We are currently in one of the strangest parts of the NBA Calendar: the long off-season that feels like a lifetime is coming to an end. Training camps do not quite start yet, draft coverage Has been exhausted, and no free agents of note are left. Because of this, there is almost no news. Hall Of Fame inductions have excited some of my older colleagues, but for many this is a tough period of the year.
I was in this boat yesterday, until I saw a potential NBA-related sub-tweet from Washington Wizards owner Ted Leonsis.
If you love watching ball movement, smart floor spacing and running without the ball, you will love the WNBA Finals. Very little ISO basketball, stars dont demand the ball or let teammates stand around and watch. https://t.co/hov4cIt1Xr
— Ted Leonsis (@TedLeonsis) September 7, 2018
Now, I want to be clear: this may not be a sub-tweet aimed at his mediocre Head Coach who runs outdated schemes, but it could be. For the purposes of my article, the reasoning or the emotion behind the quote does not really matter.
Most of the things listed in Leonsis’ tweet are things that Washington is awful at. When watching Wizards games, the offense looks far too basic and there is a lack of off-the-ball engagement. The Wizards are characterised by a high pick-and-roll, the occasional wing screen for Otto Porter and some action down low for Markieff Morris. This is an ugly team, and pure talent is the reason it has any sort of post-season success in recent years. If Leonsis was trying to say something about his franchise in this way it would paint the Washington Wizards as a circus, but he would actually have a point.
Most teams revert to isolation ball down the stretch, but the Wizards revert to it at the first sign of trouble. A better strategy would be to design more wrinkles and secondary actions into their set plays and offensive sets.
One of my takes for the year is that Scott Brooks will be the first coach fired. Most of my reasons for this are listed in Leonsis’ tweet about the WNBA. Unfortunately for Brooks, his team does precisely none of them. It is for this reason that I think his seat is the warmest of any head coach entering the new season. Not only is Brooks’ schematically inept, but he is going to inherit a locker room that from the outside looks tough to handle.
Dwight Howard is renowned for causing problems in the locker room, with the Hornets players reportedly growing tired of him very quickly. It seems like an apt time to remind people that Dwight Howard was there for just over a year. Markieff Morris is also a renowned trouble-maker, and there has previously been discontent between Bradley Beal and John Wall, the franchise cornerstones.
The argument for Brooks being a good or even great coach doesn’t really go beyond the win-loss column. He has a lot of wins, especially in the post-season, but he has also coached a lot of potential Hall of Famers. His Thunder team had three players who most people put in their top 10 NBA players, and his Wizards team has one of the most talented backcourts of all time. The Wizards will look beyond this if things start to turn sour and it could go that way sooner rather than later.
In terms of ball movement, the Wizards are not awful when you look at the stats. They rank 20th in passes per game, but fourth in assists and fifth in potential assists. The latter is a stat that is being criticised, but it is sometimes a good measure of just how much ball movement is leading to good shots.
The chief reason for this is John Wall’s playmaking ability. Wall has become underrated in sections of NBA Twitter, but he is at his best as a playmaking guard with slashing ability.
Wall contributes to good ball movement when he wants to, but the Wizards are the definition of a Jekyll and Hyde team. The passing statistics show that this is a team capable of moving the ball and a team with an elite playmaking guard. The problem with Wall has been that he moves away from his strong areas. Some would argue this is a player tendency thing for John Wall, but I personally believe that because Brooks’ scheme is so basic and so loose, that these tendencies are always going to show.
Wall sometimes likes to think he is a good jump shooter, but he simply isn’t. He shot 37% from three in Brooks’ first year in Washington and many believed he would turn a corner, but the fact his three-point percentage plummeted back to the norm this last season suggests that the 16-17 year was an anomaly.
We must note that Wall had an disrupted year due to injury, but I personally think it was the norm in terms of how he is going to perform as a jump shooter. He had some ugly games on the whole, and the issues were always about shot selection. Plays such as the one below became far too common for the Wizards.
John Wall brings the ball up the court and they enter a half court set. I use the term set loosely, because it could be coached by an eight-year-old.
There is not one piece of action , all four players are standing completely still and John Wall is just expected to go and make a play. The shot selection isn’t good, but Wall really had no other option here. The shooters are both anchored to the corners, meaning a ball screen cannot be used, and the bigs are clogging the lane. The whole point of acquiring Markieff Morris was that it would create driving angles for Wall, but his presence alone will not do it, the sets need to be improved.
When the Wizards run an action, it is very basic. The play below is the first play of the game, and it is useful because it shows all of the Wizards core actions.
They run a screen for Bradley Beal, a high pick-and-roll, and then some wing action for Bradley Beal. The possession ends in a turnover because the players not contributing are not engaged off the ball.
This is on the coach, because there is a clear pattern emerging. Isolation sets are renowned for a lack of off-ball motion, but the issue the Wizards have is those isolation principles creep into every facet of their game.
Brooks ran similar sets in his time with the Thunder. Many, including myself, defended that because he had three high-powered offensive players who are at their best with the ball in their hands and going to work on defenders before getting to the line. Russell Westbrook is invaluable off-the-ball, so having a ‘your turn-my turn’ type system was excusable if not a little bit unimaginative.
But in Washington, the Wizards do not have the personnel to justify such a bog-standard playbook. This lack of schematic variety has caused John Wall to develop bad habits, and he is often having to take more jump shots than he needs to, and low-quality ones overall.
Isolation sets are not the Wizards problem, they ranked in the top 10 of efficiency on them. But the way that seems to infect everything else they do is the main issue. There is not enough variety in the way they play the game, it’s no surprise that they struggle on the road in the playoffs.
The goal of any 24-second possession is to throw as many things at a defense as possible. In terms of screening action, the Wizards are giving teams a free pass. I fear this could get even worse with the departure of Marcin Gortat, an all-time great high pick-and-roll screen setter.
Scott Brooks is the Vegas favourite to be the first guy gone, so it is not really an out there pick, but people are misunderstanding the reasons for it. The record will have little to do with his departure, it will be the on-court product and the misuse of personnel that will get him fired.
Featured photo – via USA Today Sports / Double Clutch illustration