Capture of the Fancy: Is Washington's Defense Sinking? | Wizards Blog Truth About

Capture of the Fancy: Is Washington’s Defense Sinking?

Updated: March 5, 2015


Earlier this season, while Washington was racing out to the team’s best start in decades, any problem with the offense was merely the shimmer of something unknown on the horizon. A trading vessel, perhaps. An unexplored island. A port of call.

Turns out it was pirates. But while the wind was blowing well, and friendly flags flapped in the wind, hope reigned. Rumors swirled, and sailors spoke in hushed whispers of the horrors now made manifest, but winning is a powerful sedative for afeared folk.

It’s damning, perhaps, that the team (still holding an open roster spot out for Elijah) appears to be on its heels in early March, despite the glaring early warning signs. Now that the Wizards look more like an unarmed leaking whaler than a Royal Navy vessel, finding dry land to wreck upon might be the best available option.

After the loss to Nikola Mirotic and the Chicago Bulls (without Derrick Rose, Taj Gibson, or Jimmy Butler), Randy Wittman, when asked about Mirotic’s 23-point night, commented that “Stretch 4s make it difficult.”

I wonder where you get one of those.

Before the loss to the Warriors, Comcast SportsNet’s Ben Standig asked Wittman how important it was to have a guy to stretch the floor with 3s like Draymond Green “in this NBA era.” Wittman’s response: “That’s important. I think the more versatility you can have like that, the better.”

In the Eastern Conference, only Indiana completely lacks a 3-point shooting big man. But Washington is next in line. And before you cry “DREW GOODEN,” consider that Gooden has only shot 27 3-pointers all season. (1) The Wizards may have, in a literal sense, a 3-point shooting big, but they’ve hardly used him that way, or used him at all.

Spending last summer supplementing a freshly-signed Marcin Gortat and still-signed Nene with Metallica-era big man DeJuan Blair, re-signing Gooden only to let him languish on the bench, handing a qualifying offer to Kevin Seraphin, and signing Kris Humphries—the most dynamic of the four backups, but still limited with range—in the age of the stretch big seems a summer wasted on the most misguided of contrarian optimism. (2)

Gooden’s 3-point shot (33.3% on 2.4 attempts per 36 minutes) is a rare enough bird for a player that has only appeared in 31 games all season, averaging 13.1 minutes in those appearances. Paul Pierce has been used in limited minutes as a stretch 4 late in games, but, generally, the Wizards keep it simple. While better teams stretch the floor like they’re a bunch of Hellenic shepherds presenting hide to the sun, Washington trundles forward in the geometric inevitability of a decrescendo in the outro of a classical composition, destined to be compacted in some rusted-out idea disposal facility.

But we’ve covered the team’s diseased “open shots are good shots” offense ad nauseum, in piece after piece, for years. If the writing didn’t move you, perhaps the team’s recent 3-12 skid has. Midrange jumpers: a necessary neutral in the right hands, an unnecessary evil in the wrong hands, and the crutch of Wizards shooters who should be using some of that open space to push for a better look. That’s old news. Often forgotten in all of the catching and singing of the sun in flight is that there does exist another side of the game: defense.

How is Wittman’s defense holding up? Pretty well, it turns out.

On the season, the team’s defense has averaged a 100.5 DefRtg (points allowed per 100 possessions), good for the 10th best defensive efficiency in the NBA. In January, Washington’s DefRtg was a little worse, just barely, at 101.5, and actually improved in February to 101.0. But since it’s been spoken, written and insinuated that the Wizards haven’t defended as well during their free fall (most recently when Ted Leonsis noted that the defense hasn’t been as “aggressive” and Bradley Beal said the team had been playing “selfishly” on defense), I wanted to dig deeper.

Let’s look at specific opponents.

Against the Eastern Conference-leading Atlanta Hawks, the Wizards defense struggled mightily. The Hawks, for their part, significantly outstripped their average offensive output (106.3) against the Wizards (113.6) this year. (3)

What about the Pistons? Detroit’s offensive rating (OffRtg) for the season is 101.8. Against the Wizards, it jumps to 104.5 points per 100 possessions.

Cavs? Bumps up from 107.2 to 108.8 against the Wizards (but 120.6 in the most recent, post-trade deadline game with Mozgov, Smith and Shumpert).

The Raptors’ OffRtg dips 0.7 points when playing against D.C.’s team. And while Washington’s defense may have had a slight mitigating impact on the Raptors, the pendulum swung far more potently the other way, as the Raptors scored more than the Wizards defense normally permits (318 points over three games, and a Washington DefRtg that bounds from a season average of 100.5 to 107 against the Raptors)

On the other end, the Brooklyn Nets struggle against the Wizards. The Wizards held the Nets to a 96.7 OffRtg, which is below average (100.8) for Brooklyn’s midrange-infused, Lionell Hollins-orchestrated offense. Part of this exercise is realizing that, unsurprisingly, better Eastern Conference opponents score more points against the Wizards. But another aspect of it is that all of the potential Eastern Conference playoff teams (including Detroit, based on post-Josh Smith trajectory) listed above, other than the Nets, rank above league average in the amount of shot attempts that are either beyond the arc or at the rim.

DmpBA (2) wiz

The Hawks, Pistons, Cavs, and Raptors all rank above league average in Moreyball%, a metric developed by Nylon Calculus’ Seth Partnow. Partnow describes it as “my term for the proportion of a team’s shots which come either at the rim or from 3, a portmanteau in honor of the Rockets General Manager and Michael Lewis’s seminal book ‘MoneyBall’ on the adoption of advanced metrics into baseball.”

It’s a statistic baptized at the dawning of a new age, and teams in the Moreyball cellar like the Wizards, Hornets, Knicks, and Timberwolves are the first drops of blood to splatter across the altar. We already know that the Wizards have resisted transforming their offense (and personnel) in a way that aforementioned teams have embraced to varying degrees, but have they been able to adjust their defense to a Moreyball-heavy strategy?

Results are decidedly mixed. Two other Eastern Conference playoff teams, one on each side of the Moreyball spectrum, provide evidence that the style of play isn’t the only factor against Washington’s defense. While the Bulls have ranked in the top half of the league in Moreyball%, they’ve struggled offensively against the Wizards’ defense, scoring below their average in two losses and barely above their average in two wins.

The Miami Heat, on the other hand, have ranked below the league average in Moreyball%, but have pounded the Wizards’ defense in three games (including two wins for the Wizards) to the tune of a 107.0 OffRtg. Nene, Washington’s top defender, missed the season opening loss to Miami due to a suspension after leaving the bench during a preseason scuffle versus … oh, look, a Chicago Bulls memory.

The Hornets, one of the teams at the bottom of the Moreyball list, have beaten the Wizards twice already this season, but the Wizards actually outperformed their season average on the defensive end during those two games.

Given the tougher schedule in 2015, a slight dip in defensive efficiency was expected. And while Washington’s defense has been—again, slightly—less successful in the second half of the season, in part due to a stronger schedule and in part due to a hard-to-prove and ultimately unclear dose of what Randy Wittman might term “coasting” or a lack of defensive effort, Washington’s fragile offense has fallen off a cliff, shattering long before it reached the bottom.

From a 101.7 OffRtg in November to 105.5 in December to 103.9 in January to 96.3 in February, Washington now requires an almost herculean defensive effort in order to have a chance at winning a game. The Wizards aren’t creating less offense due to worse defense. They just can’t create offense, defensive stop or not. Washington forces 14 turnovers per game, ranked 18th-most in the league, but only scores 15.2 points per game off of turnovers, ranked 9th-fewest.

Even when the Wizards were winning, they weren’t always winning big. That slim margin of victory may be overly sensitive to even the smallest defensive lapses, but the reality is still what it has always been: the team’s offense can’t sustain a winner, or even itself.

Memphis has been successful running a traditional-style offense, but their personnel is suited for that style of play. Unlike Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, neither Gortat nor Nene are particularly interested in high-volume back-to-the-basket post play. Gortat prefers to get the ball in the pick-and-roll, while Nene favors quick post moves or midrange jumpers. And it’s not all about the bigs shooting 3s, lest you dismiss me as some Barkley fever-dream caricature of a talentless non-athlete who just wants to insert a phallic calculator reading “3333333333” in your ear. The Wizards rank 23rd in free throw attempts per game. For a team that doesn’t shoot 3-pointers, free throws represent an obvious respite from the platitudinous midrange option for Washington’s bigs, wings, and point guards.

Some mixture of personnel, coaching style, and individual play have combined to give us the Wizards of 2015, a team that will probably end Randy Wittman’s head coaching stint in D.C. despite starting 19-6. Whether the pink slip comes in the summer, or sooner, the Wizards hit their ceiling months ago and have watched helplessly as the plaster, wood, and asbestos-riddled insulation fell out of the hole they punched in it. As of today, the Wizards rank 16th in OffRtg at 102.3 points per 100 possessions, but due in part to their moderate pace (16th as well), rank 19th in points per game at 98.6, 2.1 points per game worse than last year.

They sit straddling the line between the fifth and sixth playoff spot, arguably no better than the team that couldn’t break 44 wins last season and spent most of the year fighting to get over .500. Not even Ernie Grunfeld, steel-carapaced nuclear basketball administrator that he is, will survive the fallout if the team “coasts” to the finish line with a roster hamstrung by a complete devaluation of work-in-progress players and a chronic inability to find shooting talent.


  1. Gooden (33%), like Mirotic, doesn’t shoot the 3-ball at an elite level (34%), but has shot it well enough this season that he should take them when available, instead of the longest-est-est 2s.
  2. Humphries isn’t a 3-point shooting big, but he can stretch the floor a bit with an incredibly reliable midrange jumper. He’s one of the few players on the team whose ability to make this shot justifies the amount of shots he takes from this range.
  3. All OffRtg and DefRtg numbers are as of the games on March 3, 2015.
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Conor Dirks
Reporter / Writer / Co-Editor at TAI
Conor has been with TAI since 2012, and aids in the seamless editorial process that brings you the kind of high-octane blogging you have come to expect from this rad website. The Wizards have been an assiduous companion throughout his years on the cosmic waiver wire. He lives in D.C. and is day-to-day.