Around this time last year, Randy Wittman went on a tirade at the end of a disastrous 109-102 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, blasting the team's effort on defense. At one point, he pled for a "commitment to f****** playing defense."
You'd think this was after a long losing streak in the middle of December, but ... no. This was the second game of the season, against a team playing at a frantic pace that happened to blitz the Miami Heat on opening night. And that same team would go on to win just 17 more contests the rest of the way. The Wizards? They were still in the process of integrating Marcin Gortat to their defensive system, a system that paved the way to a second consecutive top-10 finish in defensive rating.
Point being: we're playing with dangerously small sample sizes right now with anything that follows. It's only three games into the year, which is hardly enough time for a coach to formulate a lineup rotation, much less draw any conclusions on how a team might play in late-April.
Nevertheless, there are trends you can begin to pick up, some of which are making their way over from last year. We'll start with defensive switching, a topic we covered extensively last season.
I'm not the only one against it. Here's what Randy Wittman had to say last season:
"Defensively we're not a switching team, and that's all we were doing," he said. "I don't know where it came from and when you're not a switching team and the guy you're switching with doesn't expect to be switching, that's where these guys came off screens wide open and we took some shortcuts."
I disagreed with the notion shortly after, and it wasn't the first time we spotted this team hunting for switches within the their defensive concepts. It was a ploy they used to bypass the physical burden of fighting over screens and chasing their mark around the floor, and all they had to show for it were unfavorable mismatches. Guards were in the paint trying to fend off big men on the offensive glass, and Gortat -- who probably benefitted the least from all this -- was strung out on the perimeter and hung out to dry.
In the right context, switching can work. If the Wizards fully committed themselves to small-ball, I might be a proponent, but even that may not do it. Switching "like-screens" that feature two similarily-built players is the most commonly accepted practice, but it's one that Washington's guards just haven't done with much discipline.
Here's Wall and Porter failing to communicate on this side pick and roll, netting an open jumper for Luke Ridnour:
Look at the moment when the ball handler finally realizes he has enough space to fire away. Wall's sitting back, waiting for Tobias Harris to spring free, and Porter is just now making his way over to contest the shot. Here's the still:
This coaxes Porter into going under the screen. If Wall chases, Ridnour runs into help. It's that simple.
But there could be more to it than what's on the surface. Every system has it's tenets, and in this case, there's probably an action or two that triggers these switches. Defenders aren't just mirroring their man around the floor, they're reading everything that goes on in their general vicinity and reacting.
Here, we get the Bucks setting up in an alignment called HORNS, using their bigs up top and shooters in the corners. One of the first things you'll see out of this is the point guard, Brandon Knight, entering the ball into one of his bigs, and promptly cutting to the corner to free up one of his shooters.
He'll set the down-screen for Kris Middleton, who now has two options. He can curl off of it and make a hard cut to the basket, or he can run right to Larry Sanders and run a dribble hand-off up top.
This is where the switch is made. Wall hangs back -- like a center zoning up a high pick and roll -- while Garrett Temple takes Knight. And notice how there's no rim protection down low.
Middleton immediately ducks in and pins Wall on his back. After an ill-fated attempt at a steal, John takes himself out of the play, forcing Otto to come in from the opposite side and commit the foul.
Here's the full video of the play.
Was it a bad switch? You could argue it might have been easier had Wall and Temple stayed on their man from the get-go, but you would then run the risk of Middleton getting all the way to the basket without much rim protection present. Chasing your man off a curl AND denying the entry pass is a tough proposition, especially without that extra defender being in position (in this case it was Wall).
But the end result of it is still a trip to the free throw line, which brings into question just how effective these switches really are. More often than not, these switches yield results more similar to the one we explained against Orlando. Ball-watching and losing track of an assignment continues to plague this team in the early-going, specifically Wall, who we already broke down.
We've discussed the departure of Trevor Ariza in great detail, but what gets overlooked was his ability to defend off screens and contort his body to avoid getting bumped by the screener. Plug him in for Temple on that possession above, and maybe Wall doesn't feel like he needs to switch.
This is what makes the Wizards so interesting this year. They have a system in place that they can trust, and two big men that are capable of anchoring a defense. But they're lacking along the wings, and it'll be very interesting to see what buttons Wittman chooses to press as he molds his defense.