The Washington Wizards have obviously lost a big piece in Emeka Okafor--especially when talking in terms of defensive play. Okafor served as the defensive anchor for the Wizards last season and was stellar in that role. Wizards’ opponents scored a full point per 100 possessions more when Okafor was off of the floor last season. Although it sounds like a small deal, a single point goes a long way when going through the course of the game.
The Wizards will obviously have to adjust and Randy Wittman discussed how they would adjust in the video above. I’m now curious as to how the Washington defensive scheme will play out next season. In the interview above, Wittman seemed to think that they would play a more aggressive style defensively with more moving parts.
He talked about how they have big men who are able to move their feet quickly. The only time we’d see a big man needing to move quickly is outside on the perimeter when hedging or guarding a perimeter player for a shortened period of time.
Here’s an example of how the Wizards played the pick and roll last season.
Okafor is giving Jennings the space between the wing and the elbow of the key in order to keep him from getting to the rim. We see this commonly throughout the league. It enables a defender enough space to impede the ball handlers path to the rim without getting blown by. Okafor will concede the midrange jumper to Jennings instead of letting him get the easy look at the rim.
There are two reasons for this. First, Okafor can easily defend a midrange jump shot against Jennings at this juncture because of his length. Jennings has dribbled into the lane and has diminished the space available for him to get a clean look on a jump shot without Okafor’s hand in his face. Second, it takes away the driving lane and gives the rest of the defense time to prepare for what Jennings is going to do.
Jennings can either try to get by Okafor’s wide frame, take a jump shot, or pass the ball to Ersan Illyasova who popped. Jennings chooses the latter option and the Wizards are able to force a turnover on the possession.
Softer coverages are more widespread around the league because more teams have to personnel to play with them. The zones are easier to follow and understand and they seemingly have more of a margin of error. The ability to recover in a soft coverage is easier than recovering more aggressively. You’re essentially required to overcommit to an action by the offense when playing aggressively.
In the interview above, Wittman seems to suggest that the Wizards will lean toward a more aggressive coverage with Okafor out. To do this, you need superior athletes on the perimeter–especially the wings. You also need big men who are able to move their feet and use their hands without fouling.
When we think about more aggressive defenses, we should think about teams like the Miami Heat and what they like to do defensively. They apply pressure to the ball while on the perimeter normally. They use a combination of hard hedges over screens and on-ball pressure to try to force turnovers and get out on the break. This is featured in the screenshot below:
The big men for the Heat regularly come above the free throw line. This is so that the recover and rotations can be made quicker if the screen man slips the pick and roll. Someone has to come plug the middle of the lane to block a straight diving path to the rim and the other two players need to be sure that they have angles to get into the passing lanes and prevent three point shots.
The aggressive style of defense is something that is very risky to play with, but with the proper personnel it is a reasonable gamble. The Heat have the perfect personnel for it. The Wizards? Not so much.
Again, they have the athletes and length on the perimeter to gamble and play aggressive ball. John Wall and Bradley Beal are two tremendous athletes. They have a lot of long and lengthy wing players that can play the passing lanes well–Trevor Ariza being especially good at it. .
Still, I worry about the Wizards big men when having to apply this pressure. What Wittman said is true–they do have the ability to move quickly laterally and cover the perimeter for short stints, but still it isn’t an ideal situation for them.
With Nene struggling to stay on the floor, moving around that much and hustling back and fourth could prove to do some long term damage to his health. As a defender, he was able to move pretty quickly in stretches last season. However, he had Okafor behind him and he didn’t have to play every screen defensively. This season, at least to start, is going to be different for him.
As far as Jan Vesely goes, he’s got the footspeed and the quickness to play in a system like this. But with him, you worry about him fouling and the use of his hands. He averaged 2.1 fouls in only 11.4 minutes per game. Its clear that he struggles to defend without fouling in this league and he always has. He’s a good hedger, but he tends to get too pushy with guards out on the perimeter. He has to work on his technique there before he’s a consistent player in a system like that.
Trevor Booker and Al Harrington are two players who have been able to guard small forwards in the past. I don’t worry about either of those two, but they won’t likely play heavy minutes–especially not Booker because he’s coming off of an injury.
Kevin Seraphin struggles to move his feet laterally defensively and still manages to let guards past him even when sagging on the defensive end. He’s going to have to get better in terms of footspeed and staying square if he’s going to play in an aggressive defensive system.
Hopefully Wittman isn’t looking to play an aggressive style consistently throughout the season. I’d like to see it in spurts and against certain pick and roll combinations with dangerous shooters as ball handlers, i.e, Stephen Curry. However, it isn’t a necessity, at this point, to change the defensive scheme that worked so well last season. We may see some more aggressive play, but we don’t need to see too much more.
The Wizards were a top 10 defensive team last season, after all. And you know how the age old saying goes: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
This Article was written by Michael Sykes.