It became painfully obvious the moment the Wizards received word on Emeka Okafor's MRI results back in September that they had no prayer of echoing their defensive proficiency from a year ago. Couple that with Nene's aversion for playing starter's minutes at the center position and the team's inability to keep offenses from feasting on their porous defense down low in the preseason, and you had a front office frantically working the phones to secure a legitimate post presence and help stabilize a team hell-bent on reaching the playoffs.
This isn't a defense than thrived on one player's individual brilliance, a la Dwight Howard in his Orlando days.Randy Wittman indoctrinated crisp rotations into his players, hedging hard on ball handlers and conceding long two-pointers in favor of protecting the rim. But the bulk of responsibility falls on his big men knowing when to hedge and recover, and it was Okafor's high basketball IQ and deft rim protecting ability that propelled this defense into a top-5 rating, per Basketball-Reference.
Notice the way he protects the rim and forces defenses into taking long jumpers in these clips.
However, while Emeka had the good fortune of teammates fully invested in Wittman's scheme, new Wizards center Marcin Gortat was on the opposite end of the spectrum, having to clean up after the likes of Michael Beasley, Luis Scola, Markieff Morris, Shannon Brown and Wesley Johnson on a woeful Suns team. Phoenix clearly lacked the personnel to make their system work and tried compensating for it by having Gortat hang back in the lane in order to function as their last line of defense.
And perhaps it worked in Gortat's favor. He's been lauded for his stout defense in the paint and lived up to it by giving up just 35 percent shooting on post-ups, a lot stingier than Okafor's 41 percent figure from last season ,per MySynergySports.com. Yet, it also masked his so-so ability to defend the pick and roll. He developed a penchant for ball-watching, and at times was caught out of position and unable to recover, either by jumping too far out on ball handlers or simply sagging too far into the lane.
Okafor had his fair share of struggles at the start of last season, and it should come to no one's dismay if Gortat follows suit. This is definitely a bit of a defensive downgrade.
But while the Wizards were deliberately baiting players into taking the lesser-efficient midrange jumper, their offense would imprudently fall into the same trap. As I explained in detail during our summer checklist series, Okafor was unfavorably placed in more pick-and-roll situations than he could handle, and it showed in his shooting percentages. With 21 percent of his offense coming on that very play, Okafor shot just 34 percent from 15-19 feet and 37 percent from 10-14 feet, per NBA.com's stats page.
If it hadn't worked for Okafor in the previous eight years of his NBA career, it wasn't going to on this team. The Wizards scored just 0.75 points per possession with the ball handler on pick and rolls and 0.84 points per possession with the roll man, which is good for 21st and 28th in the league respectively, per MySynergySports.com. Involving Bradley Beal in more of these sets is becoming more of a certainty following his preseason performance, but until John Wall attacks and gets into the lane more consistently rather than relying on his first read( typically Okafor fading off the pick), this team will have a tough time finishing in the top-20 in offensive rating.
More often than not, Wall would face the plight of either passing to the fading Okafor or hoisting up a 19-footer as he came off a pick. There wasn't even an attempt to lure the big man out of position with head fakes or hesitation dribbles. Despite the strides he has made in reading the help defender and seeing plays a step ahead of his defenders, he's lacked the creativity in getting into the lane in half-court sets, an issue that has stunted the Wizards offense through the years.
But the addition of Gortat and Al Harrington should have a profound impact on how Wall attacks these pick and rolls. With the addition of more shooters, the Wizards will surely make it a point of emphasis to spread the floor and allow Wall to pick apart defenses with his pinpoint passing.
Gortat's ability to catch the ball on the move and finish above the rim will be a nice change of pace from Okafor's often mechanical post play. He has a keen sense of slipping into the open areas and has the body control and creativity to finish in traffic. In what's largely considered a down year for him, he still finished the season scoring 1.16 points per possession as the roll man on pick nad rolls, good for 26th in the league per MySynergySports.com. In the year before that, he was at 1.23 points per possession, which placed him in the top 10 in the entire league. In that way, Gortat should help Wall's pick and roll game significantly.
It is true that, barring a resurgent year from Nene, the Wizards' floor spacing woes will still be there. Defenses will be more than happy to sink off on Nene in order to thwart Gortat's lane to the basket, an issue he's all too familiar with from last season. Accommodating both players' strengths will be an ongoing process.
But much of what Phoenix successfully ran for the Polish big man is right up Randy Wittman's alley. Here, Phoenix will open up in HORNS, with big men on opposite elbows and shooters in the corners.
Gortat will come up to set the ball screen, while Luis Scola loops in and out of the post to take his spot on the left side.
Once Goran Dragic enters the ball to Scola in the high post, Gortat will set a down screen for Jared Dudley to use on the other side of the floor.
As soon as Dudley curls off the screen, he'll catch the pass in the lane and immediately drop it off to Gortat along the baseline. He has just one defender to beat and finishes the play off with a reverse layup.
Here's the video of the play:
With so much talk surrounding the playoffs, the front office left themselves no choice but to pull the trigger on a deal early in order to avoid an early-season slump. The Wizards took the gamble of dealing away a future asset for Gortat, who at the moment gives this team a fighting chance in the Eastern Conference.
More from Bullets Forever:
- Marcin Gortat Trade: Nene, Wittman happy to have a "true center" again
- Marcin Gortat acquired in trade for Emeka Okafor, first-round pick
- Wizards to waive Shannon Brown, Kendall Marshall, Malcolm Lee, according to report
- Wizards to decline fourth-year options on Jan Vesely, Chris Singleton, according to report
- Trying to make sense of the Marcin Gortat trade