By Rob Mahoney
The Wizards are safely out of the Eastern Conference playoff race and thus squarely outside of the general basketball consciousness. But let's pause for a moment to admire Washington's season, which has been quite a bit more remarkable than their early struggles and underwhelming record would lead you to believe.
What sets the Wizards apart from the rest of the gloomy ranks of the lottery-bound is that they're secretly elite -- albeit on one side of the ball. While scoring continues to be a colossal problem for Washington (last in offensive efficiency by a large margin), Randy Wittman's team currently ranks an impressive eighth overall in points allowed per possession after coming in at 24th by that same measure last season. That makes the Wiz the only top 10 defense that isn't playoff-bound this year, and likely the first team since 2004 to miss out on the postseason with a defense this stingy. Washington isn't just defending well for a certain stretch or getting stops with random hustle -- they're putting the clamps on the entire league, and have only gotten better since John Wall's full-fledged return to the starting lineup 15 games ago.
Over those last 15 games, Washington has planted a flag as the second best defensive team in the league. Suffice to say that success doesn't all hinge on Wall; the real epicenter of Washington's highly functional defense is, unsurprisingly, its big men. Nene and Emeka Okafor have become a truly fantastic defensive tandem, capable of corralling ball handlers and protecting the rim as a joint operation. Nene can trap hard on a screen if need be, or help out to block shots on the backline. Okafor can take a perfect angle in defending the pick-and-roll, or step up to challenge a shot at the rim if the on-ball defense breaks down. Their combined defensive skill makes them virtually interchangeable, and thus incredibly valuable to a defense that gives its perimeter players a ton of help in controlling ball action on the perimeter.
That's where Nene, in particular, thrives. He's fantastic at prioritizing threats on the fly, and consistently freezes the opposing ball handler as he buys his teammate time to recover. This is possible and productive for two reasons: 1) With Okafor lying in wait, Nene has a longer window to recover than many bigs do in this scenario, and 2) Nene is still quick enough to recover on most shooting bigs in time, often leading to a contested two-point jumper -- one of the best possible results of any defensive possession.
Okafor and Nene both deny access to the paint beautifully, but they also have help from a group of wing players with a good defensive understanding. In scenarios like the one described above -- in which Nene lingers to defend the pick-and-roll, thus leaving Okafor to protect the basket -- we might see some defenders on other teams abandon shooters in the corners in order to rotate to help in the paint. That is, in highly specific NBA jargon, a no-no; good defenses control the lane, but the best defenses do so without giving up other high-value shots.
The Wizards are fantastic at this. While Nene and Okafor alternate in their respective responsibilities, we see Washington's wing defenders generally glued to their marks in the corners -- excepting the occasional sag off of a low-percentage shooter that is deemed to be an acceptable risk. Even in situations where the defense has broken down, you can see the Wizards closing out in order of priority, often faking a close-out toward the non-corner shooter, only to close out hard on the real corner threat. You can see that particular maneuver here, though in this case the Wizards don't recover in time to prevent a Terrence Ross three-pointer:
That single maneuver isn't of any great consequence, but this kind of prioritization contributes to Washington's process. Martell Webster and Trevor Ariza have done particularly good work in making smart reads at full speed, and tend to evaluate possessions well despite the demand for an instantaneous judgment and reaction. Further, when Washington does bring perimeter help, it does so off shooters closers to the top of the floor. In doing so, the Wizards give their opponents looks at longer, more difficult three-point shots and give themselves a greater number of possibilities for defensive recovery. This allows the Wizards to help consistently without leaving the corners exposed.
This isn't to say that Washington's defensive execution is flawless, as Wall in particular can get caught having strayed too far from a shooter hidden away in the corner. With his head turned completely to watch the ball, Wall sometimes inches toward the paint, flying against the tenets of the Wizards' defense in the process:
Collapsing to the lane off of a weak-side shooter is about as basic as it gets from the standpoint of help defense, but contemporary NBA players are too smart to not exploit that kind of rotation and too good at getting the ball to unattended corner shooters.
But there's enough structure and help to make the whole defensive enterprise work rather beautifully in spite of those little spots of trouble, which, if anything, is a testament to what Wittman has done with a frontline that may seem oversized by today's NBA standards. Neither Okafor nor Nene is, on his own, a tried and true defensive anchor. Yet together they make for one of the best high-usage defensive duos in the NBA this season, and a perfect pair in terms of balancing the floor and equalizing for strategic risk.
The best way to put that defensive brilliance in context? Together, Okafor and Nene make every opponent score even more infrequently and inefficiently than the Wizards. Statistical support for this post provided by NBA.com.