Saunders Is Selling Defense, and Wizards Are Buying In

By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 4, 2009

RICHMOND, Oct. 3 -- Coach Flip Saunders hopped up, chased down Andray Blatche and gave him a high-five. DeShawn Stevenson patted Blatche on the back, and several of the Washington Wizards' players and coaches hooted and applauded. Blatche hadn't completed a nifty fast-break dunk or finger roll; he simply wouldn't give Antawn Jamison any room to get off a shot in the low block. The swarming help defense behind Blatche wouldn't give Jamison a passing lane, which allowed Blatche to later slap away the ball.

The message is being sent early and often during Saunders's first training camp: This team won't truly succeed until it defends. Saunders has been preaching that the players will have to trust one another on the defensive end and communicate, sometimes stopping practice to make sure that players are telling each other where they need to be on the floor. His players are buying in.

"It's almost more rewarding as a player, when you can go stop somebody than score on somebody. That's the mentality you have to have if you want to be a championship-type team," Saunders said. "I really believe -- and I say this and people around here shudder -- but I think this can be a good defensive team. I'm not saying average. I'm saying we can be a good defensive team. Time will tell."

With the exception of one season, the Wizards have ranked in the bottom third of the NBA in points allowed and field goal percentage defense since Eddie Jordan's first took over in the 2003-04 season. Each training camp, the common refrain was that the team was going to get better defensively, but each season, the Wizards continued to try to have success by outscoring their opponents. The final result was one playoff series win in four postseason appearances.

The defensive deficiencies reached their nadir last season, when the Wizards finished 24th in points allowed (103.5 points) and 29th in field goal percentage defense (48.2) under Jordan and later Ed Tapscott. "In previous years, defense wasn't stressed," center Brendan Haywood said. "If you could score, you played. And now it's a little bit different. Now it's, 'What can you do on both sides of the ball?' Because you have to realize that offense isn't the only side of the basketball."

At his introductory news conference, Saunders said that nearly 60 percent of his playbook and his practices were committed to defense, and that no opponent could ever say that his teams didn't defend. He has found success by committing to solid man-to-man defense, as well as to the matchup zone, which stresses tough on-the-ball defense with the other players on the floor helping. Many players have described the scheme as "simple," which has made it easier to grasp.

When asked for a realistic goal for a Wizards team that features several players not even noted as average individual defenders, Saunders said that he isn't worried about how many points they surrender, but was more concerned with his team holding opponents to under 44 percent "and pretty much go from there."

In his last full season in Detroit, in 2007-08, the Pistons were third in field goal percentage defense (43.9) and tied for first in points allowed (89.9). In eight full seasons in Minnesota, Saunders's Timberwolves never allowed opponents to shoot better than 45.2 percent, and in 2005-06, the Pistons held opponents to just 45.4 percent, which stands as the worst in any of his full seasons as an NBA head coach.

In 2007-08, the Wizards found some success using the new defensive system incorporated by assistant Randy Ayers and it resulted in the team holding opponents to 45.9 percent shooting, which ranked 17th in the league. The last time the Wizards held opponents around 44 percent was 2002-03, when Michael Jordan was on the team.

Saunders's teams were solid defensively, but he also had Kevin Garnett, a former defensive player of the year, in Minnesota and Ben Wallace, another former defensive player of the year, as well as Rasheed Wallace and Tayshaun Prince in Detroit.

Saunders said the personnel certainly plays a role in success, but expressed confidence in the pieces on this team. "I think Caron [Butler] has the ability to be an all-defensive type player. I think the other guys have shown the ability to do the things you need to do defensively," Saunders said. "If you can keep things simple, players are held accountable, but yet they know they are always trusting their teammates and there is going to be help. Once you have that, you start believing it and once you believe it, you have more confidence and you get better."

That pride on the defensive end of the ball could also be spotted during the final scrimmage on Saturday, when the black team consisting of Blatche, Jamison, Haywood, Gilbert Arenas and Mike Miller held another squad that featured Caron Butler, Dominic McGuire, DeShawn Stevenson, Randy Foye and JaVale McGee scoreless for more than 14 minutes, until Butler nailed a jumper with 49.5 seconds left to make the score 14-2. But there was a dispute over even that bucket.

"They had six men on the court," Miller explained.

"Even Gil was mad," Jamison said. "He said, 'Don't give 'em [anything].' "

"Things have to be different," Jamison said. "The days of outscoring teams and making it to the first round, that's not really what it's all about. The days of 19 wins have to be over with. The days of losing to Cleveland every year, first-round exits, how much are you going to take it?"

"I think the biggest difference is in the past, we would have one scenario we would do and then we would switch it up. It wasn't consistent. With this from day one, this is what we're gonna do and we're not going to change it."

Wizards Note: Reserve point guard Javaris Crittenton will miss at least two weeks after an MRI exam revealed a double bone bruise and tendon strain in his left foot.

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