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Just how bad is the Wizards defense?

SB Nation logo SB Nation 12/2/2019 Kevin Broom
Kawhi Leonard standing in front of a crowd: Isaiah Thomas’ lack of size and defensive indifference combine to make him one of the least effective defenders in NBA history. © Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images Isaiah Thomas’ lack of size and defensive indifference combine to make him one of the least effective defenders in NBA history.

The 2019-20 Washington Wizards are an experience close to unparalleled in NBA history. Their offense is potent and entertaining. Their defense is astonishingly feeble. Even the all-offense, no defense Eddie Jordan’s teams weren’t this bad.

On October 30, Washington dumped 158 points — in regulation — on the Houston Rockets, and lost the game. They opened December by scoring 125 on the Clippers, and getting stomped, 150-125.

This season, an NBA team has allowed their opponent 140 or more points in a game 10 times. The Wizards have done it three times. The others: Hawks and Warriors (twice each), Cavaliers, Rockets and Suns. Note: the Rockets and Suns both allowed 140 or more to the Wizards.

Raise the bar for ineptitude, and only the Hawks and Wizards have allowed 150 or more points in a game. Both teams have done it twice.

The Wizards are dead last in defensive rating, allowing 116.5 points per 100 possessions. The second-to-worst Hawks are 1.5 points per 100 possessions ahead. Washington’s defense is 8.1 points per 100 team possessions worse than league average. Last season’s Cleveland Cavaliers — which earned the dubious distinction of all-time worst defensive rating (117.6) — were 7.2 points worse than average. The 1998-99 Nuggets and 2005-06 Raptors tied for worst-ever score in this metric...8.2 points worse than average.

A quick survey of history’s worst defenses indicates they tend to be six to seven points worse than league average. This year’s Wizards are flirting with all-time worst.

As would be expected for one of the least effective defenses in league history, the Wizards are failing in most of the key metrics. The single most important thing to do defensively in the NBA is force the other team to miss. The Wizards are second to last in opponent effective field goal percentage.

Rebounding the ball after an opposition miss is important: the Wizards are 26th.

Trips to the free throw line are high-efficiency possessions, which makes limiting fouling a priority. Washington ranks seventh from the bottom.

Their one defensive strength — forcing turnovers — is a strength only in relation to the other categories. They rank 13th, a shade better than league average.

So far this season, the Wizards have the second worst defensive rating in NBA history. Barring improvement, they have a good chance of passing Cleveland to reach the bottom. League efficiency tends to improve as the season wears on and by the end of the year will likely be another point per 100 possessions higher. If the Wizards maintain their position relative to average, they’ll have a strong argument for all-time worst defense.

It doesn’t have to stay that way, of course. Key components to a successful NBA defense include teamwork, experience and coaching. The Wizards are young, inexperienced, and haven’t played together enough to develop the team-level communication and instincts necessary to be good defensively.

They’re also hampered by personnel. Size matters on the defensive end, and the Wizards are relatively small throughout the lineup. And, they’re starting Isaiah Thomas whose lack of height and defensive effort combine to make him the least effective NBA defender I’ve ever seen.

Figuring out how to get even generically bad defense from this roster would be a puzzle even for noted defensive gurus like Gregg Popovich or Tom Thibodeau. But significant roster changes during the season are unlikely, and Scott Brooks and his staff need to figure out how to get this group of players on the same page and help young players progress from clueless to at least competent. The franchise’s fortunes over the next few seasons are riding on it.

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