After a 3-1 start, the Washington Wizards have crashed back down to earth. Washington dropped three consecutive games against Indiana, Boston, and Philadelphia before getting revenge over the Sixers with a win on Wednesday.
The win over Philly in the second matchup (combined with Bryce Harper’s Phillies getting no-hit in the World Series) was a welcomed sight. Washington put up their best offensive game of the season in that game with a 131.9 offensive rating, according to Cleaning The Glass. Bradley Beal and Kristaps Porzingis efficiently combined for 59 points. Outside of horrendous three-point shooting (5/21), the game showed what Washington’s offense could be. On the other hand…
The Wizards are bleeding points on defense. Over the last four games, they are DEAD LAST in defensive rating. Their 119.7 defensive rating in that span would be the worst in NBA history over a full season. We can confidently say that Washington will not have the worst defense of all time. But why is the defense struggling so much after a promising start?
Delon Wright’s Absence
It’s no coincidence that Washington’s worst defensive stretch happened after Delon Wright went down with a hamstring strain. The Wizards are 13.1 points per 100 possessions better defensively with Wright on the floor. They’re also about 16 points per 100 better in games he played when compared to games he did not play in.
Wright was the team’s best perimeter defender in the first four games of the season and guards diced the Wizards up in his absence. Tyrese Haliburton, Buddy Hield, Malcolm Brogdon, Tyrese Maxey (twice), and James Harden (twice) all had 20+ points against DC in the last four games. That’s a long list. And it doesn’t even include Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, who play on the wing.
Wright would have limited the damage with his strong point-of-attack defense and ability to get around screens. Monte Morris has struggled at times in both of those areas and no one would call Bradley Beal a defensive stopper (even though he won the defense belt on Wednesday). Wright plays a crucial role in supplementing those two. He can play the three next to them, play alongside Beal to alleviate some defensive strain and prop up the backup unit.
Losing Wright while Corey Kispert is out has turned a bad situation into an unmitigated disaster. After Kispert went down in the preseason, Wright became Washington’s only backup guard. Johnny Davis is not ready, which is true for most of the players drafted after him as well. Kispert returns Friday against the Brooklyn Nets. He’ll fill some of the void left by Wright in the guard rotation. But it is concerning how much losing Wright threw the Wizards off.
Wright’s injury is an acute cause of defensive struggles, but there’s still a lot to clean up across the board. Starting with communication on defense. Often in the past four games, Washington has given up far too many buckets due to simple communication breakdowns. Head Coach Wes Unseld Jr. and every player speaking in press conferences over this span have touched on the communication issues.
“In the first half, we just didn’t get matched,” said Unseld Jr. after the loss to Philadephia. “When you’re missing shots or you feel like you’re getting fouled or whatever it may be, there has to be urgency. Next play [mentality]. We didn’t have that so they’re just pushing it and we’re not matching. Now they’re driving the seams and we’re not loading to the ball. It’s really hard to play that way.”
Some of the miscommunications that Wes Unseld Jr. wants the Wizards to clean up. pic.twitter.com/OAAtCFYT5Y— Gabe Ibrahim (@gabe_ibrahim) November 3, 2022
On each of the plays above, Washington had defenders in place to make a stop. They just didn’t talk or didn’t listen to a teammate talking. Communication issues are extremely common, especially early in the season and with injuries jostling rotations. Notice that all of those plays featured two players who either haven’t played together before this year or who are playing different roles (ie–Kuz covering Harden due to Wright’s injury). Unseld Jr. said he’s never been on a team at any level that did not have to overcome this problem.
You can see these issues manifesting themselves mostly in transition. The Wizards are giving up 94 points per 100 halfcourt plays, which makes them the league’s 12th-best halfcourt defense according to Cleaning The Glass. But they fall all the way to 29th in transition defense. With the offense struggling before Wednesday’s victory, Washington pretty much gave away games in transition. These are not complicated problems to fix. But communication issues can linger and tank defenses. The team will have to get this cleaned up if the Wizards are going to succeed.
Opponents Catching Fire
One of the more confusing aspects of the Wizards’ skid is how hot teams are shooting against them. They rank dead last in opponent eFG% over that span (59.7%) as well as 21st in opponent three-point field goal percentage (41.1%). Of course, shooting numbers bring up “what came first: the chicken or the egg?” questions. Are the Wizards merely unlucky or are they actively contributing to the opponents’ success? In classic coach fashion, Unseld Jr. went with the latter explanation.
“They got hot because of the lack of our defense,” said the second-year head coach after the Pacers game. “Once you allow a team to get a rhythm, it’s hard to put that fire out.”
There’s obviously truth to what Unseld Jr. said. The pattern of Washington opponents making open shots early then making increasingly difficult ones later has been evident. Weak point-of-attack defense has also led to dribble penetration. Dribble penetration leads to defenses collapsing, which leads to kick-outs to open shooters.
According to NBA.com, 21.4% of opponents’ threes have been tracked as “wide open” by NBA.com, meaning that the closest defender was 6 or more feet away. “A lot of wide open threes” may sound like a giant issue. But three of the NBA’s best eight defenses by defensive rating (Phoenix, LA Clippers, and Minnesota) give up a similar number of wide-open threes. The problem for Washington is that teams are shooting 50% on those attempts, the highest mark in the NBA. This suggests that the Wizards have left the wrong shooter open at times.
However, shooting luck will probably bend in Washington’s favor at some point. Cleaning The Glass has a cool stat called location effective field goal percentage (loc eFG%). It measures what opponents’ eFG% would be if the team allowed the league average FG% from each shot location.
Washington ranks 3rd in that stat! A team shooting league average from where Wizards’ opponents shot would have an eFG% of 52.7%. The Pacers, Sixers, and Celtics put up an eFG% of 59.7%. No team had larger than a two-point gap between loc eFG% and eFG% in the opponents’ favor last season, much less the seven-point gap Washington currently has.
The Wizards will probably not have a great defense this season, considering their history and personnel. They have not placed in the top 15 of defensive rating since John Wall’s injury in 2018. But Washington absolutely needs to be better if they want to make the playoffs. They also can be better. Kispert’s imminent return and Wright’s recovery will help a ton. Opponents will likely shoot worse in the coming weeks and months. With their rim protection and the solid scheme that Unseld Jr. has crafted, the Wizards are probably a few fixes away from being adequate defensively.