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Two things that need to go: the three-guard lineup, and the zone

Don't get me wrong: there are a lot of things wrong with the way the Wizards lost to the Atlanta Hawks last night.  But there are two things that seem easily correctable by a simple coaching change.  On this Thanksgiving Friday, I figured I'd throw them out for discussion.

1.  The three-guard lineup: I understand that Flip Saunders wants to keep Nick Young in his bench role, where he has been outstanding.  I also understand that with Al Thornton out, the three best non-Young wings just so happen to be John Wall, Gilbert Arenas and Kirk Hinrich.  It also didn't fare nearly as badly as I would have expected (-10 as a group in a 20-point blowout loss).  But the lineup itself really doesn't make any sense.  I was thinking about this for a second, and it hit me like a brick wall: if the concern with pairing Wall and Arenas is that neither guy plays well without the ball, how does adding Hinrich to that mix help?  Saunders, so far, has gotten the Hinrich of 2007 rather than the Hinrich of 2009 this year.  He's gotten the Hinrich that dribbles around looking to make plays rather than the one that sits in a corner and finishes plays.  By the numbers, Hinrich is actually having a better season this year than last year, but it's not a good fit with two other dribble-dominant guys.  So as long as Kirk is going to be that Kirk, it makes more sense to play him off the bench with lower-usage guys.

Then, you add the defensive issue caused by the trio's lack of size, and it's just not worth it to throw them out there together at the start.  Honestly, I'd rather see Cartier Martin start than Kirk next game.  Let Kirk come in for Gilbert and have them split time, and have Young, Alonzo Gee and Martin split the SF minutes.

Luckily, it looks like Flip is coming around on this.  Via Michael Lee:

"In the three guard lineup, you should be able to beat people off the dribble and you should be able to defensively get into them and deny and we weren't able to do either one," Saunders said. "It negates the idea of playing that way."    

But I can at least acknowledge that the three-guard lineup is a desperation play made because the team's two small forwards are hurt.  This next one is something I can't explain.

2.  The zone defense: Simply put: it needs to go.  It was a good defense for Saunders in Detroit and Minnesota because he had length that could bother players and cover a lot of ground.  But to borrow a Rick Pitino-ism here, Kevin Garnett and Tayshaun Prince aren't walking through that door.  Going zone with an Arenas/Wall/Hinrich backcourt doesn't really make much sense.  

There are several major issues with going zone with this roster, but here are a few:

  • It hurts your rebounding.  On their own, Andray Blatche and JaVale McGee are a subpar defensive rebounding duo (though McGee has made great strides here).  Neither guy really knows how to box out well, and while McGee makes up for it with tremendous athleticism, there's a distinct lack of meat-and-potatoes play necessary to control your defensive glass.  But when you go zone, it makes the problem worse.  The bigs are now responsible for an area, not a man, which makes it even more difficult to box out.  You're also forcing those two to step up and contest shots from the short corner and the high post, both holes in any zone defense.  That leaves the basket area uncovered, and while a guard is supposed to rotate down, he has no chance boxing out guys like Al Horford and Josh Smith.  
  • It allows for too many uncontested shots.  The idea of a zone is to cause confusion and prevent teams from running their offense, but the flip side is that the shots that can be created are often open looks.  Because the Wizards lack length on the front line, they can't make those perimeter passes seem difficult.  With the ability to freely move the ball around the perimeter, teams will find open shots, even if they aren't running their traditional offense.
  • It makes your guards lazy: Saunders likes to say that a good zone defense actually helps your man-to-man principles because it helps you understand how to help.  But the flip side is that it doesn't exactly inspire the primary defenders to do all they can to stop their man at first.  Instead of forcing players into the help, like any good man defender is supposed to do, the guards are just passing the offensive players off to each other once they leave their zone.  Big men aren't calling out screens, because the screen only serves to take an offensive player from one zone to another.  To be a good defensive team, you can't do those things, but playing in a zone encourages all that.
  • Finally, it's more information for the players to process: This is the same argument I had for why the Princeton offense had run its course.  Picking up a zone defense requires practice, repetitions and, frankly, a level of on-court aptitude that I don't think most young players possess.  It's the kind of thing a coach loves to have in his bag of tricks while failing to realize his players aren't robots.  You can become paralyzed with too many things to remember, especially when your team is young.  I'd rather Saunders keep things extremely simple on both ends of the floor and stress those fundamentals that stuff players' brains with a ton of complicated schemes.  It's why Scott Brooks had so much success with the Oklahoma City Thunder last year -- they ran a simple offense and always played man, but achieved success with a laser-like focus on those two things.  I wish Saunders would take a similar approach with this team and ditch the zone for a more laser-like focus on proper man-to-man defense.