The Washington Wizards are a textbook example of what coaches worry about when they worry about joining the revolution and becoming a small-ball team. The Wizards went from a team that played two traditional big men, held the ball and tried to win games with defense to one that spread the floor, pushed the pace and tried to win games with offense. They are playing more like everyone else this season but they aren’t playing very well.

The numbers paint the picture of a team whose profile changed dramatically in one offseason:


NBA rank last season

NBA rank this season




Defensive rating



Offensive rating












Washington was one of the biggest teams in the NBA last season and now they are one of the smallest. They went from playing three-out basketball and starting Marcin Gortat (6’11 240) and Nene (6’11 250) to sliding Nene to the bench and playing four-out basketball and trying to close out games playing five-out basketball with Jared Dudley (6’7 225) and Otto Porter (6’8 200) upfront. The problem is that going small has killed their defense and their offense hasn’t been good enough to make up the difference.

There were a lot of things Gortat and Nene couldn’t do well together - spread the floor, guard on the perimeter or make plays off the dribble - but they gave the Wizards an identity. They had a size advantage against most of the teams they played and they could throw the ball inside to one of their big men and play inside-out. On the other side of the ball, Washington could build their defensive schemes based on always having at least one rim protector in the paint who protect the rim and control the glass.

Things changed in the playoffs when they found success by sliding Paul Pierce down to PF and playing smaller line-ups that allowed them to run the Toronto Raptors off the floor in the first round and push the Atlanta Hawks to the brink in the second, even with John Wall missing three games with a broken hand. Pierce left but Washington was still committed to the style of basketball they had discovered in the post-season, bringing in more wing players (Alan Anderson, Gary Neal and Dudley) that would allow them to play smaller.

The Wizards are playing a more aesthetically pleasing brand of basketball but the increased ball movement and floor spacing hasn’t translated into results. A lot of that has to do with injuries as guys like Bradley Beal and Nene have gone down for stretches while Dudley missed the first few weeks and Anderson hasn’t played all season. Their roster just isn’t deep enough to sustain a lot of hits and they have been forced to play deep reserves like Garrett Temple big minutes and use a raw rookie like Kelly Oubre before he is ready.

Even when everyone is healthy, though, they don’t have a lot of length and athleticism, which negates the biggest advantages of going small. Beal and Wall are their only elite athletes and they don’t really have the guys around their two young stars who can take advantage of playing in transition and who can force turnovers and create easy baskets the other way. The Wizards play fast but they aren’t actually all that fast - asides from the highly drafted trio of Wall, Beal and Porter, everyone else in the rotation is in the 29-31 range and on the downside of their career athletically.

They have been trying to use Dudley in the same way the Golden State Warriors use Draymond Green but the difference is that Dudley never had Green’s athleticism even in his prime, much less now that he is on the wrong side of 30. The Warriors 5-out line-ups with Green at the 5 have been dubbed the Line-up of Death because they are like Ebola - exposure to them for any amount of time can be fatal. The Wizards 5-out line-ups are more like the common cold - they might make you uncomfortable but they probably aren’t going to kill you unless you have a pre-existing condition.

Green is either a guard who plays like a big man, or a big man who plays like a guard, and a player like that is necessary to get the most out of small-ball. Washington doesn’t have the shot-making and play-making upfront in their small-ball line-ups to make up for the lack of shot-blocking and rebounding that comes from benching their big men. The Warriors have the advantages of going small without the disadvantages - the Wizards have the disadvantages without the advantages.

The shame is that Wall has emerged as one of the best point guards in the NBA at the age of 25 and is a player perfectly suited to the style of play that is taking over the league. Teams still give him the open jumper but it’s not because he can’t knock it down but because there’s no other way to guard him. He’s scoring the most points in his career (20.2) at his highest FG% (45.7%), shooting 34.8% from 3 on 4.2 attempts a game and his step-back jumper has become a legitimate weapon in late-game situations.

You can see the outlines of a modern team with Wall at the point and Beal, Porter and Oubre on the wings. The problem is that Oubre is nowhere near ready to be a featured player while that group would still need someone in the middle to serve as either a rim-runner in a four-out system or a multi-dimensional hub in a five-out system. They can run either four-out with Nene or Gortat or five-out with Dudley but all those guys are getting up there in age and none are the type of dominant two-way player you can build around.

From a big picture perspective, it makes you wonder whether the Wizards should have been more aggressive in terms of targeting a frontcourt player to pair with Wall when they had a Top 3 pick in 2012 and 2013. They could have played four-out with Wall and Andre Drummond or five-out with Wall and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Those would have been the type of out of the box selections that could have made Washington a perennial power in the East for the next decade, one that could fully embrace the zeitgeist of the pace-and-space era.

As it is, they either have to go back to the well with playing two older big men in Nene and Gortat or embrace the new era with one hand tied behind their back by using Dudley as their mismatch forward. Like Golden State, Washington drafted a franchise PG, a two-way SG and a versatile SF/PF in the lottery. They have their versions of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes but without anyone who can be like Draymond Green, it isn’t going to work.