Wizards: Is the Pace and Space Sinking Their Season?

The San Antonio Spurs proved to be too much — even without their All-Star center Tim Duncan — against the struggling 10-14 Washington Wizards Wednesday. The 14th best in franchise history, it was the Spurs 16th win over the Wizards, with points-scored records being set by many Spurs players. In the end, San Antonio beat the home team 114-95.

Washington shot 60 percent in the first quarter and took the lead 31-26. It was the only team that had scored 30 points or more against the Spurs this season in one quarter. However, the Wizards finished up the night three-for-15, 20 percent from beyond the arc while San Antonio was eight-for-22 on three’s, 36.4 percent. The Wizards are currently ranked last in giving up three-pointers in the league, with an average of 10.45 per game. According to the NBA tracker, players are shooting 4.4 percent better on three’s on average against the Wizards.

What is going on?

Consider this: last year at this time, Washington was 18-6 and is now 10-14. As the season progresses and losses pile up, this new offensive pace and space plan is looking like a very bad idea. The Wizards seem to start out strong and then fizzle down the stretch. Judging how they finished up fifth last season and the season before that, they are coming up short. Currently the team is in 12th place.

Destined for so much success this season, the Wizards are showing very disappointing results.

Last year, they were 46-36 (44-38 in 2013-2014), their best since 1979. All the momentum from a year ago is dissipating as the starters, one by one, are falling to injury and the bench is struggling. The Wizards have five injured players; shooting guard Bradley Beal (leg), center NeNe (calf), forwardDrew Gooden (calf), guard Alan Anderson (ankle) and now-forward Otto Porter (who had been dealing with a thigh bruise this week and tried to play with the injury). Center Marcin Gortat called the team a ‘hospital.’

On Monday’s game against the struggling Memphis Grizzlies (14-12), the Wizards small-ball pace and space system was still no match. They were held to under 100 points, losing 112-95. Memphis shot 56 percent and was 10-for-15 on three’s. The Grizzlies made the Wizards look like they were the worst team in the NBA and they were the best. Washington’s only lead was by one point in the first quarter while Memphis led the entire second half.

No doubt when the small-ball attack stretch-four game is put into action correctly with the right staff, it works flawlessly. A good example of this is with the Golden State Warriors, the Atlanta Hawks, the Boston Celtics, the Indiana Pacers, the Charlotte Hornets and the Miami Heat.

Most defenses cannot defend the perimeter and the interior at the same time.

The perimeter is stacked with three outside shooters and the center and point guard work a pick-n-roll move to the basket. One of the shooters stands back for a three, if he gets a good look. Three defenders are held up at the perimeter trying to fend off the three sharpshooters for a three-point shot. They leave their defender to come into the paint to stop the pick n roll of point guard John Wall to Gortat. Now, this plan ideally gives Wall enough pace and space to either pass it to either teammate in the corner or bang it in the paint. This pace-and-space offense usually works and leaves defenders defenseless.

The Wizards were known for their defense a season ago. They were ranked within the Top 10 teams on defense. Now in 26th place, they trail teams like the Philadelphia 76’ers and the Portland Trailblazers in defense proficiency this season. But they are ranked 15th in points given up off turnovers and are in sixth place as having the worst turnover percentage per game.

Will Washington forward Kris Humphries ever be a reliable spot-up shooter? For that matter will Porter? Can Wall not jump while he passes the ball? Will they ever be clutch at the line? Can they consistently outscore competitors in rebounds? Can they maintain a 50 percent shooting percentage for four quarters? What happens when the pace isn’t working and the baskets aren’t coming easy?

Why insist on a three-point offense when the consistency in your roster to carry out this offense is just not there night after night and game after game?  Surely the Wizards have more than one game plan. Must they shoot three’s when they are up by 14 points in the fourth quarter and allow a team to go on a 19-8 run with just minutes left in the game only to bring the opponent back in (recall the Dallas Mavericks game recently when they were up by 21 points but almost lost by 1)? Why not make higher percentage shots in the fourth quarter and protect the lead rather than forcing missed three’s, giving the opposing team fast breaks to steal the lead?

No one should expect too much from this ball club… the Wizards have so many holes this season and perhaps may again next year. Eventually, they will realize small ball was an experiment gone wrong. The pace and space works when a team can shoot.

The Wizards are not that team… at least right now. They lack consistent shooters that make the small ball Pace and Space attack work magically. If this new Washington offense is a result of the Golden State Warriors’ successful win over the Cleveland Cavaliers for the first time in 40 years last season, then that glory belonged to them because of the caliber of that team. Golden State plays a more versatile small ball game and that is why they are among the top-ranked teams in defense.

Luckily, Washington has only played a third of its games this season and still has two-thirds of the season left. But crunch-time is fast-approaching if the Wizards want to be considered real playoff contenders. Wall and Beal can’t maintain all the scoring weight by themselves. As it is, Beal’s body won’t allow him to keep up this offensive load with the significant injuries he suffers every year.

The ‘pace’ part of the system worked back in November when the Wizards beat the Spurs in Beal’s buzzer-beater. But in this recent re-match, they were not in the right space and lost. They will have another stab at it Saturday when they play the 14-10 Charlotte Hornets in Washington. The last time they played in Charlotte, the Wizards lost by 14 points.

To get this right, the Wizards need to start with a fourth shooter, an unpredictable offense and a deep push from the Wizards defenders before any more regressions. Then just maybe that will help them win with the pace and space.

There’s still time to figure it out but not much.

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