As the Wizards opened training camp this week at the Medstar Performance Center in Southeast Washington, head coach Scott Brooks' first message to his team was about defense and how he believes they can make a significant leap this season. Part of his thinking is rooted in the fact they added Dwight Howard through free agency this summer, as Howard gives them a level of rim protection they have not enjoyed in years.
It also wasn't that long ago that the Wizards were a top-shelf defensive team. When Washington first began making playoff runs with John Wall and Bradley Beal running the show, they were an above average team on defense. From the 2012-13 season through 2014-15, they were top 10 in points allowed.
Their roster has changed significantly from those days and some of their best defenders like Trevor Ariza moved on. But last year they were 15th in defensive rating and 15th in points allowed, and Brooks feels a jump into the top 10 isn't out of the question.
Howard himself believes they can be even better than that.
"Playing against this team last year, I thought their one-on-one defense was pretty good. So, you add that in with myself and other guys that like to block shots and protect the paint and we should be top-5 in defense this year," Howard said.
The mere presence of Howard has Wizards players believing they are collectively capable of reaching new heights. Power forward Markieff Morris remarked at media day on Monday that the Wizards could lead the NBA in blocks this season, despite the fact they finished 22nd last year.
Morris said the rim protection from Howard plus Wall, whom he referred to as "the best shot-blocking point guard in the league" will push them over the top. Though other Wizards players did not go as far as Morris, many of them spoke of the advantages in having Howard in the paint behind them.
"People don't really get around me as much as they used to, I would say. But when they do, I have big Dwight back there to beat it off the glass if need be," forward Kelly Oubre Jr. said.
In his earlier days, the 32-year-old Howard was the best defender in the NBA and arguably one of the best the league has ever seen. He won three defensive player of the year awards in succession from 2008 through 2011. He has made All-Defense five times, though not since 2012, six years ago.
Howard blocked 1.6 shots per game for the Charlotte Hornets last season, a far cry from the nearly three blocks per game he averaged in his prime. But that sounds pretty good to the Wizards, who saw Wall - a point guard - lead the team in rejections last season. He was the only player on the Wizards to average more than 0.7 per contest.
Howard remains an elite rebounder and last year ranked fourth in defensive rebounds and third in defensive rebound percentage. In the eyes of his Wizards teammates, he is essentially still the same force down low that he's always been.
"I think he changes the game because people still forget who Dwight is," Wall said.
"I kind of hate that people are saying he has to revive his career here and start all over," Beal said. "Dwight is Dwight. Dwight has always had an impact on the game. We're happy to have him. He's a big part of what we want to do."
One prevailing thought from the Wizards' guards about Howard's addition is that they can't allow his presence to change the way they operate. While defending the perimeter, Wall and Beal want to treat him as a safety net, not as a crutch.
"The most important thing for us, the guards, we can’t just lay off without playing defense because we have a shot blocker now. We got to still play the same way we played like we don’t have a Dwight there," Wall said.
"Two things: one, I don't want it to make us lazy in thinking that we can just rely on Dwight all of the time because there's no guarantee that they're going to call everyone a blocked shot," Beal said.
"They're going to call some fouls, so it's important in that aspect that we keep him in mind and knowing that we need him in the game. On top of that, he's pretty much an emergency. He's always going to be the emergency, that emergency brake whenever you need it. So, I think in that regard I think it challenges us to keep guys out of the paint. But in a way, it eases us a little bit mentally knowing that we have a guy who can still protect the paint if that does happen, if a breakdown does happen."
Howard will not necessarily allow other Wizards players to let up in their on-ball defense or to take more chances, knowing he can clean up their mistakes. But it will sure be nice to have him back there.
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