The reasons why the Wizards struggled so badly on defense for several years leading up to about midway through last season likely dealt more with the personnel they had rather than coaching schemes, as evidenced by the dramatic before-and-after improvement they made once Daniel Gafford arrived in a trade. But there was one element of the Wizards' defensive strategy under their previous coaching staff that really seemed to irk fans and, in their eyes, define their issues on that end.
That would be the heavy reliance on switch defense. When opposing teams set picks, the Wizards very often would switch and sometimes that led to mismatches or, even worse, miscommunications and blown assignments.
New Wizards head coach Wes Unseld Jr. has arrived with a reputation for defense and, though he isn't against the practice of switching, he says there will be less of it going forward.
"I think it’s just more schematic choice. I’ve had some great success doing things a certain way. Other teams do it and they’re very good at it. I think there’s a place for it and there are times where we are going to do that. It kind of goes back to making sure we lay the foundation and then adjust accordingly," Unseld Jr. said.
On one hand, the Wizards appear to be better-suited now to switch if they wanted to. That's because they have more capable defenders after a roster overhaul in the offseason and more positional versatility. While they may have a logjam at the wing position, wings are ideal for switching because of their size and mobility.
By not switching, he may be asking more of his defensive players individually. They will have to fight through screens and know the opposing personnel to decide against whom they can go over or under the screener. They also have to communicate with each other so no one breaks free off of a simple mix-up.
Big man Montrezl Harrell says the players will ultimately be responsible for making it work.
"We’re going to do the things to make sure we don’t have to call for help and start switching. That’s what coach’s gameplan is and that’s what we’re going to carry out to a T. It’s not nothing personal, it’s just what he feels works best for us as a team," Harrell said.
Where Wizards players will really have to make sure they are on the same page is on pick-and-rolls. Though the Wizards made strides defensively last year, they were still tied for 25th among 30 NBA teams in points-per-possession allowed on pick-and-rolls. The Denver Nuggets, where Unseld Jr. was the associate head coach last season, were No. 1 in the category.
"I think regardless of what you’re doing, it’s how you’re doing it. If you’re doing it with proper technique and effort, if you’re physical, I think it bodes well, regardless of what that is. I think, for us, in pick-and-rolls specifically, we want to impact the ball. When you do that, you’re exposing yourself to some degree but you’re making the dominant ball-handler in most cases make an early decision," Unseld Jr. said.