Can the Wizards Improve Defensively? A Quick Look at Free Agents and Team Culture

When Joel Anthony is scoring against your team (alone versus three players!), you know there’s a problem…

With the start of the 2011-12 NBA season comes the start of a frenetic free agency. The Washington Wizards could stand to improve in many areas, but one weakness that sticks out is their defense. The Wizards have been a mediocre defensive basketball club for years. I researched the last time the Wiz finished in the top half of the league in Defensive Rating. The search took a quite some time, which isn’t a good sign. Starting with the 2010-11 season and working backwards year by year to the 1998-99 season, they have finished 24th, 18th, 29th, 24th, 28th, 22nd, 19th, 20th, 18th, 21st, 29th, 23rd, 21st in Defensive Rating…that’s 13 straight seasons of sub-par defense. The last time the Wizards were in the top half of defensive ball clubs, in 1997-98, Michael Jordan was a Chicago Bull. Scary stuff.

It’s commonly noted, and fairly so, that successful defenses are a function of “team defense” and a “defensive system” that players buy into rather than a function of individual defensive talents. On offense, superstars can control the ball and let their talent shine, but on defense, individual defenders do not choose where the ball goes and coordinated and quick rotations among teammates are paramount.

Despite this, recent free agency history (and league history in general) suggests one player can make all the difference between a good and a bad defensive team, be it because of his defensive prowess or because of his leadership. This may be more true of coaches than of players (see Tom Thibodeau), but this article will focus on the upcoming free agency and how the Wizards could start to change their culture with a single free agent (as daunting as that sounds).

In recent years, we’ve witnessed Dwight Howard and Andrew Bogut anchor elite defenses virtually on their own. Likewise, teammates of Kevin Garnett and Tyson Chandler have detailed how those players immediately changed their teams’ defensive cultures as free agent acquisitions.

After KG won Defensive Player of the Year as a first-year Celtic, Coach Doc Rivers said: “He’s changed our culture defensively. That’s the most important thing, just the team part of it. Individually, he’s been fantastic, but I think his presence for the team is what stood out.” After the Mavs prevailed over the Heat for last year’s NBA championship, leader Jason Terry stated, “Tyson’s play is contagious, and he affected all of us. We were all able to go out there and bring our defensive game to a higher level, and he held everybody accountable.” Terry continued to argue that retaining Chandler, currently a free agent, is the Mavs’ number one priority.

Given that the Wizards need a serious cultural shift, who can they turn to? The Wizards are cursed with the predicament of needing defensive leadership from a youthful long-term prospect. Those two attributes (defensive leadership and youth) do not frequently overlap. While John Wall’s leadership represents the beginning of a new team culture, we can turn to ESPN’s list of current free agents and 2012 free agents in hopes of pinpointing a defensive savior who fits in with the Wizards’ long-term plans.

Thus, in my search, I will generally eschew older players, PGs, and SFs in favor of SGs and big men (hopefully John Wall, Jan Vesely, and Chris Singleton will be locking down their positional counterparts). The two SGs on the Wizards (Nick Young and Jordan Crawford) are both underwhelming defenders, and for all of the Wizards’ front-court talent, no one (including my beloved JaVale McGee) has proven to be an inspiring defensive leader. In addition, big men can anchor a defense in a special way that guards cannot (22 out of the past 23 DPOY winners have been PFs and Cs)–if the Wizards nabbed a consistent, rim-protecting big-man, the team’s defense would take a major turn for the better. Here is the list of potential defensive stalwarts that the Wizards should target:

Format: Name (Position, Age, Year of Free Agency, Restricted/Unrestricted)

Arron Afflalo (SG, 26, 2011, Restricted): Afflalo is everyone’s dream role player–he’s a team-first, hard-nosed, defensively strong wing player who can knock down open jumpers and three-pointers. Teammates rave about his character and he helps fill in all of the Wizards’ weaknesses (shooting, selflessness, defense, leadership).

Courtney Lee (SG, 26, 2012, Restricted): Lee brings similar qualities to the table as Afflalo, packaged with a little less muscle and a little more athleticism. Afflalo is better equipped to handle SGs and SFs, but Lee has quick feet and can reasonably stay with anybody who doesn’t overpower him. His commitment to the defensive side of the ball was clear in all three cities he’s played in, and with NBA Finals experience, he would bring a refreshing grit to the Wizards’ D.

Brandon Rush (SG, 26, 2012, Restricted): Rush may be a bit of a stretch as a potential defensive leader. He has been a part of a lackluster Pacers squad in recent years (at least defensively speaking), and individually, Rush isn’t known for his relentlessness. That being said, he’s long, athletic, and can guard down to the two-spot more than sufficiently. He’s still relatively young and new to the league. Couple those facts with his ability to shoot from deep and he would surely be a defensive upgrade over Jordan Crawford and Nick Young.

Big Men:
Darrell Arthur (PF, 23, 2012, Restricted): Arthur would serve as a remarkable example for Wizard big-men despite his youth. Unlike anybody on the Wiz, he can defend the pick-and-roll and takes charges. To boot, he’s an athletic finisher with a passable jumper. It’s not hard to imagine a John Wall-Darrell Arthur pick-and-pop/roll.

Greg Oden (C, 23, 2011 Restricted): We all know what Oden can be if he’s healthy: a rebounding, shot-blocking machine with a will to win and protect the rim. I’d like to think he’ll always play with a chip on his shoulder, after all the hate he’s put up with, and the Wizards could be Oden’s opportunity for a fresh start.

Omer Asik (C, 25, 2012, Restricted): Asik is a strong pick-and-roll defender and shot-blocker with sound awareness and impressive length. One could only imagine if JaVale McGee had Asik’s consistent effort, awareness, and activity level. Given that Omer is still learning (he just finished his first NBA season), there is no doubt that he could be a part of a new  and improved defensive culture on the Wizards.

Dwight Howard (C, 25, 2012, Unrestricted): I’ll keep this short. Imagine John Wall and Dwight Howard teaming up for pick-and-rolls and alley-oops. It would be like an evolved version of Payton-Kemp or Stockton-Malone. They’d just be bigger, faster, stronger, and jumpier.

Conclusion: This list of defensive players (let alone leaders and culture-changers) may seem underwhelming, and to be honest, it is. Even with their age and limited offense, Kevin Garnett and Tyson Chandler and players of comparable ability/leadership are rare, especially on the free agent market. That being said, the Wizards need to improve their defense if they ever want to compete, and that includes the competition to retain John Wall when he’s an eventual free agent. The Wizards can hope that JaVale gets his act together or that Trevor Booker grows a couple inches, but until those far-fetched notions come to fruition, they had better start looking at the market.

Do any other defensive leaders stand out that we forgot? Are any of the players currently listed, such as B-Rush, totally unfit for this list? Comment on the article or e-mail us at AGRbasketball (at) gmail (dot) com. Don’t forget to follow @AGRbasketball on Twitter and to like us on Facebook.

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2 Responses to Can the Wizards Improve Defensively? A Quick Look at Free Agents and Team Culture

  1. ZAM13 says:

    I would argue that the key to the Wizards defense does not lie in free agency, but in JaVale. Looking back at the last 20 years, or even 50 years, the common feature across almost every good defensive team is a great big man. Yes, there are exceptions, but we are not going to find THE GLOVE (had to throw that in there) in free agency. Flip Saunders is not Tom Thibodeau. I would love to see a Wall-Afflalo back court pressuring opposing guards, but it doesn’t do a lot of good when you have a Blatche-McGee front court getting pushed around. JaVale is a true 7 footer, he can run the floor, and he went toe-to-toe with Blake Griffin in a dunk contest (and deserved a win, too). The physical tools are there. If Dwight Howard can take an undersized Jameer Nelson/Rafer Alston, a rookie in Courtney Lee, Hedo Turkoglu, and Rashard “I’m scared of the paint” Lewis and turn them into a great defensive team, what’s stopping JaVale? Obviously he’s no Dwight Howard, but what about channeling 30 or 40% of Howard? I’d be happy with that. Ultimately, the Wizards have to decide if JaVale can be that defensive anchor every night, not just show flashes for a few minutes a game. If he can, then great. If not, then we need to consider other options like Oden and Asik. I will say, however, that a motivated and improved Javale next to a scrappy Darrell Arthur would be awesome. And of course, we can’t forget the most important step in improving the Wizards defense: giving Blatche to anybody that will take him.

  2. toughjuicepech0 says:

    While I agree that Javale is key to our defense, I still have to agree with the premise of the article. We have to build through free agency. As noted, defense is not played by individuals; it is a collective effort that only works with a team-first mentality. Bringing in defensive-minded players through free agency would ideally create a defensive revolution of sorts for the Wizards. With Afflalo, Arthur or any of other guys mentioned, the Wizards would be more like to internalize the defensive drive. With this accomplished, Javale would be able to turn into the defensive presence that we all know he is capable of being.

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