5 Biggest Takeaways from Washington Wizards' 1st Half of the Season
If you just take a cursory look at things, 2014-15 has gone about as planned for the Washington Wizards.
The Wizards are 31-16, good for third in the Eastern Conference. Washington's defense has been terrific. John Wall continues to develop into one of the league's best point guards, and Paul Pierce has proved to be a more-than-adequate replacement for Trevor Ariza.
Sometimes, expectations meet reality.
However, that's not to say that Washington's season has been completely predictable. We've learned some surprising things about the Wizards over the past three months, some of which could end up shaping what the team looks like in the future.
Let's take a look at some of the biggest takeaways from the first three months of the season and what they might mean moving forward.
Rasual Butler Is for Real
Even now, three months into the 2014-15 NBA season, it's hard to believe the kind of impact that Rasual Butler has had on the Washington Wizards.
The Wizards signed Butler to be little more than a training camp body. Instead, he's been one of their best wings, period. Butler is averaging 9.1 points and 2.8 rebounds per game on 58 percent true shooting, including 44 percent from deep.
Washington has been markedly better with Butler on the court, particularly when he plays alongside members of the starting lineup. He can play the 2 or 3, allowing the Wizards to rest either Bradley Beal or Pierce without losing valuable floor spacing.
He's not just a spot-up shooter, though. The Wizards have leaned on him for pick-and-roll creation at times and even run fun pindown screens designed to get him easy looks from mid-range or at the rim.
Butler was inevitably going to cool down after shooting roughly 1,000 percent from deep to start the season (just an estimate), and it appears as though he's in the middle of that phase. Butler has hit just 33 percent from three in January, down from 47 percent in December.
There's reason to believe that this is more than just regression to the mean, however. Butler is actually shooting fairly well on his contested threes—he's only missing the open ones. This month, he's hitting a whopping 18.8 percent on threes categorized as “wide open” by NBA.com. It's safe to assume he'll start hitting more of those moving forward.
Overall, Butler has been one of the biggest surprises in the league. It's not every day that teams stumble upon elite three-point shooters, but the Wizards appear to have done just that.
DeJuan Blair's Future Is Murky
For just $6 million over three years, DeJuan Blair appeared to be a steal when the Wizards acquired him in mid-July. Fast forward to today, and it's starting to look like he may never see real minutes in a Wizards jersey.
It's far too early to say something like that definitively, but things aren't looking great for Blair right now. He's played just 64 total minutes for Washington this season, and it's becoming clear that his particular set of skills isn't what the Wizards are looking for out of their backup bigs.
Blair is a quirky offensive player who can do a lot of fun things. He has a surprisingly good floater. He is a nifty on-the-move passer and a titanic offensive rebounder. Unfortunately, he can't shoot or protect the rim at all, making him an awkward fit alongside any of Washington's other bigs.
Blair has a shot at minutes next season, as Kevin Seraphin is an unrestricted free agent and may not be coming back.
But even if Seraphin ends up elsewhere, it would be dangerous to assume that Blair will slide into his backup spot. Washington is a defensive-oriented team, and rolling with a backup frontcourt of Blair and Kris Humphries isn't exactly a recipe for defensive success.
In fact, it wouldn't be surprising to see Blair traded this summer. Andre Miller and Butler will also be free agents after this season, leaving the Wizards with some big holes to plug. Given Blair's awkward fit, Washington would be wise to at least explore trades for players who sync up with the rest of the roster.
Again, there's always the chance that Blair takes everyone by surprise and snags a rotation spot in the near future. But his days with the team may be numbered.
Bradley Beal Is Still Figuring It out
Beal is a good, young player and is already one of the league's better shooting guards. But it's hard not to be a little disappointed with his lack of offensive progress over the past few years.
He is more or less the same offensive player that he was when he entered the league. As a rookie, he averaged 16.1 points, 4.4 rebounds and 2.8 assists per 36 minutes on 51.5 percent true shooting. This season, he's averaging 16.0 points, 4.1 rebounds and 3.5 assists per 36 minutes on 52.7 percent true shooting.
The Wizards have given Beal more opportunities to create for himself this year, often through high pick-and-rolls. The results have been mixed at best. Beal's shooting poses problems for any defender who goes under a screen, but he hasn't shown the ability to probe defenses and consistently get to the rim.
Instead, he'll often turn the corner on a screen, see a bit of space and immediately fire up a mid-range jumper. Nearly 40 percent of Beal's shots come from between 10 feet and the three-point arc, and he's not shooting particularly well from that distance.
Beal is just 21 years old, and he has flashed signs of improvement. He's getting to the basket more often this season. And every now and then he'll bust out something—like a neat pocket pass or a killer hesitation move—that proves he's slowly, but surely, figuring it out. It also sounds like he's aware his shot selection is off-kilter. He recently told The Washington Post's Jorge Castillo, "I just feel comfortable getting to the mid-range and pulling up sometimes. Sometimes I do wish I shot more threes, though."
These are all signs of an improving player. Still, it may take a while for his actual play to match up with his reputation.
Washington Doesn't Plan on Playing Small
A big part of what made Pierce's decision to sign with the Wizards so intriguing was his ability to play the 4. He did a phenomenal job at power forward for the Brooklyn Nets last season, per 82games.com. It seemed only natural that Washington would follow suit and play him in a hybrid 3/4 role.
At this point, it appears safe to say that Randy Wittman has no intention of giving Pierce real burn at the 4. There's always the chance that he's waiting until the playoffs to surprise opponents with smaller lineups, but that seems unlikely.
Playing big so often is a puzzling decision, both because the Wizards have been so good in smaller lineups and because they tend to struggle against stretch 4s. Teams like the Atlanta Hawks can spread the floor and make life miserable for Marcin Gortat and Seraphin in particular. Going small would be a perfect way to counteract that.
Washington has a good, versatile group of bigs, and you could make a case that the risks posed by playing small (Pierce's health) aren't worth the benefits. Even so, it's surprising that the Wizards haven't gone to it more often.
The Starting Lineup Is Fantastic
The Wizards' starters have been beyond impressive this season, especially considering how little time they've had to mesh due to early injuries to Beal and Nene.
Washington's starters are outscoring opponents by 11.8 points per 100 possessions, one of the best marks in the league among big-minute lineups. They're scoring at a top-five rate and smashing the rest of the NBA in terms of defensive efficiency.
The group is only averaging 14.5 minutes per game at the moment, but it's hard to imagine that won't increase if they keep playing at this level.
Offensively, the secret to the starters' success is their sheer versatility. Everyone in the lineup is capable of creating his own offense, allowing the group to take advantage of even slight defensive miscues.
Wall-Gortat pick-and-rolls have been particularly punishing in that regard. If defenses commit hard to defending the two, Wall can swing the ball to Beal or Pierce in the corner for a three or a side pick-and-roll. Quick options like that are difficult for defenses to handle, and the Washington starters are good at flowing from set to set.
Defensively, the group's play has been emblematic of the Wizards as a whole. They're running shooters off the three-point line, forcing teams into tough mid-range shots and protecting the rim without fouling.
Teams without elite rim-protectors don't often play this kind of defense. Their numbers to this point are a testament to how pitch perfect the group's rotations have been.