Washington Wizards: Small ball comes up big
Last in the Southeast division after 13 games is not where the Washington Wizards expected to be, nor is it where they want to be. Much ink has been spilled over John Wall‘s struggles, and it’s justified. He is shooting just 41.1 percent from the field, and his 4.4 turnovers per game would be a career high by a significant margin.
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Those struggles shouldn’t continue for any extended period of time, for John Wall or for the team as a whole. After averaging just north of 14 turnovers per game as a team the past two years, the team’s current mark of 16.3 seems prime for a return to the mean. And if that means John Wall tightens up his game going forward (which is statistically likely) the Wizards should be right back in the thick of the playoff race.
In fact, the Wizards may be more dangerous than ever once Wall perks back up, thanks to the team’s very effective small ball lineups. Otto Porter and Jared Dudley have become the perfect two-way players to make this style possible. Let’s take a look at what they’ve brought to the table.
Start with Porter, who has functioned as both a wing and a small-ball four and has held down both positions well, especially offensively. Porter has shot 47.2 percent from the field despite struggling from deep (his 26.1 percent mark from deep should creep upward toward 30 percent as the season goes on).
Most encouraging is how comfortable Porter looks both on-ball and off. His 1.9 assist-to-turnover ratio is second on the team behind Ramon Sessions; this despite the fact that Porter has taken on a bigger role in the ball-handling duties than anyone could have expected. Porter’s passing has been superb in limited opportunities, and his chemistry with Marcin Gortat is obvious: Gortat has shot 71.4 percent off Porter’s passes.
Oddly, Porter has functioned better on the ball than off, and he has functioned better against tighter defense as well. His 32.7 field goal percentage on catch-and-shoot opportunities is abysmal, yet he is shooting 42.3 percent mark on pull ups is solid. Those numbers are skewed quite a bit by Porter’s struggles on catch-and-shoot threes, yet they illustrate a lot about his game: Porter has the stroke, just not the rhythm.
Porter never quite looks comfortable in those catch-and-shoot situations. When he catches the ball undefended past the arc, there seems to be a moment of hesitation. Even if defense never comes, that moment of hesitation seems to get Porter out of rhythm, resulting in an errant shot. The level of defense on his 3s has been irrelevant: Porter has shot better from deep the closer the defense is to him (66.7 percent against defenders within 2-4 feet, 31.3 percent against defenders within 4-6 and 18.5 percent with no defenders within six feet). 2.1 of his 3.5 attempts from deep per game come in those no-defense scenarios: That Porter isn’t knocking them down is a huge problem that clogs up the paint for Wall, Bradley Beal and Gortat. Getting that stroke back will go a long way in solving the Wizards problems, and Porter’s 34 percent mark from deep last year indicates he will improve.
Also concerning is Porter’s defense, which has been generally awful. This too has come as a surprise after the great work Porter did against Demar Derozan in the playoffs last year. Opponents have shot 55.7 percent against Porter’s defense, including a scorching 47.7 percent mark from deep.
Defensive numbers aren’t yet sophisticated enough to determine the cause, but the eye-test indicates that Porter is a quality on-ball defender and an awful off-ball defender. Everyone remembers the embarrassing meme from last season:
Well, Porter has not gotten significantly better in that regard. He hasn’t exactly played a murderer’s row of swingmen, yet guys like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kent Bazemore have torched the Wizards this season for 20-plus point games. Those are not great on-ball threats: Bazemore is a catch-and-shoot threat and Giannis does his best work in transition and with smart cuts.
These two issues do not lessen the impact that Porter has had this season: His defense will continue to improve as he gains experience (he is just 22 years old), and his shooting should perk up eventually. All in all, a promising start for Porter.
While Porter has flashed in a bigger role, Jared Dudley has been superb in a smaller one. Ignore his 11.72 PER, a low number, Dudley’s role has been huge in offering spacing, defense and veteran leadership.
Start with lineups that include both Dudley and Porter. Those lineups are the closest the Wizards get to positionless basketball, and they have been excellent, scoring an average of 113.9 per 48 minutes. That such lineups have averaged a +3.5 plus-minus rating is, accordingly, not surprising.
Plus-minus is a noisy stat, but Dudley’s team best +2.6 is indicative of how important Dudley is to the Wizards.
It starts with spacing: Using Dudley, shooting 46.7 percent from deep this year, at the 4 produces space like few teams have. Dudley’s shooting is probably not sustainable, but the space it provides will be. That’s crucial for bench units that feature Nene post-ups and Ramon Sessions drives, and it should be used more to clear space for Wall and Gortat as well.
Worth pointing out is that most of Dudley’s scoring has come from open 3s, especially of the catch-and-shoot variety. As he continues to shoot the lights out, those 3s will be less open, but as defenders start to play Dudley more aggressively, the paint should clear up even more when Dudley is on the floor.
Also impressive has been Dudley’s defense, as opponents have shot just 40.4 percent from the field against Dudley’s defense. Though not a great athlete and not possessing great length, Dudley has a strong lower body that allows him to body up against opposing 4s, and he has long had the instincts and effort necessary to be a plus defender against wings. That Dudley has been so effective despite working his way back into shape is a huge plus for the Wizards otherwise struggling defense, and he should only get better as Dudley continues to get back into playing shape after an offseason surgery.
These two, along with an expected improvement from John Wall, are the Wizards best bets to get back to playing playoff basketball. More of them together and continued improvement from Porter (who has already improved leaps and bounds) could make the Wizards a tough out in the playoffs.