Believe it or not, there is light at the end of the tunnel for this historically bad Wizards defense, and it may have nothing to do with their actual on-court play. The numbers they've allowed to this point is staggering, so much so that a regression to the mean is all but imminent.
As it pertains to defending the three this season, the Wizards are accomplishing the rare feat of combining high volume with accuracy. They're allowing teams to hoist over 25 threes per game on an absurd 39 percent clip, which has been done just 13 other times since 1946. Last season, they held opponents to 1.1 field goal percentage points under their season average. This year, opponents are shooting 2.6 field goal percentage points better, and for three-point shooters specifically, 5.4 percentage points better. This is nearly unprecedented for a team that didn't undergo a coaching change over the offseason or a major overhaul of their defensive scheme.
Some of it is the luck of the draw. The Wizards are still employing their traditionally conservative scheme, dropping their big men into the lane on pick and rolls and baiting ball handlers into midrange jumpers. And yet, per Seth Partnow of Nylon Calculus, they're still allowing an effective field goal percentage nearly four percentage points higher than what's expected.
The Grizzlies have passed the Rockets as allowing the easiest mix of shots in the NBA: pic.twitter.com/JiC9NYCOxi— Seth Partnow (@SethPartnow) December 10, 2015
Certainly that stands to change, and the Indiana game in particular probably skews these numbers a bit against Washington's favor. If there's hope, it's in the fact that these numbers probably don't persist.
But they start to make more sense once you watch the film. Washington has replaced their frenzied on-a-string rotations that has been their hallmark the past few years with a predilection to ball-watch and lose track of their assignments. It's almost as if there's no trust between one another; everything appears disjointed right now which calls into question whether the wings trust having just one big man out there manning the paint.
Watch Gary Neal sink in to cover Jared Sullinger's roll to the rim despite Nene having already dropped back into the paint, allowing Crowder to spring free on the weakside lift.
But at least in Neal's case he can say he was directly involved in the play and had to make a split-second decision. The more egregious mistakes are the one's that have come away from the primary action, where defenders are tasked with "sink and recover" duties, basketball jargon for collapsing on the dive man and taking away the initial pick and roll then darting out and recovering back to prevent an open three. But too often Washington's wings have forgotten the latter, which has allowed teams to feast on open corner threes.
It's no wonder that the Wizards have held their opponents to 24.3 attempts in the restricted area, good for third in the league. It's because they're rolling out the red carpet for those ball handlers to scurry into the lane and pick out wide-open shooters directly in their line of sight. They're giving up far too many corner threes so far this season, mostly a byproduct of plays exactly like the one highlighted above, and have allowed a league-leading 56.2 percent effective field goal percentage to spot-up shooters.
It is hard to believe the defense has fallen off this much. And yes, subtracting Nene from the starting lineup (and his subsequent injury) has shaken things to the core, but a lot of this comes down to execution and reading the scouting report.
That means not helping a pass away on an Evan Turner dribble handoff, especially when your big man is in prime position to deter him from the basket. Nine times out of ten he's letting it fly from midrange.
Or showing poor technique as Bradley Beal does here stunting to Amir Johnson. It's not a hard sell getting Johnson to pass up threes; he takes forever releasing the ball and of all Boston's shooters, he's the one you want taking them. Instead, Beal ends up lunging out farther than intended, allowing the swing pass to an open Avery Bradley.
There also appears to be a tenuous grasp on knowing when to switch along the perimeter, specifically when Jared Dudley plays the four. Lineups with him have fared well on both ends; he's one of three players currently sporting a positive net-rating, and if we're being honest, he's the least of their worries. But miscommunication has been a problem with him, he's struggled against stretchier lineups, and hasn't quite found the right balance between hanging back on pick and rolls and jumping out on ball handlers.
The Wizards have a laundry list of excuses right now, but I don't think any of them apply to the issues stated above. Losing Nene hurts, he's been their linchpin throughout his Wizards tenure, but the Wizards (and the league) have shifted away from his type for years. They wanted to play smaller and faster, they chose to work exclusively on their offense in training camp, and did everything humanly possible under the KD2DC stranglehold to hatch a roster designed to combat small-ball lineups.
But we've more or less been subjected to a group of misfits that have half-assed their way through a quarter of the season. It is disappointing. There is no excuse for dying on screens and allowing ball handlers to get to the middle of the floor which killed them against Houston or to ball watch so needlessly along the perimeter which led to their fourth quarter collapse in Charlotte. How many times have we seen this team get beat backdoor? Or seen their big men inexplicably crash the glass, allowing leak-outs on the other end? Or simply miscommunicated on very basic switches?
With better execution and improved health, there's no reason to think this defense can't improve. But it's a shame it's amounted to this, that throughout all of their maladies in the frontcourt and teams running roughshod over them from distance that they've piled onto their misfortunes with boneheaded plays and poor effort.