After all the focus the Wizards applied to the defensive end in the offseason, the results have not followed as they hoped, at least so far as they approach the midway point of their 2021-22 schedule. They started off the season as one of the best defenses in the league, but after 39 games rank 23rd in defensive efficiency, a few spots below where they were last season at 20th.
Head coach Wes Unseld Jr. believes his players can get back to the way they defended early on when they were fourth in the NBA in defensive efficiency through 13 games, during a time they started out 10-3. That, however, was nearly two months ago at this point. After a 130-122 loss to the Bulls on Friday night, Unseld Jr. found himself lamenting the effort of his players.
"I just don't think our effort and focus was there tonight on the defensive side of the ball. I addressed it after the game, our care factor has to be better. It just has to," he said.
"We've seen early in the year where we can be and how we can play when we guard and we haven't seen it since. That's probably the most frustrating thing for me."
The two areas Unseld Jr. honed in on after the Wizards' loss to the Bulls were turnovers and 3-point defense. The Wizards had 15 turnovers, which Chicago converted into 19 points. Ten of those turnovers came in the first half, as the Bulls seized the momentum early and never really allowed the Wizards to gain control.
Meanwhile, the Bulls hit 15 of their 33 attempts from three, good for 45.5%. The two teams played last weekend on New Year's Day, and Chicago made 17 threes, shooting 50% from long range.
Both were bad, but this time the Bulls were generating far too many wide-open looks. On two of Lonzo Ball's six threes, he had enough time to dribble and set his feet before shooting.
"They got a lot of open shots. A lot of their threes were not contested or late contests," Bradley Beal said. "Our miscommunication on defense led to a lot of open drives and uncontested layups. It was like we have no pride in guarding guys and helping the next man. They took full advantage of it."
The Wizards' defense has been a prohibitive problem at times this season when it was engineered to be a strength. They have mostly been good defending threes, ranking second in the NBA in 3-pointers allowed (10.8/g), but they are 22nd in paint defense (48.0 ppg) and allow the second-highest shooting percentage in the restricted area (68.7%).
The personnel seems to be there for the Wizards to have a sound defense. They have Daniel Gafford, who is tied for sixth in the NBA in blocks per game (1.8). Deni Avdija and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope are solid wing defenders. Their point guard rotation of Spencer Dinwiddie, Raul Neto and Aaron Holiday should collectively be a plus on the defensive end.
Unseld Jr. also came to Washington with a strong reputation for defense. He backed that up with the team's early success, but overall the Wizards just haven't been able to put it together consistently.
Friday's loss was the Wizards' fifth defeat in their last seven games. They fell below .500 for the first time this season, at 19-20. In what is proving to be a deeper Eastern Conference, they are now tied with the Knicks for ninth in the East. That puts them just inside the cutoff for the play-in tournament.
It's not where the Wizards expected to be and their defensive inconsistency is largely to blame. They have the same coach and the same players who led a good defense back in October and November. How and whether they can get back to being that team is the question.