It was cliche last season to talk about where the Wizards needed improvement because the answer was always the same one: Defensively.
But through 11 games of the 2021-22 season, the Wizards have not only made themselves competent defensively, they might be one of the league’s better defensive units.
In a 97-94 win over the Cavaliers in Cleveland, the Wizards struggled offensively and shot just 41.7% from the field. Bradley Beal had just 13 points. And yet, the Wizards found a way to win.
“I think a lot of it comes from us new guys coming in,” Kyle Kuzma said of the improved defensive effort. “We’re defensive-oriented people, but also coach Wes (Unseld Jr.). He does a great job. I think a lot of times in this league, what separates good teams and bad teams in defensive schemes.”
Through the team’s first 11 games, they’ve now held a team to fewer than 100 points four times, the Cavaliers as the latest team added to that list.
In 72 games last season, they held an opponent to fewer than 100 points just three times.
“I’ve been on both sides of the ball,” Kuzma said of his previous stops in the league. “When you come here, first day of training camp, we want to be a top-three defensive team. OK, how do we get that? Wes puts us in great defensive situations. There’s really kind of no air out there. You know what it is.”
The Wizards have won games where they’ve simply had to outscore their opponents, like the second game of the season against the Pacers. They won that night 135-134 in overtime.
They’ve also had to pull out wins late down the stretch, as they moved to 3-0 on the season in games decided by three or less points. But, the constant there has been defense.
Even with the team’s most dangerous offensive player, who played Wednesday’s game with a heavy heart after the loss of his grandmother, struggling from the field, Beal still found ways to make a difference.
“That’s a hallmark of a pro — find a way to impact the game,” Unseld said. “His strength offensively we know is through the roof. But when it’s not going well, what else can you do? He made big plays defensively. He knows we’re going to lean on him on the offensive end. To show that he’s not hanging his head, he’s going to stay in the game and compete and find a way to help his teammates stay afloat, it’s a good thing to see.”
The turnaround has happened quicker than most expected, but for the Wizards, it’s a big reason, if not the reason, why the team is at 8-3 and atop the Eastern Conference.