The Wizards entered this season as one of the teams most likely to challenge the Cavaliers in the East. They made it to the second round in the 2014-15 playoffs thanks to their ability to go small and play fast, and committed themselves to that strategy this summer. John Wall unleashed in the open court with shooters around him sure sounded like a great plan.
That great plan has not yielded the expected results. Washington has regressed on both ends and has the East's 12th-best record. They were supposed to take a step forward, but are now in serious danger of missing the playoffs, which would be devastating for their attempt to recruit a certain Oklahoma City star.
There's no simple solution to their woes, because everything that could have gone wrong has for the Wizards.
The change to pace-and-space has not been seamless
The Wizards were a half court team last season. They ranked 16th in pace and only 28 percent of their shots came within nine seconds of gaining possession, per SportVU tracking stats. They were good at getting fast-break points (sixth in the league) but if those transition opportunities weren't there, they didn't force the issue.
This season they have committed themselves to pushing the ball at all costs. They are averaging over five more possessions per game, they trail only the Warriors in fast-break points and 32 percent of their shots come before the shot clocks hits 15 seconds.
So, they have the pace aspect down. The problem is the space. Washington is just a mediocre three-point shooting team, ranking 15th in attempts per game and 16th in field goal percentage from beyond the arc.
Injuries have played a part in the struggles. Bradley Beal first suffered a shoulder injury that killed his rhythm and is now out for at least two weeks with a stress reaction in his right foot. Key offseason signing Alan Anderson has not made his season debut yet due to ankle surgery. Two of the wings receiving minutes in their stead -- Garrett Temple and rookie Kelly Oubre -- are slumping from outside. Making matters worse, Otto Porter, the team's starting small forward and expected breakout candidate, has taken a step back as a shooter, going from averaging 34 percent from beyond the arc to just 28 percent.
The lack of shooting has forced some adjustments. Coach Randy Wiittman decided to compromise instead of going fully small to start the season by starting Kris Humphries instead of Nene. Humphries is trying to transition into being a stretch big man but he had no track record of shooting threes and is hitting just 32 percent in the early going. Opponents were leaving him wide open to help on everyone else.
Wittman then decided to change course and start Jared Dudley, which gave the team's shooting a boost but hurt them on the boards and in terms of interior scoring. The new starting unit averages only four second chance points and gets only 32 points in the paint per 48 minutes, marks that would rank dead last in the league. Washington went from having a lot of size to being one of the smallest teams in the league.
The Wizards are scoring just 100 points per 100 possessions, almost two points fewer than last season. The theory the new style on offense was sound, but the execution has not been. They simply don't have enough weapons to thrive in it. They need that to change soon because offense isn't even their biggest problem.
The Wizards' defense has taken a huge step back
Washington's fifth-ranked defense was their backbone last season. They contested shots at the rim well and allowed very few attempts from the corners, forcing their opponents to take a lot of mid-range jumpers instead. This year, however, they are struggling to protect the paint and prevent open threes.
Washington allows the second-fewest number of attempts at the rim, but when teams get there, they score at a 62 percent rate, one of the highest marks in the league. On contested shots, the percentage is 54 percent, the third-highest in the league.
Marcin Gortat continues to be a good interior defender but was exposed when paired with Humphries, who is simply not a rim protector. Nene is injured now, and even when he was available, Wittman decided to split him up from Gortat at all times despite the duo's defensive success in the past. That means that when teams drew Gortat out and attacked, they often got an easy layup.
With Dudley now at power forward, the Wizards have a smaller and quicker lineup that is doing a better job of packing the paint, which has improved their interior defense. Yet that has come at a major cost, because they struggle mightily preventing or contesting three-pointers. The John Wall-Bradley Beal-Otto Porter-Dudley-Gortat unit has allowed opponents to shoot 16-for-26 front outside.
Preventing easy three-point looks is a team-wide problem due to a combination of lack of effort and ill-fitting personnel. The Wizards must use multiple defenders to deter dribble penetration and collapse to the paint on pick-and-rolls, but they can't recover quickly enough back to shooters.
Smart teams kill the Wizards by baiting them into helping and then taking the resulting open three. Opponents are connecting on a league-leading 41 percent of shots beyond the arc for the season against the Wizards. The strategy the Wizards use is only viable if the defenders are quick and focused, and they haven't been so far.
The Wizards need to figure things out quickly
Washington's injury woes could soon end, and that could energize a team that looks disinterested and unfocused at times. When healthy, the pieces -- except for a true stretch power forward with size to defend, and there aren't many of those in the league -- are there for the new system to work. Everyone simply needs to play smarter and better. Less gambling and overhelping on defense should be enough to not get killed from beyond the arc, and if their three-pointers start falling, the offense will be potent. This iteration of the Wizards should be better than this, and there's still time to show they can still be a good team.
Time is running out, though. The East is more competitive than it has been in a long time and Washington is already 3.5 games back of the No. 8 seed. Missing the playoffs would be devastating for a franchise that looked ready to take the next step. A losing season likely ends their chances of getting Kevin Durant and severely hurts their ability to sign any other impact free agent next offseason.
Washington's season has been a nightmare so far. They need to start putting it together as soon as possible, or their once bright future will start to look bleak.