Local bloggers, beat writers, sports-radio hosts and fans have grappled with Washington’s three-point conundrum for months; it’s the RGIII of Wizards fandom. In a league that increasingly values three-pointers, the Wizards just don’t shoot very many of ’em. And the issue finally got a national airing over the last week.
First, Jeff Van Gundy brought it up during ESPN’s Washington-Cleveland broadcast, saying he was “amazed” the Wizards have managed to overcome their relative lack of three-pointers. Then, ESPN the Magazine released its analytics rankings of U.S. pro teams. The Wizards finished in the NBA’s bottom third, thanks mostly to their three-point shooting.
“Washington lags in terms of applying the lessons of analytics to its shot chart even in the midst of the team’s best season since 1978-79,” the magazine explained, citing Washington’s high ratio of midrange shots to three-pointers, despite a strong long-distance shooting percentage.
It’s popular to blame Wizards Coach Randy Wittman for that disparity, and the coach has come under increased scrutiny from fans during Washington’s recent 2-9 skid. Van Gundy, though, suggested an alternative interpretation, one focused less on strategy than on roster construction.
“It’s really not a style [question]; it’s really more of a personnel question,” he said in a telephone interview this week. “Obviously the confusing part is if they shoot a high percentage, then why don’t they shoot more? But what people don’t think about is that if they shoot more, they probably won’t shoot a high percentage, because they just don’t have those guys.”
In many ways, Washington is built like a team from decades past, with a gaggle of post players who could have been comfortable in the ’90s: “traditional big men rather than floor spacers,” as ESPN the Magazine put it. Their best player, John Wall, isn’t a standout shooter. Their best shooter, Beal, isn’t on the court because of an injured right leg. And their best big men — Nene and Marcin Gortat, Kris Humphries and Kevin Seraphin — aren’t particularly scary from three-point range.
(Combined, they’re 1 for 13 this season. Actually, that is kind of scary.)
The Wizards are the NBA’s fifth-most accurate three-point-shooting team, but they currently rank 27th in threes attempted and 26th in threes made. Of the NBA’s bottom nine teams in three-pointers made, just three are in playoff position. On the other hand, eight of the league’s top nine teams in three-pointers made would qualify for the playoffs if they started today.
“I do find it amazing that — without range shooting — they’ve been able to overcome that,” Van Gundy said. “Where they’re sitting, they’ve really overachieved.”
Some fans would likely disagree. And those fans don’t like the way Wittman bristles when asked about the NBA’s embrace of three-point shooting.
“I’m going to tell a guy that has a wide-open 15-foot jumper to take three steps back and shoot a three? I’m not going to do that,” Wittman said before the season, a quote ESPN highlighted in Washington’s poor analytics grade.
“We shoot a high percentage, but we don’t have a lot of guys who shoot them … if that makes any sense to you,” the coach said in January. If “you have five guys capable of shooting threes, you’re going to have more three-point attempts. We don’t have that. It’s basically our one, two and three that shoots threes for us. So our attempts are going to be down.”
When Beal is sidelined, those numbers are especially depressed. Beal’s latest leg injury has kept the guard out of six straight games. In his absence, Washington has made 33 of 117 three-point attempts — about 28 percent. (Charlotte, the NBA’s worst three-point shooting team this season, makes 31 percent of its attempts.)
But Beal has a history of injuries, and his potential replacements aren’t close to the shooter he is. So, coaching or construction?
“You always want to play to your players’ strengths,” Van Gundy said. “If you’re saying to me you’re going to have John Wall shoot more threes, the other teams are gonna celebrate. Because that means he’s not using his speed and quickness to try to jam the ball into the paint and draw secondary defenders.
“I think they’re doing exactly what they should do, which is play to each guy’s strengths,” Van Gundy went on. “When Beal comes back — and Beal plays a lot — they’ll have their best three-point shooter, and they can utilize that weapon more. But to ask Otto Porter [Jr.], who’s a very good cutter and mover, to just be a spot-up shooter wouldn’t be playing to his strength. The same with Ramon Sessions. So it’s not the ‘what’ as much as it is the ‘who.’ ”
Still, watching Washington’s standard-def offense in a plasma world has led to some restlessness among locals. One recently called the team’s offense “prehistoric.” Another wrote that the Wizards boast the “the best shooting mediocre offense of the modern NBA era.” A third argued that “Wittman’s failure to address this is, quite honestly, inexcusable.” And a fourth argued that “watching the Wizards play offense is either maddening and inexplicable, or hilarious, or both.”
The complaints are compelling; it’s particularly hard to understand why Beal — one of the NBA’s best three-point shooters — has taken fewer than half the attempts of Curry or Thompson. (Separately, Washington has also struggled to get to the free-throw line, the most obvious place to look for points for a team that doesn’t shoot many threes.) But again, look at the roster. Martell Webster had offseason back surgery. Porter hasn’t shot well behind the arc. Trevor Ariza is in Houston. Rasual Butler was a training camp invitee. Paul Pierce — the roster’s only real stretch four option — is 37.
Instead, Washington spent the offseason stockpiling big men, including DeJuan Blair, who pledged that the Wizards would bring back the Bad Boys. Remember them? Both times the Bad Boy Pistons won league titles, they finished below the league average in three-pointers made. Can that fly in the modern NBA?
“You’ve got to create other opportunities that you’re not getting from the three-point line,” Van Gundy advised. “You’ve just got to find a way to make up for that.”
Easier said than done.