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Small ball won’t work for the Wizards unless there’s a team-wide focus on rebounding

NBA: Miami Heat at Washington Wizards Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The NBA is the ultimate copycat league. Once one team does something that works, the other 29 teams quickly scramble to create their iteration of that scheme or strategy for the fear of not adapting and getting left behind. Even though the Warriors took the league by storm a few years ago with a small ball lineup that clearly worked, the Wizards were slow to adjust. Last year, they got their toes wet as they closed games without a true center on the floor. But this season, they’re all in.

Offensively, it’s working. Washington is shooting more threes than ever before (35.5 per game) and are scoring 114.7 points per game—good enough for ninth in the NBA. The Wizards have stumbled out of the starting block with a 1-5 record even though their scoring is up. That’s because they have taken a significant step backwards defensively, particularly when it comes to rebounding.

Prior to the season, on paper, the Wizards checked all the boxes. They’d plug in Kelly Oubre Jr. at the small forward position, shift Otto Porter Jr. to power forward, and play either Markieff Morris or Jeff Green as the stretch-5. But, the reason the Wizards’ small ball lineups haven’t translated to wins early on is because in order for small ball to work, all five players must bring extra energy defensively especially when it comes to boxing out and securing rebounds in space.

They’re surrendering 15.4 offensive rebounds per game and the Wizards currently rank dead last when it comes to defensive rebounding percentage, allowing their opposition to grab offensive rebounds 35.6 percent of the time. And remember, this is in an era where teams are forfeiting attempts to crash the offensive glass more than ever so they can get back on defense to prevent transition opportunities.

During the 2017-2018 campaign, Washington’s most frequently used small ball lineup consisted of Tomas Satoransky, Bradley Beal, Kelly Oubre, Otto Porter, and Markieff Morris. That lineup had a tremendous defensive net rating in 89 minutes together and had a defensive rebounding percentage of 73.2—which was right around the league average. When John Wall was plugged in for Satoransky, that number dipped to 70.5 percent which wasn’t great, but wasn’t so below-average that it actively hindered the team.

This season is a different story however. That same small ball lineup of Wall-Beal-Oubre-Porter-Morris, isn’t just bad on the defensive glass, they’re in the running for worst defensive small ball lineup in the league bad evidenced by a 61.3 percent defensive rebounding percentage. That means opponents are grabbing nearly two offensive rebounds for every five misses the Wizards force with that lineup.

We got a clear visual of what a poor defensive rebounding team the Wizards were in the season opener, but at the time brushed it off as another #SoWizards loss.

John Wall had a nice contest on Dwyane Wade’s final shot and Porter was dragged down by Josh Richardson so they’re both off the hook here. But watch Jeff Green and Bradley Beal on this play though. The two stand glued to the floor and watch as Kelly Olynyk grabs the offensive board and putback layup for the win. Wade took the final shot with 3 seconds remaining so there’s no need to stay with their man out on the wing as there wouldn’t have been enough time for Miami to gather the offensive rebound and kick it out for a shot.

Markieff Morris picked the wrong time for an inexcusable defensive effort as he not only lost Olynyk on the wing, but then half-heartedly jumped for the rebound with one hand.

We saw the same lethargy this past Friday night in their loss to the Kings. With the Wizards in striking distance and in desperate need of a stop and rebound, they turned in this defensive effort.

Not only did the Wizards surrender a wide-open 3-point attempt, but notice how not one single Washington player boxes out nor jumps for the rebound—with two minutes to play in a four point game, against a rebuilding Kings team.

The Wizards didn’t lose those games on those two plays, but those two plays were a microcosm of the defensive and rebounding efforts that the Wizards have put forth this season. When you’re a struggling team, it’s the little things that compound into big things. If the Wizards can’t fix their defensive rebounding woes, its hard to imagine them winning games and turning this thing around regardless of how many points they put up.