Jason Reid
Jason Reid
Columnist

Wizards should emphasize defense at NBA draft

HANS DERYK/REUTERS - Miami Heat's LeBron James is guarded by Chicago Bulls Luol Deng, center, and Joakim Noah.

While he prepares for next month’s NBA draft, Washington Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld should consider defense.

After three straight seasons with winning percentages below .320, Washington still is not close to playoff contention, and acquiring more scorers, obviously, would help. But it also must undergo a culture change on defense — and that starts with Grunfeld.

The Wizards currently hold the sixth and 18th selections in the first round of the June 23 draft, and pick fourth (34th overall) in the second round. They have a glaring need at power forward, and upgrading at the wing forward and center positions would help as well, so Grunfeld could go in many directions.

Regardless of the path he chooses, however, improving Washington’s defense should be high on Grunfeld’s checklist. Whatever Grunfeld devises in an attempt to continue the progress owner Ted Leonsis expects, it had better include something for Washington to fare better at slowing opponents on offense.

Defense should be on Grunfeld’s mind whenever he reads scouting reports or analyzes video of top prospects. And if players express lack of interest in defense during pre-draft interviews, Grunfeld’s interest in them should wane.

The need for a major shift in defensive thinking is long overdue. It’s as clear as another blown rotation by Andray Blatche.

During Grunfeld’s eight-year tenure, Washington has been awful defensively, consistently finishing among the league’s worst in opponent field-goal percentage. Even during their stretch of four consecutive postseason appearances from 2004-05 to 2007-08, the Wizards never ranked higher than 20th in that key category and once finished 27th in the 30-team league.

High scoring is generally considered good for a ballclub’s attendance in the regular season. And it’s more common for players to be featured on television when they’re dunking rather than taking a charge.

Defense, though, is a major component of playoff success.

Given the Wizards’ disdain for it, their failure to advance far was not surprising. They lost three consecutive series in the first round and never made it beyond the Eastern Conference semifinals.

That’s not good enough for Leonsis, who envisions the Wizards one day rejoining the NBA’s elite. Washington is following the Oklahoma City Thunder model of team-building, and Leonsis used a similar blueprint to remake the Capitals into a NHL regular season power. (He hasn’t quite gotten the playoff thing figured out yet.)

In addition to patterning themselves after the exciting Thunder, the Wizards should try to emulate the defensive-minded Chicago Bulls, too.

Led by forward Kevin Durant and point guard Russell Westbrook, the athletic Thunder finished fifth in the NBA in scoring and has reached the Western Conference finals just three seasons after suffering a franchise-record 62 losses. Oklahoma City’s fast break is one of the best in the game and it has several players who can create their own shots.

Point guard Derrick Rose — the league’s most valuable player — is the Bulls’ only dynamic performer on offense, but they’ve thrived on team defense. Chicago led the league in opponent field-goal percentage, and defensive tenacity has helped it reach the Eastern Conference finals against Miami.

First-year Bulls Coach Tom Thibodeau is considered the game’s best defensive strategist, and the team has responded well to his schemes. But the Bulls also were formidable on defense last season because of their personnel.

Rose, center Joakim Noah and forwards Luol Deng and Taj Gibson are long, athletic players capable of covering wide areas quickly. Combined with Thibodeau’s proven defensive principles, the Bulls usually wear down the league’s best offenses.

The Heat finished second to the Bulls in opponent field-goal percentage and has shined defensively in taking a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series. Miami does not have as many good one-on-one defensive players as Chicago, but LeBron James and Dwyane Wade enable it do to many things.

Most importantly, James and Wade set the Heat’s defensive tone. When the best players take charges, close out on shooters, fight through screens and execute their rotations, everyone else on the team knows they must give as much effort on defense. Or they probably won’t remain on the roster.

That’s why Washington wasn’t a legitimate title contender even when Gilbert Arenas was one of the league’s top scorers. The best teams lead with their defense, and the Wizards’ former top player was one-dimensional.

The Bulls teams that won six NBA titles from 1990-91 to 1997-98 did so, in large part, because the greatest player in league history demanded excellence from his teammates on offense and defense. It all started with Michael Jordan.

Chicago also benefited from having Scottie Pippen, second to none as an on-ball defender, and other players who appreciated the importance of defense. In today’s game, Wade and James are almost as versatile a defensive duo as Jordan and Pippen once were.

Wizards rookie point guard John Wall possesses the physical tools to become a defensive standout and wants to lead. Center JaVale McGee finished second in the league in blocked shots and guard Jordan Crawford responded well to challenges.

There are some pieces in place. The Wizards could soon become much better on defense. They have the picks to get serious. Now, Grunfeld must make a stand.

 
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