On a night to night basis in the NBA things change. Defenses switch up, players continue to add new layers to their game and coaches continue to adjust. Such is the ever-flowing nature of the association. If you can’t roll with the punches, then you’ll surely be left behind.
Such is the dilemma with the Washington Wizards. As a team that can’t get by the .500 mark, we’re unsure of whether or not they’ve been able to roll with the punches this season. Now, once again, a game under .500 with a loss to the lowly Utah Jazz, Wizards fans have been left to question whether or not this team is truly playing behind their “No Excuses” moniker or if they’re just the same laughing stock that we’ve known for so many years.
And if you just tuned into your first Wizards game on Saturday night, you’d be inclined to think that the latter was the case. They played a terrible Utah Jazz team that has been playing better as of late, but not good enough to eviscerate a 13 point lead and win the game by three.
Wizards fans would be quick to point out John Wall’s atrocious game yesterday as to why they lost. He scored 13 points on 14 shots with only four made field goals. What’s more, he only tallied four assists and had the same number of turnovers. That was easily one of the worst games that Wall played this season and when that happens, the Wizards aren’t going to win eight times out of 10.
But what was more concerning to me was the effort that the Wizards put up defensively. And this isn’t something that happened with the Jazz yesterday–it’s been an issue all season long. The Wizards switched their defensive scheme up from last season with Emeka Okafor being injured. It should be noted that Okafor still hasn’t played this season after being traded to the Phoenix Suns. But even with that being the case, it’s bothersome that the defense has changed this much and that they haven’t been able to come close to the production that they had defensively last year.
With Okafor and a more conservative style of defense, the Wizards boasted the 5th best defense in the NBA according to basketball reference. They gave up a healthy 103.0 points per 100 possessions last season; that number shrunk below 100 when John Wall returned to the fold in January. This season has been a completely different story.
They went from being one of the better teams defending the three ball to being far worse. They allowed opponents to shoot 35% from three last season, but what was more impressive was that opponents only shot 1680 threes against the Wizards throughout last season. This season, opponents are shooting 36% from three. That isn’t an alarming number, but the shot volume is. The Wizards are only one game through half of the season–opponents have already shot 937 threes against them. They’ll eclipse last seasons total soon but, if this pace keeps up, opponents will be reaping the benefits of more opportunity against them.
This is part of the reason why the Wizards are barely the 10th best defense in the league this season. They weren’t able to build on the success of last season’s defense because they switched the scheme up so much. Compensating for the loss of Okafor was paramount, but the numbers show that the Wizards may have benefited from not going through such extremes to do it.
And the film shows that, too. On Saturday, against the Utah Jazz, they gave up 111 points per 100 possessions. Enes Kanter managed to shoot 11-13 from the field and scored 23 points. The Jazz–a team that doesn’t take or make a bunch of threes–managed to shoot the ball well from above the arch. They shot 10-24 from three for a 42% clip–about six percentage points better than their normal mark. They did that because penetration was easily accessible on the offensive end. That really created easy offensive rebounding opportunity for the Jazz as the Wizards scrambled to recover.
Because of the mad dash to find a man, the Wizards let Marvin Williams sneak into the lane unmolested. That opened up the window for a clean offensive rebounding opportunity. He ended up missing on the attempt, but the Wizards were called for a lose ball foul and the ball stayed on that end of the court.
It’s because of plays like that that the Wizards have suffered the most this season. They give up extra opportunity against teams who normally wouldn’t benefit from such. But it all starts with the Wizards not being able contain paint penetration.
On multiple occasions the Wizards gave up paint penetration along the baseline. That’s just like begging your opponent to hit open threes on you–and that’s exactly what the Jazz did. Even on down calls, the Wizards allowed penetration in the lane. That’s something that can’t happen.
For those of you who don’t know, a down call is when you use the sideline as an extra defender. You keep the ball handler trapped on the sideline with a double team in an effort to force a turnover. This is something the Wizards were very good at last year. This year? Not so much.
They consistently give up penetration into the middle of the floor. There are times when the defense sags back way too far and allow easy paint looks to quicker guards. The point of a down call is to make sure that the opponent doesn’t get back to the middle of the floor. You are supposed to impede the ball handlers path and funnel them to the edge. The Wizards just didn’t on Saturday.
And, once again, the Wizards allowed baseline penetration to the Jazz’s ball handlers. Even if it doesn’t result in a positive play, giving up easy penetration is concerning.
And the Jazz’s bigs feasted all night from the penetration coming from all areas of the floor. There were offensive rebounds to be had and layups to be made. Trey Burke looked like Steve Nash for most of the night, and it wasn’t because he was that good.
The Wizards’ aggressiveness on defense has come back to bite them on multiple occasions this season. They’ve been able to do some positive things like forcing turnovers and generating fastbreak opportunity, but at what cost? The Wizards give up a lot of threes and gamble enough to open up the paint for the opposition. Not to mention that they struggle to play defense without fouling.
Playing a more conservative style is probably more fitting for this team–even without Okafor. Maybe they should consider reverting back to the old scheme. Gortat has been sagging back on screens a bit more in recent weeks and the gambles have stopped coming in volume. There are times that pressure defense is needed but versatile, good coaching is what should be used to discern that.
The Wizards can’t get above .500 because of their inconsistent defensive effort in this scheme. And, really, it’s in the hands of Randy Wittman to determine whether or not the Wizards continue to play this way.