With about six minutes remaining in the third quarter of the Washington Wizards’ exhibition opener Tuesday night, John Wall, gasping for air, looked over to the Wizards bench and requested a substitution. Coach Randy Wittman ignored him. Or so Wall claims.
“He acted like he didn’t hear me for two plays and then asked why I walked the ball up the court,” the point guard said with a chuckle.
Sauntering up the floor would have been fine a year ago. It is now taboo if you’re in a Wizards uniform. The mantra is now run, run and run some more and then space the floor in the half court when pushing the pace doesn’t generate a basket. It is a style perfectly suited for Wall’s elite speed and passing skills, and it debuted with a flurry Tuesday. The Wizards scored 129 points. They made 15 three-pointers. The game was inconsequential and the opponent, the Philadelphia 76ers, closely resembles a D-League contender, but the 34-point victory was the ideal start.
It was also draining. In the locker room afterward, players explained how taxing the strategy was. Preseason openers are never displays of cardiovascular fortitude, but Tuesday was unlike previous preseason openers, a reality the Wizards confronted for the first time in the second quarter. Defensive breakdowns contributed to the 76ers scoring 32 points, alarming for a Washington team that has marinated its identity in defensive flavoring since Wittman took over in 2012 and has finished in the top 10 in defensive rating the past three seasons.
As the Wizards incorporate an offense designed to exploit their potential, maintaining defensive excellence remains the team’s ambition. But it will be a challenge. Faster pace means more possessions, which means more running, which means tired legs. And defense, already a chore, is futile when players are dragging.
“That’s where we can’t take a step back,” said Wittman, who had his team focus on defense at practice Wednesday. “Are we going to stay committed to being that dirty, dirty team defensively? Those are the things I’m going to have to hold them accountable to because I think they like what they’ve seen and how we’ve played so far.”
Conditioning is paramount in the mission. It is why running has dominated practice sessions since Washington opened camp last week. “That’s all we been doing,” Wall said. A deeper bench should help alleviate workloads, but Wittman and his staff will have to monitor players’ energy levels and health closer than ever before as the season goes on.
Wall acknowledged he needs to get in better shape, as did Kris Humphries and other players. But it’s not necessarily that their physical fitness is subpar; they just need to reach a level they’ve never previously had to reach. But there’s time. The Wizards have six exhibitions and nearly three weeks until they open their regular season against the Orlando Magic.
“If you want to play at this level, you got to know how to defend,” Wall said. “That’s the biggest key. We don’t want to play at this level and not keep our defensive intensity up. That’s what we’ve been working on.”
Wittman admitted he is still learning the effects the new offense will have on the defense. One he’s noticed is transition defense is more complicated because players are so spread out. Some teams, such as the San Antonio Spurs, concede offensive rebounds to avoid those transition defense lapses. Wittman said he is learning and adjusting as the preseason progresses.
“I’m getting there,” the coach said.
Jared Dudley sat out Tuesday’s game as he recovers from offseason back surgery, but he is already well versed in the demands a fast-paced offense presents, having played in the Phoenix Suns’ frenetic style under Alvin Gentry for four-plus seasons.
The veteran forward explained concessions are sometimes necessary and the Suns purposely awarded opponents easy buckets occasionally to speed games up, which he emphasized the Wizards are not considering. In Phoenix, they didn’t grade themselves based on points allowed per game, a counting statistic that does not account for possessions. Instead, they focused on defensive field goal percentage, which is also a metric the Wizards prioritize.
“When you score more, that’s when you’re going to give up more points,” Dudley said. “That’s how it is.”
Last season, opponents shot 43.3 percent against the Wizards, the second-lowest mark in the NBA. Only the defending champion Golden State Warriors were stingier. To repeat that performance, Wittman will continue to focus on conditioning and preach defense as the team’s newcomers become more familiar with his defensive system. And if a player is tired, the solution is simple.
“You ask for a sub,” Wall said.
Notes: The Wizards were without five players against the 76ers, but three were back on the court for practice Wednesday.
Kelly Oubre Jr. and Ish Smith, who both have sprained ankles, returned to practice, while Dudley participated in his limited contact activity for the first time since his back surgery. He is expected to be cleared to practice fully Tuesday.
“Jared did a little, not very much,” Wittman said. “First contact he’s had. We’re not just throwing him out there to go full bore right away. But he did a little today. We’ll see how he feels and move it up, hopefully, tomorrow.”
Alan Anderson (ankle) and Martell Webster (hip), however, were held out again. Anderson had bone spurs removed from his left ankle immediately after last season and has dealt with setbacks, including an infection over the summer. Webster recently strained his hip.