Depending on who with the Washington Wizards you ask, defense is either a reflection of one man’s will or the collective effort of the five-man unit.
The way Bradley Beal interprets it, every player who steps on the floor should take personal responsibility for his own man.
“Pride,” Beal said, sharing pithy thoughts after a recent loss in which the Wizards allowed too much penetration from the perimeter.
“Just guard your damn man. Everybody,” Beal continued. “That’s what coach wants us to do.”
Yet when Coach Scott Brooks accounts for Washington, which entered Sunday’s matchup against the Portland Trail Blazers with the second-worst defensive rating (112.2) in the NBA, he spreads criticism beyond the individual. No player gets singled out, at least not publicly when Brooks addresses reporters, because to him, the defensive shortcomings define the entire team.
“The guys know. They know that they need to do a better job, each guy,” Brooks said. “The entire team from top to bottom, we needed to do a better job staying in front of the basketball.”
The two ideologies — self versus squad — both have a place. “Pride,” though, is not at the root of the Wizards' problems. The team has plenty of sufficient-to-exceptional man-on-man defenders. Those individuals just don’t play defense very well together.
Despite the Wizards' low defensive numbers, the team, rather surprisingly, registers as one of the best in the league when guarding against individual plays. Before Sunday’s game, Washington ranked first and second in allowing the fewest points per possession in defending the pick-and-roll ballhandler and isolation plays, respectively, according to Synergy Sports.
Among the top 10 rotational players, six Wizards are rated as “good” or “excellent” by Synergy Sports, the advanced statistical website. For instance, opponents shoot only 32.2 percent when matched against Austin Rivers, the team’s best individual defender. The prideful Beal, who has logged more defensive possessions than anyone on the team, surrenders just a .378 field goal percentage.
The Wizards are, however, by far the worst team in the league when trying to defend against the kind of quick plays that rely on ball and body movement.
When playing against a team like Portland, a superb jump-shooting team led by the backcourt of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, the Wizards struggle. The team occupies last place in defending catch-and-shoot plays by giving up 1.211 points per possession. Although other teams have given up more total points off jump shots, Washington has surrendered the highest average of points scored per 100 possessions (1.054). If those jumpers come within the first four seconds of the shot clock, the Wizards have been burned in transition for 93 points on 102 possessions recorded before Sunday.
This paradox — having good individual defenders around the floor but still being unable to stop opponents that zip down the court and pass the ball — has made the Wizards one of the most puzzling teams in the NBA. While trying to find a defensive solution, Brooks offered simplicity.
“The defense,” Brooks said, “we got to do a better job of stopping the ball.”