Contenders or Pretenders examines teams throughout the season to see if they have a chance of upstaging the third straight Golden State Warriors vs. Cleveland Cavaliers NBA Finals. This time we look at the Washington Wizards.
The Washington Wizards got off to a slow start this season, but they’ve steadily ramped things up as the season has progressed. Now, they’re the hottest team in the East and look like they could swoop in and take the No. 2 seed. Are they real contenders, though?
The first thing we have to do is distinguish between the “early” season Wizards and the current Wizards, and determine which “version” the Cavaliers are likely to face. It’s important because the Wizards haven’t just gotten “better” since their rocky start, they’ve gotten better at just about every aspect of the game. Check out these splits:
The other thing worth noting is that this improvement hasn’t come suddenly. Rather, it’s been a steady, consistent improvement over time, as demonstrated by the following game log, which shows their points, points against, margin of victory and the moving average each over the previous 10 games. The red and orange lines are on the left axis; the gray lines are on the right axis. The moving averages are the dotted lines, and the ones you want to pay the most attention to:
The reason that’s significant is the 10-game moving average shows a consistent improvement on both sides of the ball, hence the escalating margin of victory. It establishes that it’s not just a soft spot in the schedule or a couple of anomalous games fudging the averages.
So, why is this meaningful? Primarily because the Wizards have a new coach, and new coaches mean new systems. And new systems take time to learn and adapt to. Looking at the difference in percentages of play types at SynergySportsTech.com clues us into what’s different.
First, here’s the 2015-16 Wizards, and how much of each play type they ran:
And here’s the 2016-17 Wizards:
There are three areas worth noting where the Wizards have changed. They’re running more isolation, more possessions are ending with the pick-and-roll ball handler and there are more plays happening off screens.
All three of these things have one commonality: John Wall. His benefit to the Wizards is evidenced by the fact their net rating improves by 12.1 points with him on the court, per NBA.com. Wall is a solid scoring threat as the ball handler in the pick-and-roll (61st percentile), and while he’s only in the 43rd percentile when in isolation, it’s still an occasionally effective weapon.
While he’s not “great” at those things, he’s good enough, especially with his ridiculous speed, to command defensive attention. His 23 points per game on 54.5 percent true shooting is what he’s best known for, though. That’s his exorbitantly efficient passing.
According to NBA.com, he leads the league in assist-to-pass percentage and assist-to-pass percentage adjusted among players with at least five assists per game. He also is second in assists per game and assist points created, trailing only James Harden. Finally, his teammates shoot a 67 effective field goal percentage off his passes, which is the highest of anyone averaging at least 7.5 assists per game.
This is where that “off screen” aspect comes into play. Marcin Gortat is the NBA leader in screen assists while Bradley Beal is third in points coming off screens. Otto Porter Jr. doesn’t score as often off screens, but his 1.10 points per possession puts him in the 79.4 percentile. Overall, the Wizards are third in scoring off screens.
The Cavaliers could struggle to guard the Wizards’ pick-and-roll. Gortat’s devastating picks could free up Wall or open shots for Beal and Porter. Tristan Thompson is a good defender who can help, and LeBron James is LeBron James, but the two can only guard two people. Wall could pick them apart with his combination of penetration and passing — something the Cavaliers have struggled with this year.
The Wizards’ improvement is more about the “whole” than the “parts,” and that improving chemistry and efficiency in running Brooks’ offense could cause problems for Cleveland.
No matter how disappointing the season has gone for the Caveliers of late, they still have that dude named LeBron James. And the struggle the Wizards have is that they don’t have anyone who can hinder the King.
Earlier this season when the Wizards played Cleveland, he had 27 points, 10 rebounds, five assists, two steals, two blocks and shot 50 percent from the field. That lines up with the 26.1/9.3/5.6/1.7/.7 and 47 percent overall he’s averaged against Washington since his return to the Cavaliers, and he’s 5-2 in those seven games.
You don’t necessarily have to have someone who can stop him, but you do need someone who can slow him down by himself. If you “stop” him with defensive help, he’s so impressive with his court vision that he almost always exploits the man left alone. It’s hard enough to beat him anyway, but you have almost no chance if you don’t take away his weapons, and you have no chance of doing that if it takes multiple players to guard him.
Consider that the last two times he lost a playoff series, the Finals MVP went to Kawhi Leonard and Andre Iguodala chiefly for doing just that. LeBron’s overall production was still impressive, but they made him inefficient, and the rest of their respective teams did enough to make it hard to shred them with his passing.
When you look at the Wizards’ roster, there just isn’t that guy who can encumber James. Markieff Morris isn’t fast enough. Porter isn’t big enough. So it’d have to be a group assignment.
But that’s where the Wizards’ pick-and-roll could cause problems. If the Cavaliers have to bring in a non-threat on the floor to deal with the Wizards’ attack, it could diminish James’ chances to exploit open teammates.
In sum, it’s doubtful that the Wizards have enough to beat the Cavaliers in a series, but they certainly could take them to six or even seven games. And they do have at least a puncher’s chance.