PHILADELPHIA — One month ago, the Washington Wizards were considered a contender to win the Eastern Conference. Now they are in a free fall, gathering speed following Wednesday's disconcerting 97-77 loss at Western Conference doormat Minnesota . They have lost five straight games twice in 13 days and eight in a row to teams with a winning record. They have lost 10 of 12 and 12 of 16 overall. They have lost the swagger earned during their 31-15 start, and they have lost home-court advantage in the postseason, at least temporarily. They have lost a lot.
There has been no shortage of diagnoses for the losses, and they are all similar, focusing on the Wizards’ offense and roster construction, but one stood out from the rest Thursday afternoon.
In a post published on his blog, owner Ted Leonsis addressed the Wizards' misery. He was specific and echoed most outsiders' appraisals. He lamented the team's spacing on offense, the product of a lack of three-point shooting threats. He lambasted the team's inability to get to the free throw line. He stressed the combination is a problem.
“In today’s NBA, three point shooting and foul shots are so very vital,” Leonsis wrote. “Running the floor to get lay ups as the efficient 2 point shot is also key. We haven’t been executing those sets well; and our record of late is concerning to all.”
Leonsis's assessment falls in line with advanced analytics. Three-pointers and free throws, the data explains, are the most efficient shots in basketball, and an increasing number of NBA teams are using such information to their advantage. The Wizards aren't one of them. They have ranked near the bottom in the NBA in both three-point and free throw attempts and close to the top in midrange jumpers, the least efficient shots, during Coach Randy Wittman's tenure. The discrepancy, coincidentally, has expanded recently.
During the five-game losing skid, the Wizards (33-25) are averaging a league-low 15 free throw attempts, while opponents are averaging 24.8. They're averaging 4.2 three-pointers made, 28th in the NBA, and 18 three-point attempts, 26th in the NBA. Opponents are averaging a league-high 10.8 made threes on 25.4 attempts, seventh most over the stretch. But despite the disappointing developments, the organization and players remain supportive of Wittman and confident they can reverse course.
"Coach does a great job making his decisions," all-star guard John Wall said after Wednesday's game. "We trust in whatever decisions and whatever substitutions he wants to make. We just got to go out there and compete with the five that's on the court. It's not him that's going to make us play better. He's making the right calls."
Bradley Beal's seven-game absence because of a right leg injury hasn't helped. Beal is Washington's best three-point shooter, though he is averaging more midrange jumpers than three-pointers (4.6 to 4.1) while shooting significantly worse from midrange (33.3 percent to 43.6 percent). The Wizards were also without Paul Pierce, another effective three-point shooter, against the Timberwolves on Wednesday because of a bruised right knee.
Disaster resulted. Washington went 4 for 18 from beyond the three-point line and managed only eight free throw attempts. Minnesota outscored the Wizards from the line 23-7. The Wizards started the game on an 18-3 run — and were outscored by 35 the rest of the way.
“We’re not putting the ball on the floor from the wing and attacking,” Wittman said Wednesday. “Catch and shoot. If guys run at you, you’ve got to put down. We hold it, and they recover, and we try to beat them once they’re there. We don’t do any draw and kick when they’re running after us to get calls.”
For nearly half the season, the Wizards relied on unexpected production from Rasual Butler, a 35-year-old training camp invite, for outside shooting. Butler shot a staggering 48.7 percent from three and averaged 10.2 points over Washington's first 33 games. Since then, Butler has shot 23.8 percent from downtown and is averaging 5.8 points.
Expecting Butler to continue that pace was unreasonable, but the Wizards hoped Martell Webster, another three-point specialist on the wing, would shoulder some of the shooting burden for the second unit upon his return from back surgery — his third in four years — in late December. But Webster has not found a rhythm. He has played sporadically and is just 6 for 26 (23.1 percent) from beyond the arc after shooting 40.7 percent from three his first two seasons in the District.
The lack of three-pointers and free throw line visits correlate. Without three-point threats, spacing is cramped and lanes to the basket are narrowed because teams clog the middle. The Wizards were already a team that drove to the basket infrequently — they are 28th in the NBA with 17.3 drives and 19.4 points on drives per game — and the congestion makes it more difficult to get to the rim, particularly for Wall. It also has helped produce a spike in turnovers — Washington is averaging 18.2 the past five games, third most in the NBA, though the inflated number is also the product of random bouts of carelessness.
“People are clogging it up a little more, making it more difficult for John,” said Garrett Temple, who leads the Wizards with seven three-pointers during their slide as Beal’s replacement in the starting lineup. “Us perimeters, we got to do a better job knocking down shots for him. But I don’t think it’s just spacing. In general we’re not executing as well as we need to, and that goes with all five of us on the court.”
Earlier in the season, Wall tormented defenses with his drive-and-kicks to open shooters in the corner, utilizing his speed and newfound change-of-pace capability. Those opportunities have grown scarce — the Wizards are 4 for 24 on corner three-pointers over the past five games — and so have the wins.
“We’ve got to stay with this,” Wittman said. “It’s tough times right now. Tough times. It’s easy to look at that and put your head down, but we’ve got to fight through it.”