The Wizards are proving to be a legitimate contender in the East
When they are at their best, few teams are as good as Washington.
The Washington Wizards, winners of seven of their last eight, are tied with the Hawks for second place in the Eastern Conference, half a game behind the Raptors. They are a legitimate threat to come out of the East despite being decidedly mediocre on offense (No. 14 in the league in offensive efficiency) because of their top five defense. In Friday night’s win against the Clippers, their ability to get stops was on full display.
The Clippers, who boast the third best offense in the league, scored only 96 points on 42.7 percent from the field and 30 percent from deep. In the restricted area, Los Angeles only shot 57.9 percent, more than 10 percentage points below their league-leading 68.2 percent. John Wall hounded Chris Paul into a season-high six turnovers, thanks to plays like this one:
Holding the bottom feeders of the league to below average scoring outputs is not particularly impressive and there’s certainly some of that going on with the Wizards’ sparkling defensive numbers, as it happens with most East teams. But there are also dominant performances against some of the best offenses in the league, like Friday night’s and the game against the Cavaliers on November 21, that confirm they can clamp down when needed.
What the Wizards lack as a defensive outfit to be considered in the same class as the Warriors, Rockets or Spurs is consistency. Great defensive games are mixed in with clunkers. Some of that can be attributed to injuries to key players. Bradley Beal’s early season absence forced Randy Wittman to experiment at the wing and Martell Webster is still out. Nene is only now reaching peak form and he is one of the team’s most cerebral defenders, a stabilizing force off the bench next to Marcin Gortat’s brawn and a fantastic anchor when the Polish Hammer sits.
When they are healthy, the Wizards’ defensive excellence is defined by the effort and athleticism of their point guard Wall and the presence of two above average rim protectors, which suggests it’s sustainable. Considering Washington is the best defensive team in the conference by a significant margin at this point even with their ups and downs, a conference finals appearance doesn’t seem out of the question. But what makes the Wizards so intriguing as potential contenders at the quarter pole is the fact that their offense could still catch up to their D.
Paul Pierce’s shooting has been below average for his standards. He’s taking more pull up jumpers than a season ago and hitting them at a lower percentage. Nene is having trouble finishing inside. Bradley Beal is still getting used to running pick and rolls and creating for himself. If those guys can improve even marginally and the team figures out a way to get more easy buckets, a top 10 offense is possible because Washington has John Wall orchestrating things.
Wall has arrived as a superstar this season. He trails only Rajon Rondo in assists per game. He’s playing fantastic defense, pressuring opponents at the point of attack and setting the tone while leading the team in scoring as well. He makes reads only a handful of players in the league can make, destroying entire defensive schemes by himself with his ability to make pinpoint passes at the right time. The only glaring weakness in his offensive repertoire is his inability to score while going left.
Wall is not perfect and neither are the Wizards at this point. Still, it’s still impossible to count them out because, at least on paper, they have all the ingredients we could ask for in a contender: The superstar in Wall, the secondary scorer in Bradley Beal, the wily veterans in Paul Pierce and Nene and an elite defense without any evident weak spots.
The franchise has come a long way from its troubled past decade. The Wizards are genuinely relevant on the court and could go further in the postseason than they have been since before John Wall was born by tightening up their execution on both ends. There is a window of opportunity in this transitional year in the Eastern Conference for Washington to make some serious noise. The question is will they take advantage of it? The early returns suggest they might be more ready to do just that than anyone imagined before the season started.