Earlier this week, averagebro wrote a fan post entitled: Why Is This Year's "Strong Finish" Any Different Than The Prior Seasons' "Strong Finishes"?!? There were excellent points back and forth, with the usual enlightened and logical comments made by the Bullets Forever community. But no one brought up the biggest difference between this finish and other seasons, or for that matter, the difference between the first part of this year and the end of this year.
The 2012 trade deadline will go down as the date the Wizards broke through as a top defensive team. From that date forward, they will no longer be pointed at as the laughing stock of the NBA. At the trade deadline, Grunfeld was finally able to jettison the last of the "old" Wizards (Nick Young and JaVale McGee); the last vestiges of a failed experiment. With Andray Blatche exiled to Siberia - and with the addition of some real professionals (Nene, James Singleton and Cartier Martin), all of a sudden the Wizards don't look like a Three Stooges film anymore. The record, at 8-13, is much improved since the trade deadline.
The biggest difference is that the defense has dramatically improved.
With McGee and Blatche anchoring the Wizards defense for the first 43 games, the Wizards allowed more than 102 points per game and opponents shot over 46 percent from the field, both near the bottom of the League. Since replacing McGee and Blatche with Nene and Seraphin, the Wizards are allowing only 93 points per game, an incredible nine-points-per-game difference. Opponents are shooting only 43.9 percent from the field since the trade and just 40 percent in the nine games Nene has played. A team with those kind of statistics would be a top-5 NBA defense.
Those are mind-boggling numbers. Granted, I knew that McGee was not an asset on defense. Watching him chase blocks while his man scored easy layups and putbacks game after game was frustrating enough. He was continually out of position, his court awareness was spotty at best, he frequently lost concentration causing defensive three-second violations and he opened driving lanes and uncontested back-door cuts. His on court/off court stats confirmed what my eyes were telling me. But even "addition by subtraction" is not enough to explain the incredible defensive turnaround since the trade.
The Wizards defense looks much more coordinated. Wizards perimeter players are contesting shots, playing the passing lanes and sticking close to their man, knowing that if their opponent does get past them, they have teammates in the proper position to help. Players are trusting each other. The Wizards bigs are standing their ground in the post, refusing to be backed down. Rotations are crisp. I've seen more active hands and feet. There are more tipped passes, disrupted plays and 24-second violations. There are fewer blown assignments, defensive three second violations and wide open shots. Wizard players are TAKING CHARGES at an unprecedented rate. And yes, they are still blocking a few shots here and there. With McGee the Wizards were second in the League in blocks per game at 6.7. Without McGee, they block about one fewer per game, but at 5.5 blocks per game, the Wizards are still in the top 5 in the League in blocked shots.
It all starts with defending the pick-and-roll. Kevin Seraphin, Jan Vesely, Chris Singleton and Nene have essentially replaced McGee, Blatche and Rashard Lewis. Vesely and Nene are especially good at defending the P-n-R, showing strong on the Guard, forcing him wide and then quickly getting back to their man. Suddenly, the Wizards pick-and-roll defense is, dare I say, good! When you shut down the pick-and-roll, you disrupt between 30-70 percent of your opponent's offensive repertoire.
Say what you will about Ernie Grunfeld, but he has certainly put together a roster of tough, defensive minded players. Looking at players like Seraphin, Trevor Booker, Chris Singleton, Nene, Vesely and James Singleton, I can't help but feel that the era of the "soft" offensive-minded Wizards is past. This new Wizards team is strong, quick, physical, active and very willing to play defense. Defense is contagious. With Singleton and Vesely bringing defensive intensity, John Wall has raised his defensive energy and looks more aware and engaged. Even Jordan Crawford has gotten into the act, contesting and blocking shots, fighting through screens and showing active hands.
Mark it down. Thursday, March 15, 2012 is the date the Wizards fertilized the seeds of their championship defense.