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What's the Deal with Beal?
The Wizards are good? Maybe? Plus, a look at Charlotte's surprising start
The Washington Wizards (5-2) and the Charlotte Hornets (5-3) are both off to unexpectedly hot starts. The Wizards have done that despite the subpar play of their alpha dog, Bradley Beal, while the Hornets have ridden the Miles Bridges rocketship. What is the root of these teams’ success, and how sustainable is it? Let’s find out.
The Wizards of Washington are currently slated for home-court advantage in the East! What a world. Remember, this team traded for Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Montrezl Harrell, and Spencer Dinwiddie and shipped out Russell Westbrook this offseason. So far, those moves have paid big dividends.
The Wiz have been fairly well-rounded so far this season. They are 14th in offense and ninth in defense. They rarely turn the ball over (just 12.8% of their possessions), and attack the rim relentlessly, leading the league in free throws attempted (something they also did last year with Westbrook).
New point guard Spencer Dinwiddie’s pick-and-roll play has been masterly. He’s developed an uncanny ability to deliver over-the-top laser passes to the roll man, usually Montrezl Harrell, and they’ve already developed the kind of wink/nod chemistry that allows them to ad-lib into variations. Watch as Dinwiddie waits patiently for Harrell, who realizes his man is waiting for the pick and zips right by him for a dunk:
Harrell’s on-ball defense is still pretty terrible, and he’s bullied by bigger centers and crossed up by quicker guards and wings. But he’s dysoning up rebounds at a career-best rate, and like many of his teammates, drawing loads of fouls and taking care of the ball. He’s regained and maybe even surpassed the form that made him a Sixth Man of the Year in ‘19-’20.
Washington is in the bottom 10 in passes made and assists per game but ranks fifth in drives per game. The Golden State Warriors, they are not, but their average offensive rating has to be seen as a positive given the struggles of their best player, Bradley Beal. Beal is averaging 24 points per game while shooting 38% from the floor and 23% from three (!!), and he is also setting a career-high in turnovers. He has a tendency to force up shots, particularly in crunch time, and he hasn’t figured out how to balance his playmaking and shot-taking instincts with an entirely new roster around him.
Beal is having one of the strangest statistical seasons in memory. For the last three years, he’s been a fantastic offensive and abysmal defensive player, by on/off numbers1. But this year, something bizarre is happening (stats per Cleaning the Glass):
The offense absolutely craters with Beal on the floor this season, while the defense turns into the Monstars. The offense is easy to explain: He uses a ton of possessions, and he’s shooting terribly. This will fix itself to some degree over the course of the season as he gains comfort with his new teammates and finds his stroke.
The defensive numbers are trickier to understand. Beal usually guards the other team’s worst perimeter player, but to his credit, he is holding them to 35% shooting. He’s not particularly involved defensively, however, averaging a paltry 4.3 shot contests per game. It doesn’t take much viewing to see Beal do something wrong on defense. Watch as he (#3 in white, at the top left of the screen) somehow commits two cardinal defensive sins on the same play: first, he gets absolutely crushed on the pick and is only saved because his mark, Cam Reddish, never gets the ball; then, he watches the shot and forgets to do anything about Reddish, who swoops in for the laughably easy layup.
So why does the defense do so much better when he’s on the floor? Well, opponents are only shooting 29% from three against Beal on over five attempts per game, which is likely more luck-driven than anything else, and opponents in general shoot an inexplicable -18% worse at the hoop when he’s on the floor than when he’s off. Unless you think that Beal’s presence suddenly turns his entire team into Anthony Davis at the rim, these numbers are bound to correct themselves and revert to something approaching sanity.
The other Wizards in the rotation are generally playing pretty well. Deni Avdija is playing tremendous defense, holding opponents to just 33% shooting. Raul Neto is finishing at the rim, keeping the ball moving, and playing pesky defense. Kyle Kuzma has turned into a hippo, hungry hungry for rebounds (11 per game!). KCP has been lights-out from deep and guards the other team’s best wing player each night. Daniel Gafford has been indiscriminately swatting everything in sight, including basketballs, arms, faces, and occasionally even teammates. Rui Hachimura and Thomas Bryant will return from injury and add even more pieces to the chessboard for first-time coach Wes Unseld Jr. (an early candidate for Coach of the Year) to play with.
All that is nice and genuinely enjoyable to watch. However, to what degree Beal’s offense improves and defensive luck regresses will determine the Wizards' fate this season. An imbalance one way or the other could swing the Wizards from being a 5/6-seed in the East with dreams of winning a playoff series to being a visitor in the play-in tournament. Either way, the Wizards do look primed for a playoff run. With Westbrook’s massive contract off the books, they have the pieces and salary flexibility to turn themselves into interesting players at the trade deadline, too.
While Washington is relatively well-balanced, the Hornets embody the phrase, “The best defense is a good offense.” They rank third in the league in offense but just 27th in defense. One surprising key to their success has been turnovers: they only turn it over 12.6% of the time, good for second-lowest in the league, and they are 10th in forcing turnovers. LaMelo Ball, for all of his flash and sizzle, actually does a pretty good job of taking care of the rock (2.4 turnovers per game, 84th percentile for point guards), and his backup, Ish Smith, is positively Scroogian with giveaways (100th percentile).
Individually, many Hornets have exceeded expectations, none more so than Miles Bridges. After reportedly turning down a 4-year, $60 million extension, Miles’ bet on himself is looking like a good one. He’s doubled his scoring, averaging 23.1 points per game this season, on reasonable 47/34/88 splits (FG%/3P%/FT%) that looked a lot better before Monday’s 4-18 stinker (his first sub-50% shooting performance of the year). He’s averaging career-highs in rebounds (7.9), assists (3.4), and steals (1.8), and playing solid defense to boot. He’s developed a mean bully-ball game, and takes it very personally when a smaller defender dares to check him:
Some of LaMelo’s passing flair has even rubbed off on him:
I don’t know if Bridges can stay a 23-point scorer all season, but it’s clear that the huge strides he made at the end of last season have carried over into this year.
LaMelo Ball’s non-shooting stats look eerily similar to last year, although his scoring is up due to shooting more threes (at a fantastic 44% clip). His long-range accuracy is even more impressive since many shots are taken off the dribble or from way deep, which are usually higher-difficulty shots. He brings so much joy to the court with his audacious passing, floating layups, and Damian Lillard-like shooting.
Gordon Hayward looks healthy and is still the same all-around, steadying presence he’s always been. He’s capable of hitting from deep (48% so far this year), playing excellent defense, and making the extra pass. He has happily ceded a small amount of initiation and shots to LaMelo and Bridges to make room for their growth.
Terry Rozier just returned from injury and has picked up where he left off last year. The way shots and minutes shift to make room for him will be fascinating to track, as his play last season (and more importantly, the $97 million contract he signed) pretty much guarantees him plenty of run.
These guys are just great viewing. They play with a crazy fast pace, are third in the league in assists per game, and are #1 in “did you see that” moments). At one point in the second quarter of their game against the Blazers, FIVE different Hornets brought the ball up the court on five straight possessions. Even center Mason Plumlee gets in on the point action sometimes. That sort of egalitarian approach is at odds with much of the league’s heliocentric style, where a team’s best player almost always has the ball in their hands. This empowers players to move quickly and decisively up the floor and to pass it off with the confidence that they’ll get it back later.
Even their broadcast team is exciting, although someone needs to tell play-by-play man Eric Collins that not EVERY bucket is the most amazing thing he’s ever seen. It’s statistically impossible.
That said, there are some very clear problems with this team’s defense going forward that will limit their upside. Watch how Bridges and Plumlee get mixed up and double-team Jusuf Nurkic, layup-missing machine, on a simple pick-and-roll, leaving sniper CJ McCollum wide-open:
That is inexcusable. Miscommunications like this happen several times a game, and the offense is rarely even doing anything complicated!
The other truly concerning thing on defense is the lack of rim protection. Although Charlotte doesn’t give up a ton of layups, teams are shooting a preposterous 71.6% at the rim when they do get there — 2.5% worse than the second-to-last team. Mason Plumlee tries, and he is averaging a career-best 1.4 blocks per game. But after him, they’ve been playing PJ Washington as a small-ball center, and even though he’s athletic and strong, with quick hands, he’s just not big enough to deter people when they actually get to the hoop.
There are a few other things about the Hornets you can quibble with. LaMelo can be prone to heat checks early in the shot clock; there are a lot of guys on this team looking to score the ball, and although they haven’t had issues with selfishness yet, that’s always a concern. They’ve been the second-most accurate team shooting from three, which might be unsustainable given a lot of guys are shooting a career-high from deep.
Overall, this team should absolutely be fighting for a 5/6-seed, and anything less than an 8-seed should be seen as a disappointment. Regardless, the future is bright in Charlotte, and it will be fun as hell to watch the ride.
Basically, how many points a team scores/allows with a player on the court vs. how many points a team scores/allows with a player off the court.