The Washington Wizards have beaten the Heat, Nuggets, and Celtics in the past week. They have done so thanks to a revamped playing style. Is it sustainable?
Since December 30, the Washington Wizards have defeated the Miami Heat, Denver Nuggets, and Boston Celtics. Combined, these teams have a record of 73-27. That’s a 60-win pace, and one-ninth of their losses are to the Wizards! Not just that, but a Wizards team playing without John Wall, Bradley Beal, Rui Hachimura, Thomas Bryant, Davis Bertans, Mo Wagner, and C.J. Miles.
It’s worth pointing out that all three of those games were at home, and nestled in the stretch were two additional home games, losses by 21 and 19 to the Orlando Magic and Portland Trail Blazers, respectively. Still, a 3-2 home stretch is worth enjoying for a team that’s 12-24 on the season.
Those teams being the three victories give Washington what is certainly its strongest stretch of the season. So what can be taken away from watching this team play at its heretofore zenith? For the purpose of this article, and finding something positive in a bleak season, we’ll just be looking at the three wins to see what does work, not the whole five-game stretch.
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First off, the contributions from relative unknowns can’t be overstated. In these three games, we saw 10-year veteran Ish Smith put up his career-high in points, while also posting eight assists, three steals, and ZERO turnovers. Troy Brown, Jr. put up a career-high in rebounds by four in the same game he was a layup shy of his career-high in points. Ian Mahinmi and Garrison Mathews put up career-highs in points. Jordan McRae averaged 19.7 points per contest in the wins and had 35-5-4 in the loss to Portland.
Johnathan “Who the hell is that guy?” Williams put up 12 points, eight boards, and three blocks. It seems like every night we see a different starring performance from someone that League Pass watchers hardly know. These guys are getting their opportunities on the league’s most injury-decimated team, and are grinding their tails off.
So how does that translate to the team’s play as a whole?
The Wizards absolutely love pace. Whether it’s the best way to win is questionable, considering their record, but it’s how they live. They take the second-most field goal attempts per game this season. But, in these three victories, they averaged a number of shots that would translate to 27th in the NBA (92.2 on the year vs 86.3 in the three dubs).
Naturally, that makes one think they were getting to the foul line, but checking those numbers reveals they took 80 free throw attempts over the three victories, compared to allowing 99. The Wizards are 30th in the NBA in free-throw attempts allowed. In these three contests, they allowed 6.4 MORE free throw attempts than their dead-last average. So how did they win?
The answer is defense. The games slowed down because their opponents were three contenders, all marked by defensive prowess. Nothing short of amazing, this favored the Wiz. For whatever reason, coach Scott Brooks got the team to stick their guys way harder than they usually do, and the resulting difficult shots made the opposing teams shoot 41.6 percent from the field. That’s not unbelievably bad, but it would be the worst in the league and is a full four percent worse than average. The Wizards are always hot on offense, so they got in the way on defense as best they could and dared teams to keep up with their scoring ability. These three teams weren’t able to match that the other way.
The Wizards lead the NBA in open shot attempts at 29.2 per contest, something that mutually perpetuates them being 5th in the NBA in points per game and 8th in assists per game. For shots that are either open or wide-open, they average 46.4 per game. League average is 44.0 (stats all courtesy of NBA.com).
Regarding shots that were either open or wide-open: The Heat average 42.4 and took 30 in their loss to the Wiz. The Nuggets average 46.7 and took 45. The Celtics average 42.5 and took 39. That’s an average of 38 open or wide-open shots in these wins. The average allowed being 44.0 means that the Wizards were above-average on a defensive stat! By six whole shots! Even if the Wizards had held these teams to their averages, it would have been a win because the Wizards defense is so far below average.
That 38 number is obviously not sustainable, but players who are on the fringe of the NBA (injury replacements like this roster is full of) tend to be scrappier. They realize the urgency of their moment and bring more constant effort. Contesting shots straight-up leads to winning games, especially when you were as bad at it as the Wizards were. Picking up that slack is a huge takeaway and something that needs to be maintained when the regulars come back.
Watching the team play as a team on defense has been impressive and unusual for them. Bradley Beal is a sieve on defense has often trickled down to other players standing around, as teams take after their best player(s); and that lack of effort just can’t work when so many Wizards players are already horrible on defense (Isaiah Thomas is the worst individual defender in the league, Thomas Bryant is as bad as it gets for a starting big, Rui has loads to learn, Moe Wagner leads the league in fouling, etc.).
The most important part for the Wiz to remember moving forward is that improved defense doesn’t necessarily take away from the offense. Sure, they lost six field goal attempts per game, but they scored 116.7 points per game, which is actually higher than their season average (115.6). And, *small sample size alert* they shot 51 percent from the field and 40.5 percent from 3.
Those would both be first in the NBA, so while not sustainable, the team has great offensive skills currently out of the lineup. This team is so good on offense and so bad on defense that it can give up a little bit of scoring firepower and turn it into exponential gains on the other end, and get itself a better net result.