GPS DESTINATION: Eastern Conference Finals.
Estimated Time of Arrival: Late May
Time until destination: 7 months.
The journey began perfectly in October. The vehicle that is the Washington Wizards had been given a test drive in last year’s playoffs. Everyone saw the potential, and knew a few upgrades would turn them into a muscle car Dominic Toretto would envy.
The Wizards showed up for the 2014-2015 season straight out of Xzibit’s garage. Shiny, polished. Supercharged with #OptimusDime speed boosters and Paul Pierce American muscle.
The green flag dropped, and the Wizards shot off the line to a 22-9 record. Wall was dishing. Beal was raining. They even remixed a feature that was thought to be out of style with Rasual Butler. The team was cruising. They were hitting on all cylinders. The paint was glittering and the chrome was shimmering. The Wizards were speeding down I-2014 at a historic pace not witnessed in DC for years. They hit the exit for I-2015 looking like division champions and contending for the conference title. And then this happened….
The Wizards careened off their road to a home playoff series in a flaming blaze of turnovers, all their shine corroding into a charred rust of clogged offense and sputtering defense.
The Hawks lapped the field. The Bulls zoomed by. So did the Raptors. So did the Cavs.
By the time the Wizards cleared the debris and pushed their hooptie back to the pavement, the Bucks were visible in the mirror, even closer than they first appeared.
So what went (and continues to go) wrong? Where did the Wizards humming mechanical masterpiece turn into a beater car with a broken muffler worthy of off-roading through muddy construction zones? Fittingly, it has happened on the road.
Road performance has long been a standard for gauging the potential of young and/or struggling teams. As teams progress from bad to average to good to great, their road record tends to progress accordingly.
Bad teams are bad everywhere. Average teams are pretty good at home, and bad on the road. Good teams hold down home court, and break even on the road. Great teams excel everywhere. The Wizards have shown signs of being a good team. The problem is, those signs were shown LAST year. The Wizards were supposed to hit the NOS this season, and boost themselves in the conversation of Eastern Conference teams that could be playing for hardware. But their road struggles have left them in pit road with their whole crew looking for solutions to multiple problems.
Check Offense Light:
The Wizards are 22-10 at home, but just 14-18 on the road. They’ve lost 9 of their last 10 road games. And the offensive output reflects just that.
· Home: 101.7 ppg, 25.3 apg, 47.3% FG, 37.7% 3FG
· Road: 95.1 ppg, 22.8 apg, 45.7 FG%, 33.1% 3FG
Granted, most teams are better at home than on the road, but the Wizards variation between their home and road performance as a team is dramatic. Their 6.6 point differential between home and road is among the highest in the league. The 1.4% drop in field goal percentage doesn’t sound that dramatic, but it is significant: Their 47.3% FG shooting at home, (if applied as their season average) would rank 2nd best in the NBA. However, the Wizards 45.7% FG shooting on the road would rank tied for 9th. Still, not too shabby.
The truly disturbing drop in performance occurs behind the three point line. The Wizards 37.7% three point shooting would rank 3rd in the NBA. This is both fantastic and infuriating considering the Wizards general lack of three point attempts. But on the road, the Wizards 33.1% three point shooting would rank in a tie all the way down at 24th in the NBA. THIRD at home but TWENTY-FOURTH on the road! That type of variation is devastating to an offense. (I’m not a Randy Wittman supporter, but that type of difference in reliability is also devastating to a coach).
Wizards shooting at Home:
Wizards Shooting on the Road:
So who’s responsible? Who’s helping the Wizards hum at home, but burning oil on the road?
NOT John Wall, and not the big men. Wall has been slightly better at home, than on the road, but not significantly:
· Home: 17.4 ppg, 10.3 apg, 45% FG, 30% 3FG
· Road: 16.4 ppg, 9.8 apg, 44% FG, 27% 3FG
The big men (Nene, Gortat, Serpahin, Humphries, and Gooden) have all been similarly consistent. The diagnostics reveal three main culprits: Bradley Beal, Rasual Butler, and Garrett Temple.
Beal has been malfunctioning all season, like a new stereo that you have to punch periodically to keep working. He’s been up and down, with both his health and performance. But unlike that irritating stereo, that cuts off randomly during your favorite song, much of Beal’s peaks and valleys can be predicted based on where he’s playing.
Bradley Beal: Green is good. Dark Green is better.
· Home: 15.1 ppg, 43% FG, 50.1% 3FG
· Road: 14.6 ppg, 41% FG, 32% 3FG
Look at that three point percentage! If Beal played every game at the Phone Booth, he would have been invited to All-Star Weekend for the Three point Shootout, instead of being left home from the party. An EIGHTEEN PERCENT change in shooting percentage between home and road is unacceptable, and impossible to scheme for (unless you’re the opponent).
Unfortunately, this makes our Panda the major culprit in the Wizards inconsistency. Among the three players, Beal plays the most minutes and takes the most shots.
Butler and Temple show similar drops in home vs. road production:
· Home: 9.8 ppg, 49% FG, 45% 3FG
· Road: 6.6 ppg, 37% FG, 33% 3FG
· Home: 3.9 ppg, 44% FG, 46% 3FG
· Road: 4.0 ppg, 37% FG, 31% 3FG
Like Beal, Butler and Temple are money shooters at home, yet poor shooters on the road. The three together take a huge portion of the perimeter shots for the Wizards. Having this variation in performance from such a big part of the offense causes major problems for the team, both statistically and philosophically. John Wall can’t be expected to pass up an open man on the road, but dish to him at home. Nene and Gortat can’t be passing out of doubles to good shooters one night, and then to bad shooters the next night, when the shooters are the same and only the arena is different. Consistency is vital to road success, and road success is vital to playoff success.
Speaking of playoff success, it comes as no surprise that the Wizards do have one guy who elevates his game significantly on the road: Paul Pierce.
Home: 11.9 ppg, 43% FG, 35% 3FG
Road: 13.3 ppg, 47% FG, 43% 3FG
“THAT’S WHY THEY BROUGHT ME HERE.” Yes, that is why Pierce was brought here. Except, he was brought here to be contagious. He was brought here to help turn his teammates into great road players and great playoff players. If Pierce is being called upon to be THE great road playoff player for the Wizards come May, the Wizards are in trouble. At age 37, Pierce may have a great playoff game or two left in the tank, but almost certainly not a series or two.
The other guys, particularly Beal, Butler, and Temple, have got to find a solution to their road woes. Still, they are individually an offensive problem. But the Wizards don’t just have a road offensive problem. They’ve also got a major road defensive problem.
Check Defense Light:
“Defense wins championships.” – everyone
Defense also wins road games, playoff games, and a playoff series. Like the offense, the Wizards overall defensive statistics are actually solid related to the rest of the league. But like the offense, the Wizards defense has a huge variation between their home and road stats, much greater than what is acceptable for a good team.
· Home: 96.2 ppg allowed, 18.4 apg allowed, 42.7% Opponent FG, 32.8% Opponent 3FG
· Road: 98.7 ppg allowed, 20.0 apg allowed, 44.5% Opponent FG, 37.3% Opponent 3FG
The Wizards’ opponents field goal percentage at home, if applied to the entire season would rank 2nd in the NBA (behind Golden State, the NBA’s number one rated defense per basketball-reference.com). Opponents field goal percentage on the road would rank 14th in the NBA. For perspective, the Warriors have just a 0.1% variation in field goal defense home vs. road, allowing 42.4% shooting at home compared to 42.5% shooting on the road.
Like the offense, the Wizards problem becomes exaggerated when the three point line comes into view. The Wizards’ opponent three point field goal percentage at home would rank tied for 3rd in the NBA. The opponents three point field goal percentage on the road would rank 2nd to last in the NBA (ahead of only the lowly New York Knicks)
Unfortunately, these stats just confirm what many of your eyes have been seeing. “He’s wide open!” “Why isn’t anyone guarding him?!” “Do they even know they get three points for that shot?!”
Unlike the offense, the defensive shortcomings can’t be traced to just a few causes (unless you want to blame Wittman). Defense is a matter of effort and energy above all else, and the entire team is stuck in first gear far too often on that end of the floor, whenever that floor isn’t the Verizon Center.
If the Wizards still hope to reach their planned destination, and get back into the Eastern Conference Race, they have got to find a way to be better on the road, and they have got to do it immediately.
The Wizards have a four game West Coast road trip coming up. After that road trip, they will have just eleven games left in the 2014-2015 regular season. Five of those final eleven games will be road games. As they stand now, the Wizards are three games in the loss column behind the Cavs, two games behind Chicago and Toronto, and two games ahead of the Bucks. How the Wizards perform on the road is going to be critical to where they end up in the playoff standings, and critical to where they literally end up playing in the playoffs. If they can find a level of consistency night to night, the Wizards could end up hosting a playoff series, and at least minimize their road woes in round one.
Regardless, the bottom line remains the same: Whether it’s their upcoming road trip, round one, round two, or the Eastern Conference Finals, the Wizards will have to win road games to achieve their goals. If they can be clutch on the road, the Wizards might just start looking like that dream car we saw early in the season. If not, they will stall short of the finish line, waving a white flag while the rest of the conference crosses the checkered.
It’s April, Wizards. It’s time to: Start. Your. Engines!