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For the Wizards lately, bigger has been better

Washington Wizards big men Daniel Gafford (21) and Kristaps Porzingis (6) have been able to team up to deal with players like Orlando Magic center Bol Bol (10). (Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP)
5 min

CHICAGO — Bradley Beal started squinting and pursing his lips in thoughtful reflection before the question was finished.

The revived Washington Wizards had won six of their past eight games to shuffle into 11th place in the Eastern Conference. From his vantage point on the bench, where he has been sidelined with a hamstring injury for 3½ of those bouts — he tried to return but played only 13 minutes in Tuesday’s loss in Milwaukee — what has Beal observed to be the main culprit of the stretch of success?

Was it a resurgent Rui Hachimura off the bench? Backup guard Delon Wright’s pesky defense? The team’s health or their opponents’ lack of health?

“It’s everything,” Beal said, cutting off the list. “Everything’s just clicking.”

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Option D — all of the above — makes sense for a team such as Washington (17-22). The Wizards have talent but not a dominant star who can single-handedly drive wins (Beal has tried in seasons past). They have flashes of good moments in games, but they’re too inconsistent to lean faithfully on something such as defense to carry them through.

Wins, therefore, are dependent on everyone being as sharp as possible as often as possible — everything has to click. The Wizards’ margin for error is slim.

Over the past six games, Coach Wes Unseld Jr. believes he finally has found the right starting lineup and rotations to maximize his players’ strengths. With Beal sidelined, that has meant opening with Monte Morris at the one spot, Corey Kispert at the two, Kyle Kuzma playing a position down at the three, 7-foot-3 Kristaps Porzingis at the four and 6-10 Daniel Gafford at the five.

It began as a trial run of sorts, something Unseld has wanted to do since Porzingis arrived in Washington last season but couldn’t consistently because of injuries until late last month. Now Unseld likes the lineup as a potentially permanent fixture.

“I think it’s been good,” Unseld said after testing the starting group against Philadelphia, Phoenix, Orlando and Milwaukee. Never mind that the Wizards didn’t see those teams at full strength; the experiment was more about seeing how Washington’s in-house machinery chugged away.

The result?

“I like where we are right now,” Unseld said. “We’ve won six of eight. Competing at a high level. I think it’s been good for us.”

Starting Porzingis and Gafford together allows the Wizards to take advantage of their unusual assets and play with a distinct style they have been missing since Unseld took the reigns ahead of the 2021-22 season.

They have a 7-3 roaming big man with a jump shot and an athletic center whose greatest strengths are blocking shots and catching lobs. Surround the pair with shooters, and on offense Porzingis gets to work in more space and operate more off catch-and-shoots and dribble handoffs, which Unseld likes.

There are also nights when Porzingis won’t be tasked with as much responsibility on defense as a traditional center would be. After scoring 24 points in a win against Philadelphia, he had a quippy response when asked his favorite part of the new lineup: “That I didn’t have to guard [Joel] Embiid.”

“I think the way we start games is better,” Porzingis said Tuesday. “Just having that presence of Gaff there, too, blocking shots, making sure we don’t lose the boards. . . . Especially that defensive presence and the way he can rebound offensively, too. A lot of times why I love playing with him is I’ll go for the block or he goes for the block, and then we’re out of position for the rebound. But [now] we have each other’s back in those situations, and that’s big time. I think we’re trending in the right direction.”

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The Wizards like the boost they’re getting on defense and at the rim most of all. Statistical website Cleaning the Glass shows that the new starting lineup (with Kispert at shooting guard) rebounds 38.2 percent of its own misses, up from 24.9 percent for the team overall this season. There’s a similar leap for the lineup — 32.1 percent — when Beal is at the two.

On defense, Unseld doesn’t mind that Porzingis is often mismatched against smaller players because someone’s always at the rim as backup. Although sometimes that means Gafford gets caught far out defending guards — something he said he’s working on improving — his job is generally streamlined. He’s down by the basket in traditional coverage, set up well as a rim protector.

“I’m just in the back picking up the trash, doing all the dirty work,” Gafford said with a smile.

And when any of the five players on the floor slips up or gets blown by on defense, having two nearly 7-foot tall trees clogging up the paint can’t hurt.

“When you have length and size, you have ability to cover up the space,” Unseld said. “So it’s not always perfect, and no one ever plays a perfect game. But we have the ability to kind of cover some of that up. That helps. Size and length do eliminate some mistakes.”