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How Much is John Wall Helping the Wizards?

 

The narrative on the Wizards' recent outburst of better play is that it's attributable to the return of John Wall. The story goes that Wall helps his teammates by pushing the pace (more easy fastbreak baskets), and also with his penetration, which draws defensive attention allowing teammates better looks when Wall kicks the ball out.

Is this narrative accurate? Well...

First, in the games since Wall returned from injury the pace is indeed faster when he's on the floor. When he's been in the game, Washington has blazed along at 96.8 possessions per 48 minutes. The league's fastest-paced team this year is Houston -- at 96.5 possessions per 48. However, when Wall sits, the team doesn't hit the brakes -- they're still sprinting at a pace of 93.5, which would be the league's 8th fastest pace.

And, the team has improved both offensively and defensively since Wall's return. For the year, they're averaging 97.1 points per 100 possessions. Since Wall's return: 103.6. For the year, they're allowing 103.2 points per 100 possessions. Since Wall's return: 98.5.

But, there are two critical questions to address. First, is a faster pace causing the team to be more efficient? And second, is Wall causing the team to be more efficient?

As it happens, I already answered the first question back in early December. Pace and efficiency aren't correlated. The Wizards have improved efficiency on both ends of the floor while also picking up the pace over the past couple weeks, but that doesn't necessarily mean that playing faster caused the efficiency to improve.

For example, the two slowest-paced games since Wall came back were Orlando (ortg of 128) and the Clippers (ortg of 93). The two fastest-paced games were Denver (ortg of 113), and Utah (ortg of 98).

The second question is trickier. Is Wall causing the Wizards to be more efficient? According to the data at nbawowy.com, with Wall on the floor, the Wizards have produced 103.3 points per 100 possessions -- a significant improvement over the season average of 97.1. But, in those same 7 games, the team's offensive rating when Wall's been off the floor has been 106.6.

In other words, the offense did get better when Wall returned. But it got even better yet when he was on the bench. I guess one could argue that Wall's impact is so profound that his teammates play better even he's not in the game, but that's a non-sensical non-starter.

The defense has been MUCH better since Wall returned to the floor. Wall might deserve credit for that, but I have yet to hear an argument that he's a transformational lock-down defender. The "Wall improves the Wizards" narrative is focused on offense.

One other argument I've heard is that Wall is getting his teammates better looks from the 3pt line and that the team's long-distance shooting will improve as a result.

On the surface, the evidence would seem to support this notion. With Wall on the floor, the Wizards are shooting 27-59 from 3pt range -- .458. For the season, they're shooting .350. But, during the 7 games since he returned to the lineup, they've shot 24-60 when he's been on the bench -- .400.

But hey, .458 > .400 -- there's your impact, right? Well, because the sample size is so small, the gap looks big, but is not significant. Said another way, the difference between the team's 3pt shooting with Wall and without him over the past 7 games amounts to 3.5 made shots.

None of the preceding should be taken as a criticism of Wall. His return to action has been welcome, and I do think he'll help the team long-run. He has to learn to shoot better and cut down on turnovers, but he's still a good PG.

But, I think it's important to look beyond the simple narrative -- i.e. Wall's back + Wizards win = Wizards win because Wall is back -- to understand what's actually happening on the floor.

It's clear the Wizards are playing better since Wall returned. What's less clear is how much credit for that better play belongs to Wall. At very least, the narrative articulated by Ted Leonsis, Ernie Grunfeld and an array of analysts is looking pretty dubious.

At best, the numbers are inconclusive so far. In my view, the data (so far) indicate their reasoning is incorrect. It may turn out to be correct when more games have been played, but at this point Wall's profound impact has been overstated or inaccurately explained.

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