During the Washington Wizards’ first game of the Eastern Conference playoffs, Bradley Beal noticed a trend. The Toronto Raptors were alternating defenses when Beal operated as the ballhandler in pick-and-roll plays. They committed, switched and sometimes threw a hard hedge — when the defender on the screener jumps out on the ballhandler to slow down the action. After the Wizards lost Game 1, Beal sought a solution to Toronto’s tactics.
“They did a good job of it, but I watched film,” Beal said April 17, the morning before Game 2, “and I think I got some counters that will beat their defenses.”
He didn’t. As the Wizards’ ballhandlers tried to create basketball poetry, operating around the occasional hard pick mixed with too many halfhearted screens, the play was perforated as Washington fell into a two-game deficit.
Enter one of the most active roll men in the NBA. While many have dissected the Wizards’ decision to add Dwight Howard, who was traded from the Charlotte Hornets to the Brooklyn Nets, then negotiated a buyout to become a free agent, his new teammates can focus on the big man’s particular skill set. On a purely basketball front, a healthy Howard may cure Washington’s weaknesses in the pick and roll and improve any blind spots on the fast break.
“Some of the narrative is out there that I heard, but I’m not concerned with it,” Wizards Coach Scott Brooks said Monday after Howard was officially introduced. “My focus is on him and what we’ve talked about and our relationship, what we’ll establish going forward.”
Last season, when the Wizards had a ballhandler blossoming in confidence in Beal; a big man willing to sacrifice his body for screens in Marcin Gortat; and, for only 41 games, the services of a five-time point guard deft in finding teammates in John Wall, the team often relied on the pick and roll to create offense. Despite having personnel suited for the play, the Wizards were surprisingly inefficient as a pick-and-roll team.
Washington ranked below average in plays produced from the pick-and-roll ballhandler, 0.82 points per possession for 19th overall, according to NBA Advanced Stats. And even though Gortat finished fourth in the league in screen assists, the team recorded just 0.98 points per possession (27th in the league) when the action went to the roll man.
The bread-and-butter play starts, naturally, with a pick and is designed to create an open shot for the ballhandler or a pass to the cutting screener. The Wizards, however, sometimes found the simple play more difficult, just as Beal experienced in Game 1 against the Raptors.
On that night, Beal, who led the team with 510 possessions as the pick-and-roll ballhandler in 2017-18 according to Synergy Sports, often faced an extra defender after a teammate slipped the screen. Although that’s common in the NBA, a hard screen initiates the action, and the threat of the screener finishing near the rim is more likely to keep a defender from hedging the ballhandler. Gortat did not pose such a threat — he made only 45.5 percent of his shots on plays in which he rolled to the basket. Conversely, Howard shot 58.4 percent on the same plays last season for Charlotte.
“He’s still athletic,” Wall said about Howard. “Look what he did last year: He averaged 16 and 12. He’s a guy who can still catch lobs and dunk the ball under the basket.”
Still, Howard’s work as a roll man graded out as average on Synergy’s rating system. He performed better, however, in transition. The statistical website separately evaluated both Howard and the Wizards as excellent on transition plays, and Brooks already can envision how the big man would be most effective when the team elects to get out and run.
“We want to play fast. How do you play fast? You don’t play fast by getting the ball … out through the net,” Brooks said. “You’ve got to get it off the rim and get out and run. He’s the best rebounder in the league, and to be able to do that, it creates offense for our guys that can play fast, that can shoot.”
Howard averaged 12.5 rebounds, ranking third in the NBA behind Andre Drummond (16.0) and DeAndre Jordan (15.2), but even when he wasn’t concluding a defensive possession by securing the ball, the 265-pounder still hurried down the floor fast enough to finish many of Charlotte’s breaks. Howard completed 36 of 51 shot attempts in transition (nearly 71 percent) and drew free throws on 26.6 percent of those possessions.
On the day of Game 2 between the Wizards and Raptors, Howard was busy in Charlotte holding a Jr. NBA clinic at the Dwight Howard Boys & Girls Club. Howard had missed the playoffs for only the fourth time in his 14-year career, and the Wizards were missing someone with his skills as an efficient roll man and transition scorer. Two months later, after Howard was dealt by the Hornets, he received an Instagram direct message from Wall asking whether he wanted to play in Washington. He said yes. The big man looking for a home found one with a team that needs a pick-and-roll boost.
“I think we are going to really just shock a lot of people, and I think for me, the rest of this team and this organization, it’s all about winning. That is our mind-set,” Howard said. “That is the only thing that us as players have been talking about, myself, coach and also Ernie [Grunfeld, the general manager], how we are excited about turning things around here in D.C.”
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