NBA conference finals highlight Wizards' needs for defense and shooting

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NBA playoffs show Wizards need defense and shooting originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

The NBA playoffs have once again reached a place the Wizards have not been as a franchise since 1979; the conference finals. Yes, it has been 43 years since the Wizards were one of the final four teams remaining in the NBA playoffs. They have been close, most notably in 2017 when they took the Celtics to a seventh game in a second-round series, but getting over that hump has been elusive.

It makes watching the conference finals this year through a different lens: what do these four teams have that the Wizards are missing? Those four teams would be the Miami Heat, Boston Celtics, Dallas Mavericks and Golden State Warriors.

Most would likely point out right away the fact all of those teams have transcendent stars. Stephen Curry is probably a top-15 player all-time, Luka Doncic and Jayson Tatum are entering the conversation as two of the best players in the game and Jimmy Butler is perhaps one of the most underappreciated future Hall of Famers in recent memory.

But there are also more attainable traits those four teams all possess, which the Wizards currently lack. Some of them are areas everyone can see the need to confront this offseason. But taking a closer look at the common denominators of the final four playoff teams shows exactly how important it is that the Wizards fix those problems.

Here are three that stand out:

Defense

'Defense wins championships' may be a cliche and one fans who favor high-powered offenses roll their eyes at, but it's an enduring truth. All four of the remaining teams in the NBA playoffs ranked top-6 in defensive rating this season, per Basketball Reference. The Warriors were first, the Celtics were second, the Heat were fifth and the Mavs sixth. The Wizards, meanwhile, were 25th in the category.

The four teams left are going to continue a years-long trend of top defensive teams winning NBA titles. The last 20 NBA champion teams ranked top-11 in defensive rating. Only one of them was outside the top-10, the 2017-18 Warriors, who were 11th and then ranked first in defense in the playoffs.

The Wizards know defense is important and have prioritized it in just about every move they have made over the last two years. They rode a huge defensive improvement down the stretch of the 2020-21 season into the summer and then tried to double down, only to take a step back unexpectedly. This offseason they will try again and maybe the Mavs are a team they can emulate. Dallas went from 20th in defense last season to sixth this year and without a major roster overhaul.

3-point shooting

The Wizards' other biggest need is 3-point shooting, as they were dead-last in threes made this season (10.5/g), 29th in threes attempted (30.6/g) and 26th in 3-point percentage (34.2). Needless to say, that is not ideal in an era where 3-point shooting is king. And, not surprisingly, the four teams left are really good at it. In fact, all four of the playoff teams still standing were top-10 this season in threes made per game. They also all ranked in the top half of the NBA in 3-point shots attempted.

The Wizards were 21st in offensive rating this season, a direct result of their inefficiency from long range. It's a big priority and another one the Wizards are both well aware of and tried to tackle last offseason. They may have already helped themselves a bit by acquiring Kristaps Porzingis at the trade deadline and with the continued growth of young players like Corey Kispert and Rui Hachimura. But certainly they have a long way to go and, as evidenced by the remaining playoff teams, need to improve in a substantial way in order to be contenders.

A good place to start could be at point guard, as the Wizards had one of the least efficient backcourts in the NBA last season. Having a point guard who can shoot, or at least set others up for high percentage shots, would go a long way for them.

Draft steals

The NBA draft lottery was this week and the annual event gives hope to the worst teams in the league, some of which have committed to long and drawn-out tanking in order to build a contender someday down the road. But for as much focus as we put on the top draft picks every year, the best teams in the league don't rely on that method of roster building. Each of the teams left have found tremendous value with draft picks that didn't fall into their lap thanks to lottery luck. That commonality suggests it's not only a bonus when teams find a steal in the draft, it's arguably a requirement to construct a winning roster.

The Warriors are an all-time case, of course. They got Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green all outside the top-5 picks in the draft. Thompson was the 11th pick and Green was taken in the second round. Now they have yet another example in Jordan Poole, who was the 28th overall pick in 2019 and is emerging as a star at the age of 22. The Heat are also an extreme example of this with two borderline stars taken 13th and 14th overall (Tyler Herro and Bam Adebayo), plus a host of quality players who were undrafted (Duncan Robinson, Max Strus, Gabe Vincent). The Mavs also found Jalen Brunson in the second round plus Dorian Finney-Smith and Maxi Kleiber undrafted. And the Celtics landed Robert Williams, Grant Williams and Payton Pritchard outside the top-10.

The Wizards have the 10th overall pick this year and are hoping to find another good player to add to their development program. Though they didn't move up in the lottery, the best teams still find ways to acquire talent. For the Wizards to join them, they will likely have to do the same.