Biggest Surprises and Disappointments for Washington Wizards
The 2014 part of the 2014-15 season has gone about as well as the Washington Wizards could have hoped for.
The Wizards are 20-8, good for third in the Eastern Conference. Only a handful of teams have posted a better net rating this season, and only one of those teams plays in the East. If you were to take odds right now on which Eastern Conference team was most likely to make it to the NBA Finals, the Wizards might just be the favorite.
Of course, it hasn't all broken right for Washington. It's had to deal with its fair share of issues this season, some of which are still plaguing the team to this day.
Let's take a look at some of the biggest surprises and disappointments the Wizards have faced so far this season and how they might affect Washington down the road.
Surprise: Andre Miller's Production
Andre Miller is the player equivalent of the San Antonio Spurs. Logic suggests that he'll have to stop playing at a high level eventually, but year after year, he just keeps plugging away.
Miller's been better than good. He's having his greatest season in years. He's averaging 11.9 points and 8.6 assists per 36 minutes and doing it on 63.4 percent true shooting. But it's his shot selection that really stands out. Nearly 75 percent of Miller's shots are coming from 10 feet or in. Over half of them come directly at the rim.
It's incredible that a guy who's lost almost all of his speed and athleticism can still get to the basket at such crazy rates. Miller has an unmatched array of spins and fakes and is as crafty as anyone when he gets into the paint.
He's also one of the league's foremost post threats. When he's on the floor, a big chunk of Washington's offense consists of him dragging guards to the low block.
There might be a few backup point guards better than Miller, but the list certainly isn't long. What he's doing at age 38 is amazing.
Disappointment: Glen Rice and DeJuan Blair's Lack of Impact
The Wizards are a very deep team, but even so, it's disappointing that neither DeJuan Blair nor Glen Rice have managed to dent the rotation this season.
Blair's lack of floor time is the biggest surprise of the two. Though his size (6'7”) makes him an odd fit in the Wizards frontcourt, he's a tremendous rebounder and a fun pick-and-roll player.
Blair has an oddball offensive game (he shoots a ton of floaters, for example) that can catch defenses off guard. For that reason alone, it's surprising that he's barely touched the floor this season.
Washington clearly values Kris Humphries' shooting and Kevin Seraphin's ability to protect the rim over any offensive boost that Blair might provide. Barring injuries, it's unlikely that he sees any more time on the court, and he may even be thrown onto the inactives list following Martell Webster's return.
Similarly, Rice was expected to seriously contribute during Bradley Beal's absence after being named the Las Vegas Summer League MVP. Rice destroyed his summer league competition, averaging nearly 25 points and eight rebounds per game while getting to the line at will.
He was given a handful of minutes early in the season, but poor play and a verbal altercation with coach Randy Wittman resulted in his being sent back to the D-League. Rasual Butler's emergence has made Rice's lack of impact a non-issue, but it's a disappointment nonetheless.
Surprise: Otto Porter's Offense
Otto Porter will likely be dropped from the everyday rotation upon Webster's return. But that should in no way diminish what he's accomplished over the past few months.
Porter will probably never live up to his No. 3 overall draft status, but he looks worlds better than he did in his disastrous rookie season. He's averaging six points and three rebounds per game on 54 percent true shooting, including 38.5 percent from deep. Those are very strong numbers for a backup wing.
Porter's offensive game also meshes well with that of John Wall and Beal.
Most of Porter's shots come without dribbling—spot-up attempts, curls off of screens or hard cuts to the hoop. Wall and Beal each spend a lot of time with the ball in their hands. Whoever plays alongside them at the 3 has to be able to score off the ball. The Wizards are clearly grooming Porter for that kind of role.
It hasn't all gone smoothly. Porter's still figuring out positioning on the court (he takes far too many foot-on-the-line twos) and how to read NBA defenses on the go.
Washington runs curls designed to get Porter into the paint with one dribble. He'll often pull up for mid-range jumpers on those looks, turning down easy paths to the basket. He's also a subpar defender right now (though that's not surprising given his youth).
Overall, the Wizards have to be happy with how Porter is developing, even if he doesn't quite stick in the rotation moving forward. He's been a pleasant offensive surprise this season.
The Wizards haven't been totally unlucky with health this season—as of Dec. 15, they were right around the middle of the league in terms of games lost to injury, per InStreetClothes.com.
But the vast majority of those injuries have been to key players (Beal, Nene and Webster, in particular), and that could come back to bite them in the long run.
Washington has had to experiment with a lot of patchwork lineups in light of its injuries. Most of those lineups have performed well, and that's played a big part in the team's success to this point. But it also obscures the larger issue surrounding its injuries: The team's best lineup basically hasn't seen the court at all this season.
The Wizards starting lineup—Wall, Beal, Paul Pierce, Nene and Marcin Gortat—has logged just 42 minutes together this entire year. Four other lineups have seen significantly more time than Washington's best unit, and that's a concern.
For what it's worth, the starters have been awesome in the minutes that they have played. But it's hard to glean much from such a small sample.
Most title contenders have a handful of killer lineups that log heavy minutes. Right now, the Wizards have precisely zero of those lineups. Most of their groups are playing well, and that shouldn't be discounted. But when rotations shorten in the playoffs, Washington needs to have some go-to lineups.
Surprise: Defensive Improvements
Washington boasted a top-10 defense last year, so it's not exactly a shock that they're repeating the feat. However, just how much they've improved on that end is a surprise.
The Wizards rank third in the league defensively, and they're doing almost everything right on that end.
Washington has basically forced its opponents to live from mid-range. It's running shooters off the three-point line and walling off the paint from ball-handlers. Just two other teams surrender fewer shots from within five feet per game, and the Wizards are allowing low percentages on those shots.
Washington has solid defensive bigs, but its wings are mostly responsible for the team's defensive bump.
Pierce has been his usual pesky self, and Wall has taken a massive step forward defensively. ESPN's real plus-minus system rates Wall as the best defensive point guard in the league by a large margin, and the second-best defensive guard overall. Last year, the same metric had Wall pegged as a big defensive minus.
The Washington wings have done a terrific job staying attached to ball-handlers. Even if opponents do get to the basket, they usually have to contend with two defenders (at least)—the player marking them and a rotating big. That makes a world of difference, especially on a team that lacks elite rim protectors.
If all of that wasn't enough, there's a good chance the Wizards would rate even better defensively if they had been healthy all year. If nothing else, Washington definitely has a championship-caliber defense.
Disappointment: Same Old Offense
It's probably not fair to make blanket statements about the Wizards offense considering the team's injury troubles. But there's so much talent on the Washington roster that it's hard not to be a tad disappointed at how average it's been offensively.
The Wizards are scoring 104.7 points per 100 possessions, good for 13th in the league. They've been better in December—up to 107.6 points per 100 possessions—but they've played a slew of mostly bad or mediocre defensive squads.
Washington is an awesome passing team. Unfortunately, those passes too often end in deep twos rather than shots in the paint or from three. The Wizards are averaging 30.4 mid-range jumpers per game, and they're only hitting on 39.3 percent of those shots. No other playoff contender attempts even close to that number of shots from mid-range.
To be fair, many of those jumpers are open. But the Wizards have the ingredients for a much more potent offense. They have an elite point guard, two great secondary ball-handlers, smart pick-and-roll bigs and plenty of shooters. There's simply no reason any team with that kind of weaponry should be mediocre offensively.
The Wizards' dynamic defense alone could be enough to push them to the Eastern Conference Finals. But it's difficult to shake the feeling that they'll need more offensively to go further than that.