Improving The Defense of the Washington Wizards | Wizards Blog Truth About

Improving The Defense of the Washington Wizards

Updated: October 3, 2008

I certainly have my thoughts about John Hollinger’s latest outlook for the Wizards, they’ll come later. For a good read on fairly assessing Hollinger from the perspective of a Wizards fan, check out Pradamaster’s post, “Half-baked Hollinger thoughts,” on Bullets Forever.

One good point Hollinger made was in regard to the Wizards three-point defense:

Washington’s D still had some severe problems, though — most notably in defending the 3-point line. Washington was last in the league in both 3-point percentage (38.6) and in conceding 3-point attempts (.270)……

If you’re looking for reasons why the Wizards gave up so many threes, they’re not hard to find. For starters, Eddie Jordan has always been fond of traps and zones, which tend to create openings for weakside shooters. Second, Washington often had no choice but to double-team post players given the mismatches that presented themselves when the likes of Blatche and Darius Songaila were guarding the post. Finally, dribble penetration on the perimeter was another problem, creating easy kick-outs for triples.

Between those causes, there were lots of opportunities for teams to swing the ball around to an open shooter, and that can be seen most easily in the huge assist totals Washington opponents racked up — 64.9 percent of their baskets were assisted, the highest rate in the league by a wide margin.

In The Zone
I don’t mind playing a trapping zone so much. The Wizards are better operating at a faster pace on offense. Trapping contributes to speeding up the overall pace of the game. However, that being said, the Wizards played at a much slower pace last year without Arenas. Henceforth, new assistant Randy Ayers implemented more of a ‘match-up’ zone for 07-08. On the other side of the coin, methinks with the emergence of Dee Brown, we’ll see the pace of the Wizards fall somewhere between the 92.9 (5th in the NBA) with a healthy Arenas in 06-0, and last year’s 88.3 (26th) without Gilbert (my gut tells me it will be closer to the latter……still an improvement).

Match-up zone is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a zone with man principles (i.e, more ‘help side’). In contrast to regular zone, players do not have to cover as much ground when making the proper rotations. You still have to haul ass on skip passes, but the protocol of coverage is more defined when players can concentrate more on a man, rather than an area of the floor. Also, the match-up zone helps defenders better see cutters, allowing switches or hand-offs in many instances. The principle is that it should be more difficult for the offense to find gaps, or weak areas such as the short corner, in match-up versus regular zone. Players still must keep their head on a swivel (seeing ball and man)…fundamentals.

So, one benefit of match-up zone (in addition to masking the inefficiencies of individual defenders….well, maybe not “masking” rather having a better contingency plan for supporting coverage), is that it allows individual defenders to pressure the ball. Pressure bursts pipes, and also causes turnovers which can spawn easy buckets. A second benefit of match-up zone is better ability to efficiently close out on shooters when there is dribble penetration or ball movement…..and as mentioned, this easier to do this when there is less space to cover and the assignments are more clear. Naturally, these two key aspects have been discussed in Wizards training camp.

How The Wizards Are Working Towards Improvement

A quote from Antawn Jamison that was mentioned in this post, “Washington Wizards Training Camp Spawns Questions”:

“The key was not to getting beaten off the dribble so quickly…when that happens he said we are relying too much on our second line of defense….and then in the scramble guys gets left open on the fact as they work on this defensive spacing Randy Ayers just said ..better spacing will help in the ability to recover and get out to the shooters….”

Also, for a good overview, you can read, “Wizards Showing Defensive Growth,” Washington Post.

So, I posed a question to the guys at the official who have been front and center at training camp, blogging their butts off, and being gracious enough to answer all the questions that come their way:

[Referencing the Jamison Quote] To me, the onus is completely the player in this situation. You gotta have the desire to stop your man. That being said, you also need some quickness to do so.

What specific drills have the Wizards been running, as a team, to develop foot speed? Do the players have any methods in the area when training by themselves, or with their personal trainers? What is Drew Cleary’s philosophy/tactics used to increase quickness and lateral movement?

The response:

you are right it is up to the player….help defense is a part of the nba and you need to use it…guys are just too good…but as Eddie Jordan said you don’t always want to use it…as i have watched camp….i have noticed the various slide drills…or Randy Ayers leading the team through half-court situations….and as you noted drew cleary has had them doing footwork drills including ladders…

[later]…..let me clarify something…the slide drills are for the help defense….on individual defending we have seen a lot of one on one drills in this camp…one thing that is being emphasized is that a player has to go straight back on the fake ( i hope can describe this well enough ..I just had a coach show me) other words the defender can not going in the direction of the initial ball fake or foot fake or head fake…he needs to pull back so he is in a position to adjust…..another thing in general that is being stressed..if the ball is moving all defenders should moving if not…there could be trouble

This is an excellent point on keeping position and going straight back on perimeter ball fakes and jab steps. What I know about closing out on shooters is that you go with your hands high (making the opponent think you are playing the shot, but also ready to contest if he does), but your feet and hips are in the crouch position, prepared to defend the dribble drive. Of course, you must also be a student of the scouting report, and accordingly to certain players. At the end of the day, each player needs to look himself in the mirror and ask if he has the heart and desire to play individual defense.

Communication Is Key
The key to any type of zone, or man defense for that matter, is communication. Maybe it’s because I wasn’t paying attention before, but last season, I really noticed a more concentrated effort to communicate via talking, and pointing, on the part of the

Communication is only one part. To further their development, the Wizards must enhance their instincts as individuals, and as a team. Another year of constancy will only go towards this enhancement. Improvement is already evidenced in the fact that Eddie Jordan has had to stop training camp practice less to instruct. The Wizards have been able to concentrate on refining their cohesiveness in real-time action.

Handling the Screens

One specific problem the Wizards had when playing a match-up zone last year is handling screens. But historically, when run well, a lot of teams have trouble with pick and rolls (specifically), regardless of the type of defense. The match-up zone calls for a lot of switching on screens. So, teams try to take advantage of this by creating mismatches.

Who knows if playing Andray Blatche at the three spot would work, but he better be ready to defend small forwards regardless because of the switching. Keep in mind, handling screens is situation specific. Teams must practice, practice, and practice how to treat all the various scenarios until it becomes habitual. It requires a lot of concentration, and being aware of the offensive personnel involved.

Flip Saunders
There was a slight spike among the internets in speculation over the presence of Flip Saunders being some pseudo writing on the wall, or random scribbling in the least, in terms of Eddie Jordan’s coaching stability…..and perhaps I contributed to that.

Well, at face value, Saunders is an excellent instructor on zone defense, especially match-up zone. In fact, Flip wrote the a book on it. More realistically, Eddie Jordan and Randy Ayers have checked their egos at the door, are open to learn from a colleague, and more than welcome an additional teacher in training camp. I’d also speculate that Saunders is receiving a nice chunk of change for his consultation.

The Wrap
Overall, the match-up zone accomplished its goal for the Wizards last year. It forced opponents to take more shots from the exterior, as well as making shots from the interior more difficult (the ratio of close attempts by opponents went down 2%, while the ratio of jumpers when up 2%). The Wizards held opponents to the second lowest FG% on 2-point jumpers in the NBA (.367). On the other hand, the Wiz were a league worst in opponent FG% on inside shots (.658)…this eludes to Hollinger’s point on post-player mis-matches. Will Etan Thomas help? I’m not banking on it. Will Andray Blatche’s added strength keep him from fouling less? That’s something I’d rather get my hopes up for.

To take that next step, more perimeter shots must be contested. This all gets back to moving your feet, stopping dribble drives, leaving less space to recover between the defender and the shooter, and communicating on skip passes. The Wizards were tied for worst in the NBA in opponent assist percentage on 2-point jumpers (59%), and fourth worst on inside shots (56%). I will go ahead and predict betterment of these stats because of assumed improvement in the aforementioned areas.

[*Note: The above stats were taken from and were covered in this post, “Washington Wizards Defense: is there any good news?”]

This team has the depth and athletes to put it together. Now, it’s all a matter of if the players are on the same page as the coaching staff, and if the coaching staff is turned to the right page. Wizards fans certainly have something to look out for. I’m sure the stats, and the win column, will tell the tale.

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Kyle Weidie
Founder / Editor / Reporter / Writer at TAI
Kyle founded TAI in 2007 and has been weaving in and out the world of Wizards ever since, ducking WittmanFaces, jumping over G-Wiz, and avoiding stints on the DNP-Conditioning list. He has covered the Washington pro basketball team as a member of the media since 2009. Kyle currently lives in Brooklyn, NY with his wife, loves basketball, and has no pets.