Because I feel like it.
- The Wizards seem well-coached. They have a habit of executing better and outworking their opponents early in games, and they seem to have shed the recent habit of becoming sluggish and disinterested in unfavorable circumstances. I’ll take it!
- They have at least one reliably good high-use lineup. Of the 15 most-used lineups across the NBA, five have a negative Net Rating. You will be surprised to learn that the most used lineup of the 2-7 Washington Wizards is not one of the five. Washington’s starting lineup (Wall-Beal-Porter-Morris-Gortat) is a modest plus-0.5 in 123 minutes, and is the 11th most used lineup in the NBA.
- It’s worth noting, here, that Washington does not have another lineup in the top 50 most used, by minutes. That’s OK—there are 30 teams, so not every one of them can have two lineups inside this arbitrary cutoff point. But it’s worth noting because the spending the Wizards did this offseason was on their bench, ostensibly for the purpose of stabilizing it. Presumably a stabilized, reliable bench would afford Scott Brooks the luxury of trotting out at least two familiar high-use lineups most nights. I assume that’s the goal, anyway.
- Tomas Satoransky is a good NBA player, and a surprisingly efficient one. You will have to ignore certain efficiency metrics (PER) in order to fully appreciate this about him. For example, his shooting on the season has been poor, and his box statistics aren’t generally very impressive. But! Through nine games, and over 18 minutes per game, Satoransky leads all Wizards players in Offensive Rating, and is the only regular-use Wizards player with a positive Net Rating (according to stats.nba.com). To understand how this can be the case without ascribing it to magic or grit or hustle or know-how, focus on a couple of key numbers: assist percentage; assist ratio; turnover ratio; and usage. Without getting bogged down in those numbers, here is the picture: Satoransky rarely turns the ball over; he assists a high percentage of his teammates’ baskets; a high percentage of his touches end in assists; and he uses a relatively small percentage of Wizards possessions while he is on the floor. In other words, Satoransky’s unsteady shooting and scoring is less of an issue than it might otherwise be, because his touches are spent getting good shots for his teammates. Efficient, in this case, can be understood to mean “helps Wizards possessions end in good shots.”
- None of what I am about to say should be read as a strong indictment of John Wall’s play so far this season, but his and Satoransky’s play illustrates an important facet of efficiency: offensive possessions that do not end in good shots are the worst thing an offense can produce. The expected points-per-possession on any possession that ends in any shot at all is...I dunno, it’s probably something right around one (broadly speaking, points per 48 minutes track with possessions per 48 minutes, with good offenses outperforming their pace, and bad ones underperforming). The expected points-per-possession on any possession that ends in a turnover is, by definition, zero. The expected points-per-possession on any possession that ends in a good shot...well, that will depend upon what a good shot is, and that depends on who is taking the shot, but suffice to say it will be higher than one, and much higher than zero. By not wasting possessions on turnovers, and not spending them on his own shaky shooting, Satoransky helps the Wizards accumulate possessions that end in good shot attempts. Because John Wall is an incredible talent with superhuman court vision, he produces more great shot attempts—where “great shot attempts” can be understood to mean “shots with the highest possible expected points per possession”—than all but a few players in basketball (hence his impressive assist totals). But what he has also produced a lot of, this season, is possessions that end in turnovers and possessions that end in his own shots, many of which are not especially good shots. I believe a lot of this will correct itself as the season progresses—as the roster stabilizes and the players grow more comfortable with what Scott Brooks wants them to do. But, in the meantime, simply by helping the Wizards produce the right ratio of good shots per possession, Tomas Satoransky’s Offensive Rating towers over all of his teammates’.
- It’s massively encouraging to see certain of Washington’s players breaking out of the bad habits they’ve had in recent seasons and developing not just new skills, but new approaches on the floor. As it was put to me by another, smarter Wizards fan: “It has been really nice so far this season seeing simple improvements in what should be really obvious stuff, like players playing to their strengths instead of playing exactly against them.” The most obvious example of this has been Bradley Beal making an obvious, concerted effort to get into the paint and pressure the rim. The other important one, of course, has been Otto Porter getting back to off-ball cuts and midrange jumpers, and getting away from just running to a spot on the arc and standing there. I think too much of the conversation around the NBA these days focuses on spacing and ignores certain other, more basic ways of thinking about offensive efficiency. For example: owing to a sharp basketball mind and time spent in a committed Princeton-style offense in college, Otto is an ace off-ball cutter. And, for whatever reason, he is also a midrange sniper, especially when he is able to shoot in rhythm and a little bit of room. I think it’s a good idea that he continue to work on developing his 3-point range, but I think it’s a better idea, in the meantime, that he be encouraged to do the things on offense that will lead to the most good shot attempts. Cutting into the lane from the weak side and working his way into elbow jumpers are two ways that Otto can dependably produce good shot attempts. He is probably not enough of a natural scorer that the offense should contort itself to increase Otto’s usage, but he definitely has a usage sweet spot: if Otto is spending a handful of possessions per quarter on rhythm elbow jumpers and backdoor layups, he is providing the Wizards with a steady flow of good shots and valuable possessions. And Otto also rarely turns the ball over—his assist:turnover ratio is second only to Satoransky among Wizards players—so, generally speaking, he’s a good and useful offensive player who makes the offense more efficient, whether he is a knockdown 3-point shooter or not.
- I genuinely believe the Wizards will have at least nine useful players and at least two coherent, positive lineups by early December. That may seem like a depressingly low hurdle, but it’s not nothing: certain of their perimeter players provide enough lineup flexibility that Scott Brooks should have no problem forming versatile lineups that threaten opposing teams on both ends. Count all five Wizards starters among the useful (even if I am more alarmed than ever by Bradley Beal’s persistent non-excellence), and add Satoransky and Ian Mahinmi. That’s seven. I have a hunch that Mahinmi’s prowess as an interior defender could make Andrew Nicholson into a more useful player—asking Nicholson and Jason Smith to share court time without causing a rift in the space-time continuum is unrealistic—but even if he doesn’t, the Wizards should be able to tinker around with small-ball lineups now that Otto is perfectly capable of credibly serving as a so-called “stretch-4.” Similarly, I genuinely believe that Satoransky’s two-way play will help make Kelly Oubre into a more useful player, by finding him in open spots and on cuts to the basket. Oubre has a lot of athletic talent, and is a serviceable spot-up shooter, but he absolutely requires an alert and capable ball-handler on the floor with him. The more ball-handling he is asked to do outside of catching and shooting and catching and dunking, the worse he will look and the worse the offense will be. Putting Oubre on the floor with Trey Burke and Marcus Thornton is a recipe for incoherent offense, inefficient shooting, and turnovers. Pair him with a smart, versatile team defender who can keep the offense moving and find teammates in good spots, and Oubre can do some things.
- About Thornton: he defends with energy, and his willingness to fire threes with just a sliver of space gives him potential as a bench heater. The problem is he’s a disastrously reckless ball-handler and passer, and there are very, very few NBA players who he can credibly defend, even at his most energetic. Here’s some good news: Sheldon McClellan has a similar attacking mindset on offense; he is at least as good (or bad) a ball-handler as Thornton; he is also energetic on defense, while having the size to be genuinely disruptive with all that energy; he is a decent enough shooter that he should fire away on open looks; and his athleticism is a plus on a team otherwise lacking many guys who can outrun anybody. No, McClellan will not be good for 15 points per game, nor should he usurp Beal as a starter, even if he has already shown glimpses of the kind of spontaneity and improvisation that Beal has never once demonstrated. But all the Wizards need from a fourth guard is someone who can defend a couple positions, take a shot when an open one presents itself, and handle the ball a little without literally handing it directly to a defender, and McClellan should check all those boxes. I genuinely believe that a Satoransky-McClellan-Oubre perimeter trio can be vastly better than anything featuring the Burke-Thornton duo. Those two have no defensive versatility whatsoever, and neither is talented enough offensively to make up for it. Sometimes it really is that simple. Or should be. Remember: that trio doesn’t need to be excellent, it just needs to be an improvement. At this point, anything is an improvement.
- I am comforted by the fact that Scott Brooks is openly and obviously working to discover which of his players can be trusted on a nightly basis. There seems to be a coherent relationship between how a player or lineup executes on a given night and how much string that player or lineup is given in subsequent appearances. The exception to that rule has been Thornton, but I am willing to accept a coach’s reluctance to go from an experienced veteran to an undrafted rookie without abundant evidence of the necessity of the move. I think Brooks gave McClellan the start against Chicago specifically to vet him for an increased role off the bench. It would not surprise me at all if Satoransky and McClellan take all the backcourt bench minutes against the 76ers (assuming Wall and Beal both play). In fact, I would be surprised if they didn’t. This marks a pretty huge difference between Brooks and Randy Wittman. One of Wittman’s biggest faults, I think, was the completely unpredictable and incoherent way he would use his bench, and the bizarre, counterproductive pressure this put on players to, at all costs, avoid mistakes. Brooks, to his credit, seems to be searching for combinations of players that work well together, and seems to assess his bench players using criteria that extend beyond whether the player made a handful of robotic jump hooks during garbage time in their most recent outing. Wittman’s criteria for veterans seemed wholly disconnected from his criteria for young players, and it made his young role-players into neurotic head-cases. So far, it looks like Scott Brooks is different in at least this one important way.