The total numbers for the 2019-20 season paint an ugly picture for the Wizards' defense, but GM Tommy Sheppard has a long list of reasons to expect improvement.
Chief among them is the trajectory they saw last season after the All-Star break. Despite ranking 29th out of 30 teams in defensive rating based on NBA.com's records, they were 14th in the NBA after the trade deadline. They basically went from having one of the worst defensive ratings in NBA history to league average after making some minor tweaks, most notably removing Isaiah Thomas and replacing him with Shabazz Napier.
The Wizards are banking on that trend being indicative of the larger picture and they think John Wall can provide an impact close to what Napier did at the top of their defensive front.
"Certainly, I think the addition of John Wall coming back starting at point guard, a guy who was on the All-Defensive team not too long ago. When he's healthy, John can really impact the ball. It's going to really change the way [we defend]. Instead of having five at the rack and constant under attack in the paint," Sheppard said.
What Sheppard hopes is more resistance at the top will help the rest of the defense, as opposing players won't be running downhill at the rim and leaving center Thomas Bryant at a disadvantage. Sheppard mentioned Bryant's expected improvement as a young player, as well as Rui Hachimura, their projected starter at the four.
In fact, Sheppard named just about the entire rotation when describing how the Wizards can get better defensively. He mentioned Bradley Beal's on-ball defense, Troy Brown Jr.'s defensive rebounding, Isaac Bonga's presence on the wing, plus the different attributes his newest acquisitions will provide. Robin Lopez will give them size and strength in the paint, while Raul Neto has a deep track record of altering shots at the perimeter that show up in advanced metrics.
But aside from the relatively minor additions they made, Sheppard believes the young roster he put together a year ago will be better all-around simply with more experience.
"Young people make mistakes and that's what last year was all about, to let people develop. This year, we expect to win more. We expect guys to step up their game and level up," Sheppard said.
The Wizards have the potential to be one of the best offensive teams in the league this year, which should help offset whatever happens on the defensive end. Last season, they were seventh in points per game and that was without Wall. If Wall is healthy (and not traded away), they will have threats at all three levels: Wall, Beal and Davis Bertans on the perimeter, Hachimura in the midrange and Bryant with his unique efficiency around the rim.
But unless they take a relatively big step defensively, their ceiling will only be so high. In addition to their defensive rating, they gave up the third-most dunks, third-most layups, the third-highest field goal percentage within five feet of the rim and the fourth-highest three-point percentage in the NBA.
Maybe they only need to be average, but last year they were pretty far from even being average.