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Wizards Still Not Translating Youthful Enthusiasm Into Defense

Washington Wizards v Detroit Pistons
Troy Brown Jr. rates as the Wizards best defender this season.
Photo by Chris Schwegler/NBAE via Getty Images

Thirty games into the season, and the 9-21 Wizards are performing to reasonable preseason expectations. They’re young and still playing with enthusiasm and effort, which can make them an entertaining watch, but it’s an open question how much development is happening when their defensive deficiencies remain so persistent.

As injuries have mounted — the team has filed for two injury hardship exceptions to add players to the roster — their offensive efficiency has slipped a bit while their defense has remained historically bad. For the season, their offense is about 3.5 points per 100 possessions better than average and currently sits at fourth best.

Their defense continues to make a strong argument that their the worst in league history? At 117.4 points allowed per 100 possessions, they trail the 2018-19 Cleveland Cavaliers by 0.2 for the worst-ever raw defensive rating. But, the league was more efficient last season, so the Cavs were “just” 7.2 points worse than average. This year’s Wizards are a whopping 8.3 points per 100 possessions worse than league average — the largest margin in league history.

Their defensive futility represents a team-wide failure. My Player Production Average (see below) includes a defense component. Of the players who have prominent roles in the regular rotation, only Troy Brown Jr. and Thomas Bryant rate as having positive defensive impacts — and Bryant just barely.

The Wizards rank dead last in opponent effective field goal percentage, they’re third from the bottom in defensive rebounding, and second worst at putting opponents on the free throw line.

With so little defensive ability and cohesion, it can be difficult to assess the scheme. In training camp, Scott Brooks and the coaching staff sought to implement a defensive system more solid and proven than what they’d used in previous seasons. As the poor defensive performances have mounted, their playbook has become more of a grab bag where Brooks tries different things in hopes that something might work.

The shifting looks may be more confusing to the Wizards than to opposing players, however. In several instances, some of the players have set up in a zone while others matched up. In a number of cases, perimeter defenders have set up to force penetration to the middle — something that deviates from the core defensive principles the team established in training camp, and something that violates good defensive practices in the NBA.

In other words: the players have defended poorly and the available evidence suggests the defensive strategy is sub-optimal and that the coaches don’t have any good ideas to fix what’s wrong. That may not be the coaching staff’s “fault.” They have a young and inexperience roster that hasn’t played together, and there isn’t a quality, proven defender available.

Player Production Average

Below are results from Player Production Average (PPA), an overall production metric I developed that credits players for things they do that help a team win and debits them for things that hurt the cause. PPA is pace neutral, accounts for defense, and includes a “degree of difficulty” factor based on the level of competition a player faces while on the floor.

Here are approximate ranges for PPA scores:

  • 225+ — Most Valuable Player candidate
  • 175+ — typically All-NBA level
  • 150+ — usually the minimum score for All-Star level
  • 100 — average
  • 75 — useful reserve
  • 45 and below — replacement level

Wizards PPA through December 26

Gary Payton G 2 32.5 179
Thomas Bryant C 18 28.4 156 154
Bradley Beal SG 30 36.6 123 125
Johnathan Williams F 1 33.0 120
Dāvis Bertāns PF 28 30.0 133 119
Troy Brown SG 27 23.7 112 112
Moritz Wagner C 21 20.4 104 103
Rui Hachimura PF 25 29.2 98 93
Ian Mahinmi C 10 19.9 101 86
Isaiah Thomas PG 21 25.3 77 83
Ish Smith PG 30 25.4 77 81
Jordan McRae SG 14 17.9 79 80
Anžejs Pasečņiks C 5 21.4 80
Isaac Bonga SF 25 15.6 69 58
Garrison Mathews SG 9 10.2 -94 51
C.J. Miles SG 10 16.1 48 48
Chris Chiozza PG 10 12.3 55 46
Justin Robinson PG 8 5.6 29 46
Admiral Schofield SF 17 12.9 41 27

Wizards Notes

  • Listening to opposing team broadcasts would seem to suggest there’s a narrative that Bradley Beal is having a terrific season that’s getting overlooked because of the team’s record. I think that was more true last year. While the raw numbers look similar, his defense has slipped from okay to awful. His usage rate is at a career high, and while his efficiency has remained pretty good, too many of the extra possessions are turnovers or missed shots.
  • The popular sentiment is that the Wizards should re-sign Davis Bertans. I’d be okay with that — if they at least explore trade options first. Bertans is an elite shooter, but as was revealed when he started games against good opponents, his game is limited. He doesn’t have effective counters when defenses chase him off the three-point line, and the rest of his game (defense, rebounding, play-making) is limited.
  • It’s been 24 games since the Wizards last held an opponent under 110 points.
  • Among players with at least 100 minutes played this season, the Wizards have a league-high five committing six fouls or more per 100 team possessions. The five: Moe Wagner (8.8), Ian Mahinmi (7.7), Admiral Schofield (6.7), Isaac Bonga (6.3), and Anzejs Pasecniks (6.1). Garrison Mathews and Jordan McRae are each committing five per 100 team possessions. Excessive fouling often signals that a player is out of control, over-matched or both. High foul rates aren’t fatal to a career, however. Young players often figure things out and learn to play without giving opponents high-value free throw possessions.