Despite qualifying for yet another postseason, the Washington Wizards feel like they're running in place and the recent return of John Wall hasn’t come with the late season boost the team was hoping for. For the most part, the Wizards should enter the playoffs as an afterthought, even in a wide open Eastern Conference. Yet as the postseason begins, a lot of intrigue will surround D.C.’s basketball team because we may finally get an answer to a question that bounced around the Wizards since January: Is Wall still an essential ingredient to the team’s success?
Before the start of the season, that wasn’t something that this franchise was even considering. Sure, the tension between Wall and his backcourt mate Brad Beal made for good conversation. But the idea that the Wizards might not see much change if they moved on from their star point guard was an idea that only really gathered steam recently.
In late January, as the team began to stagnate, Wall was forced to the sideline with a knee injury. It was during that time an unlikely contributor emerged and sparked a mid-season run that started planting seeds of doubt about Wall’s true value to this Wizards team. Buried on the bench before Wall’s injury, Tomas Satoransky saw a big uptick in minutes while helping Washington keep their season afloat. It was that stretch of games that allowed us to place the rest of the Wizards' season in perspective.
That’s because whether Wall was healthy or not, the Wizards as a whole didn’t function any differently. During their first 18 games, Washington posted a 10-8 record (albeit with a +4.1 scoring margin). Then Wall missed nine games starting in late November and the club went just 4-5 in his absence. In the 21 games before Wall’s next injury absence, the Wizards were medi-est of ocres, going 12-9 with a point differential of -0.3.
Then after a loss to OKC on January 25th, Wall went out again, Satoransky, whose game is about a fraction as electric as Wall’s, came on the scene and things stayed…..the exact same. In the 27 games before Wall’s recent return, Washington went 15-12 with a point differential of +0.9. Although those stretches of games hardly qualify as a rock solid sample sizes, it was hard not to ask some version of this question: how could a team as top heavy as the Wizards lose half of one of the league’s best backcourts and barely flinch?
Getting closer to that answer starts with examining the other half of that dynamic duo and his on-court relationship with Satoransky. As I touched on a little bit when writing about the team in January, Satoransky and Beal have produced better results together than when the latter paired with Wall. In the 1,085 minutes the Beal has played with Satoransky, the Wizards have outscored opponents by 6.2 points per 48 minutes. Swap out Satoransky with Wall and that number dips slightly to +5.3.
Where things get really interesting, however, is when you perform that same switch within the context of the Wizards most effective 5-man lineups. When Satoransky joins the rest of the Wizards starters (Markieff Morris, Marcin Gortat, Otto Porter and Beal) in place of Wall, the Wizards see a +6.9 points per 48 minutes differential jump to 8.7. In Washington’s small-ball lineup featuring Kelly Oubre in place of Morris, there’s an even bigger jump from Wall -- +16.4 in 204 minutes -- to the production when Satoransky is the fifth member of that quintet -- +33.8 in 89 minutes.
The fact Satoransky boosts these lineups into a different stratosphere of success may seem odd at first. But when you take a second to examine how his skill set fits Beal and these lineups compared to Wall’s, it starts to make a little more sense.
Satoransky’s game can be summed in a single phrase: boringly effective. Unlike some of his fellow international peers, Satoransky doesn’t possess flashy passing skills so if you were expecting to see a Synergy number about how his passing out of pick-and-rolls was sneaky good, you won’t find it. In fact, both Wall and Beal post better marks than Satoransky’s ho-hum 1.06 points per possession (PPP) on passes out of of pick-and-rolls.
The interesting thing about Satoransky is that even though his direct passes aren’t always incisive, he simply moves the ball more often than Wall. According to NBA.com’s player tracking data, Wall averages 54.2 passes in the 34.3 minutes he plays, which is about 1.5 per minute. Despite obvious averaging less minutes and passes per game, Satoransky’s pass-per-minute mark is nearly 1.8. That may seem inconsequential but what we’re learning in the NBA is that simply being willing to move the ball is an underrated quality when it comes to good offense.
Satoransky has also been lights out in catch-and-shoot situations - 1.424 PPP -- this season, a major improvement from last year. On top of that, the 6-foot-7 guard has also been outstanding as a cutter this year, but not in the (young) Dwyane Wade-type way. Instead of sneaking behind inattentive defenders for vicious lobs, Satoransky often cuts just to open up gaps in the help, then loiters along the baseline (or popping up in the paint) to finish drop off passes from teammates.
In a sense, Satoransky has meshed his game to the role the Wizards need when he plays. He’s an offensive glue guy, doing things like cutting, shooting and moving the ball in order to help construct a platform for another highly talented player, like Beal, to shine. This is obviously a little different than how Wall operates.
Although Beal and Wall aren’t exactly oil and water when it comes to their games, there’s (subjectively) less of a flow when they’re together. Whereas Satoransky blends into a system, Wall and Beal, both need to have a system bent around them. Thankfully, Wall’s playmaking mitigates this clash slightly, but it’s obviously not a clean fit.
Now an uneasy, but productive pairing with a talented co-star should still mean the Wizards are capable of elevating above the level they’re at this season. But the problem is that Wall, unlike other stars, struggles mightily when Beal is off the floor - (+5.3 to -4.6 per 48). That gap isn’t nearly as expansive for Beal (+5.3 with Wall, +1.4 without). That difference can be attributed to one single event -- when Beal sits Wall goes into “get buckets” mode and see his field goal attempts go through the roof (For those wondering, Beal’s FGAs stay about the same with or without Wall). For more efficient stars, that’s usually an acceptable and even encouraged trend. Wall isn’t that type of player though.
Wall’s scoring marks this season in pretty much every action -- from transition to pick-and-rolls -- have ranged from mediocre to poor. When it comes to pick-and-roll scoring, his 0.694 PPP mark is among the worst in the NBA among players with over 200 attempts. Simply put, Wall getting more shots when Beal rests isn’t a good thing for the Wizards.
Now as you comb through the film and all this data, it isn’t like there is a single smoking gun behind why the Wizards have been functional while playing almost half a season without Wall. Instead, it’s a combination of some skill overlaps and approach mixed in with Washington’s general aversion to not playing their best lineups as much as possible. And because none of this has happened over a sample size big enough to concretely say “Wall doesn’t make the Wizards better,” it means the playoffs are going to matter more for Washington than we think.
Should the team go in and flame out in the first round, barely winning a game before a quick push into the offseason, what happened during this regular season is going to be front and center as the Wizards approach their offseason. Now should Washington go on a deep playoff run, it’s a lot easier to weight the playoff results in favor of Wall. There’s probably some recency bias in there, but teams where Washington are should give the benefit of the doubt toward playoff performance.
So if you think this means you can’t answer the question of whether Wall still is a key part of the Wizards ability to win, you’d be wrong. There is an answer. We just have to wait for the playoffs to find out.