The Washington Wizards are probably better than you thought defensively. Can they stay as such?

There is nothing complicated about what the Washington Wizards want to do on defense. Like most teams, they prioritize protecting the rim, and deploy a predominantly conservative style that puts them in a position to do so on a consistent basis. Unlike many teams, however, they are armed with a true defensive anchor, along with arguably the most effective defensive point guard in the league, and a slew of experienced and capable role players who pack the paint and understand how to deter easy baskets.

The result, so far, yields a top-five defense. Washington allows the third fewest points in the paint, and, according to various metrics provided by SportVU and NBA.com, is one of the league’s better teams at keeping opponents away from the basket. This is significant, and a trait synonymous with great defense; the Wizards should be applauded for their efforts. But look closer and a few concerning questions arise. After one month against a fairly soft schedule, is this defense as stout as it appears? Or will a somewhat overly cautious strategy eventually come up and bite Washington in the behind?

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First things first: Marcin Gortat and John Wall are two fantastic defenders who empower everyone else, and the Wizards are very lucky to have them. When those two are on the floor, all their teammates are able to breathe a bit easier. Lineups featuring both Gortat and Wall have allowed only 95.0 points per 100 possessions, which would equate to the NBA’s very best defense.

Gortat will not ever find himself in the running for Defensive Player of the Year, but he is a chiseled 6’11” hulk with light feet and long arms. He scares off guards who weasel into the paint and is more than strong enough to handle opposing centers in man-to-man situations. Gortat helps his teammates, not the other way around — a necessary characteristic of any solid defensive center. The Wizards’ base defense has him sagging on pick-and-rolls, forever walling off any driving lanes to the rim.

However, Gortat is not the perfect defender, and gets in trouble whenever he hedges on the perimeter. He is nimble, but not quick enough to retreat from the three-point line back to the paint — in situations like the one below, where Gortat’s man can shoot threes and sagging into the paint is not the best solution, Washington’s brick wall defense crumbles almost immediately. They need him back there.


Meanwhile, at the point of attack, Wall is a coiled spring soaked in venom. He is fast enough to go under screens, recover in time to contest the shot, and currently leads the league in steals. Testament to his defensive importance, the Wizards allow an inconsolable 112.4 points per 100 possessions when Wall is on the bench, per NBA.com. He is one of the very best at his position, with long arms, fantastic instincts and unparalleled speed.

Washington’s starting center and point guard are defensive lynchpins, then, but it is really the entire starting lineup that has carried this team to such a lofty defensive rating. At small forward, Paul Pierce is one of the best communicators in basketball, and his vocal influence helps keep everyone rotating on a string. While Pierce has declined as a go-to scorer and an athlete, he has steadily evolved into a reliable rebounder who always knows where he and his teammates are supposed to be. In the Eastern Conference, despite his slow feet, he can almost always guard both forward positions.

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Injuries to starting shooting guard Bradley Beal and starting power forward Nene have forced Randy Wittman to scroll through two main starting lineups so far. The first had Garrett Temple substituting for Beal, and the second (and current) version has Kris Humphries in for Nene. Both groups are nevertheless insanely good on defense, posting defensive ratings that prop them up as the best in the league. They consistently pack the paint, and rarely allow easy looks at the rim – although Humphries is not long nor a noted shotblocker, he is strong, and handy as any forward at sliding across the paint to bother open layup attempts.

This disciplined mindset is exactly why Washington has one of the league’s better defenses right now. However, there are reasons for concern going forward. Unless they shore up a certain facet of their team defensive game, the Wizards will have to get lucky to maintain this elite defensive efficiency,

From various spots on the perimeter, Washington struggle stopping penetration. The Wizards have the sixth oldest team in the league, and guys like Paul Pierce (37 years old), Rasual Butler (35) and Andre Miller (942) simply do not have the legs to dart in and out of the paint to contest shots and keep ball-handlers at bay. In theory, periodic penetration will force Washington’s help defenders to shift off their assignment to cover for these slower footed perimeter defenders, leaving the team vulnerable from the three-point line.

Wiz pack the paint

Despite this, Washington’s three-point defense has not been bad so far. They are right at the league average in the number of attempts they allow, both per game and per 100 possessions, and are in the top-10 in three point defensive percentage. But a fairly soft schedule and some generally poor outside shooting by open opponents has proven beneficial; a recent 2-for-22 performance from the Miami Heat being a solid example of how luck more than the system has helped them in this area.

So long as Washington is intent on having four or five defenders crash the paint whenever a ball-handler beats his man off the dribble, it is probable that their three-point defense eventually becomes a problem. Then again, perhaps more minutes from Otto Porter and Bradley Beal, both only 21 years of age, will give Washington the athleticism on the perimeter they need.



Here is Porter helping out on Indiana’s drive, then retreating back to contest Solomon Hill’s corner three. This is the type of range and effort Washington need in order to sustain their current overall stinginess, and it requires younger legs to do so. Similarly, Beal is a reliable defender who creates problems on the ball, although he is fouling way too much this season in admittedly limited time.

The Wizards are daring opponents to hit shots. And so far, it is working. But the season is long, and their inability to contest threes on a consistent basis could be troublesome later on, possibly culminating as their fatal flaw in the playoffs. Until that day comes, though, Washington should not overly worry. This is a really smart team that makes timely rotations and knows how to keep teams away from the rim, which of course is vital. They are doing all they can, and “all they can” has so far produced one of the toughest defenses in basketball.  And although they potentially have one Achilles heel, they have so far gotten away with it, and they have the players to potentially fix it. Washington has one of the better defenses in the NBA, and it could stay that way.

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Michael Pina

NBA writer. Published at Sports on Earth, FOX Sports, Bleacher Report, Grantland, and a few other very special places. Twitter: @MichaelVPina, E-mail: MichaelVPina@gmail.com

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