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Know Your Enemy: Identifying the Washington Wizards

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The Wizards have struggled to gain any semblance of an identity this season. After losing and then regaining John Wall, the situation is even more unclear.

Toronto Raptors v Washington Wizards Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

There’s a storm settling at the bottom of the conference standings, with each of Milwaukee, Miami, and now Washington taking turns on the dance floor with the No. 6, 7, and 8 spots. By next week, we’ll know the Raptors’ first-round opponent at the 8-seed.

Since we’ve already covered Miami and Milwaukee in previous editions, today we’ll cap the series off with an account of who Washington is these days, and what the Raptors and fans can expect in a series.

What Does Washington Do?

The answer lies in two different blocks of games after the John Wall injury. Washington — the current 8-seed in the East — has had many identities this season, and at the core of each sits Wall: All-Star point guard and supposed leader of the Wizards. However, some folks would have you questioning that title this season, including (for a brief, cryptic moment) the team’s own starting center, Marcin Gortat.

Washington initially looked dangerous without Wall captaining the team’s offense. But it didn’t last long.

Despite early success, the Wizards failed to congeal as a team in the 25 games following the All-Star Break — and things aren’t looking better with Wall back in the lineup.

The Wall-less Wizards

The team without Wall showed two sides of themselves. The good side — a team which won 10 of its first 13 games without their star point guard — proved to be a pass-driven, happy-to-share, commune-style offense, while maintaining the rangy, pesky defensive tendencies that have kept them in games more times than not.

Second-year guard Tomas Satoransky not only filled in for Wall, he was a seamless cog in the new egalitarian system that drove the Wizards on offense. By providing passing, very few turnovers and the occasional clutch three, he never dominated the ball or wasted opportunities. Instead, he provided just enough of a boost to help Bradley Beal play some of the best basketball of his career.

This version of Washington defeated some really good teams in the process, including the Toronto Raptors, Cleveland Cavaliers and Indiana Pacers. They shot the ball extremely well (50 percent from the field), and averaged over 30 assists per game — a number that would easily be the best mark in the NBA on the season.

For the first time all season, the team seemed to have consistency, and that led to interesting narratives such as “Do the Wizards even need John Wall?”

Beal, long the number two option on the team, became the alpha-dog once Wall was sidelined and he was unbelievable in those first 13 games. He averaged nearly 23 points, seven assists and five rebounds per game, and shot 48/37/84 from the field while adding 1.7 steals.

After spending four weeks playing heavy minutes (over 38 per game), Beal fell off a cliff, and dragged the team with him. Those numbers dropped to 19-5-4 on 44/36/75 shooting splits. The Wizards subsequently went 5-9 over the next 14 games thereafter and the honeymoon was over.

John Wall’s Return (And Defending Quick Guards)

So where does all of this leave the Washington team that Toronto might have to face in the first-round? The answer is clear: they’re still searching for an identity with Wall back in the lineup — going 1-4 since he returned (Wall missed one game).

His return does pose at least one problem for the Raptors, however. Throughout the year, Toronto has struggled to contain physical, athletic guards at every turn. Russell Westbrook, Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe have all been able to make critical plays at will this season. Not only does Wall fit the description, we have yet to see him play this version of the Raptors.

In his 40 games this year, Wall has improved his three-point percentage to a league average clip (35.8 percent), giving Washington four average-to-good three-point shooters in their starting five. Toronto has the defense to stop this offense, and they showcased it last month against Houston. Remember when Toronto stayed with their shooters? That scheme could apply to the Wizards — the fourth best three-point shooting team by percentage in the league — over the course of a seven-game series.

However, defending the Wizards won’t be as easy as letting Wall run wild while limiting their shooters. As we saw against James Harden and the Rockets, it took an unbelievable defensive effort from Jonas Valanciunas in order to make that game-plan work, and even better individual defense from Fred VanVleet on Chris Paul.

If Valanciunas can’t provide that same defensive help in the paint, Wall will easily find his driving lanes and the series will, in turn, prove critical for Dwane Casey in how he handles his lineup adjustments and match-ups as the postseason progresses.

Guarding Beal and Porter

Unlike last season, Casey has a litany of defensive tools at his disposal at every position — and that’s the key to guarding both Beal and Otto Porter, in addition to John Wall. Delon Wright, Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, Jakob Poeltl, Serge Ibaka and OG Anunoby have all been unbelievable for the Raptors’ defense this season.

While Anunoby will be tasked with guarding Porter to start, his recent success stopping Indiana’s Victor Oladipo proved he could be key in stopping Beal — or even Wall if needed. Meanwhile, Siakam could turn out to be the most important defensive piece in a Washington-Toronto series with his ability to contain dribble-drives and curb three-point shooting.

Porter gets a lot of his three-point looks off screens, and that’s an area where Siakam’s length comes into play outside of the post. Siakam has shown a willingness to fight through screens, and that will be key in slowing a quick-release shooter like Porter down.

Also unlike last season, Casey will have a healthy and playable Delon Wright — a surefire defensive ace in the hole for the back-court. Wright would be the obvious answer should Beal get hot at any point, and results show he’s had incredible success in a defense-oriented lineup next to Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan in very limited minutes this season.

Taking Advantage of Wall

As dangerous as Wall can be against Toronto, he can also be the Raptors’ biggest advantage down the stretch. Once the fourth quarter hits, Washington has the tendency to become a one-man show, and ball-movement can screech to a halt. They live by the Wall and die by the Wall, as they have always done. (Sound familiar?)

As one of the stingiest fourth-quarter defenses in the league, the Raptors will force Washington into tough positions on offense, and the advantage lies therein.

Everyone remembers the Wizards’ epic showing last season against the Celtics in the East Semis. Wall became a black hole on offense and the Wizards ultimately lost because of it. He showcased those tendencies again last week against the Cavaliers — game which they gave up a 17-point lead — when he decided to take two ill-advised contested jumpers in the final minute. Teammates were less than pleased.

Washington can be a seriously tough match-up for the Raptors when they are playing their best. After all, they’ve defeated Toronto twice already this season. The biggest question mark for Washington is whether they can continue to play the style of offense which brought them success, but with Wall back in the lineup. If Wall buys into an offense featuring increased ball-movement in lieu of one-on-one heroics, the Raptors have a markedly tougher match-up on their hands.

Stats from NBA.com/stats and Basketball-Reference.com