With Wizards training camp come and gone, Bullets Forever is still asking 20 questions about key issues with the team in 2010/11.
Everyone in Washington is familiar with the Redskins' struggles over the past decade. Yet, despite failing to meet expectations, they've managed to put together a solid defense more times than not. The Redskins have been among the top 10 in overall defense seven times since 2000.
Though the Wizards haven't fared much better than the Redskins over the last 10 years, they have not been able to maintain respectability on defense. The last time the Wizards finished with the season a defensive rating (points allowed/100 possession) in the top half of the NBA was the 1997-98 season. The last time they were in the top 10? Try 1987-88, the season during which JaVale McGee entered the world.
Defense has been a problem for a long time in Washington, and it will be the weakness that holds the Wizards back if John Wall can lead this team to contention down the road. In order to fix a system that's been broken for so long, you have to scrap any vestige of previous defensive schemes and start over with a fresh mindset and a fresh roster. The fresh mindset and roster are now in place, which leads us to our next question:
Will the roster moves translate into a better overall team defense?
Before we discuss how the new roster additions will contribute defensively next season, it's important to remember defensive talent is wasted if there isn't a good scheme in place. Throughout most of Brendan Haywood's days as a Wizard, his defensive talents were wasted because the rest of the team would collapse into the paint on any penetration. This made Haywood's presence redundant and left perimeter players open for easy three-pointers.
Conversely, a solid defensive scheme can overcome poor defensive skills. The Cavaliers were able to maintain their high defensive rankings even after they brought in Mo Williams, who has never struck fear into anyone defensively. The Magic finished third in the NBA last season in defensive efficiency despite having Jameer Nelson and Rashard Lewis, who are average defenders at best.
Flip Saunders' track record gives me confidence that the right defensive scheme will be in place. There will be some growing pains as the younger players grow into their roles, but the foundation is there.
As for the roster additions, right away, we know that Kirk Hinrich will be a plus defensively. He turns 30 in January, so he might not be the same disruptor he was in Chicago, but even still, he gives the Wizards a perimeter defender the team has lacked since DeShawn Stevenson's injuries caught up with him in 2008. As we've talked about before, his addition will lighten the defensive loads for John Wall and Gilbert Arenas.
Hilton Armstrong looks like he'll be another player who can come in and provide a defensive boost. In his limited time on the court with New Orleans, Houston and Sacramento, he provided a significant boost on the defensive end. The Hornets were 4.8 points per 100 possessions better with Armstrong on the court, the Rockets defense gave up 6.2 points per 100 possessions less with Armstrong, and the Kings improved by 4.8 points per 100 possessions. He won't see too many minutes, but he can be effective when the Wizards need to sturdy up their low post defense.
Yi Jianlian's on/off numbers defensively were in line with just about everyone else's numbers on the Nets last year, which is to say, they were pretty horrible. He doesn't fare much better in the eye test either. Here's John Townsend's summary of Yi Jianlian's defense on Truth About It:
I am at a loss as to how a player with such impressive measurables and an adequate offensive game can be as invisible as Yi is on the defensive end. He is hopeless. And with the Wizards re-dedication to defense, I just can't see Yi getting much playing time.
Flip Saunders' coaching, plus the added incentive of being in a contract year could give Jianlian the boost he needs to utilize some of his defensive potential.
Of course, the biggest question marks deal with the rookies, because it's so difficult to predict how a player's defensive skills translate in the pros, where the good ol' pick and roll is utilized with more quantity and quality than you see in college. John Wall is going to have his hands full learning how to fight through picks better and stick with his man, since he'll be guarding at the point of attack on most possessions. Shutting down the opposing team's point guard won't be where John Wall makes his money, but if he can provide an upgrade over Gilbert Arenas, he'll make life much easier for everyone else defensively.
Like Wall, Kevin Seraphin has the physical tools to be useful defensively. He's slightly shorter than you'd like, but a beefy frame and knowing how to throw your weight around can negate those height discrepancies. The biggest area of immediate concern will be how Seraphin avoids foul trouble. Young big men have enough problems avoiding foul trouble as it is. Adjusting to different rules and different referees will only bog that process down. Thankfully, the Wizards won't be relying on him to shoulder heavy minutes early on, which should help his development.
Trevor Booker has a bit more experience than Seraphin, which should hopefully keep him out of foul trouble. The problem with Booker is that he hasn't developed a defensive identity in regards to his position on the floor and role in Flip Saunders' matchup zone, as he told CJ last Wednesday:
Booker was asked whether he thought the three or the four was his more natural position. Unsurprisingly, he responded "probably the four right now, but I feel with a little more work I'll feel more confident [playing the three]." He went on to state that his main concern with playing the three at this point is "probably the mismatches."
At the end he was asked to talk about the aspect of the pro game that he has found to be the most challenging to grasp. Booker said, "probably defense, playing good team defense. I struggled a little bit with it this summer." With Flip wanting to use his matchup zone about 20 - 25% of the time, it remains to be seen whether that will help him adjust more quickly.
Booker has the right mentality and skills to be an effective defender in the right role, but it will probably take some experimentation on Saunders part to find where he's most effective.
Finally, there's Hamady N'Diaye. If you read Mike's report from the first game at the Vegas Summer League, you should have no worries about his defense:
Hamady Ndiaye also impressed me today, particularly with his defense. I figured he'd be little more than a long shotblocker like JaVale, but he's really much more than that. He's got really quick feet, always knows where he needs to be defensively and is always talking to people making sure they're in the right spots. He played only eight and a half minutes for some reason, but I don't think I saw one defensive mistake out of him.
The issue right now is that no one really knows if he'll be on the team this season. What makes things more complicated this seasons is that it's doubtful he'll receive many minutes, with Hilton Armstrong providing essentially the same skills in a more experienced package.
As I said in the beginning, the key to utilizing defensive talent and masking defensive weaknesses is having a good defensive scheme in place, as younger core of players is brought into the fold. There will be growing pains, of course, but a consistent defensive identity will ensure the team learns from those mistakes. If the Hyperbolic Paraboloid Transitional Floating Zone utilizes the new roster's defensive skills half as well as it utilizes the alphabet, the Wizards have hope of becoming a solid defensive team in the years to come.