For the first 49 games of the season, the Wizards allowed 117.7 points per 100 possessions, which was the worst mark in the NBA this season, and put them in contention for worst defense in league history.
At the trade deadline, the team dealt Isaiah Thomas, who in addition to being tiny gave little effort on the defense — a combination that made him the probably the least effective defender of the last several decades (if not the history of the league).
In the five games since, Washington has put up a defensive rating of 105.4, which would put them among the top two or three defenses in the league, if they’d done it all season.
But, the Wizards have also been in a particularly weak spot in the schedule. the Mavericks are a good team, but the past four games have all come against teams solidly below average. In four of their past five games, they’ve faced an opponent with a below average offense.
In the first 49 games, they held their opponent to an offensive efficiency below their season average 12 times — about 24% of the time. Opponents had an offensive rating 8.1 points per 100 possessions higher than their season average when facing the Wizards.
Since trading Thomas, they’ve held opponents to below their average efficiency twice in five games, and collectively opponents have performed 3.3 points worse than average. That’s Washington’s best five-game defensive stretch this season.
While encouraging, five games isn’t a lot of information. The Wizards have defended better, but it remains unclear whether this is a change in form or a hot streak. Two of their five best defensive performances of the season have come since the trade deadline, but this is still a team that’s held opponents below their season average just 14 times in 54 games.
Is the Wizards defense actually better since trading Thomas? Probably, but the sample size of “better” is still small. It’s worth checking back in another five games — not necessarily to see how they perform against tougher competition like the Bucks and Jazz, but to see if they can sustain the physical effort and concentration it takes to play acceptable NBA defense.
I think it’s highly likely their defense will be improved with the departure of Thomas, though I expect the good results (a defensive rating consistent with a top five defensive team) to moderate as they play more games and face more challenging teams.
Even getting to “bad” on the defensive end would be progress for this roster, which has been historically ineffective much of the season. And, improvement over the final 28 games would be an encouraging development for a young and developing roster, and would bode well for the team’s future.