How much did the Wizards improve their defense this offseason?

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How much did the Wizards improve their defense? originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

Though it had improved enough last season to not be considered a debilitating weakness anymore, and possibly not even a weakness at all, the Wizards' front office had a clear goal in mind this summer and that was doubling down on their defense.

In the 2020-21 season, following two years of historically bad defensive efficiency, the Wizards made strides and then witnessed firsthand the power of a consistent defense. With additions like Robin Lopez, Raul Neto and Alex Len, they found stability. Then, once they acquired Daniel Gafford at the trade deadline they went from about league average to by some measures elite.

A better defense made the Wizards competitive more often night to night, no matter the opponent. All of a sudden, they weren't the team that played up or down to who they were playing. And when they lost, it was rarely a lopsided defeat.

The Wizards for the 2020-21 season as a whole ranked 20th in the NBA (112.3) in defensive rating, according to NBA.com. But from Jan. 9 on, they were 13th (112.0) and after March 27, Gafford's debut, they were sixth (109.7). The Wizards went 17-6 in games Gafford played.

Instead of banking solely on that late-season improvement, which came in a large enough sample size to mean something, the Wizards decided to push forward with defense in mind. They traded for defensive-minded players like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma and Aaron Holiday, and they signed a guard in Spencer Dinwiddie who was a solid defensive player pre-injury.

The Wizards did let some of their defensive help go, namely with Lopez and Len leaving, and losing Russell Westbrook's defensive rebounding will hurt. But overall, it could be a net positive, especially when you factor in the arrival of head coach Wes Unseld Jr., who's reputation has been built on the defensive end.

Put it all together and the Wizards have plenty of defensive upside. Between the new player additions, Unseld Jr. and a full season of Gafford manning the paint, they have a chance to hail defense as a strength.

Exactly how good they will be, or how much they improved, isn't easy to quantify. We tried to do this with their three-point shooting and it's generally an inexact science, especially with an area like individual defense which doesn't have the objectively relevant stats that offense does. Many defensive stats are open to interpretation and defensive evaluation often requires more of an eye test. Defensive value can't be gleaned solely from a box score.

One stat you could cite is defensive real plus-minus, which general manager Tommy Sheppard noted after the signing of Neto last offseason, so it's a stat they pay attention to. In Caldwell-Pope, the Wizards added a player who ranked 19th among 534 NBA players last season in the category. His DRPM was 2.80 last season, per ESPN, and that would have led the Wizards by a good margin. Their top DRPM player was Rui Hachimura at 0.75, placing him 105th in the league.

Kuzma (0.18) was also in the positive and with him and Caldwell-Pope, and factoring in the departure of Westbrook (0.05), the Wizards will have five players who were positive in DRPM last season, after last year only having four. Aaron Holiday also ranked seventh among point guards in 2019-20 (1.76), despite being 69th at his position last season (-1.83) as his Indiana Pacers struggled overall. The Wizards also, however, added Montrezl Harrell who was 82nd out of 86 centers last season (-1.79).

That stat itself, though, doesn't line up perfectly with what most accept as reality. Neto was 401st in the NBA at -1.58 last season despite being 23rd among point guards the year before and fifth the season before that. Sure, he had to guard out of position and struggled in some specific matchups, but 401st would put him in the bottom-quarter of the league on defense and that doesn't seem right.

Dinwiddie was also 78th among point guards in 2019-20, his last healthy season, despite being the starting guard on a top-10 defense with the Nets, which doesn't compute. Perhaps most jarring is the fact Gafford was 48th among centers in 2020-21, at a -0.64. There is also the conundrum of Bryant, who was positive in DRPM the last two seasons when the correlation between his absence and the team's defensive improvement is at a minimum worth noting.

Another stat would be DIFF%, as calculated by the NBA. It may not be a mainstream stat, but it's pretty straightforward in its meaning. It is the difference between an opposing player's field goal percentage and the percentage they shoot when guarded by a particular player. You want to be in the negative, as it means you make the players you defend shoot worse than they do on average.

Last season, the Wizards had six players with a negative difference in opponent field goal percentage. They are now adding Kuzma and Harrell, who were in the negative last season, plus Dinwiddie and Holiday who were negative in 2019-20.

Now, for the context that will make you scratch your head. Caldwell-Pope, despite being the best current Wizards player at DRPM last season, showed up very differently in DIFF%, as he was in the positive. Meanwhile, Davis Bertans was one of the Wizards players who showed up in the negative. Either that is one indication he was better than it appeared, or it represents an outlier and should be a caveat for the stat itself.

Regardless of how the numbers shake out, there are some elements of the Wizards' defense that will make a difference. For instance, they now have three point guards who can defend between Dinwiddie, Neto and Holiday. They also upgraded their wing defense with Caldwell-Pope and Kuzma, the latter of which should help add size to counter the tall scoring forwards like Jayson Tatum and Tobias Harris, who were just too big for Neto, Bradley Beal and others to handle last season.

Unseld Jr. could also move the needle on defense by bringing more emphasis to that end. Perhaps his schemes can unlock defensive value not seen from some players previously. Also, just having more depth in defensive-minded players should help him build lineups that minimize the impact of players who are liabilities in isolation.

Where the Wizards' biggest question marks lie may be in the middle. They have Gafford, who is an excellent rim-protector, but Bryant and Harrell could represent a step back from Lopez and Len specifically when it comes to defending the paint. They should, however, be upgrades in other areas.

The Wizards will also be relying on two players in Dinwiddie and Bryant who are coming off ACL injuries. Though the track record of modern medicine suggests both should return just fine overall, staying in front of NBA players is already hard enough without surgically-repaired knees.

Still, overall the Wizards' depth and versatility on defense stands out. If Unseld Jr. is as astute a defensive mind as his reputation suggests, it could be a recipe for defense to be a strength. Maybe they won't be the sixth-ranked defense we saw down the stretch last year, but they appear capable of being above average, which is something the Wizards haven't been able to accomplish across a full season since 2014-15, if you base it on defensive rating.

Yes, the Wizards who despite their steps forward still allowed teams to score the most points in the league last season, could soon consider defense a strength. Imagine that.