The Prince of Chocolate City

There’s just too many good point guards in the NBA.

Somehow, even with the speed of an Olympic sprinter, even as he practically leads the entire league in assists and any conceivable kind of playmaking statistic. Even as he pulls off the most unfathomable kinds of circus shot (I was at that game!!!) and posts oncourt/offcourt flips in team efficiency that rival Steph Curry in Golden State. Even as he kills Chandler Parsons at the fashion game and breaks your heart with how much he cares for his fans. Even after all of that, John Wall is not the best point guard in the NBA.

But damn, he’s close.

After an especially prolonged period of sorrow post All-Star break, the Wizards ripped off 5 straight, including impressive wins over Memphis and Portland. A lot of that has to do with the return of Bradley Beal from injury, as the ‘Zards are painfully thin when it comes to 3 point shooting or any kind of perimeter playmaking outside of Wall. They now sit in 5th place in the Eastern Conference with a first round opponent in Toronto, perhaps the only team in the East where homecourt advantage will actually matter during the playoffs. Though Washington and the Drakes may flip positions down the stretch, what the Wizards should really be looking to do is catch the Bulls at the 3 spot a game and a half ahead. Going up against the long-armed Milwaukee defense certainly won’t be easy, but it represents a significantly more palatable road to the second road than going through one of the East’s other second tier playoff teams.

Can they get there?

As of a few weeks ago, the Wizards have the league’s easiest remaining strength of schedule (quality of the opponents they will be playing), although Toronto will benefit from more home games during that stretch. Unfortunately, none of those remaining games will come against either of the teams they need to catch, making it harder for Washington to control its own destiny (though after going 0-3 against Toronto on the season, they might not want to). Still, an upcoming home slate with Charlotte, New York, and Philly might be an excellent way to string together a couple of wins and some momentum before the playoffs.

However, what should really be more important than picking up those Ws or climbing up to the 3 spot is team health. I know saying that isn’t any kind of brilliant, analytical insight but tell that to coach Randy Wittman. Only days after returning from a stress injury to his right tibula Wittman had Bradley Beal (a young player with a history of stress fractures) playing over 40 minutes against the Utah Jazz, more than any other player on the team. Beal’s been averaging 38 minutes per game over the last 7, and many people even speculated that the Wizards’ poor performance after the break may have been because John Wall was trying to play banged up and not at 100%. With Nene perpetually at some level of injury risk (hehe, not here), Marcin Gortat forbidden from crunch time, and the drastic way the Wizards offense dies when Wall sits, Washington can’t have anything happen to their star backcourt. Wittman isn’t Thibodeau by any means, but he needs to ease up on these guys just a little. That or he’s feeling pretty confident that 2012 Paul Pierce is about to drop some serious knowledge during these upcoming playoffs. Hey, don’t rule it out.

Makin’ Some Noise

Despite having one of the league’s most underwhelming offenses, I think Washington projects as a fairly dangerous playoff team. First of all, they have a lot of size up front, with Kris Humphries and Drew Gooden coming off the bench to spell Nene and Gortat. Not only the size itself, but these guys offer a lot in terms of versatility. Nene is an underrated passer from the elbow, Gooden and Humphries have range with their jump shots, and Gortat is an absolute monster in the pick and roll. Even with Derrick Rose injured, every one of these Eastern Conference “contenders” should be thinking about the Bulls as a dark horse, a team that they will eventually have to go through to play for the Larry O’Brien trophy. And with that All-Star Chicago frontcourt looming, as well as size and rebounding being the only possible criticisms of Cleveland or Atlanta, being big is going to be a very important advantage for winning some of these playoff series.

Secondly, the Wizards are a solid defensive unit. By Hollinger’s metric they are 4th best in the league, ahead of traditional powerhouses like Memphis or Indiana. They are the league’s 4th best rebounding team, ahead of Chicago and number 6 in opponents’ FG%. A lot of that has to do with Wall taking a huge step forward defensively this season. He’s always had the speed and athleticism to contest his opponents but this year he’s dialed in a lot more, playing more conservatively and fouling less as he stops gambling for reckless steals. It’s also important to note that the whole team has improved as a result of playing another year together. Even after replacing defensive stopper Trevor Ariza with octogenarian, “get those kids off my porch” Paul Pierce, the Wizards have been a better defensive squad in 2014-2015. If Washington is able to keep that up and slow the game down, preventing easy baskets while bullying their opponents in the post, they should be a difficult team for any of their Eastern Conference matchups.

Threes are Stupid

Pretty much any sportswriter or NBA fan who’s taken even a casual interest in the Washington Wizards this season knows one thing: these guys don’t shoot a lot of threes. There have been countless articles written about how to “fix the Wizards’ offense” or how the problem hasn’t been the number of long twos this team takes but rather the quality and degree of difficulty of those looks. (My personal favor is the not-at-all-alarmist “Death by the Midrange Jumper.”) It’s true that Wall is neither a particularly accurate nor prolific shooter from deep, but its still a little weird when you think that he’s just one year removed from creating the most corner 3 opportunities for his teammates leaguewide. And, with the deadeye Beal and a cast of surprisingly accurate big man shooters: Pierce, Webster, Rasual “Who?” Butler, these guys should be knocking down a lot more than 6 shots from deep per game (good for 26th in the league!) Contrary to what Lakers coach, and fellow octogenarian, Byron Scott thinks, three point shooting (either in percentage or in makes) is fairly necessary to win a championship in today’s NBA.

And its not only the three point shooting, the Wizards just don’t have a particularly dynamic offense. Although the Spurs certainly knocked down some huge 3s in the Finals last year, what really won them that series, and what people remember best, was their ridiculous ball movement, the bullet passes zipping around the perimeter and exhausting Miami’s hectic, trapping defense. The Wizards actually do a very good job of keeping the ball moving; they rank 4th in the NBA in passes per game (if you like statistics at all and haven’t checked out the league’s tracking site yet, please do, it’s awesome). However, the 1980s number of 3s that they take, combined with the fact that they drive to the basket almost less than any other team, means those passes aren’t really accomplishing anything. They’re swinging the ball around without any penetration, capping their possessions (17th) with a thoroughly inefficient long two-pointer. Even the Wall-Gortat pick-and-roll, pretty much the closest thing they have to a reliable set play, isn’t particularly dangerous compared to the outcome of the average two man roll game. When you take all of that with the Wizard’s 19th fastest pace of play, this can be a painful team to watch try to score when John Wall sits down.

But the East is Bad Right?

Yes, you’re right. The Eastern Conference is quite bad, giving Washington the same kind of chance that a Toronto or a Chicago would have of knocking off one of the heavy hitters, either in the Conference Finals or the round before. It’s true that that isn’t much of a chance; the Wizards have gone 0-3 against the Hawks this season and 1-2 against Cleveland, but for this team making the Conference Finals would be an important achievement. With a first round playoff win last year and the most important players on their roster still fairly young, the Wiz would be solidifying themselves as a postseason threat for years to come. And, if they can make any noise against one of the true title contenders, put a little scare into the David Blatt or Coach Bud, then all the better. I’d say Wall will be good for at least one of those.

Wizard party!

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