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Wizards' best hope for improving on defense centers around Thomas Bryant

Wizards' best hope for improving on defense centers around Thomas Bryant

The Washington Wizards were so truly terrible on the defensive end last season that they didn't discriminate towards any areas of the game.

Were they bad at defending threes? Yeah, they were 26th in the NBA in threes allowed (12.1/g) and 27th in opponent three-point percentage (37.0).

What about protecting the rim? Yeah, that too. The Wizards allowed more field goals within five feet of the rim (22.1/g) than any other team and the third-highest percentage (64.2) from that range. 

Collectively, it all added up to the 28th-ranked unit based on defensive rating (113.9), the highest in Washington franchise history. And they allowed the second-most points (116.9) of any team in the league.

The thing is, the Wizards didn't do a ton to address their defense this offseason, at least in the short-term. Though they likely set themselves up to be better down the road, most of the players they brought in who can help now aren't defensive guys.

C.J. Miles, Moe Wagner, and Davis Bertans are shooters. Rui Hachimura is known far more for his scoring than his defense. And Ish Smith and Isaiah Thomas at the point guard spot aren't exactly defensive stoppers.

If the Wizards are to improve defensively this season, even marginally, it will have to be due to players becoming better on that end than they have been in the past. And there is one player in particular who can make the biggest difference.

That would be third-year center Thomas Bryant, who has not been a plus-defensive player so far in his career but is only 22 years old. He hasn't been much of a rim protector previously, but he possesses some natural abilities that suggest he has the potential to become one. He is a high-energy player with long arms, fairly quick feet and a willingness to play through contact.

Bryant knows he holds the key to the Wizards' defensive ceiling.

"I have to be one of those guys to make a big difference. A big man can be the anchor for the defense. I have to take that responsibility to heart every day, whether it's in practice or the game," he said.

Bryant averaged 20.8 minutes per game for the Wizards, but only 0.9 blocks. His per-36 blocks average was 1.6, which was tied for 30th in the NBA. 

But for Bryant, and all big men, it's not just about blocking shots. It's about altering shots and the best rim protectors dominate in that regard. Though the stat can't be found on Basketball-Reference or NBA.com, the Wizards track it and pay close attention.

"Defensively, he definitely has to work and he has to improve," head coach Scott Brooks said of Bryant. 

"The two or three shots that players block is really good, but there are a thousand other plays that they can be in the wrong spot that they have to work on. He has to be in the right spot, protecting the paint and being in the paint to not allow guys even in there."

Bryant said altering shots has been a big point of emphasis for him leading up to the 2019-20 season. And in that process, he's trying to be more talkative on the floor to help his teammates who can't see behind them when defending guards.

"I'm starting to keep my hands up and my arms up, just verbalizing out there on the defensive end. I'm trying to be more engaged and that way my teammates are more engaged," Bryant said.

Ultimately, the Wizards will need more from everyone on their defense. One of their problems with rim protection is that guards can penetrate off the dribble too easily. By the time they meet Bryant at the rim, they have a full head of steam.

There are also, of course, way too many threes going in, and those count more. Even if Bryant became a lesser version of Rudy Gobert, he would need some help.

But no one else on the Wizards roster arguably presents the same short-term upside that Bryant does. If he figures it out on defense, it could make a world of difference for a team that needs it.

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Ted Leonsis indicates Scott Brooks will be judged by player development, not wins and losses

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Ted Leonsis indicates Scott Brooks will be judged by player development, not wins and losses

WASHINGTON -- The Washington Wizards have set modest goals for this season after a summer full of organizational change and the evaluation of head coach Scott Brooks will be in accordance with those expectations, managing partner Ted Leonsis said on Tuesday.

Leonsis addressed the media at a court unveiling in Southeast Washington, the latest charitable effort by Monumental Basketball, and he was asked if Brooks' job performance will be based on player development this season, instead of purely on wins and losses.

"Yeah," Leonsis said. "I think this is the happiest Scott has been since he's been in the organization. All coaches want is effort and coachability."

Leonsis explained in further depth how the team's expectations are different now and exactly where he will be looking for Brooks and his staff to make an impact.

"We had much different goals going into this season than we had in the past. In the past it was 'make the playoffs, win 50 games and go to the Eastern Conference Finals' and that plan failed. We admitted that and did a total reboot. I said 'why can't this reboot be fast?' We have over-indexed now on a lot of young players and the only way you will find out what you have built culturally is to let them play," Leonsis said.

"Now it's just learning to communicate, learning how to break out of the offensive system to go back on defense and that will come from coaching. We've certainly made a big enough investment in our coaching and staff, so I expect to see improvement across the board."

The Wizards have played to a 3-8 record in their first 11 games, which puts them second from the bottom in the NBA. Only the 2-12 New Orleans Pelicans have been worse.

Defense has been the main culprit, as they rank 29th out of 30 teams in defensive rating. Their offense, though, has been a surprise with the third-best offensive rating according to NBA.com.

The offensive success allowed Leonsis to take some jabs at the media.

"So, we're doing better offensively than I thought we would be doing. I think most of the experts said 'how are you going to score the ball?' That's what I heard going into the season. Well, that's not an issue. We're doing a little bit worse than I expected defensively because the effort is there," he said.

The offensive numbers certainly reflect well on Brooks. The defense, though, appears to be a problem that has no signs of going away. And long-term, the Wizards will need to improve drastically on that end of the floor to become a winning team.

As for Brooks' job status, it sounds like he could be in good standing if the young players on the team continue to develop. He is currently in the fourth year of a five-year contract worth $35 million. If the Wizards wanted to part ways before the end of those terms, they would have to buy him out.

"We don't have any expectations this year about wins and losses. It's more about culture, identity and what players will be with us on a long-term basis," Leonsis said.

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By the numbers: the areas the Wizards struggle the most on defense

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By the numbers: the areas the Wizards struggle the most on defense

The Washington Wizards are playing a unique brand of basketball. Despite their 3-8 record, they boast the second-highest offensive rating (113.2) in basketball, meaning they score more efficiently per 100 possessions than any other team. Yet, at the same time, they have the 29th-ranked defensive rating (115.2) and are allowing more points than anyone else (120.1/g).

It truly is a special combination. According to Basketball Reference, only one team in NBA history has ever held offensive and defensive ratings aboe 113 for an entire season, the 1981-82 Denver Nuggets. Those Nuggets actually won 46 games and made the playoffs.

So far the Wizards' defense has not been good enough to win, hence the 3-8 record. So, what exactly has been ailing their defense? Quite a bit, of course. You don't sink that low with one or two minor weaknessess.

Here is a look at their biggest problem areas on the defensive end...

Three-pointers

Three-point shooting is important these days, in case you haven't heard, and the Wizards have not been very good at defending the perimeter. The Wizards allow the fourth-highest percentage from three (37.1) and 12.6 made threes per game. This includes shots from true long distance. The Wizards are 29th in opponent shots made from 25 to 29 feet (9.5/g) and in percentage from that range (38.1).

Rebounding

This is a familiar problem for the Wizards, as they had the same issue last year. This time they are 26th in total rebounding, 28th in defensive rebounding and 29th in opponent offensive rebound percentage. That has led to the fourth-most second chance points allowed.

Rebounding just isn't the Wizards' forte at this point. Thomas Bryant leads them with nine boards per game and behind him are Moe Wagner (5.6/g) and Rui Hachimura (5.5). Troy Brown Jr. (5.3) and Bradley Beal (4.7) rebound well for their positions, but all in all it hasn't been enough.

Transition

The rebounding numbers have contributed to some rough moments on the fastbreak. Though it has cooled down a bit, the Wizards are still 15th in the NBA in opponent fastbreak points per game (13.3). Before this past weekend, they were near the bottom of the league in the category and it was enough for several players to point it out independently in interviews with the media.

Point guard

Any time a team struggles as badly as the Wizards have on defense, many are at fault. They aren't guarding the perimeter or protecting the rim. They are also giving up the most field goals made within 15 to 19 feet, so even the midrange is a blindspot for them.

But Isaiah Thomas has certainly stood out and not for good reasons. He is already undersized and now he is in a defensive structure that isn't build to compensate for his shortcomings. Maybe in Boston he could just divert players into traps, but the Wizards do not offer that type of backend security.

Add it all up and the Wizards are allowing 15.4 more points per 100 possessions with Thomas on the court than when he's off of it. 

Fouls

The best defensive teams can defend without fouling and the Wizards are not one of those teams. They are allowing teams to shoot the ninth-most free throws per game (25.8) and as a result, are giving up the sixth-most points at the free throw line (20.7/g).

Wagner is the headliner. He is third in the NBA with 7.5 fouls per 36 minutes. Jordan McRae is not far behind with 6.2 fouls per-36.

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