Nene, Emeka Okafor and the offense/defense tradeoff

Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

The Wizards were a great defensive team last year, but a poor offensive team. How do they improve the latter without dramatically affecting the former?

One of the reasons I love basketball is that the five players on the court must interact with each other. It's not enough to trade in one skill for another; a coach must consider how lineup changes affect the whole on both ends of the court.

Specifically, calls for more offense can come to the detriment of a team's defense. This is the Wizards' dilemma in 2013-14 and going forward.

Washington was the league's fifth-best defensive team last year, but they were also 30th in offense and only 23rd in the stretch after John Wall returned from injury. The defensive improvement is great and very much tied to the Nene/Emeka Okafor duo. Nene's ability to chase smaller players and Okafor's strengths protecting the rim blended seamlessly and helped make life easier for everyone else. The Wizards surrendered just over 97 points per 100 possessions with those two in the game at the same time; they would have been second in the NBA if those two played all 48 minutes of every game and held up at the same rate.

At the same time, the Wizards' offense isn't especially great when both of those players share the court. The Wizards scored 101.6 points per 100 possessions when both were in the game at the same time, which would tie the Wizards for 19th overall if they kept that rate up for all 48 minutes. That's not terrible, but there's a lot of room for improvement. It also says a lot about the poor options behind both players that their offensive rating as a tandem is even that good.

The good news is that recent history suggests teams that are elite defensively and below-average offensively have a better chance for playoff success than teams that are elite offensively and below-average defensively. However, to eventually compete for the ultimate prize, teams should be more than competent on both ends of the court. The Wizards' top building block is John Wall, a point guard that struggles to shoot himself and would find more space in lineups with more shooting on the floor. Maximizing his ability offensively may require opening up the floor more than the Wizards can with the Nene/Okafor tandem.

How, then, do the Wizards approach competence offensively without getting significantly worse defensively?

It's a tough question. One option is to alter the scheme to minimize the spacing issues that come by playing Nene and Okafor together. A suggestion: fewer post-ups and high pick and rolls for Okafor that put him in a position where he has to take difficult mid-range shots. Instead, use Nene more often as the screener and have Okafor work more along the baseline, catching and finishing only when he is properly set up. That might help mitigate spacing issues and put the ball in the hands of playmakers more often.

Another option is to break up the Nene/Okafor tandem more often, depending on matchups. The Wizards could start the game by going big, but spend more time playing Nene and Okafor separately with a smaller big man that can shoot and open up the floor for Wall. The problem with this approach is that it's very hard to find players that can improve offensive spacing while also not giving up too much defensively. The Wizards are hoping Al Harrington can fill that void this year, but he's 34 years old and likely won't be up to the task for more than a handful of minutes off the bench. It's a fine, cheap band-aid solution, but likely nothing more.

The final option: trade one of the two for an offense-first shooter and commit to a different style of play. The hope is that the offensive boost gained by swapping Okafor or Nene for a shooting power forward will outweigh the slippage we might see defensively. But this is risky because it could chip away at the culture the Wizards have been trying to build for several years.

Most likely, the solution will come from a combination of these three options, but the issue is difficult to solve. The Nene/Okafor frontcourt was crucial to the team's competence last year, but as we move forward, the Wizards will need to figure out a way to become a more balanced team.

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