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Grown-ups too: Wiz mature into contenders

1/21/2015
The first half has been pretty sweet for John Wall and the Wizards, who rank second in the East. AP Photo/Jonathan Bachman

After an uneventful, blowout loss to the Wizards on Monday, Sixers coach Brett Brown took a deep breath and described Washington’s disciplined, imposing style of play: “It was times you look out at the floor, and you saw a bunch of men. You saw a physical, big, playoff-hardened team. They are strong at each position, and they’re physical at each position. And there are times sitting on the bench realizing just the difference in experience and maturity.”

It’s a far cry from the team John Wall inherited in 2010, when the Wizards were as disciplined as wildfire and as consistently disappointing as delivery pizza. Although Brown hoped aloud that his team’s growth could mirror that of Washington’s over the next few years, such a transformation does not happen without the timely intervention of both talent and culture.

According to coach Randy Wittman, in a recent interview with the Washington Post, when he took over for Flip Saunders one month into the 2011-12 season, he went straight to the top with a request. Calling a team that at that time featured mostly rookies and sophomores “career suicide,” Wittman told owner Ted Leonsis they needed fewer young players.

“We’ve got to get it to three or four, and then those other four spots we’ve got to get veteran guys in here that can teach these guys how to play,” Wittman said to his boss. “I said, 'That’s what my belief is,' and they believed it too, and that’s kind of what we’ve done.”

Now Wittman helms a veteran-laden team that has been consistently excellent defensively over the course of his employment and currently ranks sixth overall in that regard. With Wall and the wings acting as shepherds and bigs forming a barrier around the paint, the Wizards force teams to the outside, where the dice roll in Washington's favor. As of today, teams take the second-fewest shots within five feet against Wittman’s defense.

Despite improvement from the past season's scoring output, questions still surface with every poor outing -- and as recently as last week’s 80-point dud against the Brooklyn Nets. If teams such as the Atlanta Hawks and San Antonio Spurs perform basketball like jazz, Washington’s offense is more like a hummed hymn in the back of a church: unassuming, often out of tune, but still recognizable.

That the hum has at times been obscured against the league’s very best teams is a concern, especially given Washington’s unconvincing 0-3 record against Eastern Conference enemies Toronto and Atlanta. It might seem odd to criticize, given Washington’s ascendance and Wall’s MVP-caliber season, but this is an odd mix of a team, with veterans such as Paul Pierce eyeing the NBA Finals and recent draftees such as Bradley Beal still marking the trail. The future is bright, but the window has also, unexpectedly, cracked open.

In today’s data-driven NBA, Washington’s attack is a rare aesthetic. Wittman, a proud champion of yesteryear’s game, preaches openness rather than faith in statistical efficiency. To the former Hoosier, a 15-foot shot is a good shot as long as it’s open. For certain players, such as midrange automaton Kris Humphries, the logic holds. For others, such as 3-point marksman (and midrange apprentice) Beal, you have to wonder if the coach could put his star guard in better position to succeed.

Because when the Wizards launch from behind the line, they do it well. Washington boasts the second-best 3-point shooting percentage yet takes the second-fewest 3-point attempts per game. It flies in the face of the spreadsheet, sure, but it also flies in the face of sense. Framed at times as a false choice between quality and quantity, there’s work to be done if Washington wants to keep up with high-powered offenses such as Mike Budenholzer’s Hawks.

If there’s a path to true contention, Wall will be the engine powering the pilgrimage. Asked about Wall’s progression, Brown listed “world-class, A-to-B speed” that, in traversing a baseline in two steps or fewer, surpasses even Tony Parker at his fastest; a newly developed ability to “[put] somebody in his hip pocket” with a post game; and, importantly, the unconditional trust of his teammates. An effusive Brown admired how Washington’s big men run hard for Wall. Why? Because they know their young point guard will find them on the other side of the court.

That trust was earned. Once viewed by the league as lightning untamed, Wall has gained incremental focus. If at first a song’s chords played all at the same time, his game now has a discernible tempo, bought with the knowledge of when to slow down, when to fire a pass into the corner and, fortunately for D.C., when to burn down the court, ball in hand, faster than anyone in the league.

Whether there’s room for more abandon, with Washington ranked just 22nd in pace and driving to the basket fewer times than any team besides cellar-dwellers Minnesota and New York, is up for debate. Still, Wittman’s imperfect machine chugs along, better maintained than it has ever been and oiled with defensive effort and preventative positioning.

Even for consistent winners, however, keeping leads against the NBA’s best is a complicated task, frustrated by the glut of factors that go into each individual play. After the convincing win against the Sixers, Wall recalled more dubious efforts:

“We just got to find ways to stick with it, and it might seem like it’s no fun or not exciting, but we got to make it a game where we try and get better for the future, especially when we play a team like Chicago, Cleveland or Atlanta, where when you get a lead against those teams, you have to learn how to keep it.”

On a more critical scale, keeping a lead in the Eastern Conference standings against those teams could prove just as difficult. With Cleveland finally rounding into form, Toronto unblinkingly successful against the Wizards and Atlanta tearing through the toughest teams in the West, the East is top-heavy with talented teams, with each believing the conference is open enough to make a run.

That’s all right. Even with newfound administrative aplomb, John Wall knows how to run.

Conor Dirks writes for the TrueHoop Network. Follow him @ConorDDirks.