The Washington Wizards are not better without John Wall, a question that has been asked much less frequently in the wake of five losses in their past seven games than when the Wizards won the first five games Wall missed after undergoing a debridement procedure on his troublesome left knee at the end of January.
After all, Washington has been outscored by 0.7 points per 100 possessions this season with Wall on the bench, according to NBA Advanced Stats, as compared to a plus-4.3 net rating with him on the court. The larger sample of data confirms the All-Star point guard's importance to the Wizards.
Still, Washington has managed to stay in the thick of a heated battle for seeding in the Eastern Conference during Wall's absence the past six weeks, something that would have seemed impossible before the season. So how can the Wizards incorporate the lessons they've learned into their offensive philosophy when Wall returns to the lineup?
'Everybody eats': How Washington has succeeded offensively
While on the court this season, Wall has had a hand in more than 55 percent of the Wizards' field goals as either the scorer or via assist, according to NBA Advanced Stats. So there was a major void to fill in terms of shot creation in his absence.
Fellow All-Star guard Bradley Beal has stepped into Wall's role of primary creator, increasing his share of Washington's field goals from 37 percent when he plays with Wall to more than 47 percent when he's by himself in the backcourt, according to NBA Advanced Stats. (Note that because we're double-counting assisted field goals here, the totals for a team add up to more than 100 percent.)
Yet Beal's style as a lead playmaker has been different from Wall's, with more of Beal's buckets coming off passes and him handling the ball less frequently. That's the biggest change in the Wizards' offense without Wall: Everybody gets more touches as a share of the time Washington has the ball.
According to NBA Advanced Stats, Wall possessed the ball about a quarter of the time he was on the court this season, or about half the time the Wizards were on offense. Much of that time in possession of the ball has been redistributed to Beal and backup point guard Tomas Satoransky (not shown here). But because they combine to handle it less than Wall and Beal did before, Washington's frontcourt players have gotten more time of possession as well.
Beyond possession, the Wizards' assist distribution has changed in a surprising way in response to losing the NBA's No. 2 leader in assists last season. Instead of relying more on self-created baskets, Washington has replaced Wall's distribution by committee. Amazingly, the Wizards have assisted on nearly 70 percent of their field goals in Wall's absence, a rate that would narrowly edge out the Golden State Warriors for No. 1 in the league. By contrast, with Wall in the lineup Washington had assists on just 59 percent of its field goals, almost exactly league average.
Those assists have come from a variety of sources. In games Wall played, he was responsible for almost 40 percent of the team's assists, with Beal the only other player contributing more than 7 percent of them. Since he went down, the Wizards have a much more balanced distribution of assists.
It was Beal, taking the role of spokesman, who most pithily described Washington's offensive approach in Wall's absence. "Everybody eats," he said, quoting from the 2002 movie "Paid in Full." "That's our motto when we move the ball."
How the Wizards learn from their success
Washington might get Wall back in the lineup soon. On Monday, he walked through plays with the team's other starters, and he could return to full practice on Friday. The challenge for the Wizards then will be to integrate Wall's All-Star skills into the style they've used in his absence.
The most obvious takeaway is that it's time for Washington coach Scott Brooks to stagger Wall's minutes with Beal, keeping at least one All-Star guard on the court as much as possible. Now that we know what Beal can do without Wall by his side, there's value in using him as a lead playmaker with the second unit.
Over the most recent stretch when Wall was healthy, Beal played just 18 percent of the minutes the other All-Star guard was on the bench, according to NBA Advanced Stats. That left more than 10 minutes per game the Wizards played with neither Wall nor Beal, during which they were outscored by 8.9 points per 48 minutes.
It's possible Brooks could use Wall's return from injury as a pretext to begin staggering the guards, since Wall probably will not be able to play extended stretches right away. Brooks could get Wall out early in the first and third quarters, leaving Beal in, then bring Beal back in to get Wall a second rest during each half.
Playing Beal with the second unit should produce higher-quality shot attempts for Washington. Last season, with Wall off the court, the Wizards ranked 29th of the 30 teams in Second Spectrum's quantified shot quality (qSQ) metric, which measures the effective field goal percentage we'd expect an average team to shoot given the location from which shots are coming, their type and the location of nearby defenders. This season, the Wizards are a respectable 26th -- still worse than with Wall (19th), but good enough to stay afloat.
Additionally, Washington could benefit from playing Wall a bit more off the ball. One of the few pluses in his injury-marred season has been the fact that Wall is shooting a career-high 36 percent on 3s, good enough that opponents have to respect him as a spot-up threat. Using Wall this way will help keep his teammates involved and productive.
In part, the comparison between the Wizards with and without Wall has been thrown off by the fact that we haven't seen him at full strength this season. Wall's 44 percent shooting on 2-point attempts is his worst mark since his rookie campaign, and overall this is the least effective Wall has been since his second year in the league. So if Wall can come back healthy and Washington remains effective without him, the result could be a stronger Wizards team than the one that once depended on Wall to score.