The Indiana Pacers and their struggling offense face a Washington Wizards team that has become one of the staunchest defensive units in the NBA. And there’s one reason for that: Randy Wittman is a good coach.
Sure, the Wizards’ offense could get better. It tends to rely too often on mid-range jumpers and contested shots. But Washington has ranked in the top 10 in both attempts and percentage on three-pointers taken from the corners two years in a row. Even with their struggles, the Wizards are finding ways to get efficient looks.
In fact, Washington’s offense has greatly improved, jumping up from dead last in points per possession last season to 16th this year. Of course, plenty of the improvement had to do with having a healthy John Wall for the entire season, but player development played a role as well.
Wall and Bradley Beal have learned to run the pick-and-roll with far more poise, and the Wizards’ offense becomes a legitimate threat if Wall can find a way to get to the right elbow and make decisions from there. But the offense isn’t what makes the Wizards tick — Washington wins on the defensive end.
Even when the Wizards were losing under Wittman, they were playing good defense. They may have won just 29 contests last year, but they still finished eighth in points allowed per possession. This year, it was a different team with almost identical results: ninth in defensive efficiency.
Fast forward to Round 1 of the NBA playoffs, when the Wizards disposed of the Chicago Bulls in five games, and you’ll see some creativity from Wittman in a time of need. Conventional wisdom would’ve said you throw Wall, a strong defender, on the Bulls’ point guards and let Trevor Ariza guard a wing, maybe running through screens as he stalked Jimmy Butler off the ball. But Wittman didn’t go conventional. Instead, Wittman matched Ariza up with D.J. Augustine or Kirk Hinrich for the series, and the Bulls couldn’t adjust. Granted, Chicago was a well below-average offensive team this season, so a scoring outburst in the first round probably was unrealistic, but Wittman’s strategy made perfect sense.
Joakim Noah may be the heart of the Bulls’ offense, but Augustine and Hinrich are the head. Cut off the noggin and it doesn’t matter how much blood you pump to the limbs. The body won’t be able to see where the heck it’s going.
The Bulls’ offense might be more consistent if forced to run every play through Noah, but it would surely have a lower ceiling. Chicago’s best chance to put up average efficiency numbers in the playoffs was if Augustine or Hinrich went off, considering consistently running your attack out of the high post can scrunch your spacing. There’s a reason teams like the Bulls and Memphis Grizzlies, who like to run their offense through Marc Gasol, don’t score well even though both their centers are elite passers.
Basically, Ariza’s job was to fight through ball screens hard enough that he would force the rock out of the hands of the Bulls’ point guards, or at the very least, have an opportunity to contest bad shots:
Wittman’s defenders all seem to have this ability to step in front of the pick, which helps them go over ball screens so well. Look at how Ariza steps up on Noah, who’s one of the NBA’s best screeners, as opposed to going into him:
The Wizards forced Chicago’s pick-and-roll ballhandlers into just 4-for-20 shooting in Game 5, according to MySynergySports, and ultimately, the Bulls scored only 69 points on the way to elimination.
Washington communicates well on defense, another sign of a well-coached team, and even when Wall and Beal guarded the Bulls point guards, they would fight through the Chicago screeners. The Wizards managed to go over most every screen, switching before Chicago could run its plays on occasion. And because of that communication, the bigs could help if a ball-handler were to turn the corner and head to the hoop. And it wasn’t just the top-tier defenders. Even Trevor Booker was getting in on the party:
These aren’t habits that come naturally. They’re signs of a well-coached defense. But that’s Wittman. He’s not just relying on the inherent defensive abilities of a guy like Nene. He’s actually developing defensive talent.
We keep seeing defenders transform under him during the regular season, most recently with Marcin Gortat, whose pick-and-roll defense jumped up a notch since coming over from the Phoenix Suns.
Now, the Wizards have a group that defends as well as any remaining unit in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Washington doesn’t get caught out of place. It’s perfectly disciplined. Even John Wall, one of the league’s premiere gamblers, has learned better when to go for steals and when to stay at home.
The Wizards are learning it is about time Randy Wittman gets credit for that.
Fred Katz averaged almost one point per game in fifth grade, but he maintains his per-36-minute numbers were astonishing. Find more of his work at Bleacher Report or on ESPN’s TrueHoop Network at ClipperBlog.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FredKatz.