Let’s talk about that Wizards defense. It’s objectively horrible. There’s no other way to put it. The offense has more than exceeded expectations through the first 11 games of the season, but it hasn’t led to consistent winning because of how bad the defense is. At the time of this writing, the Wizards have the best offense and second worst defense in the NBA:
It’s honestly pretty remarkable. The Wizards have not been known for having a high powered offense during the Scott Brooks era. In fact, one of the major criticisms of this team in the past has been a lack of identity. They have never done one thing particularly well, having no apparent strengths to fall back on. And if you’ve watched this team the last few years, you’re probably nodding your head reading that. They look like world-beaters one night, and barely an NBA team the next.
The problems so far
What’s different this season? Scott Brooks has built a new offense for the Wizards this season, out of necessity if nothing else. The emergence of Bradley Beal as an all-around superstar coupled with the absence of John Wall meant that this season, the offense needed to be different. Fred Katz from The Athletic wrote about this extensively in his piece from the preseason:
So let’s talk about that defense. As I mentioned, it is really bad. I’d even call it porous. Washington currently ranks second-worst in the NBA in defensive net rating. But everyone knew this team would have problems on defense. Thomas Bryant struggled defensively last year and is still a work in progress. Rui Hachimura was not known for his defensive prowess in college. Isaiah Thomas is playing significant minutes. Bradley Beal is being asked to carry a massive load for the offense. All of this adds up to a poor defense.
However, the way that the Wizards are losing on defense has been interesting. They are getting absolutely shredded in the mid-range, allowing 48.4% on their opponent’s mid-range shots. This is worst in the league, and over three entire percentage points higher than the second worst team, Detroit. They are also allowing opponents to shoot 46.8% in the paint, which is also worst in the league. There is not as big of a disparity between the Wizards and the rest of the league in paint defense, but it’s still really bad.
One major reason that the Wizards have been so poor on the defensive end is their reliance on the zone. They’ve utilized a 2-3 zone defense in abundance this season. Zone defense is not common in the NBA, but the Wizards are doing it more often than anyone. Modern offenses are built to emphasize shooting and rapid ball movement, which is an easy way to cut right through a zone defense. If the ball is moving from side to side, defenders in a zone may cheat to the ball side. This opens up gaps in a zone defense. All it takes is one well-placed pass through one of these holes, and you’ll find a wide open shooter on the perimeter.
Unfortunately, the Wizards are being forced to play a lot of zone due to the defensive limitations of Isaiah Thomas. The thought is that playing a zone may hide his defensive deficiencies, assuming the Wizards can just stick him up top and out of the way. This, of course, assumes that IT would at least contest shots or close out shooters in his area, neither of which he is doing. On Sunday night against Orlando, IT gave Markelle Fultz multiple wide-open three points attempts in his zone. When I say wide open, I’m estimating that Fultz had at least 8 feet of space between him and the closest defender. Fultz’s shooting issues aside, NBA players will hit those shots if you let them, and he did.
What is working?
There are a few Wizards lineups that have actually been very effective defensively, albeit in smaller samples sizes:
CJ Miles, Ish Smith, Davis Bertans, Troy Brown Jr., Moritz Wagner
- 93.3 Defensive Rating
- 20 Minutes
CJ Miles, Ish Smith, Davis Bertans, Bradley Beal, Moritz Wagner
- 94.5 Defensive Rating
- 29.1 Net Rating (!!)
- 25 Minutes
One caveat is that these lineups are likely matching up against many bench units, so the ratings are skewed a bit. However, the numbers are telling. Neither of these lineups has IT in them. Further, neither of these lineups have Thomas Bryant or Rui Hachimura in them. Because of that, don’t expect to see these lineups closing out important games. The Wizards are invested in the development of Bryant and Hachimura this season, and it is important to let them play in crunch time whenever they can, despite their defensive deficiencies. This is how young players grow. They need to take their lumps.
Moe Wagner’s Breakout
One common piece in the Wizards lineups that are working really well: Moritz Wagner. What a pickup by Tommy Sheppard. For those who need reminding: the Lakers gave the Wizards a second round pick to take on Wagner as part of the Anthony Davis deal. The Wizards sent cash considerations to New Orleans, so they essentially got him for nothing. The Lakers would still do that deal 100 times out of 100, of course. But Tommy Sheppard deserves a ton of credit for recognizing the opportunity to pick up another young, first round talent.
Wagner has been one of the most productive bench players in the entire NBA this season, in limited minutes nonetheless. He is the ultimate momentum guy to bring off the bench. He plays like a man possessed on both ends of the floor, and his energy is infectious.
Did I mention he leads the league in charges taken? He leads the league in charges taken.
Washington’s net rating with Wagner off the floor is -12.7, which is worse than any other player’s off-floor net rating. Translated: the Wizards play their worst when Wagner is not in the game. Again, when Wagner is not in the game, the Wizards are usually facing the opposition’s starting unit. But it’s still worth noting.
If -12.7 were the Wizards actual net rating, that would place them bottom five in the NBA. Not coincidentally, that is where they find themselves in the standings. But that isn’t their net rating. Their net rating is -2.0, which ranks 17th in the league. Firmly middle of the pack. I think that indicates the Wizards are not nearly as bad as their record suggests. Perhaps the ball bounces differently in a couple of games, and the team is closer to .500 and we’re thinking about this season a little differently.
Does the defense really matter?
This is a gap year for the Wizards. They aren’t supposed to make the playoffs. In fact, it would be in their best interest to not make the playoffs this year, so that they can add another lottery talent to the roster next season. It is important to keep that in mind when evaluating how the team performs and setting expectations as fans. No one likes losing.
However, this season fans should be more concerned with other areas of development. The team is consistently bringing much better effort this season. Scott Brooks and the coaching staff are showing more willingness to experiment with different lineups and schemes. Tommy Sheppard has shown an interest in developing the organization’s young talent, all the way down to the G League. And if the Wizards lose a couple of extra games in the meantime because Isaiah Thomas refuses to closeout shooters, they’ll be just fine.