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Us against the World: The Wizards in the National Media Blacklight

In recent days, following a debilitating loss to the Warriors, and an embarrassing loss to the lowly Timberwolves, the Wizards have suddenly become a center of national attention. Dan Steinberg covered some of the most high profile criticism for the DC Sports Bog.

Everyone knows the saying: “Any press is good press.” But the reasons for the press have certainly been bad. Bad offense. Bad defense. Bad effort. Bad shooting. Bad shot selection. Bad coaching. Bad. Bad. Bad. Bad.

But how much of the criticism is warranted? And how much of the criticism is just talking heads spewing unfounded commentary without even watching the team? Let’s look at some of the accusations, and some of the evidence, and find out.

On the Subject of John Wall:

National Media Accusation: John Wall just isn’t that good.

One of the nation’s most respected and most popular figures, Tony Kornheiser, angered a whole lot of Wizards fans with the following comments:

“There was that period of time about a quarter to a third through the season where all of the writers got really chesty about how great John Wall is, and they attacked people who didn’t say that John Wall was the greatest player in the Eastern Conference. They were in attack mode….And now, what more people begin to realize if they watch these games, is that Wall is an okay shooter. He’s an average shooter. He’s not a great shooter. He’s okay. He’s an okay passer.”

Tony! How DARE you attack John Wall?! Except, maybe he’s right.

John Wall IS just an okay shooter, at 45%, not awful, not great. And most Wizards fans wouldn’t argue with Tony on this point.

But just an “okay passer” Tony? Wall leads the league in assists at 10 per game, despite not being surrounded by great shooters. Wall is much better than an “okay passer.” That sentiment is shared by Grantland’s Zach Lowe, one of the best basketball analysts in the world.

“He’s an okay” passer is the part of Kornhesier’s quote that upset the most Wizards fans, and resulted in an onslaught of tweets, facebook comments, and general conversation suggesting he doesn’t watch games or doesn’t know what he’s talking about. And clearly, in regard to Wall’s passing, Mr. Kornheiser was wrong.

But the most pertinent part of Tony’s quote, came next:

“What [Wall’s] basic weapon is is speed. He can get to the rim all the time. He’s fabulous at converting layups and keeping you in the game. But in situations now, if that is his most basic weapon, speed, and nobody around him is doing anything or appears to be interested, that is negated by the rest of his team. And he hasn’t found a way, and he’s got his assists, but they’re not winning. Something is wrong there.”

“He hasn’t found a way.” This is the real sentiment of Tony Kornheiser’s statements on Wall, and a sentiment that is growing.

ESPN’s Brian Windhorst said, “Wall is struggling. Wall is not having as much opportunity to create space. Their big guys are not playing well on a regular basis. And they were not able to make an impactful addition at the deadline….So it’s seriously concerning. And also what I think is concerning is I’m not seeing much of a fight.”

From both Kornheiser and Windhorst, we hear a little bit of an excuse for Wall, regarding a lack of consistent help and consistent effort.

However, at some point, the excuses have to stop, and this is really what Tony Kornheiser is getting at with Wall. If he’s as great as the writers he refers to want to say he is, he has to find a way.

Wall in an explosive athlete, and an incredible finisher at the basket, when he attacks. When he attacks.

Take a look at John Wall’s shooting, by shot zone, compared to a similarly explosive athlete and finisher, and fast rising MVP candidate Russell Westbrook.

John Wall:

1

VS.

Russell Westbrook:

unnamed

Wall is actually a better shooter form EVERY area than Westbrook. So Wall being just an “okay shooter” isn’t necessarily a problem. The problem arises when we look at their shot frequency. Wall vs. Westbrook again:

John Wall:

unnamed (1)

VS.

Russell Westbrook:

unnamed (2)

Most of Wall’s shots (like the Wizards), come from midrange, the worst shots in basketball. But Westbrook? The majority of his shots come at the rim, and it’s not even close. There’s more. According to basketball-reference.com, 35% percent of Westbrook’s shots come not just in the paint, but AT THE RIM, compared to just 27% of Wall’s shots.

“[Wall] hasn’t found a way.” The fact of the matter is, like it or not, this is the truth. Westbrook is renowned nationwide as a guy who goes balls-to-the-Wall every minute, every night. Westbrook buzz words are relentless, tenacious, aggressive, attacking, “Puts pressure on the defense,” to the point that his criticisms are out-of-control, selfish, and “trying to do too much.” Russell Westbrook does not let the game come to him. Russell Westbrook attacks the game, and forces the issue to the point that he WILL impact the game, for better or for worse. Russell Westbrook finds a way. When Durant is healthy, and when the team is rolling, Westbrook takes some heat. But with Durant out, the team in trouble, and no real shooters around him, Westbrook goes into full fledged super-hero mode, and forces the rest of the team to follow suit.

Hmm. An important wing player out, a team in trouble, and no real shooters around? That sounds familiar.

Maybe Kornheiser, and the rest of the national media, isn’t 100% accurate in their criticism of Wall. But the criticism IS justified. Yes, he’s better than an “okay passer.” No, it doesn’t really matter that he’s just an “okay shooter.” Simply put, “He hasn’t found a way.”

Wall is a great teammate, and a good reader of the game. But right now, the Wizards need him to be a super-hero.

VERDICT: Hung Jury. The criticism is warranted, but the evidence suggests the angle of criticism is inaccurate. If the criticism is in regard to Wall’s skill and ability, the evidence suggests Wall is not guilty. But if the criticism is in regard to Wall not doing enough and not taking over with that skill and ability, then the evidence suggests he is guilty as charged.

On execution:

National Media Accusation: The Wizards are playing poorly on both ends (Duh!)

While discussing the Wizards on SportsTalk Live, TNT’s Kenny Smith made the following statements:

“They’re in a freefall right now…they haven’t really done the things that made them successful. And I thought it was a lot of ball movement and a lot of body movement, where now I see a lot of standing, especially on the defensive end.

“A lot of times we look at movement and body movement on the offensive end, but on the defensive end, trusting each other, you don’t see that as [much] as you did earlier in the season for some reason. And I don’t know what clicked off and why. That success that they had and they tasted, they’re not savoring to have more of. It seems like they became content.”

Now, Kenny Smith may not watch a lot of Wizards basketball, but he sounds like he watches every game. Specifically, his reference to the Wizards defense, and even more pertinent, his admission that, “I don’t know what clicked off and why.” Looking at the Wizards defensive stats, they actually are not that awful. They rank 6th in opponent FG percentage (44%), 10th in points allowed (98.3 ppg), and 11th in defensive rating. Even looking at their defensive splits during the season, we don’t see a dramatic change:

November: Opp. FG%: 42%, Opp. 3FG%: 37%, Forced Turnovers: 15.2, Points allowed: 95.8

December: Opp. FG%: 45%, Opp. 3FG%: 33%, Forced Turnovers: 13.7, Points allowed: 98.1

January: Opp. FG%: 44%, Opp. 3FG%: 37%, Forced Turnovers: 11.5, Points allowed: 99.6

February: Opp. FG%: 44%, Opp. 3FG%: 36%, Forced Turnovers: 12.5, Points allowed: 98.7

Those numbers show some slippage, but not the collapse our eyes have witnessed. Sometimes numbers do lie (we know Kenny’s TNT colleague Charles Barkley agrees). Local writers and fans have noticed that the defense has slipped badly. The Wizards don’t get stops when they need them, and give up far too many open three point shots. Opponents have noticed as well. After opponents attempted 21.5 threes per game during November and December (when the Wizards went 21-8), that number has jumped to 23.8 since (Wizards are 11-16).

Defense is more about effort than anything else, and too often, the effort just hasn’t been there of late.

Offensively, the national media has focused on one major issue (outside of John Wall): Two many two’s.

Local writers and fans readily accept this criticism. We hate it too! The Wizards are 9th in the league in total FG attempts, yet they are 27th in 3-point attempts, 2nd in two point attempts, and 28th in percentage of shot attempts that are threes. Like Wall, the Wizards simply shoot too many low percentage two’s.

VERDICT: Guilty

On coaching:

National Media Accusation: The Coaching is not good enough to handle this season’s lofty expectations.

Coach Randy Wittman has been a hot topic of debate, specifically a debate about exactly how hot his seat is. On Pardon the Interruption (only one of the most popular sports debate shows on TV) Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon discussed the Wizards. Tony stated that “They’re dissolving. This is the first year they’ve had expectations. They started out great. If you look at them now: 0-5, 2-10 and 4-12. Coaches get fired for that when teams have expectations.”

Randy+Wittman+Washington+Wizards+v+Miami+Heat+WP_p8h87-Zml

Wilbon argued that it’s too late in the season for such a move. Brian Windhorst echoed that sentiment, at least in regard to the Wizards, with his statements on Tony’s radio show.

“Already in the NBA there are whispers coming down about Randy Wittman. And Ted Leonsis is famous for his patience, and I suspect his patience will last. But already I’ve got people in the league talking about how that job is going to maybe be open after this year. And that is not a good situation. Now, he’s faced the pressure before and rallied back, but this is a different era for this Wizards team, as you well know Tony. There’s a major difference in the NBA when you flip the page to being a team of expectations as opposed to a team of potential. They were a team of potential last year; now they’re a team of expectations.”

Expectations. There’s that word again. And although expectations are something every good team should want, they do provide a new type of pressure. Early in the season, there was still a blend of expectations and potential. By the start of January, the Eastern Conference Finals looked like a legitimate goal and possibility. Yet the moment that began to occur, the wheels fell off. Obviously, there was no major philosophical change the team made that corresponded to such a dramatic change in performance. So why the drop off?

Michael Wilbon had a unique take. “What about Sam Cassell? Is it possible those young guards, John Wall and Bradley Beal, miss an assistant coach who pushed them, who pushed the right buttons, who understood them, who had rings on his fingers?”

Maybe. But if your assistant coach has that great of an impact on your star players, isn’t that a problem? If Sam Cassell was that vital to coaching up John Wall and Bradley Beal, isn’t that a reflection of a lack of coaching up by Wittman?

If Wall and Beal are searching for leadership and motivation cemented with rings, they can look toward their teammate Paul Pierce; A future Hall of Famer, an NBA champion and a perennial All-Star closer to the level of player Wall and Beal aspire to be than Cassell was. If they are waiting for the right buttons to be pushed, that’s the job of a head coach. If Cassell really did make that big an impact on the Wizards two stars, that means there is some aspect of coaching they need that Wittman fails to provide.

Adjustments have to be made, buttons have to be pushed. That’s the job of a head coach. If the one you have can’t do it, it means you need a new one.

VERDICT: Guilty, but it’s too late to make a change this season.

The fact of the matter is, the Wizards have provided a lot to criticize in recent weeks. The players aren’t performing, and the coaches aren’t performing. If you consider the lack of impact moves at the trade deadline, management isn’t really performing either.

However, the playoffs start in two months. The criticism of Wittman is fair, but now is not the time for a change. Look at what happened to the Kings after firing their coach midseason, and that was much earlier on. Unless you have a head-coach-ready assistant on staff, you have to stick with what you have. If you fire Wittman now, then you admit to the players and the fans that the new coach is coaching for next year, not this year.

That means one thing: It’s on the players. The players simply have to come together, and make the collective decision to turn this thing around. Winning cures everything. Winning happens one game at a time.

And individually, John Wall needs to decide it’s time to be a hero. No more settling for mid-range jumpers. No more making the “right play” EVERY time. Remember those Westbrook buzz words? It’s time for John Wall to embrace them himself. Tenacious. Relentless. Attacking. Aggressive. If we can describe Wall with these words game after game for the rest of the season, the wins will return, coaching be damned.

After all, Scott Brooks still has a job, right?

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