The Washington Wizards go through the same cycle every season – they make plenty of big promises, and then inevitably disappoint.
Nobody doubts that the Wizards are talented. They certainly don’t doubt it – and they’ll be quick to tell you – but that’s part of the problem. Despite all of Washington’s annual cockiness, the franchise hasn’t won 50 games since 1978-79.
Perhaps this year’s team will be different. Dwight Howard is an upgrade over last year’s starting center, Marcin Gortat, and Austin Rivers will finally provide some guard depth. On the other hand, the core is unchanged. John Wall and Bradley Beal are heading into the seventh year of their partnership, and as always, they’ll need to catch some breaks to finally top 50 wins and join the Eastern Conference’s elite.
Here’s how the 2018-19 Wizards can make it happen:
Howard must accept his role
It’s admirable that at age 32, Howard wants to expand his game, but he should be focused on doing the opposite and simply fulfilling his role.
On offense, the Wizards don’t need Howard to become the Kevin Durant they never brought home; they need him to set screens for Wall and Beal. More importantly, they need Howard to be content in that role, because the star backcourt won’t cater to a journeyman on a two-year deal, and they certainly won’t shy away from publicly admonishing a struggling teammate.
There’s no question Howard is better than Gortat. Last season, he grabbed five more rebounds per game and recorded twice as many blocks. The Hornets ranked first in defensive rebound percentage with Howard in the middle, while Washington finished 17th. And Howard shot 68 percent in the restricted area and scored 1.04 points per pick-and-roll, while Gortat managed 61 percent from the same area and 0.88 points per PnR.
However, Howard negates much of his value by feeding his ill-advised post-up addiction. He’s decent (albeit turnover prone) while taking his man off the dribble, but the real issue is that he attempted more shots from the post than all but two players in 2017-18, making a dismal 44 percent. And many of the shots were awful mid-range jumpers that serve no purpose whatsoever:
Charlotte enabled Howard last season because it lacked scorers, but that won’t be the case in Washington. Wall and Beal are going to use high screens to shoot 30 shots a game, and they’ll need driving lanes to attack rather than Howard blocking the way to demand touches down low.
Howard can certainly flourish if he plays to his strengths – especially if the best passer in the conference is spoon-feeding him easy looks – but he’ll need to buy in and ditch the post-ups.
Brooks needs a real closer
The Wizards went just 43-39 last season in part because they had nobody who could close out games. They managed to lose 16 times when they were tied or leading at some point in the last five minutes.
Beal attempted to assume the “closer” role last season, but it’s not an exaggeration to say he was the least clutch player in the league. In crunch time (plus or minus five points in the last five minutes), he shot 30 percent from the field and 20 percent on 3-pointers while using 38 percent of Washington’s possessions, and he highlighted that futility with a comical stretch in March:
(Courtesy: Bullets Forever)
Wall also struggled in the clutch last season, as he used 32 percent of Washington’s possessions while shooting 34 percent from the field and 27 percent from deep. Injuries could have played a role, but then why did Wall shoot so often if he was hurt?
The crunch-time issues largely speak to a problem with head coach Scott Brooks, who isn’t exactly known for his play-calling. Washington’s usual recourse during big moments has been to clear out for either Wall or Beal, and have them create in isolation or with a high screen:
These sets were equally unimaginative and ineffective, and they muzzled every other scoring threat on the roster. So, what can change?
First and foremost, Brooks should consider reducing Beal’s workload, which is finally a viable option with Rivers on board. Beal finished fourth in minutes played league-wide last year, and he was clearly exhausted at the end of games, especially when he had to carry the club while Wall recovered from knee surgery. It’s not a coincidence that Beal was an effective fourth-quarter performer in previous seasons, but often saw his clutch shots draw front rim while establishing a career high in minutes in 2017-18.
Brooks should also consider getting Beal off the ball to find him spot-up opportunities. It’s harder for a 6-foot-3 guard to generate clean looks off the dribble than to wiggle free off a screen. And the coach should hold Wall accountable when he ignores perfectly good shooters in Otto Porter and Tomas Satoransky in crunch time in favor of settling for a pull-up jumper that the defense will allow at any time.
Can’t forget about Otto
Porter is a divisive character among Wizards fans, who either believe he’s an efficient scorer who’s being underutilized, or that he’s a role player being made to look good by the stars around him.
The truth is somewhere in between. Porter is capable of more, but he shouldn’t leap ahead of either Wall or Beal in the pecking order. He’s a great role player with an extra gear, similar to Shawn Marion or Tayshaun Prince. And his role shouldn’t change, but he deserves more than 11 shots per game
Part of that falls on Wall, who treats Porter as just a finisher who only gets passes if he’s in position to catch and shoot. Porter’s usage fell to 16 percent with Wall on the court last year, as compared to 20 percent when Wall was off. It’s not a coincidence that Porter averaged 16 points per game and shot 51 percent from deep after the All-Star break while Wall was sidelined.
Porter was forced to take on more of the offense during Wall’s absence, and he showcased other aspects of his skill set. His mid-range game is solid, especially against smaller defenders. And while he isn’t much of a driver, he can come around a high screen and pull up with regularity. In fact, Porter shot 48 percent from the mid-range last season, which topped both Beal (45 percent) and Wall (28 percent).
Then again, Porter’s penchant for passivity does him no favors. He’ll spend entire possessions just camped out in the corner without showing any appetite for the ball, and that leads to him just fading out of games. The Wizards will usually devote a few possessions to Porter early in the first quarter just to get him comfortable, but that aggression eventually fades. Porter’s usage tops 21 percent in the first quarter and drops to 13 percent in the fourth quarter.
But there’s a passivity about Porter’s game that leaves you wanting more. He’ll spend entire possessions camping out in the corner without making an effort to get the ball. He’s never been the go-to guy at either the collegiate or the NBA level, and it shows in his approach. Overall, Porter lacks the insistence and confidence that great scorers have.
The Wizards often force-feed Porter some token touches early in games, but he’ll inevitably fade into the background by the fourth quarter. Specifically, his usage dropped from 21.6 percent in the first quarter to 12.9 percent in the final frame last season. Porter was so invisible late in games that his backup, Kelly Oubre Jr., took more than twice as many fourth-quarter shots.
Again, this falls on Brooks. He needs to convince Porter to demand the ball and become more aggressive, and he needs to continue running plays for the talented wing as games progress. Porter isn’t necessarily the guy who should take the last shot, but he’s overqualified and overpaid to simply camp out in the corner for a pass that never comes.