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The Wizards are hustling, but it isn’t translating to success

NBA: Washington Wizards at Milwaukee Bucks Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

“Hustle” has traditionally been used to mean some combination of energy and effort: The guys who don’t take plays off, who aren’t afraid of doing the dirty work that wins games, or who seem to overcome physical limitations by going just a little bit harder than their opponents every night.

Though it’s tempting to take an “I know it when I see it” approach to deciding which players hustle, it’s also highly subjective: Not all movement on the court is productive movement, and some types of “hustle plays” are more noticeable than others. It stands out when someone dives onto the floor to play tug of war with the ball, but something that happens more within the flow of the game like contesting jumpers might go underappreciated.

The NBA has made it easier for us to break down and quantify “hustle” by providing a variety of hustle stat categories. Most of these are geared more towards defense (deflections, charges drawn, two and three point shots contested), as well as loose balls recovered and screen assists.

Surprisingly, the Wizards are in the top five for three of those six categories. As of today, Washington is fourth in screen assists, second in deflections, and tied for fourth in loose balls recovered.

Effort vs. Scheme

While it remains to be seen (publicly, anyway) how well various hustle categories correlate with overall offensive or defensive rating, just glancing at the rankings suggests the relationship isn’t simple.

Elite defensive teams such as the Golden State Warriors (who are currently third in defensive efficiency) and the Memphis Grizzlies (who lead the league in defensive efficiency) show up near the top of a number of defensive hustle categories, but so are the New York Knicks, who are currently 25th in defensive efficiency. While it’s not wrong to associate hustle with the effort expended by individual players, on a team level it likely has just as much to do with strategy as it does effort.

Since arriving in Washington, Scott Brooks has implemented an ultra-aggressive defensive system similar to the one he used in Oklahoma City. Having your perimeter players gambling for steal and deflections and lunging for loose balls works well when you have rim protectors and smart help defenders. It does not work well on a team with a single healthy rim protector (Marcin Gortat), and spacey or inexperienced off-ball defenders playing major roles (like Markieff Morris and Kelly Oubre, respectively).

This plays out in the numbers when you look at the hustle stat categories that the Wizards aren’t top five in: Charges drawn, and shots contested. The Wizards are about averaging in drawing charges and the number of three point shots they contest, and near the bottom of the league in two point shots contested. This suggests that their aggressive perimeter defense (which leads to a lot of deflections and battles for loose balls) could be having a side effect of making it easier for their opponents to get open shots, particularly inside of the arc.

The Wizards might be putting a lot of effort into defense, but that effort isn’t but it hasn’t yet led to the defensive results one would hope to see. That said, there are a few individual performances worth highlighting.

Individual Standouts

Gortat is a screen-setting artist

One of the three hustle categories where the Wizards excel is in screen assists. It would not be an exaggeration to say that this is entirely because of Gortat.

Gortat has become a bit of a polarizing player among Wizards’ fans, but it’s undeniable that he has mastered the art of setting screens. The Polish Machine’s screen assists account for a full 56% of the team’s screen assists. He leads the league in screen assists by a mile, with 6.9 per game (Rudy Gobert is second with 5.6), and has often spoken about taking pride in his screening ability.

Bradley Beal (probably) isn’t the problem

Beal has shown in the past that he can be a great off-ball defender, such as his performance against Kyle Korver in the 2015 playoffs. Korver is several inches taller than Beal and well-versed in getting himself open off screens, but Beal never let him get comfortable catching the ball in the series.

We don’t tend to think of Beal as an on-ball defender. He’s undersized for his position, and his role on the team is first and foremost to get buckets. But Bradley Beal contests 4.5 threes per game, which ties him with Wesley Matthews for the best average in the league this season.

This doesn’t necessarily mean Beal’s contests are effective. They could be – individual perimeter defense is notoriously hard to quantify – but more likely than not Beal is working to mitigate his size disadvantage by simply being consistent and disciplined.

“Hustle stats” have only been publicly available since the 2016 playoffs, so there is still a lot of work to be done figuring out how to interpret them. Like most other NBA metrics, it will probably be challenging to an individual player’s numbers from context and coaching scheme. But the current numbers suggest that the Wizards problems are not about buy-in or effort. Instead, they are doing a good job executing a scheme that they do not have the personnel for.

It’s possible that the return of Ian Mahinmi will allow the Wizards aggressive perimeter defense to thrive. More likely Brooks will need to adjust to the players he has to better utilize the effort his players are giving on the defensive end.