Welcome to another piece in the series Broom & Rubinstein Converse.
This time, Kevin and Yanir chat about the Wizards defense.
Yanir Rubinstein: Sup Kev?
Kevin Broom: Sup? Is that what the kids say these days? Why don’t we start with my recent quasi-defense of Scott Brooks.
YR: That’s a great place. What were you smoking?!
KB: I have been drinking more wine during the pandemic. Just finished a J. Opi Malbec that was excellent. Back on point, as I’ve examined closer what I’d observed in the number, one of the big things I’d pointed out isn’t as meaningful as I initially thought.
YR: Reminds me of that joke: the three hardest things to say are 1. I was wrong, 2. I’m sorry, 3. Worcestershire sauce...
KB: Worcestershire sauce. What’s the problem? So, I wrote about the Wizards being number one in defensive shot profile. Upon further review it just doesn’t mean that much.
YR: A question to inject about that...So you said they are, or were at some point, number one, and I’m curious if you’ve seen a correlation between the top five teams in that aspect and how they’re doing in the league, I mean who were the number two and three?
KB: They’re still at the top. There’s a small correlation between defensive shot profile and overall defensive rating. Last season, the variation in defensive shot profile explained about 8% of defensive rating. It matters, but it’s not enough by itself.
YR: Can you elaborate please?
KB: Against the Wizards, so far this season, 47% of opponent shots have been two-point jumpers — poop shots. Number two in forcing these kinds of shots is Utah at about 41%. And then three is Golden State, four is Boston. Five is Minnesota. Six is Phoenix I mean it’s like...
KB: Exactly. What the numbers are saying is that the type of shot a defense allows is much less important than simply getting the opponent to miss. Make the other team shoot a low percentage, and you’ll have a good defense in the NBA. Inducing opponents to take two-point jumpers would seem to be good, but the Wizards don’t force misses.
YR: They certainly force fans to miss watching their games on TV. I guess that’s not even something they can claim sole credit for — NBC Sports Washington has been blanding their product so much that it’s always more entertaining and objective to watch the other team’s broadcast. For instance, the other day, Dell Curry (the father of) was killing it!
KB: Calling the team’s broadcast “bland” is generous. It’s worse than the team itself. I watch the opposition broadcast whenever I can.
YR: Great minds think a like.
KB: Back to the Wizards, they’re middle of the pack in allowing wide open shots, and they’re near the bottom in wide-open shot defense. That could be luck. Randomness. Or, it could be they’re leaving the wrong shooters open consistently, which I think is possible having watched them not defend Duncan Robinson for entire possessions because they’re in a zone and they’re so bunched into the lane. It could also be an artifact of how NBA tracking defines openness, which could be a long discussion in itself.
Each of these theories is plausible, and it could be a combination of them.
YR: I suggest we do a series of conversations where we dive deeper into some of the stats. I mean not just the Wizards, but some of the stuff you’ve been researching over the years. I think it could be of interest to our avid readers.
KB: I’m game. Especially if there’s an opportunity to trash how NBA.com presents the wealth of tracking data. Not much basketball to talk about this season anyway, might as well crunch some numbers and complain about website design.
YR: Great, stay tuned everybody.
Back to what we were saying, after you wrote about that sort of shocking defensive shot profile stat, I tried to look at games a bit more critically. One of the things I noticed is that they have an issue with the first line of defense. It’s easy to get past that line of defense. It seems like they’re already thinking about the “global” switch before they’re thinking about executing their “local” defense.
KB: I think that’s a really good observation.
YR: Somehow, it seems like someone is teaching them defense but in a sort of superficial way. Like okay, you help on that guy if, you know, this guy blows by your teammate on the weak side. But you know, what you really should aim to do is not let your guy blow by right? So that the help doesn’t need to be invoked almost automatically.
So they get into this series of switches and mismatches and then they switch aggressively and crash into the paint and so then in a pick-and-roll a lot of times the the guy has a nice shot from mid-range and there’s no point in even bothering with the roll.
KB: Keeping your guy in front of you is the ideal, but it’s not realistic to do that consistently in the NBA. Very few perimeter defenders in the NBA can actually keep like their guy in front of them. What gets frustrating is the way that defenses handle that is with force rules. Drew Gooden makes some of his rare good points when talking about this — keep the ball out of the middle. Keep penetration out of the middle. Wizards perimeter defenders do not do that.
YR: What do you mean by the “middle” exactly, just to be clear?
KB: The paint, basically. Think of where offenses want to go. A significant majority of plays are designed to get the team’s best playmaker into the paint. Think of John Wall or Chris Paul — they get to the middle, draw defenders, and kick to teammates for open shots. Successful defenses wall off the middle and force actions sideline and baseline.
YR: OK, go on.
KB: Like you said, they seem perfectly happy to switch virtually anything, which is kind of weird because like in The Bubble, for example, they were actually having some success asking guys to fight over picks and putting Thomas Bryant in drop coverage.
YR: Some success in what metric? They lost a lot in The Bubble.
KB: They lost, but they were about average defensively in The Bubble — a big jump from the historically bad defense they played in the Before Times.
I think we’ve honed in the issue: this season they seem to rely on a switch-heavy scheme and the perimeter defenders really don’t do much. Opponents get middle way too often and way too easily. And it puts the Wizards into a scramble mode.
YR: I also wanted to counter your Brooks cheerleading by talking about the Knicks and their coaching change. The Knicks, don’t have better personnel than the Wizards. Yet, they transformed their defense. So I do think defense is on the coach.
KB: The coach is important on defense, no argument on that. Good defense is about system, communication, and teamwork. Washington’s system — at least as I’ve heard it described — is normal. They’re not trying to invent something new. They’re not playing weird schemes. They’ve had a lot of roster turnover the past couple years but they weren’t good defensively before that either. Under Brooks the highest they’ve gotten is 15th.
YR: The Knicks also had a lot of roster turnover. I don’t buy that argument.
KB: Yep. To be clear, I’m not saying roster turnover is causing their defensive problems. What I’m saying is an indictment of the coaching staff because they’ve clearly done a less than good job of teaching defensive responsibilities to a fairly inexperienced roster.
It’s a group failure. The players don’t execute the scheme well, and there doesn’t seem to be accountability for that. And, there’s a lot of weird activity — nonsensical switches, helping at strange times and in strange places — that suggests players don’t fully understand the underlying principles and how to execute the scheme.
Bottom line, defense comes down to the ability to force misses. One of the challenges the Wizards have is their personnel. They’re pretty small across the board, and even guys who are decent sized for their positions are not particularly athletic by NBA standards.
YR: Again, compare their roster to the Knicks. Are the Knicks more “athletic”?
KB: I would say yes. Mitchell Robinson is longer and more athletic than anyone the Wizards have. Julius Randle is bigger and more athletic than any forward the Wizards have. Nerlens Noel is skinny, but he’s long and bouncy and blocks a ton of shots. The Wizards don’t have anyone like that.
It runs through the whole roster. Deni Avdija, for example, is 6-9, which is a good size for small forward. But he’s not particularly athletic or long by NBA standards. Right?
KB: Most NBA players have similar good plays in their highlight reel. By NBA standards, Avdija is pretty average athletically. The same is true of Rui Hachimura, Troy Brown, and so on through the roster. Other than maybe Russell Westbrook when fully healthy, and Bradley Beal, they don’t have a plus NBA athlete on the roster. And Westbrook is aging, and he’s been dinged up.
So, when Avdija or much of the rest of the roster challenges a shot, it’s not the same thing as like say when Brandon Clarke, who’s a freak athlete, does it.
YR: Actually, challenging a shot is something Beal doesn’t do well either, and Beal is athletic by all accounts.
KB: To interject a moment, Beal is quick and strong and leaps well, but he’s also just 6-3, which is on the small side. And his athleticism isn’t exceptional by NBA standards. Above average, not elite.
YR: Look, Deni does a good job positioning himself on some possessions and still needs to improve in the sense of getting less fouls called.
By the way, if you watched the first couple games of the season you saw a different Deni than you see now because now he’s turned off and less happy with the role Brooks carved out for him. He’s not getting a lot of minutes, not getting a lot of passes, and not getting a lot of playmaking opportunities. Remember, Deni is a leader, not a role player.
KB: One reason he’s not getting as many minutes is because he keeps making big mistakes defensively. And his overall production has cratered the past couple weeks.
YR: He’s defending better than Beal in terms of defensive rating!
KB: Still, the NBA is a tough league and he’s just turned 20 years old.
YR: I don’t buy that, sorry. The EuroLeague is actually tougher in many respects. Defenses are tighter. Essentially every game is played playoff style, the 40 minutes are intense, the timeouts shorter and farther in between, and you can’t just turn on and off and expect to make a comeback run as in the NBA where you have 48 minutes and soft defenses. Also, player contracts are typically shorter and so more players are on a contract year at any given game. Same with coaches’ contracts. Which brings us full circle back to Scotty Brooks: there is no way that he would have survived a full season in the EuroLeague. Heck, with his guidance the Wizards might not have even made the playoffs in the EuroLeague this year.
KB: If you think NBA defenses are soft or that the EuroLeague is tougher in any way, I’d suggest you watch more non-Wizards games. I agree with your point that a coach with a .300 winning percentage in his fifth season — with a winning percentage that’s gotten worse every season — would be fired by nearly any team in any sport. #SoWizards.
YR: I think he would make a great addition to the NBC Sports Washington crew.
KB: That’s probably why Gooden is keeping his seat warm until the end of the season. Though I’d suggest a couple experienced broadcasters with strong local ties: Grant Hill and Brendan Haywood.