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Defense is the music of the soul

When offering reasons for the Wizards' improvement this year (and yes, the recent wins over Dallas and Boston, combined with our much-improved point differential, means we've improved), there are two fundamental explanations, forever intertwined for reasons I fail to understand.  You probably know them by now.  One is that, without Gilbert Arenas, we have become more balanced, sharing the ball and getting our key scorers the ball in the right situation, and (to quote the cliche) WE ARE PLAYING AS A TEAM.  The other is that our defense has improved significantly.  One of these statements is the major reason behind our improvement, the other is not.  I think you can guess which is which.

If you clicked this link expected the answer to be the first option, then think again.  

Here's what we know about our defense:

  • After finishing 28th in defensive efficiency last year allowing 112.5 points/100 possessions, we're all the way up to 13th this year allowing just 107.5 points/100 possessions.  
  • It helps that we're playing slower (89.4 possessions/game this year, compared to 92.9 last year), but nonetheless, there have been six games this year where the opponent has scored 85 points or less this year.  We're 6-0 in those situations.  Last year, we were 0-0.
  • Though it would seem to make sense logically, there is little correlation between pace and defensive efficiency (see Nuggets, Denver, Lakers, Los Angeles and Bulls, Chicago).  That is to say, the fact that we're playing slower isn't a significant reason for our defensive improvement.
  • With the exception of Etan Thomas, everyone has played at least eight games under Randy Ayers.  Now, eight games isn't a good enough sample for Gilbert Arenas, but it bears mentioning that our DE was better in those eight games than it is now.  The reason for our suckitude to start the year was the offense.
  • Others are noticing.  That list includes Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Garnett.

So with those assumptions, let's break this down even further.

Defense is simple

I'm not quite smart enough to point to some sort of "Jordan Rules"-type secret defensive scheme that Randy Ayers has implemented, though I'm sure there's something he's done that I can't really explain.  But if there's one thing that I can explain, it's that he's implemented something that has made everyone's responsibilities easy to understand and execute.  

When we last discussed the defense in September, Kevin Broom dropped in this comment.

The Spurs force rules are the same now as they were when Popovich took over the team a decade ago. Same defense year after year, game after game, possession after possession. The Wizards have had as many defensive sets as offensive. Responsibilities change with the variety of defenses, and the force rules change as well. They attempted to simplify the system last season with Bill Berry, but they still had a much larger array of defensive sets than most teams in the NBA.

And that's key, because defense is all about habit.  How can you create a habit when you're constantly changing your scheme?  If there's one thing Ayers has done, it's that.  Take this Eddie Jordan's quote from new Times Beat writer Mike Jones' latest article:

"It's trust, it's a mind-set, but it's also muscle memory," Jordan said. "It's visual as far as watching film, it's commands as far as verbal. So it's all the senses involved in trusting each other."

I've longed believed that, though we have some weak links on our defense, we had guys who could play good defense if they were only taught and committed to doing so.  In keeping things simple, Randy Ayers has gotten through to guys like Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison who never seemed to know what they were doing.

Defense is about the team.

One thing that always struck me about this team's defense in past years is how easily it broke down when one person got beat.  This could have happened in a number of ways.  If Caron Butler missed gambling for a steal, we were toast.  If Gilbert Arenas was picked off because he didn't work hard enough fighting through a screen, we were done.  If DeShawn Stevenson was caught by a rugged off-ball screen trying to chase another team's top perimeter threat, we were done.  If Brendan Haywood was forced to step up beyond the foul line, we were done.  And, of course, if Antawn Jamison was isolated against anyone anywhere, we were done.  Our help defense didn't exist, and when it did, nobody rotated back to their men.

A lot of that is because there was no system for rotation.  Part of it was players not trying, or, more accurately, not trying because they didn't have the energy while processing a million different defenses in their heads.  But no matter the reason, it was just so easy to break us down.

That is no longer the case.  The biggest indicator of a team's ability to close out on shooters is looking at opponent's effective field goal percentages.  In 2007, opponents had an eFG% of 51.7 percent against us, good for third-worst in the league.  This year, teams have an eFG% of 49.3 percent, good for 14th in the league.  Our newfound ability to close out on shooters means we can use more disruptive tactics like trapping pick and rolls, which arguably won us the two Boston games and the Dallas game.  

Defense is about forcing misses.

Along that line, for the first time in years, Ayers has conveyed the essential quality of good defense: that forcing misses is more valuable than forcing turnovers.  You've seen the eFG% numbers, but the most interesting thing about our defensive numbers in the past two years is our turnover ratio.  We actually forced more turnovers in 2007 than we are this season.  Last year, we forced an average of 16.9 TOs/40 minutes, tied for 11th in the league.  This year, we're down to 16.2/40 minutes, good for 13th.  It's not a significant drop, because forcing misses will eventually lead to turnovers, but it's significant when your defensive efficiency still improves by five points.  

Defense is about playing the right people

We've rehashed this over and over again, but to reiterate, having Brendan Haywood in for consistent minutes makes a huge difference.  Another is playing DeShawn Stevenson more.  Surprisingly, he's been the biggest barometer as far as team defense goes.  When he's in there, the Wizards defense is 5.4 point better than when he isn't, and Eddie Jordan is rewarding him by playing him 63 percent of the team's minutes.  Suffice to say, it was smart to re-sign the dude this offseason.

Defense is about renewed effort from guys you don't expect.

It's safe to say that everyone is working harder on that end, as all the quotes say.  I can't really statistically prove this, but if you watch the games, you see it.  Everyone here will attest to that.

But perhaps the most surprising (and significant) development of this team's defense has been Antawn Jamison.  Ask any Wizards fan who the biggest culprit for our awful defense in the past, and you get one of two answers: Gilbert Arenas, or Antawn Jamison.  But that has not been the case at all this year with Jamison.  

Just check out these numbers.  When Antawn is in the game this year, the Wizards' defensive efficiency is 104.8.  When he's out, that number rises to 113.7.  In case you don't want to count, that's a difference of 8.8 points per 40 minutes.  Incredible.

Such numbers back up what I've seen with my own eyes.  Jamison is spending more time in the paint, as anyone who watched the two Boston games can attest.  His rebound rate this year is the highest of his career.  He's keeping his hands up defensively instead of slapping down on the ball.  Without his rebounding, our defense can't finish possessions.  It's no coincidence that we're allowing only 26.5 percent of rebounds to be grabbed by our opponents, compared to 29 percent last year.  Jamison is the major reason why, and considering his age and background, that's truly stunning.

All together now

This defensive improvement is not a mirage, and I am very, very confident that it will remain at this level, if not get better, when Gilbert Arenas comes back.  In terms of pure defensive plus/minus, Antonio Daniels, the man Gilbert will replace, tracks as the worst of the Wizards' five starters.  Perhaps Jamison will be abused by bigger forwards in the playoffs, but he's quick enough and crafty enough inside to remain a rebounding force.  And so long as Etan Thomas doesn't steal too many minutes, Brendan Haywood will remain a defensive tower in the lane.  

If you ask me, the far bigger question in the future is the effect Gilbert will have on our offense and on our pace.  But as far as defense goes, I think this improvement is a permanent thing.