Believe it or not, numbers say the Wizards defense has been elite

Mike DePrisco
·5 min read
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By the numbers: Wizards have been elite on defense lately originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

It's not a reach to say the Wizards haven't been a good defensive team over the last two seasons. 

They ranked dead-last in the NBA a year ago in defensive rating, and up until the NBA Trade Deadline, had the 26th ranked defense and were 15-28 on the year. 

But over the last month, the Wizards have turned their season around. They've gone 10-6 since the deadline and sit in prime position to secure a spot in the Eastern Conference play-in tournament, due in most part to their improvement on the defensive end of the floor. 

When the Wizards defend, they can beat just about anyone. Don't look now, but the numbers suggest the Wizards have been a great defensive team as of late. 

Since the trade deadline, the Wizards own the third-best defensive rating in the NBA. Third! They trail only the Jazz and Lakers, who've consistently been two of the best defenses in the league this year. 

How are they doing this?

Measuring defense can be tricky, so there are many factors at play. If you ask head coach Scott Brooks, he'll tell you health and free throws. 

"We haven’t had the consistency or the continuity that I would like in a normal season, but we’re much better now," Brooks said Tuesday. "Some guys are healthy, some guys are playing better, we tweaked a couple of things defensively to better suit some of our personnel. 

"It also helps us that we get to the free-throw line, that stops some of the plays teams have to set up their offense," he said. "It’d be nicer if we can make some of the threes, I think it can help our defense even more but I think it definitely helps that we get to the line." 

Free throws have certainly buoyed the Wizards' offense at times during the year. They rank third in the NBA in percentage of points scored at the free-throw line, and typically when the game slows down, defenses tend to flourish.

Health definitely could be playing a role as well. The Wizards' dreadful start to the year coincided with a COVID-19 outbreak and a lingering quad injury for Russell Westbrook. Now that they're nearly at full strength and have brought in two trade deadline acquisitions, it makes sense that their quality of play in general is picking up. 

There's more to it, though. A deeper dive into the numbers suggest this kind of defensive surge could have been coming all along. 

Luck, or the law of averages?

The Wizards' defensive scheme isn't perfect. They aren't as physical as they need to be, they often lean too heavily on switching everything and, on several occasions, breakdowns lead to wide-open corner threes. 

What Washington has done well all season is forcing its opponents into the right shots. 

The best defenses in this era of NBA basketball focus on limiting shots at the rim, guarding the 3-point line effectively and, as a result, conceding mid-range jump shots. Per Cleaning the Glass, the Wizards have had the best defensive shot profile all season long. 

They give up the smallest percentage of shots at the rim in the league, the sixth-fewest threes and the highest quantity of mid-range jumpers. The problem for the Wizards before the trade deadline was that teams were hitting their jumpers at an almost unsustainable rate. 

Opponent field goal percentage: Mid-range (league rank)

Pre-trade deadline: 47.5% (1st)

Post-trade deadline: 41.9% (19th)

Opponent field goal percentage: 3-pointers 

Pre-trade deadline: 38.5% (6th)

Post-trade deadline: 34.8% (26th)

What now?

There's no denying this has been a great, season-saving stretch for the Wizards. They're on a run that should land them the last spot in the play-in tournament. The key will be sustaining the level of defensive execution that's gotten them to this point. 

The good news is their personnel is in a much better position to do so than, say, last season. Daniel Gafford and Alex Len are far better defensive anchors than Moe Wagner and Thomas Bryant. Russell Westbrook is a superior defender to Isaiah Thomas, Shabazz Napier or any other starting point guard the Wizards had to go with last year and Rui Hachimura has taken strides on the defensive end of the floor. 

It'd be unreasonable to expect the Wizards to maintain a top-five defense. Even with this spurt, they're still 18th in the NBA in defensive efficiency for the year. If the defense begins to fall off, their offense must pick up the slack. So far this season, it hasn't been up to the task. 

Even during this stretch of great play, Washington's offense ranks 27th in the NBA. For the season? 24th. Few people would claim the Wizards to have a better defense than offense, but that's been the reality for almost half the season. If they can continue to defend like this and find easier ways to score the ball down the stretch, this is a team that'd have a really good chance at winning the play-in tournament and clinching a playoff spot. 

"At this point, we can't guard a parked car," Bradley Beal said back in January.

Oh, how life can change in just three months.