First of all, let's get this out of the way: It's early. We're three preseason games in to the part of the NBA year where games are played. These games do not count. So, while we cannot take what we've seen as gospel at this point, we can still take a look and see what we have under the hood with this team.
The Wizards defense is not the same. It is not going to be the same with the team playing at a blistering pace of 105 possessions per game (the Warriors led the NBA last season at 100.8 possessions per game). Even for three preseason games against bottom feeders like the New York Knicks, Philadelphia 76ers and Bauru, that is a lot of possessions. If the Wizards can keep up even a semblance of this pace, they'll be playing in transition on both ends more often and they'll also be putting some of their big men in spaces they have not been playing in defensively.
That difference means there will need to be a different type of awareness on the floor. Things are going to be much more fluid and that can lead to easy mistakes if players are not fully aware of their situations. The Wizards were not fully aware against the Knicks on Friday night.
The Wizards' defensive rating was 112.7 against the Knicks on Friday night, a full 12 points worse than their average defensive rating last season. Yes, plenty of that was done in garbage time against players who will not even make the roster. However, early on there were key mistakes made that allowed the Knicks to spark several key runs, including a run that gave them a 60-55 lead going into halftime.
Let's start here in the second quarter where the Wizards miss a layup off a transition opportunity. Sessions gets right to the rim but fails to convert.
But pay close attention to how the Wizards get back on defense after the shot. They're jogging. Meanwhile the ball is ahead of three players.
Sessions is behind the play because he fell on his layup attempt, but Kelly Oubre and Kris Humphries have to be full speed ahead here. The result of an easy layup for the Knicks is unacceptable. The same thing happened just minutes later. But this time, it was off of a made shot.
The lack of awareness of a leak is obvious here. After the made shot, three Wizards are jogging back on defense. Meanwhile, Derrick Williams and Langston Galloway are at full sprint.
Josh Harrellson is forced to foul here because he's taking on Williams at full speed with no one to stop the ball. If the Wizards are going to play in transition more this season, they must be able to prevent the ball from getting ahead of them.
Randy Wittman alluded to playing big and slowing the pace down in an effort to get the team better defensively after the game against the Knicks, and there may be something to that. Fatigue from the blistering pace could be a factor here, but going back to last year's pace wouldn't be a cure-all, and it would go against what they're trying to establish this season. The roster moves made this offseason show the team’s commitment to playing faster, and several of Friday's defensive issues are fixable—especially the transition gaffes.
That said, as another part of the team's identity change, the Wizards’ bigs will need to adjust to playing in space on both ends. They must be willing to step out and defend guards on quick switches and that can be an uncomfortable place for a traditional big man. We saw that discomfort against the Knicks on Friday.
Take a look at Kris Humphries on this handoff in a Horns set. Kristaps Porzingis has the ball at the top of the eye here. Humphries does a great job of getting him off of his mark, but he's put in a bad place because of John Wall's positioning.
Humphries does not properly position himself between Jose Calderon and the rim. Wall is frozen by a pass fake from Porzingis and is not able to get in front of Calderon to make the handoff difficult, Humphries has to slide over and carry Calderon until Wall can recover.
That is a difficult ask for him, though. He is 21 feet away from the rim here, and while Calderon isn't super quick, Humphries still is not accustomed to taking on guards this far away from the rim. He is not able to slide over in time to cut him off.
Instances like these are what make the Golden State Warriors special. Draymond Green would instantly be able to switch off of Porzingis and corral Calderon, but the Wizards do not have that luxury with Humphries on the floor. Though he may be able to stretch the floor, he is still a big man with big man instincts.
The Warriors changed the league with their style of play and plays like this one show us just how special they are in what they were able to create. The Wizards have wings they can put in this position, but none are quite made in Green's mold. Hopefully, they'll be able to make due and continue to improve.
Again, these games do not count. A lot of the defensive mistakes made against the Knicks on Friday are correctable. Transitional awareness is something that will come with more games played. However, having big men adjust to stepping out into space to defend could be an issue.
Even if the Wizards weren't playing faster, it would still be an issue. The league is changing and the Wizards have to adapt with it. The Wizards seem to be on the same page offensively, but defensively, the jury is still out.