When you look at the top of the NBA standings, many of these teams have one thing in common. They exhibit defense. Maybe not all of these teams are great at team defense, though most of them are. But what each of these teams does have is at least one individual player that one can consider the team’s “defender”. Someone you feel comfortable with putting on the opposing team’s best offensive player to get stops down the stretch. Even some of the bad teams in the East have at least one of these types of players on their roster.
Top Eastern Conference Teams Play Defense
At the top of the Eastern Conference standings are the Bucks, Raptors, Heat and Celtics occupying the top four spots. Each team is built on balanced play, both on offense and defense. These teams all have a player that can be considered a “lock-down defender” to place on opposing team’s stars.
The Bucks have a two-way superstar in Giannis Antetokounmpo. He is just as scary on the defensive end as he is in transition offense. He has helped carry the Bucks to the highest ranked defense in the NBA with an impressive 101.8 defensive rating.
The Raptors have strong defenders at nearly every position on the floor. They have two strong defenders in Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet at the guard positions. They also have elite length on the wings with OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam, and a reliable defensive anchor at the center position in Marc Gasol. The Raptors haven’t skipped a beat after losing yet another defensive superstar in Kawhi Leonard. They stand at fifth in the NBA with a defensive rating of 102.7.
The Heat and Celtics also both have elite wing defenders, perhaps two of the best in the entire league in Jimmy Butler and Marcus Smart. The Celtics also have strong wing defenders in Jaylen Brown, as well as Gordon Hayward when healthy. Those players have helped their teams to the top of the East with top-10 defensive ratings in the NBA.
Do the Wizards Have This Type of Player on the Roster?
Now as we observe the Wizards 2019-20 active roster that ranks dead-last in defensive rating, its clear that type of player is nowhere to be found. At least at this stage of their careers. With John Wall out for the season rehabbing his torn Achilles, the Wizard’s top on-ball defender is out.
Even then we haven’t been able to see an elite defensive John Wall since 2017, due to playing through injuries in each of his next two seasons. We have no idea whether that defensive John Wall will ever be seen again, although there is plenty of hope he can be. Until he returns, the Wizards lack a player on the entire roster that you can feel comfortable putting on a star player in key moments.
The Wizards Lack Defense in the Starting Back-court
The Wizards have a back-court of Isaiah Thomas, Bradley Beal, Ish Smith, and Jordan McRae. Each of these guys have something in common. They are all offensive-minded players. Beal has the ability to defend at times, but with him exerting himself so much as the main ball-handler and scorer on offense. Its preferred he doesn’t have to take on each team’s best offensive guard each game.
Unfortunately for Beal, he does not have this luxury with both Isaiah Thomas and Ish Smith at the opposite guard spot. Beal currently has the worst defensive rating of his career at 118.3. Much of this has to do with the guys playing alongside him in the back-court.
At 5’9, starting point-guard Isaiah Thomas could very well be the worst defender in the NBA today, if not in NBA history. He currently has a defensive rating of 121.4, good for 443rd ranked defender out of 461 eligible NBA players. Many of the guys ranked lower than him haven’t received many minutes. At times, it’s simply because his height does not allow him to match-up with bigger, stronger guards. But at other times its a lack of effort in closing out, or getting over screens instead of under them.
The Wizards Lack Defense in the Bench Back-court
Smith has shown at times to be a decent defender, but not nearly at a rate consistent enough to make him your primary defender. He certainly is more of an offensive-minded player as well. McRae is a guy who is inserted into the game to get buckets off the bench, and has yet to show much ability on the other side of the ball.
Without a single guard on the roster who is able to make consistent stops, the Wizards are already at a disadvantage on the defensive side of the floor. Combine Isaiah Thomas’s struggles on defense with the defensive struggles of the Wizard’s two starting big men, Rui Hachimura and Thomas Bryant. This makes it even more difficult to get stops. According to advanced statistics, Hachimura has actually been even worse on the defensive side of the ball compared to Isaiah Thomas. Hachimura is ranked three spots below I.T in defensive rating at 446th. Additionally, Thomas Bryant hasn’t been much better ranked 440th in defensive rating.
Before the Thomas Bryant foot injury, the entire starting lineup of Thomas, Beal, Troy Brown Jr., Hachimura, and Bryant were ALL ranked 411th or worse in defensive rating. Now that Bryant will likely be sidelined at least three weeks, the Wizards have had to go small. This results in Hachimura guarding centers despite him already struggling with the size of NBA power forwards. Struggles defensively from both the point guards and big men make for a disaster when it comes to defending the pick-and-roll.
Wing Play Has Taken Over the NBA
Looking at the modern landscape of the NBA, the past decade or so has shifted more so from dominant big men of the earlier generations to a league that thrives on the play of the wings and guards. Just look at what has won in this league over the past decade or so. Teams with elite defenders on the wings have won the Championship for at least the last five years.
The Warriors dynasty was built on the elite defense on the wings. This includes Andre Iguodala, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green. LeBron James has dominated the wing for well over a decade now, both on offense and defense. Kawhi Leonard just led his team to an NBA Championship with his balanced offense, and top-notch defense.
Can the Wizards match these wings?
So how are the Wizards equipped to stop the growing dominance of elite wings? With two young, 20-year olds at the small-forward position in Troy Brown Jr. and Isaac Bonga, as well as an offensive minded backup wing in Davis Bertans, they aren’t. At least they aren’t yet.
The two young players could certainly develop into those players. For now though, that production will not be immediate. Wizards head coach Scott Brooks continues to allude to Bonga’s defensive ability. While he has shown flashes of potential on that side of the ball, he hasn’t put it all together, or been capable of being that guy. With an injury to CJ Miles likely taking him out for the entire season, we will get a great opportunity to see some development from him on that side of the ball. Bonga has a defensive rating of 107.1, which is the best of all wings and guards in the Wizards rotation, and just slightly behind the Wizards top defender, Moe Wagner.
The James Harden oversite
Even if a player doesn’t emerge as the defensive stopper the Wizards are looking for this season, there’s no reason guys like Bonga or Hachimura can’t develop into at least decent defenders as they gain more traction in the NBA.
For example, many love to look at the offensive development of James Harden throughout his career. However, many fail to recognize the strides he has made defensively. Harden has been bashed for his defense in the past, and rightfully so. But according to advanced analytics he is better on the defensive end than any Wizard this season. He has a defensive rating of 105.3, which is 5 points better than a year ago. He is arguably the best guard defending the post in the NBA. Opponents have shot just 4-22 on him when posting him up. If James Harden can make strides into becoming a solid defender, why can’t a young, 20 year old like Bonga do the same?
Wizards Must Emphasize Defensive Development of Young Wings
With that said, even if Bonga does develop into the defensive player Scott Brooks thinks he can become, it is abundantly clear that will not be enough to become a strong enough defensive team to be good in this league. The Wizards must emphasize the defensive side of the ball moving forward. Specifically in development with Bonga, Brown Jr., and Hachimura. Additionally, in free agency and the NBA Draft in the future. With nearly every player on the roster being offensive-minded, I fully expect Wizards GM Tommy Sheppard to make a lock-down defender a top priority in the off-season. The offensive juggernaut Wizards team we have gotten to see this year has been fun to watch. However, that doesn’t always translate into winning games. With Wall’s return next season on the horizon, obtaining that wing defender will be very important next year.