Thursday, 6 March 2014

Considering Mr. Wittman's Wonderful Wizards Emporium

Earlier in the season, I approached Conor D. Dirks of ESPN's TrueHoop Network Wizards blog Truth About It. I was seeking Conor's timely two-cents on the state of the Washington basketball union, and he more than appropriately addressed the subject. You can find our January exchange here, for greater context. Recently, I once again found myself in search of Conor's well of Wizards wisdom, left befuddled by the team's persisting, steady successes. He more than kindly answered the call, compiling a comprehensive catalogue of astute analysis and "savvy" suggestions. The following is the product of our virtual to-ing and fro-ing, listed in no particular order:

Angus Crawford: Nene went down with a sprained MCL during Washington's February 24 win over Cleveland. Prior to this specific injury, the Wizards had gone 8-34 in games played without the Brazilian pivot in the lineup. Since this injury, however, the team is sitting neatly at 4-1 -- including a gritty triple-overtime win in Toronto last Thursday. In sum: what the hell is going on?

Conor D. Dirks: Good times. Good times. Or bad teams. Wins against Orlando, Philadelphia, and Utah are better than losses against Orlando, Philadelphia, and Utah, but this is a better team than the one that existed during previous periods of absence from the Brazilian, and the Wizards were strong favorites to win those games even without the numinous experience of Nene's tremendum. The Wizards of years past aren't worth mentioning (barely ever), but earlier this season, when Nene missed a few games, the Wizards were also dealing with an injury to Martell Webster, an injury to Trevor Ariza, an injury to Chris Singleton, and a limited Marcin Gortat, who had only just joined the team after the trade from Phoenix.

There is no silver lining when your second-most important player goes down for six weeks with an injury, but the Wizards are fortunate in that they have the easiest remaining schedule in the NBA. An easy schedule by no means guarantees success, though, and my "sources" say the Wizards still have to go out and win those games/these are all NBA players/guys have pride/you have to respect your opponent/Jupiter's moon Europa has a sizable core which some believe to measure around one-third of its radii, etc.

Wins against actual, non-tanking teams like Toronto come from a confluence of events which usually includes two of the following three items: 1) All-Star level play from John Wall; 2) good 3-point shooting from Beal, Webster, and Ariza; 3) Heavy pick and roll action from Marcin Gortat. The Toronto win featured ample amounts of #1 and #3, with a very notable absence from #2. The Wizards shoot almost 10% better behind the arc in wins than they do in losses both as a team, and by each individual shooter.

AC: After the team suffered the blow of Nene's prolonged absence, it was announced that they had signed former NBA journeyman and lottery pick Drew Gooden. Yes, that Drew Gooden. Did this actually happen, or did society as a whole enter the Twilight Zone? Can you confirm for us that Drew Gooden does indeed still exist as a person, and as a basket-shooting man?

CDD: Drew Gooden, good gracious. So far, the commentary from play-by-play great Steve Buckhantz has been more about the did-you-know-oh-you-didn't-but-you-still-don't-care trivia factoid that Drew Gooden totally has an apartment in Bethesda, Maryland than any basketball-related reasons Washington fans might have to invest in Drew Gooden, Wizard.

Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not disputing the fact that Bethesda is on the red line of the DC Metro system, or that it's practically a part of the District. Bethesda is legitimate! Be proud, Bethesdans! But really, that's the best we can do? What's that you say? He only really has the apartment because his girlfriend owns a business in Bethesda? Awesome. It's probably too much to ask Comcast SportsNet to ask the hard-hitting (and wildly inappropriate) questions regarding whether this apartment ownership/rental is part of a more traditionally furtive (and traditionally D.C.) arrangement.

But I'm not sure we can blame Steve Buckhantz. Drew Gooden isn't compelling. He did surpass Otto Porter's career high in last night's game against the Jazz though! And looked good doing it.

He also famously tried to negotiate a buyout after being traded to the Wizards on February 13, 2010, failed to reach an agreement on said buyout, reluctantly showed up at the Verizon Center to report to Coach Flip Saunders at a shootaround (even after promising Saunders he had no intention of playing for a rebuilding team), and then found out while he was there that he'd been flipped to the Los Angeles Clippers in the same trade that packaged Antawn Jamison to the Cavaliers. The hilarious part about this story is that Gooden asked Antawn for a ride to the hotel in Jamison's Bentley, and then got caught by a flood of reporters in the parking lot who were desperate to speak with a semi-beloved, departing Jamison. So there's Drew fucking Gooden, awkwardly hanging back behind Jamison while the quote-getters swarm, suddenly cognizant that he had been traded to an actual team with actual reporters, but not feeling sheepish enough to bail and just find a taxi.

That's probably enough on Drew Gooden. Improbably, Kyle Weidie, John Converse Townsend, Adam McGinnis and I recounted some of the other Twilight Zone-esque connections Gooden has to the Wizards (there are more!) and talked about his spirit animal. Reader beware: there are mentions of astral projection and colugo.

AC: All season long, a glance down at Randy Wittman's quote sheet has meant trifling through a tireless tirade of anti-advanced metrics qualms. Wittman is developing an identity of infamy in the basketball community for his undying opposition to analytics. On the other hand, from the outside looking in, your man "Skinny Ted" Leonsis appears to be quite progressive and open-minded on that front. Surely this kind of hierarchical disconnect is counterproductive, no? What might be done for the organization to adequately address to opposing outlooks on the value of stats-based decision-making?

CDD: Randy, I feel so small when you're mean to me! Along with my colleagues at TAI, I've tracked the application of Wittman's vapid "take what the defense gives you" maxim for good offense over the course of the season. Washington has a stat geek's wet dream in terms of personnel (the Wizards are among the top teams in 3-point percentage and field goal percentage at the rim), but irresponsibly lead the NBA in mid-range jump shots while hitting them at an 8th-worst clip. They also have a coach who, when asked about finding good, non-midrange shots by Kyle Weidie, said this (after a pregnant, nerve-wracking pause):
“So you’re saying that a 15-foot open look is not good?
“You take open shots. You take open shots. Where they are is dictated by what the defense does. If you predicate what kind of shot you’re going to take not based on what you’re doing reading the defense, you’re not going to get good shots. I just worry about goods shots.
“You know what? Those numbers you can stick… Alright? You know, all you analytical people that take that… You take good shots, that’s the most important thing. Maybe we’re not taking good midrange shots, maybe we’re taking contested ones. I understand the numbers are there for a reason, we look at the numbers, but to sit there and… We got a good, open shot we’re taking, I don’t care where it is.”
So, yeah, Gus, you can stick those numbers...well, we'll never know. Suffice it to say, Wittman's Wizards are in a unilateral, unrequited love affair with the mid-range jumper that rivals my affinity for Britney Spears in 1999 in terms of hopelessness.

And it might turn out to be the reason that Ted Leonsis (who penned an advanced stat dump after the loss to Memphis) goes with another head coaching candidate this offseason, when the contracts of both Wittman and team president Ernie Grunfeld expire. But I do believe it's important to temper expectations regarding how fully a coach will embrace and implement stats-based decision making. There's a balance. Players aren't normally all that interested in hearing reams of data. Rather, as John Converse Townsend noted, it's about providing the correct clues. Wittman's churlishness regarding numbers doesn't inspire confidence that he is interested in nudging his players in a direction that takes any amount of the voluminous information regarding mid-range jump shots under consideration. In the meantime, the Wizards will probably be less relevant than they could be otherwise.

AC: Eric Maynor's mystical journey through the 2014 NBA season as an offensively repugnant reserve point guard has taken its talents elsewhere since being dispatched at the deadline. Melon-balling Maynor's putrid play from the rotation "helped" [Wizards GM] Ernie and the boys attain the academic and locker room services of the super savvy Prof. Andre Miller. (Aside: With Miller, Nene, & good ol' Uncle Al Harrington, the 'Zards are doing their best to re-assemble the 2011 Denver Nuggets) On a scale of Fabricio Oberto to Nick Young, how many sads did it cause you to say goodbye to #MaynorTime?

CDD: When Eric Maynor was still the presumptive backup for John Wall in November and early December 2013, the opening tip of each game was naught else but the flip of an hourglass, the first step of an inevitable death march which culminated in perfunctory minutes for Eric Maynor. Those minutes were the worst minutes. Fabricio Oberto is too many sads. JaVale McGee, who was a joy to watch leave at a previous trade deadline, is too many sads. The departure of Eric Maynor inspires nothing but relief. The trade that sent him to Philadelphia, on the other hand, is simply another example of team president Ernie Grunfeld's inimitable knack for cleaning up after himself at the expense of hard-to-conceptualize, but very real, potential future assets. It should not be so easily forgotten that Eric Maynor was signed mere hours into the 2013 summer free agency period. Grunfeld was that sure.

AC: For the good of society, please summarise Jan Vesely aka the Air Wolf's tenure in Washington D.C. in one chronically-outdated 1990s song.

CDD: When Jan Vesely was drafted in 2011, the Wizards desperately needed a running mate for John Wall to make the team exciting to watch and play into Wall's (at that time) speed-based game. It became rapidly apparent that Vesely wasn't that somebody yet. For years, Washington wondered, Washington watched (like a hawk, even)...and finally Washington decided that Airwolf, inescapably likable as he is, would never become that somebody. Aaliyah provides the soundtrack.

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