How Did the Wizards D Get So Good?
John Wall, defensive dynamo (?)
Entering Wednesday night, here are the NBA’s top five teams in defensive rating–a stat that measures opponents’ points per 100 possessions. Essentially, it’s a pure way to track which teams are best at keeping opponents’ points off the board.
- Indiana Pacers (98.9 D-rating)
- Memphis Grizzlies (100.9 D-rating)
- San Antonio Spurs (101.5 D-rating)
- Washington Wizards (102.6 D-rating)
- Oklahoma City Thunder (102.6 D-rating)
Four of those teams have won an average of 53 games this season and boast players — like Paul George, Tony Allen, Tim Duncan, and Serge Ibaka — who are known as defensive stoppers.
The other team is the Wizards.
Washington’s conspicuous by its presence; the Wiz have finished in the bottom half of the Association for D-rating for the past 15 years.
(Perhaps that’s not so surprising, after all. D-rating tends to be commensurate with winning games, and the Wizards haven’t done so much of that.)
Meanwhile, the Chicago Bulls–the Wizards’ Wednesday night opponent–are notable for their absence. Led by Coach Tom Thibodeau, the team had finished second in the league in D-rating for two straight years, behind the Boston Celtics…Thibodeau’s old squad.
Of course, the Bulls defense is still quite good, ranking 6th in D-rating in 2012-13. But minus Derrick Rose ball-hawking on the perimeter and Omar Asik waiting in the lane, they don’t appear to be at the terrifying level normally associated with Thibodeau’s teams.
DC’s twin towers may be the secret
How did Washington’s defense get so good? Start with the two men guarding the rim.
As Rob Mahoney wrote at Sports Illustrated back in February,
The real epicenter of Washington’s highly functional defense is, unsurprisingly, its big men. Nene and Emeka Okafor have become a truly fantastic defensive tandem, capable of corralling ball handlers and protecting the rim as a joint operation.
Nene can trap hard on a screen if need be, or help out to block shots on the backline. Okafor can take a perfect angle in defending the pick-and-roll, or step up to challenge a shot at the rim if the on-ball defense breaks down.
Their combined defensive skill makes them virtually interchangeable, and thus incredibly valuable to a defense that gives its perimeter players a ton of help in controlling ball action on the perimeter.
The Wizards have been further bolstered by the addition of players like Trevor Ariza and Martell Webster, who stay within the defensive scheme and stick with wing players on the perimeter–and the subtraction of weak defenders like Andray Blatche. Meanwhile, John Wall’s return has given Washington a quick guard who can disrupt passing lanes with his strategic gambles. And given that Thibodeau gets credit for the Bulls’ defensive transformation, Randy Wittman deserves a partial nod here too.
The Bulls could potentially surge past the Wizards in the D-rating rankings and back into the top 5 — with Wednesday night’s game playing an outsized role in that race. But given what they’ve already done, Washington’s D probably deserves an ‘A’ this season … a year where, wouldn’t you know it, the Wizards appear to have made some real strides.