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The Long Con: Did Randy Wittman Fool Us All?

I will be the first to admit, I was done with Randy Wittman. Shoot, I even wrote a column about his potential replacements. I had had enough pounding my head in frustration about turnovers, and ridiculous out of bounds plays. I was tired of watching unpredictable lineups and baffling rotations. I was sick of long two’s and no threes. I was sick of muddy, clogged, slow offense. I was sick of the Wizards adjusting to other worse teams, and I was sick of Gortat playing well and yet not playing in fourth quarters. I had had enough of Randy Wittman. I had seen enough of #WittmanFace.

And then the playoffs started, the Wizards swept the Raptors, and the only way to describe what we were seeing was WTF?!?! And I mean that in the best way possible! Through four games, this team does not resemble the team we watched all season in any fashion. And it’s not about how well they’re playing. It’s about HOW they’re playing.

The Wizards are playing a completely different, eye-opening, spell-binding brand of magical basketball. And you can’t just chalk it up to “the match-up.” The Wizards played this same Toronto team three times in the regular season, and lost every time. They played far worse teams, and yet constantly threw out inconsistent line-ups, and sat Gortat entire fourth quarters. Something is happening here. And when the style and philosophy of an entire basketball team suddenly appears to shift, that’s not all on the players. Credit has to go to coaching. Whatever exactly THIS was, it’s working!

So just how drastically have Wittman and the Wizards changed so far. Let’s go inside the numbers.

SHOT SELECTION:

The NBA is a make or miss league. When players make shots, teams win. When they miss, teams lose. Players can make any coach look good, and any coach look bad, on any given night. However, the selection of shots, night after night, is where coaching and philosophy is reflected. The Rockets shoot virtually nothing but threes, free throws, and lay-ups. They did it in the regular season. They’re doing it in the playoffs. The regular season is when you learn and ingrain the habits. The playoffs is when you have to execute.

But the Wizards, so far, have completely changed philosophies. And these changes can’t just be blamed on bad Toronto defense. Bad defense allows you to get the shots you want, and the shots the Wizards want are what appear to have changed. They are shooting more threes, shooting more free throws, and shooting less mid-range jumpers. Check it out:

Three Point Attempts:

  • Regular season: 16.8 three point attempts per game, 27th in the NBA.
  • Playoffs: 24.3 three point attempts per game, 8th among playoff teams (and a number that would’ve ranked up them at 14th in the regular season).

Up from 16.8 to 24.3?! THAT’s a FORTY ONE PERCENT increase in three point shot attempts. That’s huge.

The settling for two’s has also changed accordingly.

Mid-Range Shot Attempts:

The number one homicidal and/or suicidal-thought-inducing trend, and defining characteristic, of the Washington Wizards was their constant barrage of mid-range jumpers (#PandaRange). But this trend has completely changed during the playoffs.

  • Regular season: 28.9 mid-range shots per game.
  • Playoffs: 20.8 mid-range shots per game.

Through four games, none of the Wizards (who are playing) are taking those shots that make you feel like a blood lusting maniac.

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As a team, the Wizards are attempting 20.8 mid-range shots per game in the playoffs, compared to 28.9 during the regular season.

Look at those drops across the board. In particular, look at Wall, Beal, and Porter. These guys are playing more minutes, yet their mid-range attempts have still decreased significantly. In Otto’s case, he’s playing WAY more minutes (more on this later), yet shooting less than HALF as many mid-range shots. So where are the shot’s going? Well, there’s only two options. All these shot attempts are either turning into three point attempts, or shots in the paint.

In other words, the Wizards are taking the shots we’ve all been clamoring for all season! And it’s been awesome to watch.

PACE:

The Wizards have the fastest point guard in the NBA, and they’ve got guys who can run with him. So it would be fair to expect the Wizards to play an entertaining, up-tempo style. Yet, during the regular season, we saw a team that played slow, looked clueless on far too many offensive possessions, and generally didn’t play a very entertaining brand of basketball. The Raptors played a similar style, so going into this series, most of us expected a tight, low scoring, aesthetically horrendous, competitive playoff series. We got none of that, courtesy of the Wizards completely changing the game.

Facts:

  • During the regular season, the Wizards ranked 16th in the NBA in pace.
  • The Raptors ranked 20th.
  • The Wizards and Raptors combined to play the 2nd fastest paced series out of the 8 first round playoff series.
  • The Wizards controlled the tempo in every game.

Think about those points above. During the playoffs, when everyone says the game “slows down,” the Wizards sped up. Only the Rockets and Mavericks have played a faster paced series, while the Pelicans pulled the Warriors into the slowest paced series of the playoffs. For the Wizards to enforce their tempo, they would have had to make a sincere commitment to pushing the tempo, and this comes from coaching, and then from players executing, in that order. And the results have shown on the scoreboard.

Wizards Points per Game:

  • Regular Season: 98.5 ppg, 18th in the NBA
  • Playoffs: 110.3 ppg, 3rd in the Playoffs

Obviously, we can’t expect the Wizards to continue that kind of scoring output. That’s unrealistic. But if we can expect to continue to see that type of style, that’s exciting.

FREE THROWS:

With the extinction of #PandaRange, and the increase in tempo, the Wizards have been displaying an increasingly “attacking” mentality. Their free throw attempts reflect this accordingly:

  • Regular Season: 21.4 FT attempts per game, 22nd in the NBA
  • Playoffs: 28.5 FT attempts per game, 3rd in the Playoffs

Not surprisingly, John Wall has been the player leading this new attacking charge. Somewhat surprisingly, Bradley Beal has been following suit. Both are attacking the rim on drives and in transition, and both are getting to the free throw line at a much higher rate:

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WHAT ARE THEY PUTTING IN BRADLEY BEAL’S BAMBOO?! Talk about attack mode! Look at that increase in drives and free throws! Kid is not not settling for anything right now.

Combine his attacking mentality with his increase in three point attempts, and Beal is turning into the player we all dreamed he would be this season right in front of our eyes. If Beal can maintain this mentality going forward, the potential for this team just gets greater and greater.

LINE-UP ROTATIONS:

How many times during the regular season did you find yourself asking, “why is/isn’t ______ in the game?!” or “why is _____ still in the game?!” A million? A billion? Did you just fall asleep murmuring line-ups to yourself like Arya Stark? “Martell Webster. Rasual Butler. Ramon Sessions. The Hound.”

Every team tightens up their rotation come playoff time, but that rotation can usually be predicted based on the regular season. With the Wizards, no one was quite sure, but we’re quite sure now. Look at the sudden and dramatic shift in minutes that has occurred through four games.

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Two words: OTTO PORTER!! Talk about a roller coaster season, but Otto is peaking at the perfect time, and the results have been astounding. While ditching the goggles, he’s opened all of our eyes.

Outside of garbage time, Wittman has clearly established his 8 man rotation. Granted, match-ups and foul trouble could dictate some changes, and the playoffs are about adjustments. But clearly, the way the Wizards played in this series is how they WANT to play, and we saw the 8 guys who can make that happen. After all the season long crowing, I admit: In round one, Randy got it right.

GORTAT:

Of all the playoff developments, Gortat’s success, and Wittman trusting him, is my personal favorite. Time after time, night after night, we watched Marcin ride the bench, while opponents went small. Sometimes it worked, usually it didn’t, and we could see and hear the frustration growing. Gortat was always professional, quietly taking questions, and giving shorter, more frustrated answers with every passing game. It burned, as it would and should for any competitor. But finally, here in the playoffs, Gortat was left in the game. And boy did he make the most of it!

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[Note: I didn’t include 4th quarter of game 4, since players Gortat was sitting because of a blowout rather than because of a coaching strategy decision.]

Gortat has been fantastic on both ends, and been too good to leave on the bench going forward (I would think). It’s been great to see his energy and morale improve after watching him up close all season. Of course, even through the hard times, props to Marcin: His style never wavered!

After a dominant sweep of the Raptors, Wittman’s got me flipping like his clipboard right now. On the one hand, there’s no denying he did a poor job throughout the regular season in multiple areas. However, thus far in the playoffs, he’s done a great job in many of those same areas. Four games is a small sample size, and the Wizards were able to impose their will on the Raptors. Things will get more difficult going forward, and we have to see if Wittman can keep these trends going, or if the Wizards begin to fall back into the mid-range, slow-paced, infuriating team we watched for 82 games.

I was done with Randy Wittman. Now? Now I’ve got to wait and see. That’s the most shocking adjustment of them all.

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