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I’m not sure calling it ‘improbable’ even does justice to the Washington Wizards’ start. After Monday night’s win 105-100 win over the New Orleans Pelicans, they are 10-3 with the best record in the Eastern Conference.
The Wizards dramatically remade their roster this offseason, turning Russell Westbrook into Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrel and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and signing Spencer Dinwiddie to take over at point guard. On paper, those are mostly offensive upgrades (besides KCP), trading the ‘star’ power of Westbrook for increased depth and versatility. But even on paper, it didn’t look like the makings of an elite offense and that’s largely been borne out — they are16th in offensive efficiency and free-throw rate is the only one of the Four Factors in which they rank in the top 10 in the league.
Which makes the results all the more incredible. If there was any way the Wizards finished the first month of the season as one of the best teams in the East, I would have guessed they would be fueled by unexpected synergy and shot-making on offense, not by one of the best defenses in the league.
Is the Washington Wizards defense just a fluke?
We’re still in the part of the season where randomness can be a defining factor of a team’s results at both ends of the floor. Research has shown that 16 games, on average, is when a team’s defensive efficiency crosses the threshold of a .500 correlation with their season-end number but even that leaves plenty of room for variation.
However, the Wizards, who currently have the fourth-best defense in the league, surrendering just 102.7 points per 100 possessions, don’t have the indicators of a defense benefiting excessively from luck or randomness. The Wizards have benefited from some unusually bad shooting by their opponents, who have made just 29.5 percent of their 3s against Washington. But opponents have also made an unusually high percentage of their free throws against the Wizards, 79.7 percent, which balances that out somewhat. If both of those numbers were exactly league average this season, all else being equal, the Wizards only would have allowed 50 additional points so far, raising their defensive efficiency to 106.9 which would still rank 13th in the league.
But there is some reason to think that the Wizards’ outlier opponent 3-point percentage isn’t all random chance.
For one thing, the Wizards have allowed the fewest 3-pointers per game of any team in the league — that’s a system and execution thing, a variable that is actually in the team’s control. And while a team can’t really affect how an opponent shoots on open and wide-open 3s (no defender within four feet of the shooter), they do have some control over how many of those shots they allow. The Wizards have allowed an average of 30.5 3-point attempts per game this season, the lowest mark in the league and only the Phoenix Suns have allowed a lower percentage of those 3s to be open or wide-open.
And this impressive defensive performance is part of a larger structure that’s limiting high-value shots for opponents. Washington has allowed the seventh-fewest shots per game in the restricted area which means a whopping 40 percent of their opponents’ shot attempts are coming in the paint but outside the restricted area, or as mid-range jumpers — generally, the two least efficient areas to score from.
If you’re looking for more detail on how the Wizards’ defensive system has operated, be sure to check out breakdowns like these from Quentin Mayo. Anecdotally, they seem to be doing a good job of mixing up their pick-and-roll coverage with plenty of drop coverage against the kinds of players who are easily goaded into taking pull-up jumpers inside the arc. For example, on Monday, Harrell and Daniel Gafford gave Brandon Ingram plenty of cushion as he navigated around screens and the result was eight pull-up jumpers from inside the arc (of which Ingram made just two).
Ingram is not the only scorer who has played directly into the Wizards’ hands like this. In two games against Washington this season, Jayson Tatum has attempted nearly as many pull-up jumpers (20) as he has shots off drives (21). The ratio is even further out of whack for Fred VanVleet (25 pull-ups to 14 shots off drives), Trae Young (20 pull-ups to 10 shots off drives) and Kevin Durant (11 pull-ups to 3 shots off drives).
There will be nights this defensive strategy doesn’t work as well, when a hot shooter leverages that space and pours in jumpers. But over 82 games it’s a sound approach to making the most of a roster that isn’t necessarily loaded with elite individual defenders. If they can keep communicating. stay healthy and hew to their defensive principles, they should absolutely find themselves in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race, even if opponents start making some shots they’ve been missing thus far.
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