There's no written rule about this anywhere, but it's commonly known that the 20 game mark in an NBA season is the best time to start to analyze real trends with a team. Teams have gone through about a quarter of the season and have a pretty even balance of home and road games (unless you're the Lakers). By now, we know the Jazz are probably for real, teams like the Clippers and the Kings are merely average, the Rockets are going to be a force, the Atlantic Division absolutely sucks, and Orlando is going to be there until the very end. As such, it's probably a good time to figure out exactly where the Wizards are at right now with their 9-11 record.
A quick look back at last year's schedule reveals that after 20 games, the 2005-06 Wizards sat at...9-11. I guess then it's automatic that the Wizards will go 42-40 again and get bounced in Round 1 of the playoffs, right? I mean, they have the same record, so everything must be going like last year, correct?
Well, obviously it's not so simple, but after an offseason where many (including me) hoped the Wizards would take the next step, it's disconcerting to see the team is off to the same inconsistent 9-11 start as last year. Even more disconcerting is that, according to pure numbers, the Wizards are actually doing worse in many categories than last year.
05/06: 99.8 06/07:102.9
Opponent's Three Point Percentage
05/06: 36% 06/07: 40%
05/06: -0.8 06/07: -3.3
05/06: 16.2 06/07: 15.5
Defensive Efficiency (Points per 100 possessions)
05/06: 107.5 06/07: 111.9
Clearly, we have a problem here. Even the other stats not shown (defensive FG%, steals per game) don't show any serious difference one way or the other. The only aspect of defense that has really improved is blocks per game, up from 4.1 last year to 5.3 this season. Other than that, the Wizards have somehow regressed defensively thus far this season.
Throughout the entire preseason, all we heard from members of the team was that they were committed to improving the defense. Gilbert said it, Eddie said it, hell the entire team said it. I remember reading in Wizards Insider that assistant coach Kevin O'Neill was teaching guys like Gilbert and Caron Butler how to fight through screens more effectively, and it seemed like they were getting the message. Apparently, it hasn't happened, because so far, however, the Wizards are 26th in scoring defense, 28th in defensive efficiency, and dead last in opponents three-point percentage.
Quite simply, the Wizards are horrendous team defenders. As individuals, the Wizards really aren't that terrible. DeShawn Stevenson has solid defensive quickness, and when he needs to man up, Butler is a decent perimeter defender. But once the defense breaks down via the pass or the dribble, the Wizards lack the concentration necessary to rotate quickly and contest jump shots. Two teams that rely on such an offense, Chicago and Charlotte, arguably had their best offensive performances against the Wizards in their games this season.
The major difficulty with having a defense that struggles with rotation is that you can never get a truely great defensive effort unless the opponent is missing open shots. The Wizards defense is build on defending guys one-on-one, but the best players can break down even the best defenders. If you have poor one-on-one defenders and solid defensive rotations, any sort of penetration can be neutralized. This is how the Pistons have succeeded on defense over the past 4 or 5 years. However, it's much worse to have good one-on-one guys and bad team rotations like the Wizards do. The best stars will invarably beat the best defenders anyway in the new NBA and create open shots. (This is why the Wizards' defense looks decent against the Cavaliers--Bron Bron's teammates can't hit the open shots he creates). However, bad rotations allow even a bad offensive team like Chicago or Charlotte to beat you easily. All they need to do is move the ball, and a defense like the Wizards won't keep up.
This is one area in which having Jared Jeffries would really help. I was never a Jeffries fan when he was here; he couldn't rebound, had no offensive ability, and was overrated as a man defender. But as a help defender, Jeffries was key. His length and quickness allowed him to help out effectively anywhere on the floor when necessary. Now, a good helpside defender with no other skills isn't worth 30 million dollars, but I do believe that the loss of Jeffries has hurt the Wizards' perimeter defense. As good as DeShawn Stevenson has been offensively, he's been so-so defensively. He's a decent man defender that has the same helpside problems as Arenas and Butler.
Another key problem has been the rebounding, specifically Antawn Jamison's rebounding. It's down from over 9 a game last year to 7 and a half this year. That's a significant loss of rebounds, and while Caron Butler's average is up to 8.3, many of those are coming on the offensive end. The Wizards have times where they put in a good defensive set, only to fail to grab the rebound. I've found most of this happens when Haywood is in rather than Thomas, and a peek at Haywood's rebounding numbers (only 3.1 defensive rebounds a game) reinforces this. A good defensive team finishes possessions with rebounds, and that's also bugging the Wizards right now.
Ultimately, the lack of helpside defensive ability reflects on poor defensive coaching. There's no reason why Arenas, Stevenson, and Butler struggle with team defense. They have the lateral quickness necessary to be decent man defenders, so why can't that same quickness be applied in defensive rotations? Eddie Jordan's a great offensive coach, but he could really use a fiery defensive assistant to get the most out of these guys. Maybe the Wizards can hire Jim O'Brien from ESPN.
So, in summation, unless the team defense turns around, the Wizards will continue to be an average to mediocre team, despite all their offensive firepower.