This article is a facsimile of an earlier publication on The Basketball Writers (TBW), which recently closed its doors.
Just two years ago, the Washington Wizards were a trendy pick to make a run in the Eastern Conference. John Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter Jr. were an effective trio, while other youngsters and role players made them a difficult matchup on paper.
Fast forward to September 2019: Wall is out for the season with a ruptured Achilles tendon, and Porter has been shipped to the Chicago Bulls for Jabari Parker, Bobby Portis and a 2023 second-rounder. (Both players were two-month rentals and walked in free agency.) Combo guard Tomas Satoransky proved he could handle a bigger role and promptly transferred to Chicago via sign-and-trade as well this offseason.
Now the Wizards are back at ground zero, rebuilding on the fly with a capped-out roster and All-Star Beal. Head coach Scott Brooks worked through the summer without clear direction from an organized front office who took a while to give Tommy Sheppard the keys after Ernie Grunfeld's long-running tenure was finally (mercifully?) ended.
Imagining the Wizards as a playoff team in 2020 is not a thing.
Despite the depression and frustrating nature of their 2019, one glimpse of success has been uncovered: Brooks has figured out how to utilize shooting bigs.
And luckily for him, the roster is now built that way, particularly after they absorbed Davis Bertans from the San Antonio Spurs. With only Beal and a ragtag group of shooting role players around him, this could be a team that relies heavily on pick-and-pop threats to create offense, spacing and uncontested looks.
How might that manifest itself and why does it matter? To answer the latter, this might become a poster child for such actions, along with all its plusses and drawbacks. Let's look at two key sets that the Wizards relied upon last season to generate offense:
The 45 PNR
A common NBA action, the 45 set is where two bigs approach the middle of the floor, similar to a Horns formation, and both establish themselves like they are to set a ball screen. The ball handler comes off one side and looks to attack.
It looks something like this:
The term "45" started when thinking about the positions (i.e. the 4 and the 5) that are involved as screeners. One would go first, then roll, and the other big would follow with the second ball screen that took the ball handler to the middle.
Near the end of last season, the Wizards focused on having multiple shooting bigs at a time in the lineup. That would allow them to attack off the first screen with a pick-and-pop, where the first screener would drift to the top of the key.
Beal or Tomas Satoransky, the ball handlers most associated with the play, would drag the hedge defender towards the sideline. The other big, the one who wasn't setting an initial screen, would either roll to the hoop or seal in at the free-throw line to prevent his man from helping on the pop.
It's not an overly complex action, but it's effective when Beal is the primary focus of a defense and both bigs can shoot. Now teams can't force Beal to go in one direction, pushing him to a non-shooting big and giving them better coverage of the screen.
Expect to see this set A LOT this season.
The counter from defenses was to pressure Beal higher and crowd him. If he had a tough time turning the corner and using the screen tightly, it would require less help from the big and therefore eliminate the pop.
Brooks and the Wizards were ready. They simply raised the area of the ball screens, setting them near the half-court circle and using their bigs as battering rams to give Beal even more space to play with:
Good grief, that's tough to guard with Bradley Beal initiating!
While John Wall is out and may miss the entire 2019-20 season, Beal figures to do a great deal of the ball-handling and offensive creation. We will see this a lot if teams try to crowd him because he is so great in space and a threat to score from anywhere.
Brooks doesn't have to work hard for a counter on a set like this, which is part of the reason they love to run it.
Now he can get even funkier and put Beal at the elbows as one of the screeners. In theory, if both bigs shoot, one of them can be stationed in the dead corner as a floor-spacing threat. Beal gets to the elbow as the screener and another guard initiates the action.
The Wizards ran some sets out of this formation last year, where Beal would set the ball screen before flaring off the big. The screening big would then sprint into another ball screen and routinely was unable to recover on a pick-and-pop:
Most teams switch the initial action between Beal and Satoransky, as it is guard-to-guard and prevents anyone from chasing over the flare with urgency. Place newly arrived Isaiah Thomas in the spot of Satoransky and stopping such a shifty player—if he's finally healthy, which we're all rooting for—becomes even more difficult.
While Satoransky is a great passer, he's also slower and more deliberate. The threat of Thomas (in a career reclamation year and on a team needing him to take the green light) could open Beal more off the flare and speed up the action to reach the second level.
Imagine the same exact formation, except with the ball handler on the sideline instead of the middle of the floor. Beal now dribbles off both bigs as screeners, which creates chaos as six bodies are clustered around the top of the key. As the clutter begins to dissipate, one big pops to outside the line, and the rest of the traffic helps get him free.
The Wizards run lots of these flat double ball screens, also known as double drag sets. They're a tough action to guard with a dynamic playmaker:
The clip above is a great example of what defenses like to do against double drag: ice it. They'll push the initial ball screen away and force the handler to drive to the baseline. It's a great counter to avoid the clutter, but ice is difficult with shooting bigs.
The pick-and-pop thwarts the coverage.
In this example, center Thomas Bryant is also an important figure in its success. As Jeff Green pops, Bryant moves to the wing, just far enough away that Nikola Jokic is unable to get all the way to Green and challenge the shot.
It's a subtle difference and may be less effective against mobile bigs, but it's part of the reason double drag can work, even against ice and even with a youthful energy guy like Bryant who figures to be a foundational frontcourt piece by default. That said, he did hit a palatable 33 percent on 99 threes attempted last year, so Washington is clearly looking to get him in on this part of the scheme as well.
Just like with their 45 sets, the Wizards will put Beal in the actions and let him be a screener. It's hard to ice the action with Beal since he's lethal from three, and guard-to-guard actions are switched far more frequently than they are iced.
That's why Beal serves as the first screener... the clutter and the difficulty of going from switching to immediately getting through a physical screen is often too much to handle for a defense:
Satoransky was great here because of his creativity once he turned the corner. If the Wizards have an effective floor general that can emerge beside Beal, these sets will continue to be lethal, even without Portis as the 5.
Shooting bigs can help with so much more than these sets within the flow of gameplay. They're perfect counters to drop or ice coverage, which are commonplace.
They allow re-screens to have validity, and they remove rim protectors that can raise field goal percentage at the rim. Despite going 32-50 a season ago, Cleaning the Glass metrics estimated the Wizards shot the second-highest field goal percentage at the rim. It's impossible to determine how much of that is positively influenced by their shooting big men, but if you can recognize that some of it is due to their spacing, the value of their frontcourt rises.
Most of the names have changed. Portis, Parker and Green are gone. Bertans and Mortiz Wagner have replaced them, and rookie first-round pick Rui Hachimura has upside with his perimeter game, along with some put-it-on-the-deck skills. Bryant has to play because of his rebounding and defensive energy, but expect the Wizards to be diligent about which frontcourt partners provide enough stretchiness to augment his own developing skills there.
We could see a lot more creativity from Brooks in utilizing these packages. If he's in tune with his roster and the need for spacing around Beal, he'll continue to hammer these pick-and-pop sets and rely on the skills of the players placed before him. That's the way to maximize the output from this group in the short-term.
Head Boys Basketball Coach, Boys' Latin School (MD).