The NBA isn’t a homogeneous league so much as a league with homogeneous goals. Most teams want to create the same sorts of shots: layups, 3s, and free throws, the superfoods that fuel a modern offense. How they go about doing that depends largely on personnel. Houston, Toronto, and Chicago have similar profiles in terms of the shots they take, but you would never mistake one of their offenses for another. The character of a team lies in its means.
Nowhere is that more evident than in our nation’s capital, where the Wizards have improbably emerged as the NBA’s second-best offense. In a league governed by superstars, Washington is racking up points behind Bradley Beal, who has never once made an All-NBA team—including last season, when the omission cost him the opportunity to sign a supermax contract. At a time of Big Twos and Big Threes, the Wizards are outscoring damn near everyone behind the tandem of Beal and … Thomas Bryant? Davis Bertans? It takes real scoring heft for a team to put up 120 points on average. Washington has found it thus far in the balance of its role players, which itself comes in defiance of a certain logic.
Squaring the Wizards in total with the individual players involved can feel like trying to balance the two sides of a faulty chemical equation. On one side, we have Washington’s output, a point of empirical fact. On the other, some amount of Rui Hachimura, Ish Smith, and Moe Wagner, reconfigured on a nightly basis. The closest thing the Wizards have to a secondary playmaker is either Isaiah Thomas, who is attempting to salvage his NBA career, or Troy Brown Jr., who is trying to jump-start his own. Even if we account for just how spectacular Beal has been (all the better for Washington, considering the two-year, $72 million extension he signed in October), this is in no way the outline of a first-rate offense in the best basketball league in the world.
The Wizards, now 5-9, are not a good team—even the second-best offense in the league can’t outpace the second-worst defense—and yet they’ll hang 133 points on Boston’s second-ranked defense. They’ll drop 158 points in a shoot-out with James Harden and the Rockets, while giving up 159 in the process. This isn’t a breakthrough. It’s just a competent team playing a style that’s as modern as the roster allows.
In the leaguewide push for efficiency, players are vulnerable to overcorrection. Serge Ibaka put such an emphasis on spacing the floor that his game lost something in the process—until the Raptors helped him rediscover the right balance. The idea of Russell Westbrook scaling back on long 2s and attempting more 3s might sound great until you realize he’s making only 23 percent of his six shots a game from beyond the arc. A point guard learning to pull up for 3s out of the pick-and-roll, a veteran coming to terms with the fact that they can’t hit turnaround jumpers like they used to, a playmaker who has to relearn the geometry of how to distribute the ball—these are delicate evolutionary processes. Teams can make hard and fast rules in defiance of that reality, or they can try to nudge players toward more productive ends.
Hachimura, a 21-year-old rookie, can’t yet shoot 3s. So within Washington’s fluid offense, he takes and makes shots from midrange. “That’s his comfort zone,” says Wizards coach Scott Brooks. No one on the team beyond Beal can really draw fouls, so the team doesn’t force the issue—even if that means getting to the line less often than almost every team in the league. Trusting the entire roster to attack in sequence has prevented role players from trying to do too much. Frankly, the Wizards aren’t good enough to create a great look on every possession. Instead, they move the ball, make quick decisions, and look for shots they can make.
A team like Washington doesn’t have to be dogmatic about its shot selection. It’s one thing for Thomas to settle for a long, tough jumper and another for Hachimura to shoot from 18 feet when the ball swings his way. These Wizards aren’t troglodytes; they’ve taken more 3s than any other team in franchise history. Their nightly attempts (34.5 per game) would have ranked third in the league just two seasons ago. This season, that mark ranks 13th—unexceptional, but reassuringly typical. Washington keeps the floor spread well enough that a group of role players has room to make decisions, all while keeping their turnovers down.
It’s a more democratic system than one might expect and a sign of growth after almost a decade of ball-dominant point guard play from John Wall. There are 37 players in the NBA this season who have the ball in their hands more than Beal does on a nightly basis. Functionally speaking, this is how Washington’s offense flies from one side of the court to the other, and from one action to the next. Opponents don’t seem to take the Wizards all that seriously; no one really thinks they’re going to get the business from Moe Wagner until it’s too late. Not every team would bank on a player like Bertans to run a secondary pick-and-roll, but this one does, and it kind of works. The roster is its own misdirection. Opponents underestimate some Wizard or another, they give up a lane, and they overreact, revealing another opportunity in the process.
Most basic rosters should be able to manage this kind of play-action. Beal is a star, and seemingly better than he ever let on. But Hachimura and Brown were drafted in the middle of the first round. Bryant was claimed off waivers, then re-signed based on that investment. Thomas and Jordan McRae play for the minimum salary. Bertans, Wagner, and C.J. Miles were all dumped onto the Wizards’ roster by teams trying to clear cap room. Smith is the lone member of the rotation who signed as a free agent, for all of $12 million over two years.
Most of these players will likely be gone by the time Washington, currently in the midst of its first fresh start in 16 years, is competing for anything of import, which makes the resulting offense quite a feat of engineering. NBA teams are increasingly transient. No matter their organizational preferences, every franchise needs to find its peace with constant turnover, scraping together functional systems with whatever is left on hand. Washington has made good on its rebuilding campaign by balancing the development of its younger players with the practical logistics of running a team. With Beal’s extension providing only a short runway back to contention, empowering prospects like Brown and Hachimura to make the reads that run the offense is a healthy look for the franchise as a whole. But the ease with which this group came together doesn’t exactly reflect well on the Pistons, who haven’t had an above-average offense since 2011; or the Magic, who have been similarly scoring-challenged since 2012; or, most glaringly, the Wizards under Ernie Grunfeld. It’s not hard—or expensive—to score competently. Some franchises just make it seem that way.