The Washington Wizards are a one-way basketball team

The Utah Jazz looked like they were playing against traffic cones on Monday night. To some extent, they were. The gassed Washington Wizards, at home for their third game in four nights, rolled over early and lost 116-95 at the end.

Utah posted an elite 115.4 offensive rating, and it would’ve been even higher had they not been winning by 20 heading into the fourth quarter. Ricky Rubio turned the ball over 6 times, and the Jazz attempted just 6 free throws on the night, but those details didn’t matter. In truth, Washington’s backside defense never got close enough to foul.

The Wizards have been incapable of guarding anyone this season. They rank 26th in defensive efficiency on the year, hemorrhaging 112.4 points per 100 possessions. And the bleeding has been steady either side of John Wall’s season-ending surgery. The franchise point guard’s defensive decline since 2014-15 has mirrored that of the team, but he wasn’t the main problem on this imbalanced roster.

Washington is bloated with one-way talent in a league where two-way players are necessary to compete. The team has exactly zero big-minute rotation players who rank in the top 50 at their respective positions in defensive PIPM. Only Tomas Satoranksy, Bradley Beal, and rookie Troy Brown Jr. have impressed defensively.

Because of the areas on the court they occupy and the players they cover, guards and wings can’t define a team’s defense the way bigs can. They don’t deter the most valuable shots – layups or jumpers that come from the threat of layups. And in a screen-happy league with an ever-stricter prohibition on hand-checking, only the stoutest perimeter defenders can keep ballhandlers from breaching the paint in the first place. Satoransky and Beal aren’t close to that level.

Trevor Ariza once was, and that’s partially why Wiz President Ernie Grunfeld traded for him in December. But the 14-year vet is now 33 years old and clearly lacks the strap-em-up quickness that used to petrify opposing wings. He, like most perimeter defenders, needs a safety net behind him.

Too bad the Wizards don’t have one.

In one of the more misguided transactions of last summer, Grunfeld signed Dwight Howard and even gave him a no-brainer $5.6 million player option for 2019-20. Howard has been out all year with a debilitating back injury, but even when healthy, he’s too statuesque to last more than 25 minutes. His cement feet become an obvious vulnerability against stretch bigs or pick-and-roll ballhandlers.

His replacement, Thomas Bryant, has had a revelatory year, but he’s just 21 years old and still learning his trade. He misses rotations and falls for decoys just like any young big. And while he’s cat-quick attacking the rim on offense, he’s strictly a drop-back figurine on D.

Force a switch, and Bryant is toast. He ranks in the league’s 5th percentile (that’s not a typo) as an isolation defender, allowing 1.26 points per possession, per Synergy. Get deep position, and you can bully the kid. He’s in the 8th percentile (once again, I triple-checked) guarding post-ups.

The situation at power forward isn’t much better. Jeff Green, having a sterling year on offense, has been a nonexistent help defender. And Otto Porter? Oh yeah, the Wizards traded rock solid Otto Porter to the Chicago Bulls for Jabari Parker and Bobby Portis.

The Porter deal, as logical as it may be, typified the defensive brain-drain that Washington’s front office has allowed ever since Ariza’s first stint.

The Bulls benched Parker a few months after he literally said, “they don’t pay players to play defense.” To be fair, teams definitely don’t pay him to play defense. The Duke product has never picked up the intricacies of that end of the floor, often zigging at the exact moment he needs to zag. Or just not running back to his own basket after missed shots:

powered by Advanced iFrame free. Get the Pro version on CodeCanyon.

Portis, meanwhile, is vertically-challenged around the rim and too slow to guard out to the perimeter. He ranks 102nd out of 104 power forwards this season in defensive-PIPM (Green recently pulled ahead to 100!)

In Green, Bryant, Portis, and Parker, the team now has four rotation big men who are offense-first or offense-only players. But going all-in on offensive talent isn’t going to lift the Wizards from their ongoing malaise, which stems largely from issues at the other end of the court.

The Wizards have the league’s 7th best offensive efficiency since the newcomers arrived. They’re nigh unstoppable when Beal’s on the court. And yet, they’re still not scoring more points than they leak. The list of teams that have won consistently with a bottom-five defense starts and ends with last year’s Cleveland Cavaliers, and I don’t think DC is acquiring LeBron James anytime soon.

Grunfeld needs to acquire someone, though. The Wiz will have roughly $15 million in cap space this summer if they decline Parker’s $20 million team option and renounce all their other free agents. That’s not enough to sign a game-changing defender, but it is enough to begin resupplying the pantry with some stoppers.

Smart money is on Washington capping itself out and bringing the band back together, though. Recent reports suggest Grunfeld likes the roster as is. And recent history suggests he’s fine letting solid defenders go and replacing them with flaky ones.

Scott Brooks should take notice. He’s tried different schemes and rotations this season, to no real avail. But he needs to tinker even more if these players are sticking around for another campaign.

Maybe the Wizards blitz every pick-and-roll, a strategy that brought Denver from 23rd in defense last season to 10th this year and earned Mike Malone Coach of the Year buzz. Maybe they go with a switch-heavy system, counterintuitive given Portis and Bryant’s discomfort on the perimeter, but worth a try. Brooks has even experimented with a bizarre 2-1-2-ish zone. It looks awful:

powered by Advanced iFrame free. Get the Pro version on CodeCanyon.

Who cares, though? The Wizards are 30-41 and 4.5 games out of the playoffs. Their best chance at landing an impact defender may be their lottery odds of moving up in the draft. Brooks is safe in his job and doesn’t have much to lose. And with a front office that has apparently forgotten defense is half the game, he can’t count on help from outside his own coaching staff.

He needs to try sh*t. It likely won’t work, but that’s just the hand he was dealt.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.