Watching the Suns-Spurs game tonight, it struck me how many great individual defenders the Suns have. Yes, they didn't win, but that's because Amare committed way too many dumb fouls, Nash sucked for a half, and the Spurs got away with a ton of physical play. And yes, using tonight's game as an example to prove my point is a bit of a stretch.
Here's the lesson though. Even though they're such a phenomenal team offensively, the Suns have three of the best individual defenders in the league in Kurt Thomas, Raja Bell, and Shawn Marion. Bell made the All-Defensive first team, Marion would have been on one of the teams if he didn't play forward, and the Suns defense was nearly 5 point better per 100 possessions with Thomas in the game. Even with all those defensive-oriented guys out there, the Suns offense is still dynamite. Part of that is Nash, but most of that is the system.
The Wizards Princeton offense is very much the same way. The end of the season showed that it could still create good shots for anyone even without Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler. Basically, the Wizards can plug in defensive-oriented guys around their Big 3 and the offense won't suffer. As we discussed last time, defense needs to be the focus this offseason, and if it means getting players who aren't offensive-oriented, so be it.
How do the Wizards get better defensively though? More importantly, where do they start? There are three main areas to address here.
1. Defending scoring guards:
This one's pretty self-explanatory for anyone who watches this team. It also makes the most sense as far as importance. Guards have the ball in their hands the most, therefore, scoring guards have the most chances to carve up the Wizards. The crux of the problem is Gilbert Arenas. He's positively awful at man-to-man defense, and he cannot guard the pick and roll if his life depended on it. Opposing point guards averaged an 18.7 PER against the Wizards, which is basically having someone like Jason Kidd or Deron Williams going against you every game.
Last offseason, the Wizards thought they solved this problem by signing Stevenson. But DeShawn had never been more than an average defender over his career, and he proved to be much more effective running through screens off the ball than man-to-man defense. This was unlike Larry Hughes, who was a good man defender and hid many of Arenas' deficiencies.
The Wizards should find a way to replace Stevenson with someone more versatile. Then, if there's money left, DeShawn should be re-signed to a reasonable contract. But in order to improve the defense, the point position needs to be addressed first.
2. The Middle:
Here comes the tricky part. The Wizards best defensive center wants to be traded, and their other center has a terrible contract. Making matters worse, someone who I think would have been a good fit here just went off the market.
As long as Eddie Jordan sticks around, Brendan Haywood will not be effective in DC. We can go back and forth all we want on the issue, but it's probably time for the Wizards to cut their losses. Ernie Grunfeld is smart though. He's not just going to trade Haywood for the sake of trading him. The problem is that Haywood's low salary isn't going to yield an impact player, and his stock dipped considerably after the end of the season.
There are two options with a Haywood trade (assuming he gets traded, which is not a guarantee). You can swap him for another big who can just replace his role in the starting lineup. That person would split time with Thomas like they did this year. That doesn't really get the Wizards anywhere, but at least it's not a net loss. The other option is to use Haywood to upgrade problem number 1. It's trading big for small, but I think this is the way to go. Haywood could still yield a useful player if traded to the right team.
Ideally, I think Ernie would dump Thomas and his contract, but I doubt that happens. I don't think other teams hold Thomas in as high regard as the Wizards do. If he is trade, I hope it's in a similar trade to the Derek Fisher to Utah trade last offseason. The Warriors got three guys they promptly got rid of for salary cap relief. If the Wizards could do that, it would give them a lot of much-needed cap flexibility.
3. The forwards:
Jared Jeffries wasn't worth 30 million dollars. Hell, based on this year, he probably wasn't even worth 3. But the Wizards defense suffered with his loss this season.
The problem is that Antawn Jamison is probably the biggest defensive liability at the 4 spot in the league. This is something the Wizards just have to accept, because of his offensive prowess and leadership. Jeffries was instrumental because he allowed the Wizards to hide Jamison defensively, but without him, Jamison has to guard tougher players.
The Wizards felt confident letting Jeffries go, however, because of the false belief that Caron Butler is a good defender. He isn't. He has the ability to be a really good one, to tell the truth. He has really quick hands, isn't afraid to dig in, and has quick feet. Unfortunately, his mechanics are really bad. He swipes at the ball too much instead of moving his feet, and his lack of strength is a killer against the bulkier small forwards.
Unless Butler improves himself, however, it's tough to imagine this problem getting fixed. One option would be to move Butler to shooting guard and get a more defensive-minded forward to replace Stevenson. This would basically be what the Wizards did in 2005/06. Truth be told, however, it basically opens one hole up while exposing another, making it a lateral move.
What would be nice though is if someone off the bench could become a Jeffries-like player. That someone has to be Andray Blatche. He showed flashes this year when Eddie gave him a chance, but he was still beat too often by craftier players. A year of dedication should help considerably, and hopefully Eddie will recognize it and play Blatche ahead of Darius Songaila.
Okay, maybe that's wishful thinking, but if Blatche can continue to improve defensively, he'll see the floor. He has to.
The bottom line is that Ernie needs to simply ignore the offense. Don't worry about starting guys who lack offensive skills. The system makes everyone better offensively. Before he came to DC, Stevenson was seen as an erratic shooter. This year, he floated around 50 percent as a starting off guard. That's what playing alongside three great offensive players will do for you. Plug in anyone, and the offense won't suffer. It's the defense that needs aid, and unless it gets some, next year's ending will not be what we're looking for.
If there's anything you think should be added, put it in the comments section.