Randy Wittman is a self-described old-school basketball lifer. The Washington Wizards coach appreciates the sport’s history and is openly reluctant to accept drastic change to the game — as exhibited by his recent opinion on the NBA’s experiment with shortening games. The throwback mentality also has manifested itself in how his team operates offensively.
At a time when advanced metrics have infiltrated the NBA, statisticians have concluded “long twos” — outside the paint, inside the three-point arc — are the least efficient shot in basketball. Wittman admits he is not one for numbers.
“We’re going to take open shots,” Wittman emphasized. “If a team wants to give us mid-range open shots, we’re going to take them. 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.”
Numbers never tell the whole story, but there is no question the league is going to them with growing frequency. Short two-point shots are made at a significantly higher rate, and though three-point attempts are successful at a lesser clip, the 50 percent increase in point value overcomes the slight percentage dip.
Last season, NBA teams made 26.8 percent of their field goal attempts from midrange and shot a cumulative 39.3 percent.
A few teams have incorporated the statistical findings to an extreme. The Houston Rockets are the most pronounced, taking only 728 midrange jump shots while hoisting a league-high 2,179 three-pointers last season. Some teams feature premier individual midrange mavens — the Portland Trail Blazers’ LaMarcus Aldridge, the Dallas Mavericks’ Dirk Nowitzki, and the Golden State Warriors’ Stephen Curry are among the elite — and defy the math. The Wizards have done neither.
Last season, the Wizards led the NBA in midrange shot attempts with 2,199, according to NBA.com. The season before — Wittman’s first full season at the helm — Washington accumulated 2,298, which ranked fourth in the league.
The high volume has not translated to success. Two years ago, Washington shot just 37.6 percent from midrange, which ranked 23rd in the NBA. Last season, the conversion rate rose to 38.1 percent, good for 21st in the league. The Wizards’ back court of John Wall and Bradley Beal finished fifth and sixth with 527 and 519 midrange shots, respectively. Wall shot 36.6 percent, the worst clip among the 26 players with the most attempts in the league. Beal was a tick better at 37.2 percent.
Nene and new addition Kris Humphries were accurate from midrange last season, shooting 43.3 and 45.3 percent, respectively, which make them effective weapons in the pick and roll. But they’re big men who attempted far fewer mid-range jumpers than Beal and Wall — Humphries hoisted 256 and Nene 233.
Washington’s midrange conversion rates were similar to the team’s accuracy from beyond the three-point arc. In 2012-13, the Wizards shot 36.5 percent from outside on 1,495 attempts. Last season, the number jumped to 38 percent — fourth highest in the NBA — on 1,704 attempts. The success rate climbed for threes from the corner, where the Wizards shot 40.3 percent — a product of Wall’s ability to penetrate and draw defenders to him, then kick out to open three-point shooters.
The Wizards’ ability to make three-pointers last season buoyed their offensive rating (points scored per 100 possessions) to middle-of-the-pack at 103.3, tied for 16th in the league. But they finished at the bottom in 2012-13, and top defenses regularly allow teams to take midrange jump shots. The Bulls, Pacers, and Spurs, three of the four top defenses in the NBA last season, surrendered the most midrange field goal attempts.
Washington’s tendency to settle for jumpers also produced fewer drives to the basket and, subsequently, trips to the free throw line in 2013-14. Washington shot 47.3 percent last season on drives — defined as a touch that starts at least 20 feet from the hoop and is dribbled within 10 feet of the goal excluding fast breaks — which ranked seventh in the NBA. But the Wizards averaged just 16.5 drives per game (28th) and 18.2 points per game on drives (29th).
Furthermore, the Wizards averaged 20.9 free throws per game, the fifth-lowest mark in the league. The Wizards made getting to the free throw line a point of emphasis during the preseason. In eight exhibition contests, the Wizards attempted 238 free throws, seventh most in the league, and converted 72.3 percent.
“What leads to that is when you have good ball movement,” Wittman said after practice Monday. “That’s when you get the close-outs and the ability to put the ball on the floor and get to it. So it’s a byproduct, I think, of how we want to play, in terms of getting the ball swung from side to side and getting the defense to move and attacking the close-out to the rim.
“That’s something we’ve got to keep doing because that’s one of our goals that we want to get better at. I didn’t think we got to the line enough as a team last year and that’s been a positive.”