High in the rafters for 41 home games and 41 road games, six cameras have been pointed down on the court, capturing every basket, pass, inbounds play and flop. One is hanging above each basket, and the other four are above the sidelines, recording every movement of every game — 25 data points collected every second and upward of a million pieces of data in four quarters of action.
That means this season for the first time, the NBA, in concert with Stats LLC, the Chicago-based company that operates the SportVU camera system, not only opened a vault of never-before-recorded statistical information, but fans have more understanding than ever about what makes their favorite teams tick.
“There’s some of that as a coach you know,” said the Wizards’ Randy Wittman, who’s preparing to lead Washington into the playoffs for the first time since 2008. “I don’t need to have a camera in the sky tell me that you’re out there loafing. I can see that. But there’s some good things to it. You always try to take advantage of new technology.”
When all these data points are assembled, the result is a complex paint-by-numbers portrait that reveals how the Wizards finally turned the corner, just how dependent they are on John Wall and what they’ll be relying on as they try to advance past the Chicago Bulls in the first round of the playoffs.
No player in the NBA has control of the ball more than the Wizards’ point guard. He touched the ball 7,622 times this season — more than 500 more than any other player — and on an average night, he’s in possession of the ball for 7.8 total minutes. And before anyone accuses him of hogging the ball, Wall was fourth in the league in passes per game with 70.2.
It all underscores the fact the Wizards’ fortunes — not to mention their entire offense — run through Wall.
“My job is to come out and lead this team,” he said recently, “not just by scoring but doing other things to help us win.”
Look behind the arc to find one of the biggest differences between this year’s squad and recent Wizards teams that packed their bags before the playoffs began. Four years ago, the Wizards shot 33.2 percent behind the line, hitting just 4.8 three-pointers per game. This season, they averaged 7.9 per game, shooting 38 percent, the fourth-best mark in the league.
Again, much of the credit here goes to Wall. He led the league by notching an assist on 247 three-point baskets, 51 more than anyone else in the league.
Not only did Wall average a career-high 19.3 points per game this season, but cameras are able to track his passing better than ever. We know he topped the league in the traditional assist category (721 overall; his 8.8 per game average was second to Chris Paul of the Los Angeles Clippers), but we can go a step further to tally the exact number of Wall’s two-point field goals, three-pointers and passes that resulted in free throws. In all, his sharp passing resulted in 21.3 additional points per game. His total number of points created (1,708) is 69 more than the next highest total, Minnesota guard Ricky Rubio’s 1,657.
“It doesn’t matter if they get to the free throw line, make shots, miss shots,” Wall said of his teammates. “They could go 1 for 15, but I can’t stop finding those guys for open shots. That’s my job.”
Making Wall’s passing efficiency all the more impressive: He doesn’t have a sterling go-to scorer. Rubio has Kevin Love. Paul has Blake Griffin. Benefiting most from Wall’s assists? Ariza, the league’s 64th-leading scorer.
Much has been made about Wall’s improved jump shot, and the numbers certainly bear that out. Wall connected on just three threes in his second NBA season. He finished this year with 108. A year ago, he attempted only 45 three-pointers, compared with 308 attempts this year.
“When your confidence grows, your belief grows. It’s nothing more than that,” Wittman said. “It wasn’t [like] we sent him to the moon and got him fairy dust or anything and sprinkled it on him. He worked. That’s what you have to do to improve a weakness.”
He’s certainly benefited from bigger, physical teammates such as Marcin Gortat and Nene setting screens and creating more open looks at the basket. But Wall’s biggest leaps have come on the practice court. He has been working with trainer Rob McClanaghan, who has also tutored stars such as Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, Love and Kevin Durant. They’ve worked on balance, release and holding the follow-through.
Wall’s confidence is apparent on the stat sheets, too. Despite a recent dip, his three-point attempts and three-point percentage both climbed steadily from November to March. This season, one in three of his shots came from close to the hoop, while one in five was from behind the three-point arc. Wall knows there’s still plenty of room for improvement. If you study shot charts, he’s only shooting above league average from the right wing (48 percent) and left corner (43). He’s below average from the top of the key (28 percent), left wing (30) and right corner (19).
“I don’t care if I miss 10 shots in the first half,” he said. “There’s games I went 0 for 7 in the first half or 0 for 10, and I come out and found a way to get hot. . . . You’re not going to make every shot you take. My teammates believe in me and have the confidence in me to take those shots down the stretch.”
Like Wall, Ariza is enjoying unprecedented success from behind the arc. It’s largely a product of a changing role for him. Over the summer, the 10th-year forward looked around, saw the skill sets of his teammates and realized he had no choice but to become more efficient at catching and shooting. The Wizards would most need him most along the perimeter.
“So if I wanted to contribute, I had to start knocking those shots down,” he said.
Ariza has seen his three-point percentage climb from 30.3 percent four years ago to 40.7 this year. While a lot of that has to do with shot selection, having a teammate like Wall certainly helps. Wall notched an assist on 165 of Ariza’s 389 field goals this season.
The 6-foot-8-inch Ariza is especially strong from the corner, where the reward is relatively high and the risk low. He had 81 baskets from the corner, 56 of which were set up by Wall.
The strong on-court relationship between Wall and Ariza was evident in a February game at Houston, in which Ariza drilled 10 three-pointers. He was 7 for 7 from behind the arc in the third quarter alone. Wall sensed the hot hand early and picked up an assist on six of those third-quarter buckets.
The differences between the Wizards’ two regular season wins over the Bulls and their one loss are stark. In the wins, Washington hit twice as many threes and shot 10 percentage points better from the field (51.3 percent compared with 39.5).
But come playoff time, sharpshooting might not be enough. Wittman seems to think for the Wizards to advance in the playoffs, his squad can’t simply dominate any one statistical category.
“Shooting comes and goes. . . . We’ve got to flip our thinking,” he said. “When you’ve now reached a situation where you are a playoff team, other teams look at you differently. They don’t look at you as a team that’s a struggling team down at the bottom.”