If there was one thing that stood out from the Wizards' 4-game slate of preseason basketball, it was that this team will look nothing like the 2020-21 version. First-year head coach Wes Unseld Jr. is a problem solver by nature, and it was clear that priority number-one during the exhibitions was tinkering and experimenting. Learning is almost always messy.
When nearly everything — from the lineup combinations to the offensive sets to the coverages on defense — is brand new, it must be mentally taxing -- even for the greatest in the world at their jobs. The only thing it takes is time and experience, both of which Washington is currently lacking in. Here are the bottom-five in the "Continuity Rankings" on NBA.com, via John Schumann:
|Team||20-21 minutes||Returning players||Returning minutes||%Returning minutes|
Bradley Beal echoed this sentiment on Monday:
Now, take a look at the team's schedule through November 7:
Not exactly a soft landing to the 2021-22 campaign. Here are some of my main takeaways from the preseason:
Wes Unseld Jr. is still figuring out the base defensive scheme
During the four preseason games, the Wizards toggled between more aggressive and more conservative pick-and-roll defense. Early on, Unseld mostly had the center (Daniel Gafford/Montrezl Harrell) show up to the level of the screen.
This style is particularly useful against a dynamic jump-shooter off the dribble. It also spikes the number of turnovers and deflections -- particularly with a rangy big with active hands like Gafford.
But playing above the screen has its drawbacks, too. It puts tons of pressure on the backside rotations to be as precise as possible against the inevitable 4 on 3s. With Deni Avdija and Kyle Kuzma you can get away with it. With Davis Bertans and Raul Neto? Not so much
Unseld's former team, the Nuggets, has heavily employed these coverages with Nikola Jokic. Relatedly, since 2017-18 Denver has been at the top of the league in terms of most corner-threes allowed.
The team also utilized its strategy du jour from 2020-21 of dropping in pick-and-roll defense. Having an imposing shot-blocker like Gafford and banking on the math (i.e. lots of midrange attempts) is generally a good thing. At the same time, he still needs some work in negotiating the 2-on-1 "cat and mouse" game.
Gafford's short area quickness may not be his strong suit, either. And as we saw last year, a size deficiency on the perimeter can render those rearview contests moot and swing the math in the opponent's favor. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope wasn't exactly fighting through screens with the greatest intensity as a Wizard.
Unseld threw in some ICE coverages as well, with mixed results.
The offense could be clunky early on
Rome wasn't built in a day; it's likely going to take more than just a training camp and four preseason contests to unwind the atrocities of the Scott Brooks tenure. Unseld has already implemented more imaginative sets -- 21 action, stagger screens, "stack" or "Spain" pick-and-rolls. How many opportunities did Deni get to handle the ball out of Horns all of last season as a rookie?
At the same time, there were a hefty chunk of blah possessions during the exhibitions; the continuity just isn't there. The Wizards ran lots of empty side pick-and-rolls, with 3 shooters stationed on the opposite side. This look appeared somewhat static to me, hopefully we'll see more movement to occupy the help defense.
Can Gafford really hang in a more egalitarian system, or is he strictly a dive man on offense? He's never recorded more than 2 assists in a single NBA game (only did it 4 times at Arkansas).
The margin for error is small
Who is the third-best offensive player on this team? I'm inclined to go with Davis Bertans, which may be a problem...
Credit Tommy Sheppard for re-shaping the team and adding an enormous amount of depth, but high-end talent wins out this league. Caldwell-Pope and Kuzma, two of the opening-night starters, are likely below-average on offense. While Dinwiddie's preseason performance was encouraging, he still looked to be shaking off the rust.
In the beefed-up Eastern Conference (particularly in the middle) this group is going to have to scrap and claw for everything. No more 15-point holes by the end of the first quarter, no more dumb fouls while in the penalty, no more playing down to the competition.
Rebounding could be a major weakness for Washington -- another theme from the preseason. Group effort is going to be key.
Wes Unseld Jr. used the exhibitions for experimentation, and I'd expect that to continue in the early going -- tailoring the concepts to his personnel like smart coaches do. On defense, there's a give-and-take to everything. For example: do you want to insulate Montrezl Harrell from rim-protection duties (opponents shot 59.4% at the rim last year against him) by positioning him high on the floor? Good luck.
It's just a matter of preferences, in addition to effort and execution.
Bradley Beal finally has a legitimate supporting cast around him, and I can't wait to see how it unfolds. In the meantime, don't hit the panic button if the Washington Wizards struggle a bit out the gate while they forge an identity.