May 1, 2013

Encouraging Signs / Discouraging Signs

Pulling the schedule magnet off the refrigerator: unfortunately an April ritual.
It has been two weeks now since the final game of the Wizards 2012-2013 season and there's no doubt I've been in a bit of a post season funk, not willing to think about another lost season in too much detail. But while I am extremely displeased by my team's 0-6 finish, I realize it's just time to get over it and get on with the off season. And yes, I know the Wizards-less NBA playoffs are in full swing but it's the off season for fans like me who live, breathe and eat Wizards basketball from at least October through June (OK...mid-April lately) and beyond.

The 2012-2013 season was a feast or famine kind of season in so many ways for me as a Wizards fan. The highs were pretty high and the lows were pretty low and it seemed like the reasons for the highs were the exact opposite of the reasons for the lows. As a result, I'm left with a list of encouraging signs and discouraging signs to ponder in the off season. Here's how I would summarize the hope (encouraging signs) and doubt (discouraging signs) coming out of last season as I watch the first round of this year's NBA playoffs.

Beating Good Teams (Encouraging) vs. Losing To Bad Teams (Discouraging)
The Wizards had memorable wins during the 2012-2013 season. They beat each Division champion except the San Antonio Spurs at least once. They also beat each playoff team except the Boston Celtics, the Spurs and the Golden State Warriors at least once. They beat the Denver Nuggets, the team with the best home record in the NBA at 38-3, in Denver to complete the season sweep against that franchise. And they beat the Los Angeles Lakers in the Staples Center for the first time since December 17, 2006 when Gilbert Arenas scored a franchise record 60 points in a double overtime thriller.

All those victories are quality wins against good opponents. Considering the fact that in most all of those games the Wizards were missing either John Wall, Nenê or Bradley Beal, the results are downright stunning. I just wonder how many more games against quality opponents we could have won with those three on the court together more regularly.

Those quality wins, plus some other assorted victories, were good for a tie with the Detroit Pistons for 11th place finish in the Eastern Conference with 29 wins; the Cleveland Cavaliers, Charlotte Bobcats and Orlando Magic all finished with fewer wins than the Wizards. Yet despite all the success against the elite teams in the league, the Wizards managed only a 3-12 record against the Piston, Cavs, 'Cats and Magic, including going 0-for against the Pistons and Cavs. So while the wins against playoff teams are fun, there's no way this team will be close to the playoffs without at least holding serve at home against the worst teams in our conference. At home, the Wizards were an unimpressive 2-5 against this bunch.

Overall: Encouraging. The team culture seems serious enough that given a healthy set of players from the start of the season, we ought to be able to get up for the bad teams.

Home Record (Encouraging) vs. Road Record (Discouraging)
This past season, the Wizards posted a 22-19 home record, their best home mark since the 2007-2008 season, the last year the franchise made a playoff appearance. That home record was better than the playoff bound Milwaukee Bucks and all the non-playoff teams in the Eastern Conference except the Philadelphia 76ers. The second half of the season featured a week with consecutive Monday-Wednesday-Friday victories over the Los Angeles Clippers, New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets and a nine game home winning streak that lasted more than a month. Overall, the Wizards outscored their opponents by 121 points at Verizon Center this season, a 3.0 point average margin of victory. That's good. With a little better home record and a decent road record, we would likely be a playoff team.

On the flip side, the Wizards managed only seven victories on the road, good for second worst in the NBA, ahead of only the Charlotte Bobcats. And therein lies the problem. In our 41 games away from home, the Wizards managed to defeat only the New Orleans Hornets, Denver Nuggets, Portland Trail Blazers, Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors, Phoenix Suns and Los Angeles Lakers. I'd take our 4-11 road record against the Western Conference some years but posting a miserable 3-26 on the road against Eastern Conference opponents won't get it done. This year is the third time in the last five years the Wizards have failed to win at least 10 games on the road, including a season two years ago with only three road wins. Just not good enough. We don't have to be a spectacular road team to make the playoffs. The Boston Celtics made the postseason this year as the seventh seed in the East with only 14 road wins. But any fewer than that likely won't cut it.

Overall: Discouraging. The Wizards' ability to win away from home is critical to short term and long term success. This is not an isolated incident in the past three years. There's work to be done here. A lot of work.

Wall/Beal (Encouraging) vs. Vesely/Singleton (Discouraging)
Of the 11 players who spent their entire NBA season on the Wizards' roster this year, six were on rookie contracts. All six (John Wall, Kevin Seraphin, Trevor Booker, Jan Vesely, Chris Singleton and Bradley Beal) were effectively drafted by the Wizards either through one of our own draft choices or by acquiring another team's choice on draft day and, barring a trade between now and opening day, all six will be on the roster when the 2013-2014 season commences.

The Wizards' recent track record in drafting quality players and/or developing young players into stars or even serviceable ones is not good. The Wizards' first round draft picks since I became a season ticket holder reads like a casualty list: Kwame Brown, Juan Dixon, Jared Jeffries, Jarvis Hayes, Oleksiy Pecherov, Nick Young, JaVale McGee. None of these players is either currently with the Wizards or starting for another NBA franchise. No doubt the selections were poor but the Wizards' staff also seemed incapable of molding them into NBA players. Is it the players or the system? Did the Wizards just get unlucky or is there something wrong here?

Of the six rookie contract players on our roster this year drafted by the team, it looks like we have finally struck a small measure of gold in our first picks of the 2010 and 2012 NBA Drafts, John Wall and Bradley Beal. Those two seem to honestly have star potential and could solidify the team's starting backcourt for years to come. They seem not only to possess the skill to play at a high level, but also the drive and determination to win games.

Sandwiched between those two years in 2011 were first round picks Jan Vesely and Chris Singleton. Both had fairly productive rookie years, admittedly due to a slew of injuries to other players that thrust this pair into heavy action. But this past season, each took major steps backwards. Both played in fewer games this year than last despite the season being 16 games longer and both saw diminished numbers, mostly due to reduced minutes. But Vesely's field goal percentage dropped from 53.7% to 50.0% and his free throw percentage dropped from an awful 53.2% to an abhorrent 30.8%. Singleton's numbers were eerily similar: his three point field goal percentage dropped from a respectable 34.6% to a please don't shoot 19.4% and his free throw shooting dropped a little more than 10 points. 

So is it the players or the system? Did the Wizards get lucky with Wall and Beal and unlucky with Vesely and Singleton or is there something wrong here?

Overall: Discouraging. I believe there are significant issues with the Wizards ability to select quality NBA players and develop them into stars. I believe Wall and Beal are succeeding despite the Wizards' system.

Hanging up the Chris Singleton jersey for the season.
Defense (Encouraging) vs. Offense (Discouraging)
In what has to be the happiest news of the season, the Wizards are actually a good defensive team. Their defensive efficiency (which measures the number of points an opponent scores per 100 possessions) ranked 8th this season at 100.6 points per 100 possessions. This is without question a big improvement. In the 10 seasons prior to last season, the Wizards ranked anywhere from 14th to 29th (out of 30) in defensive efficiency and I have to believe the change is a result of Randy Wittman's coaching style and his insistence on management finding players who can play solid defense.

Of the top 19 teams in defensive efficiency in the NBA this season, only three failed to qualify for the postseason  so defensive efficiency is a pretty good indicator of team success. None of the three who didn't qualify were in the top 10 other than the Wizards. And for the Wizards this year, this was truly a team effort: Trevor Ariza was the only Wizard to receive a vote for Defensive Player of the Year award and he only received one. My speculation in my mid-season post that the Okafor/Ariza for Lewis trade may have been a mistake appears to be the very reason our defensive efficiency jumped 15 spots and 3.2 points in a single year.

So why did the defensively efficient 8th ranked Wizards not make the playoffs along with the 7th ranked Miami Heat and 9th ranked Los Angeles Clippers? In a word: offense. The Wizards finished dead last in offensive efficiency in the NBA this year, a far cry from the 1st ranked Heat and 4th ranked Clippers. In 100 possessions, the Wizards managed only 97.8 points, a full 12.5 points per 100 possessions behind the Heat.

When I think about the offensive struggles of the Wizards this year, my thoughts go immediately to shooting and turnovers. The Wizards were 27th in the league in field goal percentage this year and 23rd in turnovers. The shooting percentage in the backcourt is understandable considering our backup or starting shooting guard for much of the second half of the season was Garrett Temple. Nothing against Garrett here (I think he contributed mightily in the second half of the season) but he's a guy that should be the third option at point or shooting guard, not the guy at the starting two.

But the turnover number is perhaps a little more counterintuitive. After all, our starting point guard is supposed to be one of the best point guards in the game, right? I could argue John Wall is one of the best point guards in the game in a number of areas, but I can't argue that in the turnover department. John didn't play enough this year to be ranked in the turnover per game statistic but if he had, his 3.2 turnovers per game average this year would leave him tied for 6th worst in the league (tied with Kyrie Irving, interestingly enough). His 2.4 assist to turnover ratio would have placed him 30th best. Not exactly bad, but not elite point guard numbers. Chris Paul led this statistical category with a 4.26 mark. A.J. Price, John's backup, was 4th in the league this year. No doubt John's not the only culprit in our 23rd ranking in the league but I'd start here for improvement.

Digging a little deeper, it looks like the Wizards could stand some improvement in two other offensive areas: free throw shooting and offensive rebounding. We have some very good free throw shooters on our team; we also have some very poor free throw shooters who need some work. But we are very deficient in offensive rebounding. Our offensive rebounding rate was 25th and only one of our players (Emeka Okafor) ranked in the top 38 players in offensive rebounds per game this year.

Overall: Encouraging. The Wizards' ability to suddenly play quality defense means something. Good defensive teams succeed in the NBA. The offense needs work no doubt but the defensive side of the ball is more important.

At the end of all this, I'm not sure I'm any more out of my post season funk than I was at the beginning of this post, but there's enough encouragement here that if we hang on to all the good things, which seems possible considering the personnel under contract next year, and correct some of the discouraging things, we might squeak into the playoffs next year. I'm always hopeful.

Next Up: My Wizards Wish List

No comments:

Post a Comment