and roll.
Though oft-injured, power forward Nene Hilario (who goes merely by “Nene”) may be more important to the Wizards than any player not named John Wall. Nene is a solid post defender who will provide a challenge for Carlos Boozer and Taj Gibson. He won’t run the pick and roll with Wall quite as much as Gortat will, but that is certainly a part of his game. Nene’s offense comes mostly from pick and pop jump shots from 12-18 feet, and he shoots them at a decent rate. He also dunks more ferociously than most players in the league.
From Nene, you can probably expect a bunch of 12-point/7-rebound performances. Over a long series, I wouldn’t be surprised if he has a couple of stretches where he scores eight points in a row, but he’s not a major cog in the offense. His rebounding is pretty average, and if you ask him, he has absolutely never fouled anybody in his career. Nevertheless, this man is probably the X-factor for the team and his performance should go a long way towards determining Washington’s success.
I’ve already mentioned him plenty of times throughout this piece, but Marcin Gortat is a name that probably cannot come up enough when talking about this team. His ability to run the pick and roll simply cannot be overstated. He sets solid screens and is rarely lazy, and he can finish as well as the best players in the league at the rim.
From Marcin, you can expect constant motion and screens, putbacks, and the very occasional short jumper. Gortat is quite a character and claims he plans to run for office in Poland at the conclusion of his NBA career. That would probably be a stupid thing the announcers could bring up during a boring game.
They’re pretty bad all the way around. Midseason, the Wizards traded for PG Andre Miller, who is a good backup but probably not a huge factor in the series. Martell Webster is perhaps their best player off the bench, and he’ll replace Ariza or Beal as a shooter on the wing at times. Trevor Booker is a hellacious offensive rebounder at the power forward position, but his defense is pretty terrible. Al Harrington and Drew Gooden combine with the aforementioned Miller to make up the AARP Unit, as Wizards Twitter calls them. They’re a bunch of old dudes, but Gooden and Harrington can both shoot well from outside. Harrington also possesses the ability to drive if someone is closing out hard on him.
The Wizards head coach is Randy Wittman.
- Fostered a mature, positive locker room atmosphere after the rough Nick Young/Andray Blatche/Gilbert Arenas years.
- Has schemed a top ten Wizards defense in consecutive years.
- Puts an emphasis on efficient corner threes in transition and halfcourt sets.
- Makes funny faces on a regular basis.
- Frequently horrific time and timeout management.
- Offense relies more on inefficient midrange jumpers than any other in the league, non-Pistons division.
- Not great at setting up plays after timeouts.
- Sometimes blames players for failures instead of looking at his own methods.
- Leaves starters in too long in blowouts and doesn’t give enough minutes to young, developing players.
The Wizards have two mascots, G-Wiz and G-Man. Neither is as cool as Benny the Bull (who is, really), but I like G-Wiz a lot.
So there’s your probably-too-in-depth-and-you-stopped-reading-a-long-time-ago preview of the Washington Wizards. Bulleted recap with key points:
- Though they’ve been a punch line for a while, this Wizards team actually poses a threat due to their solid starting lineup.
- Of note, this Wizards team is very inconsistent. There are days when they are capable of blowing out Miami and Indiana, and there are days where they are capable of losing to the Sixers and Bucks.
- John Wall is good and loves the right elbow more than you’ve ever loved anything in your life.
- Brad Beal and Trevor Ariza are knock-down three point shooters who probably aren’t being used perfectly.
- The Wizards’ starting big men are pretty good, but not great. Noah and Gibson will be able to play their typically-fearsome defense, but both Nene and Gortat will score.
- Randy Wittman will screw up any two-for-one situations that present themselves and will screw up fouling and timeouts at the end of games.
I’m still considering writing a breakdown of the actual match-up between these two teams, but it all depends on how much time I have before Sunday. If you’re still here, you are a warrior. I will reward you with this awesome dunk and resulting Nae-Nae: