Monday, 13 January 2014

Wittman, Witchcraft, & Wizardry: Detailed thoughts on the Washington Professional Basketball Team from Conor D. Dirks

Washington centre Marcin Gortat.
16-19, 6th in the Eastern Conference standings. That's the mark of the Washington Wizards, the literal definition of a middling, hovering-around-.500 NBA basketball team. The Wiz are desperate to make the playoffs, having failed to feature in meaningful, postseason play in more than five calendar years. The phrases "sanity" and "Washington Wizards" aren't always uttered in the same sentence, which is why a sense of humour, patience, an intricate knowledge of the game, and a vague degree of masochism are often requirements of 'Zards fandom. Look no further than Conor D. Dirks, reporter and contributor at ESPN's True Hoop Network Wizards blog "Truth About It", member of the site's D.C. Council, architect of the #MaynorTime flowchart, and your source of all things Jan Vesely and Kevin Seraphin. I implored Conor to share his thoughts on the state of the 2014 Wizards, and he kindly obliged. Here's what the #MaynorTime initiator had to say about the season so far:

Angus Crawford: Backup point guard has been a bit of a problem for the Wizards all season long. Eric Maynor was brought in over the summer to play that role, but has struggled mightily – his numbers make for severely grim reading: 6.8 PER, 36.5% TS%, 4.3% FTr – as your #MaynorTime updates and flow-chart have detailed. Are you confident some extra minutes for Garrett Temple can ease the pain, or is it a position that needs to be addressed prior to the playoffs?

Conor D. Dirks: Such is the chaotic maelstrom of the post-backup era in D.C. that not even Garrett Temple is confident that Garrett Temple can ease the pain seared into the eyeballs of Washington basketball consumers in the wake of the coming (and subsequent self-destruction) of Eric Maynor. Garrett Temple, who has stuck with the team for very Wittman-esque reasons (eye-test defense and effort, selfless play characterised by reluctance to shoot on offense), more or less amounts to the helmet you might wear if you were forced to ride a bicycle on a day an old soothsaying lady predicted you would crash said bicycle. 
Conor's labour of love: the #MaynorTime Flowchart.
Temple's net on/off court numbers per 100 possessions are not good: minus-5.2. Maynor's net on/off court numbers per 100 possessions are the stuff of legend: minus-28.5. Temple, unlike Maynor, has had the benefit of running his offense through Nene, and so his "improvement" over Maynor is a bit skewed. But Temple has been moderately successful...his most popular squadron by minutes played together this season (Temple-Webster-Porter-Vesely-Nene) has an offensive rating of 0.85 and a defensive rating of 0.80. So, a Temple-run (so sorry) offense is painful to watch, but a Temple-led defense has been more than alright against the NBA's substitute brigades.

As for the playoffs? Well, the Wizards need to address a lot of things prior to the playoffs, but Maynor's player option for next season has to give cost-conscious Ted Leonsis pause. Truth be told, the team probably should have signed D.J. Augustin, or Kendall Marshall (they had him on an administrative level after the Gortat trade), and probably still should cut Al Harrington or Chris Singleton (sigh) to sign Rodrique Beaubois. If an Andre Miller deal with Denver is a possibility, as suggested by Amin Elhassan, I would support such a thing.

AC: Where did you stand on the decision to execute the Marcin Gortat trade on the eve of the season? Gortat is averaging a career-low 9.6 rebounds per-36 minutes and is shooting his worst percentage from the field (51.6%) since his rookie season. Has his play thus far justified the move, and should the Wizards front office feel obligated to re-sign him on the basis that they shipped out a first-round pick in the deal?

CDD: From a purely objective standpoint, Marcin Gortat's play has not justified the first-round pick (in a draft allegedly sporting a fine group of young basketmen) the Wizards surrendered in order to acquire him. With that said, it is easy from afar to devalue the peripheral positives of winning basketball games, and Gortat, despite his questionable rim-protection, frustrating lack of efficiency from the floor, and tendency to avoid contact, has made the Wizards a better team than they would have been had they not made the trade. 

And that's the key thing: Emeka Okafor, as hinted by Ted Leonsis recently, is most likely out for the season. Can you imagine this team with either Kevin Seraphin or Jan Vesely starting? You think you can, but I've seen seasons of this stuff, and it's enough to break a person. It's also enough to keep a young point guard from the recognition he deserves, as shown by Wall's relative obscurity in the eyes of the nation prior to this season, even though he was producing similar stats to Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook during the first few years of their NBA careers. And more than that, becoming a decent team is a gamble on the part of the front office, that modest success combined with two young star guards will be enough to break the "overpay third-tier players" cycle that so many historically underachieving teams are mired in, including the Wizards.

So: the "too long; didn't read" version? Although I was upset on the day of the trade, it was because I didn't fully understand the extent of Okafor's injury. Now that it seems that Okafor will be out the entire season, I understand the reasons Washington had for making the deal, even if I'm not fully comfortable with their strategy. My hope is that the Wizards will re-sign Gortat (to a contract at or below his current rate) not because of procedural guilt or face-saving, but because his play has caught up with his talk, which resembles Papa John's puffery at this early stage.

AC: The Wiz are 2-4 in overtime games and just 1-3 in games decided by 3pts or less, is there a concerning trend with their late-game execution or a clear explanation for their inability to perform in tight situations?

CDD: This question doesn't even contemplate games in which the Wizards have held insanely large leads (against the Cavs and the Pelicans) but have almost blown them due to holistic breakdowns in their offense late in games. When a team can't hold a lead, can't win close games, and can't beat good teams (the Wizards have only one win against a team with a greater than .500 record), the blame falls with the coach. It falls with the coach because it is a clear failure to adjust. Sure, the Wizards have enough talent (and they do have quite a bit of that) to play pickup offense for three quarters and beat the cellar-dwellers of the NBA, but good coaches are creative, can call plays on the fly that react to adjustments from the opposition, and can draw up late-game plays out of timeouts. Randy Wittman (who absolutely aided in the culture-change brought about in the wake of the departures of McGee, Young, and Blatche) is unfortunately not that kind of coach.

AC: The mysterious Otto Porter made his NBA debut December 6 and has logged 172 total minutes since. How is his progress tracking, and does he have a place in the rotation, per se? It must be painful for ‘Zards fans to be aware of the Greek Freak’s (Giannis Antetokounmpo) existence, is it best to follow Porter’s career in a vacuum at this point?

CDD: Most of us at TAI have joked about Otto Porter's invisibility since his debut, and I really do swear I saw a Bucks player pass through his body during Washington's loss to Milwaukee, but Otto hasn't been a total wash. He has, however, been a disappointment. Prior to the draft, he was advertised as an "NBA-ready" player, and that was simply not the case. Marcin Gortat joked that Porter's calves were half the size of Gortat's forearms, and he's right! More than that, Porter seems as shy on the court as he is behind a microphone. As you might imagine, the former is not as endearing as the latter (and the latter stopped being endearing after draft night). 

Porter does have a spot in the rotation, alongside Martell Webster, on the second unit. He has occasionally displayed some savvy around the basket, the ability to hit a catch-and-shoot midrange J (but not an NBA 3-pointer), and has not been overly embarrassed on defense. I wish I could say nicer things. Going forward, my expectations approach nil, and I'll hope to be surprised. The problem with comparing Porter to other NBA rookies is that Washington has been unable to develop raw players into rotation players over Grunfeld's tenure, and a player like Giannis who has developed well, and rapidly, with Milwaukee (a team that has also been able to develop "raw," Mister Fantastic-esque players like John Henson and Larry Sanders) would not necessarily have developed so well with the Wizards, despite better surrounding talent.

AC: Washington has a pair of five game home stands coming up, how important is it that the team capitalises on the comforts of the Verizon Center in order to generate some consistency?

CDD: As CBS Sports' Matt Moore mentioned today in his NBA power rankings:

They'll get it together, go on a winning streak, and lock up a playoff spot for sure. Any time. Yup. Right around the corner. Just wait. Gonna happen. No question. ... ... ... ...

Sarcasm aside, the observation is spot-on. The Wizards have followed every string of successes with equal or greater strings of failure, weaving a basketball web that is nowhere near up to code. They have yet to "get it together," and even more concerning is their lack of success at the Verizon Center. They have the fourth-best road record in the East (not like that's something to brag about, yet) at 9-10, but are surprisingly below .500 as well at home (at 7-9). Even last year, when they went 29-53 on the season, the Wizards had a winning home record (22-19). If you paid attention to all of those numbers sandwiching dashes, you'll also see that they've already won two more road games this season than they did all last year.

I do expect that they'll improve at home, but that expectation could change if they aren't, as you suggest, able to capitalise on two upcoming home stands.

Interesting. Expertise and colourful, insightful commentary are ubiquitous over at Truth About It. Do yourself a favour and find Conor on Twitter @ConorDDirks, and follow his work at TAI. 

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