Best and Worst-Case Scenarios for Washington Wizards in the Month of December
The Washington Wizards have had an exciting December, to say the least.
Thanks to a terrific out-of-bounds play and a heroic John Wall performance, Washington is 5-1 on the month and looking to build up a serious winning streak. The Wizards are currently just a half-game out of the Eastern Conference's top seed, and if everything breaks right for them, they could take that spot soon.
It would be wise, however, to focus less on the Wizards' win-loss record and more on what's leading to those wins and losses.
Washington's record this month—and really for the rest of the season—hinges on a few key factors. Keeping that in mind, let's take a look at the best- and worst-case scenarios for the Wizards this December.
Best: Rasual Butler Continues to Torch the League
Rasual Butler has been maybe the biggest surprise in the league this season. Filler signings are not supposed to lead their team in win shares per 48 minutes or shoot 52.5 percent from three on 3.6 attempts per game. But that's exactly what Butler is doing, and he shows no signs of slowing down.
Randy Wittman has responded to Butler's hot shooting. Butler has averaged 27.8 minutes per game in December, up from 17.9 the month before. He's also played far more minutes alongside some of the starters (particularly Wall), and Washington is scoring at “greatest of all time” levels in those lineups.
Butler's three-point shooting is his main draw, but he's been phenomenal inside the arc as well. The majority of his shots, even the two-pointers, are spot-up attempts. However, Washington has also allowed him to do some creating of his own, and he's had great success doing so.
Butler isn't a very good isolation or high screen-and-roll player, and the Wizards have rarely asked him to attempt things like that.
Instead, they're jump-starting him inside the arc, getting him the ball on the move so that he can loft up a floater or take just a few dribbles and be at the rim. He's shooting 73.9 percent from five feet and in and has been perfect (5-of-5) from five to nine feet—floater range.
Eventually, Butler's shooting is going to fall off. No one shoots this well from everywhere on the floor all season. They can't.
But opponents have been waiting for Butler to cool down for about a month now, and he's done nothing of the sort. The Wizards are hoping that will remain the case for the rest of 2014.
Worst: Injuries Bother Nene
Nene remains a question mark in Washington's lineup, and if that becomes a recurring theme, the Wizards could find themselves in hot water.
He has only played sporadically since being diagnosed with right plantar fasciitis a few weeks ago. He's played well in the minutes he's seen, which is a good sign. But even so, it's easy to be at least a little worried about his health.
Outside of Wall, Nene is the Wizards' most important player. He does a bit of everything offensively—facilitate from the high post, run pick-and-rolls and pick-and-pops, post up, etc. He's also by far the best defensive big on the Washington roster.
He has smothered opponents at the rim this season and is the only Wizard rangy enough to defend stretch 4s and 5s like Chris Bosh. Opponents are shooting just 28.6 percent from beyond 15 feet when he's guarding them—9 percent less than their usual percentage from that distance.
As you might expect given all that, the Wizards defense falls off a cliff when Nene isn't on the floor. Washington is a defensive team first and foremost, and if he is at all hobbled moving forward, that defense will sprout some big leaks.
The Wizards may be fighting for the top spot in the Eastern Conference, but their primary concern has to be keeping Nene healthy, even if it means sacrificing a few games. They cannot afford for him to get any more banged up.
Best: Three-Point Rate Increases
With both Martell Webster and Beal out to start the season, the Wizards had to cobble together a makeshift offense. The result was a team that basically lived inside the arc.
Washington averaged just 14.6 three-point attempts per game prior to Beal's return, the third-lowest rate in the league. The Wizards weren't even getting to the rim at a particularly high rate. They were just taking a ton of shots from mid-range and beyond.
Washington hit a lot of those shots and scored at a roughly league-average rate because of it. But that's not a recipe for efficient offense, and the Wizards would do well to start stretching the floor with more shots from the outside.
Since Beal's return, Washington has taken 17.3 threes per game. Over its last five games, that number has jumped to 18.8. That's certainly an improvement, but it's still a low number relative to the rest of the league (it would rank just 22nd overall for the year).
Paul Pierce, Beal and Butler are all good shooters, and there's really no reason the Wizards shouldn't be jacking up more shots from deep. Their tendency to settle for mid-range jumpers and long twos hasn't hurt them yet, but it will if it continues, especially once the playoffs roll around.
Ideally, the Wizards would take at least 20 threes per game, and their relatively easy December schedule provides the perfect time to shift their focus in that direction.
Worst: Otto Porter Struggles
Porter is averaging just six points on 43.4 percent true shooting (including 31.8 percent from deep) over the Wizards' last 10 games. To his credit, he's rebounding well, but his shooting has to improve if he's to continue getting real floor time.
The problem with Porter is more or less one of shot selection. Nearly all of his offense comes off the ball, either from spotting up, cutting to the rim or running off a series of screens. There's nothing wrong with being an off-ball scorer, but he isn't doing it in an efficient way.
Like many Wizards, Porter is too willing to accept mid-range jumpers or deep twos when better shots may be available.
Well over a third of his shots are coming from between 16 feet and the three-point arc, and many of those are foot-on-the-line jumpers that could easily have been shots from deep. Similarly, Porter will often pull up from mid-range after running off screens designed to get him the ball on the move and in the paint.
He hit on those jumpers to start the season, but he's not making them now. Washington needs him to adjust accordingly. The Wizards are very short on the wing, and if Porter doesn't turn it around soon, Garrett Temple is going to start eating into his minutes.
Best: Ball Movement Remains Stellar
Wall's passing has (rightfully) gotten a lot of attention this season. But the entire Wizards team deserves to be commended for the job it's done sharing the ball.
The Wizards are passing the ball as well as any team in the NBA. Their 1.74 assist-to-turnover ratio ranks fourth in the league, and only the Atlanta Hawks have a higher assist percentage than Washington's 66.3 percent.
Wall and Andre Miller have done the bulk of the creating, but Pierce, Beal, Nene and Kevin Seraphin (!!) are all posting assist rates of over 10 percent.
What's really encouraging is that the Wizards are doing this on relatively few passes. Washington averages just a shade over 300 passes per game, right around the league average.
It's easy to make the assumption that good ball movement means passing as much as possible, but that's not necessarily the case. Passes that don't accomplish anything are never good. They're just potential turnovers. The best teams pass with a purpose, and that's what the Wizards have done this season.
It'll be interesting to see if Washington's ball movement can stay this crisp all season (or even all month). But it's easy to be impressed with how unselfish the team has been to this point.
Worst: Small Ball Is Just a Dream
The Wizards are one of the Eastern Conference's best teams, but thus far, they haven't been one of its most flexible.
Washington is one of the few teams in the league that almost never goes small. Nene, Kris Humphries and Drew Gooden have eaten up 90 percent of the team's minutes at the 4, per 82games.com.
Washington has a lot of frontcourt depth, and it makes sense that Wittman wants to lean on that. But it's also a real missed opportunity, as Pierce is an outstanding small-ball 4.
Last season, Pierce soaked up 44 percent of the Brooklyn Nets' minutes at power forward, and the Nets were terrific when he was out there, per 82games.com. Pierce causes serious mismatches on the perimeter, and throwing him out at the 4 could spark a Washington offense that can sometimes grow stale.
In the few minutes he has played at the 4 this season, the Wizards have dismantled opponents, scoring at blistering rates. All things considered, it's a surprise that Washington hasn't looked to go small more, especially during Nene's recent absence.
The Wizards obviously shouldn't be going small a ton. They have a lot of frontcourt depth, and the Nene-Gortat pairing has been fantastic this season. It would be nice to know exactly what Washington has in its small lineups though, and this December stretch is as good a time as any to find out.