After showing improvement on defense down the stretch of the 2020-21 season, the Wizards doubled down on that end of the floor last summer with a series of roster moves and with the hiring of head coach Wes Unseld Jr. Yet, somehow they took a step backward in 2021-22, going from 19th in the NBA in defensive efficiency to 25th.
That is not the trajectory the Wizards' front office envisioned and it has left them entering another offseason hoping to land a major defensive upgrade. Exactly how they will do that is unclear at this point, but they are going through the process of figuring out what went wrong so they can fix it.
Unseld Jr. and team president Tommy Sheppard shared extensive thoughts on the Wizards' defense in their end-year press conferences on Tuesday. Much of the problems they cited dealt with intangibles and circumstances.
Both of them pointed to the team's roster turnover and how that made it difficult to get all the players on the same page in what was a newly installed defensive system. Part of the equation was the effect having players enter COVID-19 protocols had on their ability to practice.
But in terms of personnel, Sheppard said he plans to add more players who are defensively inclined.
"There's a lot of demand if you're going to be a high achieving defensive team, you have to have a mindset. You have to have a lot of players that are wired that way. So, we're going to take a look at our roster," he said.
The numbers suggest the Wizards had more trouble in the middle than on the 3-point line. They allowed the third-fewest threes (11.5/g) in the league, but the 10th-most points in the paint (48.2/g) and the third-highest field goal percentage within five feet of the basket (65.5). They also gave up the most points in the midrange (5.7 FG/g).
That, however, may not be as simple as upgrading their rim protection. Both Sheppard and Unseld Jr. discussed getting better at stopping dribble penetration, which would fall on their guards and wings. The assertion would be that guards get past the front line too easily and once they do, their big men can't stop them from scoring.
Part of that is strategy. The Wizards were intent on running players off the 3-point line, as they wanted opponents to shoot in the midrange rather than from three or at the rim. It makes sense in terms of efficiency, but opposing teams were able to take advantage of the open space on the floor.
The Wizards do seem to have some pieces to work with defensively. Namely, they have two big men who can block shots in Kristaps Porzingis and Daniel Gafford. Porzingis only played in 17 games towards the end of the season. Perhaps his presence can help their defense over time.
Unseld Jr. also likes what they have at the forward position.
"I think the biggest thing with the size and our wing depth, the versatility and flexibility that gives you," he said.
The team will likely be in the market for a starting point guard, so perhaps they can find defensive help at that position, someone who can stop opponents off the dribble. Generally, defense is going to guide a lot of decisions the front office makes this summer.
"The defense is absolutely going to be a focus," Sheppard said.
The Wizards are intent on establishing an identity as a defensive team. Perhaps with a few more tweaks this offseason, they can get there.