One of the advantages of sitting in the 400s at the Verizon Center is that you're able to see the way every play develops from a bird's-eye view. Sure, you can't appreciate the raw athleticism of the players as much, but it's a great place to sit when you want to look at how an individual player fits into the team scheme.
It is with that knowledge that I tried to focus on Dominic McGuire on the defensive end during last Sunday's epic win over the Cavs. Since he was inserted into the starting lineup, it seems we've played better defense, the Boston game and the fourth quarter of the New Orleans game excepted. Surely, McGuire himself is playing some sort of role, but how much and how well?
I don't have too many specifics here, but here are some observations from watching McGuire all game:
He closes out on shooters very well
Might as well start with a positive.
Excluding the Boston game, the Wizards are holding their opponents to just 34 percent from three with McGuire starting. McGuire's length and quickness allows him to contest threes extremely well, and that's a huge plus. We complain all the time about our defensive "philosophy" to give up the three, but there's nothing terribly wrong about it. The failure is in our ability to get people off the three-point line, or at the very least contest their threes and prevent them from getting those shots in rhythm. McGuire's presence goes a long way to making threes difficult for the opposition.
For most of the game, McGuire was guarding Delonte West, ace three-point extraordinare. West has always killed us since coming to Cleveland, most notably with his shot to end Game 4 of the playoff series last year. Last Sunday, however, West was a non-factor. He hit only one of his five threes and never was able to develop a rhythm of a shot. Indeed, when he missed that wide-open look that would have given the Cavs the lead, he likely did so because he hadn't gotten going earlier. McGuire is a big reason for that.
He has trouble fighting through screens
I found it a bit discouraging that McGuire was trailing a lot of off-ball screens, even against guys who don't screen well. For someone as athletic as McGuire, he didn't do a great job of preventing West or even LeBron James from catching the ball.
This leads into the next problem, which is...
He's athletic as hell, but not good at playing man-to-man defense in a team setting
Now, I admit that playing LeBron James is a near-impossible task. In a lot of ways, it shouldn't be a problem that McGuire was torched by the best player on the planet. But the way in which McGuire was torched was problematic and explains why Caron Butler, who is slow laterally and dumb off the ball, was guarding LeBron most of the game.
We've already talked about just how athletic McGuire is as a defender. You can see it when he leaps wayyyyy up in the air to grab rebounds. You can see it when anyone isolates against him and finds that he's right there in your face. But his brain still has some work to do, as his time against LeBron James showed.
Time after time, LeBron was able to get into the lane easily while McGuire was guarding him. Now, LeBron can get into the lane against anyone, but what killed me was the ease at which he was able to do it. At least Caron made him work a little harder.
Two problems jumped out at me. The first is that McGuire was really bad at fighting through screens. He was consistently flattened when Anderson Varejao came to set a high ball screen, making life difficult for the trapping defender. The Wizards' general philosophy has always been to trap the ball-handler, but that requires the initial defender to at least quickly get through the screen so the big man isn't on LeBron for too long. McGuire rarely was able to get through the pick quickly enough, which put the big man on LeBron for too long, which led to a blow-by that totally messed up our defense.
The other problem is McGuire's inability to force LeBron into the help. Coaches will tell you that the best defensive players are the ones that force an option onto the offensive guy, whether that's shading them into the help, playing back on them to concede the jumper or forcing them to their off hand. McGuire struggled at times with this, and the one play after Mike Brown's two technicals really exhibited this problem to me. Cleveland spread the floor with shooters, but only one of them (Delonte West) was on the right side. Antawn Jamison was playing down at the foul line, while Andray Blatche was shaded to the left side of the lane. The natural thing to do would be to force LeBron toward Jamison and Blatche. Instead, McGuire failed to overplay LeBron's right hand, LeBron drove right around McGuire and slammed it home emphatically, since all the help was on the other side.
In a lot of ways, that made Caron the better defender against LeBron. The Wizards essentially zone LeBron anyway, so while Butler isn't quick laterally, he is better at forcing LeBron into the help. McGuire desperately needs to do a better job of that going forward.
We knew this already, but it's worth mentioning again. Having a guy like McGuire, who has an uncanny ability to grab long rebounds, helps tremendously since teams launch so many threes against us. One of the bigger problems with the philosophy was that Gilbert Arenas, DeShawn Stevenson and Antonio Daniels were all poor rebounders for their position (well, Arenas is okay). Caron Butler is decent for a small forward, but he's playing up front more often. McGuire's defensive rebounding is unbelievable for a small forward/shooting guard. He grabbed nine defensive rebounds against Cleveland and is hauling in over 20 percent of opponent misses this season.
Forcing misses and grabbing the rebound are the two ways a good defense is built. Since he has been inserted into the starting lineup, McGuire's length has caused more missed jumpers and his rebounding has caused more ended possessions when there would have been long offensive rebounds. That's the good. The bad is that it seems he's a long way from being the type of lockdown individual defender that we hope. He needs more practice and more time to undo the bad habits he likely developed in college, when he was so athletic that his ability to fight through screens didn't matter as much.
He's getting there, no doubt. And he's so athletic and lengthy that he's able to make a major difference simply by rebounding and closing out on shooters. But he's not close yet to being Bruce Bowen or Shane Battier. It takes smarts as well as athleticism to be a great lockdown defender. McGuire has the athleticism, now he needs to develop the smarts.
At least that's what the Cleveland game told me.