Anchored by Kristaps Porzingis, Wizards off to strong defensive start

Can Wizards keep up strong defensive start? originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

WASHINGTON -- There is an old NBA adage that you don't know what your team really is until Thanksgiving, as early small sample sizes can produce misleading results. That is perhaps even more so nowadays when roster turnover is more common with free agency and short-term contracts.

Well, it's Thanksgiving and the Wizards' defense has so far been a significant strength after an offseason in which it was once again a question mark.

Through now 18 games following their loss to the Miami Heat on Wednesday, the Wizards place eighth in defensive rating, way up from their 25th overall ranking last season. They have been especially good in the paint, where they are tied for fifth in points allowed (45.4/g). Last year, they were 21st (48.2).

After ranking 28th out of 30 teams last season in opponents' field goal percentage in the restricted area (67.9), this season the Wizards are tied for 11th (64.3). Per Second Spectrum, Washington is holding their opponents to 55.7% shooting within six feet of the rim, 5.6% lower than those teams' season averages. That margin is second-best in the NBA only to the Indiana Pacers.

The Wizards' success defending the paint can be attributed largely to Kristaps Porzingis, who was not on the team one year ago this time. He has played in 17 of their 18 games this season and has made a major difference with his rim-protection. Players guarded by Porzingis have shot 6.8% worse than their season averages, at 41.1% overall, a very low number considering he often guards big men.

The Wizards are fifth in the NBA in contested shots (52.6/g) and Porzingis is third among all players (10.8) in the category. Meanwhile, his backup Daniel Gafford is seventh in contested shots per-36 minutes (15.9).

By walling off the rim, the Wizards are forcing teams to take more shots from the midragne, the least efficient part of the court. The Wizards allow the most field goal attempts in the paint outside of the restricted area (21.6/g) and their opponents are shooting just 37.9% on those plays.

Porzingis is shining especially against pick-and-rolls. As Kevin O'Connor of the Ringer noted this week, Porzingis is averaging a stellar 0.78 points per possession (PPP) when defending pick-and-rolls, the "best mark in the NBA among the 25 players who have defended the most pick-and-rolls this season."

For some additional context, the Wizards are seeing the most pick-and-roll plays involving the roll man attempting a shot than any other team in the league. They have also faced the eighth-most pick-and-roll plays where the ball-handler takes a shot.

So, Porzingis is seeing those plays with high frequency and still providing resistance. Whether teams will continue to try those actions against the Wizards, given these numbers, will be interesting to watch over time.

As for why Porzingis is finding success this season, of course health is a big part of it. He's had his durability issues in the past, but right now has full mobility with no injuries holding him back.

Porzingis also explained how a slight adjustment by the Wizards' coaching staff is helping him be in position to contest so many shots.

"[The coaches are] just trying to match me up with guys that are not as good of shooter so I can sag off more and help my teammates. I've been trying to do that to the best of my ability. I think the coaching staff has done a great job of putting each individual based on their skills and characteristics into the best positions possible," Porzingis said.

"I think that's one thing, being in those spots, being close to the basket, being put there by the coaching staff. And then trying to be as active as possible."

Head coach Wes Unseld Jr. has praised Porzingis' defense since the Wizards acquired him in a trade with the Mavericks in February. He consistently says Porizingis is underrated as a defender and especially on pick-and-rolls.

Right now the Wizards are doing a good job of maximizing the potential Unseld Jr. has identified in him.

"His hand activicty, his length; he impacts the field goal percentage at the rim. It's a little food for thought when guys get in [the lane], whether they want to finish at the rim. Those contested floaters, you'll live with some of those, but both him and Gaff have done a tremendous job in terms of our rim percentage defense," Unseld Jr. said.

Like Porzingis, Gafford has held opponents to lower field goal percentages (-2.2%) than their season averages. He's one of eight Wizards players that can say that this year, the others include Rui Hachimura (-7.7%), Jordan Goodwin (-5.5%), Delon Wright (-4.8%), Corey Kispert (-4.0%), Kyle Kuzma (-1.1%) and Bradley Beal (-0.3%).

Now, the Wizards have some work to do in order to make sure this strong defensive start is not a mirage like the one they had last year ultimately proved to be. While the Wizards are 10-8 right now with the eighth-ranked defense, last season they were 11-7 through this same point and were ranked seventh. They finished the year 35-47.

The Wizards will likely need to shore up the perimeter this time around. They are giving up the 10th-most threes per game (12.8) and the seventh-highest percentage (36.9). Given the importance Unseld Jr. places on 3-point defense, he's likely very aware of those numbers.

Also, if Porzingis is the catalyst to their strong defense, particularly in the paint, his health is important towards maintaining that success. Given he has had some durability issues in the past, it's worth noting.

But so far they have to be happy with how their defense has performed overall and especially in the paint. Maybe this time they can keep it up over the course of the season.