WASHINGTON -- Through the first few weeks of this season, the Wizards were hovering around .500, at times looking fairly good but without progress made in the two areas they struggled in the most last season; defense and 3-point shooting. But now winners of six of their last seven, Washington is starting to show significant improvement in both regards, making their recent surge even more encouraging.
With a 10-7 record, the Wizards have reason for hope because they are getting stops and lighting teams up from long range. After Sunday's win over the Hornets, they now rank 6th in the NBA in defensive rating. Last year, they were 25th in the same category.
Following a slow start shooting the ball, the Wizards are all of a sudden on fire from long range. Sunday was the 4th straight game they have made 13 or more threes. They previously set a franchise record by making 15-plus threes in four consecutive games. While they are still a relatively average 17th in 3-point percentage (35.2%), last year they were 25th (34.2%).
Head coach Wes Unseld Jr. believes the two areas are related, even though they take place on opposite ends of the floor.
"Defensively I think we've been a lot better, a lot more disciplined. Our level of communication in general has been better. We're playing with a little more purpose. I know it's not always perfect, but I think it's lent to better offense, the uptick in threes. I think that all goes hand-in-hand," he said.
One way defense can help the Wizards' offense involves pace. They can initiate offense much faster off rebounds and turnovers, rather than by inbounding the ball after their opponent makes a shot. The few extra seconds give other teams the ability to get their defense set.
Sunday was a good example of how the Wizards' defense is thriving at the moment. They held Charlotte to 102 points on 39% shooting from the field and 8-for-32 from three. Terry Rozier, the Hornets' leading scorer, was held to eight points. He shot 3-for-14 overall and 0-for-6 from deep.
The Wizards had 13 blocks as a team, which Unseld Jr. aptly said is a "high number." In fact, the Wizards hadn't had that many blocks in a game since 2018. Kristaps Porzingis had five blocks, while backup point guard Jordan Goodwin had three.
"Everyone is locked in and understands that we have to play defense every night," Kyle Kuzma said.
When it comes to the defense, in particular, there may be a necessary caveat given what happened to the Wizards last season. This time one year ago, through 17 games, the Wizards were 11-6, one game better than they are this season. They were ranked even higher defensively, at fourth in the NBA in defensive rating.
The Wizards would end up going 24-41 the rest of the way, having a mini firesale at the trade deadline and missing the postseason. The trick this time around will be keeping it up and proving this hot defensive start is not fool's gold.
According to Kuzma, the Wizards' upcoming road trip will be a big test. They just won five of six during a season-long homestand, but now head to Miami to see the Heat twice, then to Boston to face the defending conference champions.
The Wizards are 7-4 at home this season and 3-3 on the road. Meanwhile, 16 of their next 22 games are away from D.C.
"We're going to have to duplicate it. We have some tough road games coming up," Kuzma said. "If we want to be a good team in this league, we have to handle business on the road and create opportunity for us."
The Wizards will have to prove themselves over time, but they are trending in the right direction and showing up well in the categories they are seeking to improve.