Despite winning only 29 games, last year's Washington Wizards managed to accomplish one very significant thing: The team established an identity as a defense first team. The Wizards' defense had been ranked 21st in the NBA in the first two years of the John Wall era. Despite locker room turmoil and a number of injuries to key personnel, last season's team held it together and played hard enough to field a legitimately elite defense, finishing fifth in the NBA in defensive rating, per Basketball Reference.
The success of the Washington defense was a result of a number of factors. Veteran big men patrolled the paint, sealing off penetration and crashing the glass. The team's perimeter players were all either athletic youngsters like Bradley Beal, Chris Singleton and Wall or well-respected veterans like Martell Webster and Trevor Ariza. Washington couldn't score worth a lick and finished the year with the worst offensive rating in the league, but at least they could limit their opponents enough to pull out a win if someone got hot.
Although it's less than two weeks into the new season, the team that beat up opponents on the defensive end has not shown up yet. Washington is still capable of playing defense at a high level, but the days of 90-85 slugfests seem to be over. Through five games, the fewest points an opponent has scored against the Wizards is 102. Meanwhile, the offense has been bananas. Washington is fourth in the NBA in three-pointers attempted, eight in three-pointers made, and is posting the ninth-best offensive rating in the league.
Washington's not going to keep on making almost 43 percent of their three pointers. However, the team's shift in identity might be a permanent change.
Much of this can be tied to two players: Wall and Marcin Gortat. Wall's return last season fundamentally changed the Washington offense. Everyone on the team other than Wall is at their most effective spotting up for a jumper, cutting to the rim for a dunk or getting all of their offense off putbacks and garbage buckets. When players like this were forced to create offense for themselves, the team struggled mightily. Ariza is great from the corners and a solid finisher in transition, but anyone who's seen him play knows that bad things happen when he makes plays with the ball. There are less extreme examples, but Webster, Beal and even Nene are like this too, at least in that they're better at finishing plays than setting them up. Put the ball in Wall's hands, and a bunch of guys who looked like they couldn't play in the first half of the 2013 season become very effective.
While Wall's return certainly helped the offense, it took Gortat's arrival to alter the team's strengths and weaknesses. Emeka Okafor was a phenomenal defender, one who anchored a number of great defenses in New Orleans and Charlotte and who really seemed to put Washington over the top last season. He couldn't do a thing on offense, but there are only a half dozen or so true centers who can do more for a team as far as anchoring the paint and cleaning the glass. When he was traded for Gortat, a roughly equivalent player in terms of overall talent level, Washington essentially traded a great defensive player who couldn't score for a solid defensive player who could. The results speak for themselves.
Washington's defense is only 24th in the NBA in points allowed per possession this season according to MySynergySports.com. The key trouble areas are cuts to the basket (28th), pick and roll, roll man (17th), and isolations (20th). What do all of these types of shots have in common? They're a reflection of the effectiveness of the team's big men. Gortat's still learning the team's schemes and should improve over the next few weeks, but there's no reason to suspect he'll be as effective as Okafor over the course of the year.
Meanwhile, what Gortat has given up on defense, he's made up for on offense. Okafor had poor hands and wasn't a great finisher around the rim, while Gortat is one of the NBA's best roll men in the pick and roll (26th in the NBA in points per possession last season in these plays, per MySynergySports.com) and equally capable of spotting up for a jumper or posting up on his own.
Gortat's acquisition only sped up the inevitable. With Wall beginning to enter his prime, the Wizards have been able to take advantage of the numerous open three pointers created by Wall's halfcourt penetration, transition game and screen and roll work with Nene and Gortat. The constant pressure he puts on opposing defenses to protect the rim has led to a plethora of open looks for players like Webster, Beal and Ariza.
Brooklyn Nets head coach Jason Kidd, when asked what the key to stopping Washington will be, didn't even bring up the team's once-elite defense.
"Wall puts a lot of pressure on you with his speed and his understanding of the game," he said before Friday's game, adding that Washington was leading the league in three pointers made and attempted at the time due to a combination of Wall and the one-two punch of Nene and Gortat. "They put pressure on you in transition but also in the half court with their bigs."
Last Friday, Philadelphia 76ers head coach Brett Brown, when describing how he gameplans for Washington, emphasized the need to prevent Beal, Webster and Ariza from torching opponents from beyond the arc.
"You have to be desperate to get to those shooters, you have to be frantic to start recognizing what's around you, you have to pre-rotate a little bit in order to anticipate the next pass," he said.
Those three players along with newcomer Al Harrington have combined to shoot 42 percent on 107 three point attempts through the first five games of the season.
Washington's most effective five man lineup this year has featured Wall, Beal, Ariza, Gortat and Nene all on the court at once. These five have shot 50 percent from the floor and outscored opponents by 32.3 points per 48 minutes in the 49 they've played together this season, per NBA.com. This is obviously a very small sample size and there's no way they continue to blow other starting fives out of the water like that, but it's a good sign that, at least on offense, they're not going to struggle.
We'll see how the season plays out. There should be some regression to the mean on both ends of the court, but there's a very good chance that Washington's offense is ranked higher than its defense on a per possession basis by the end of the year. Only time will tell if that's a good thing or a bad thing.
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