The Washington Wizards may have a losing record and a terrible defense, but their surprisingly potent offense is continuing to catch opponents off guard.
On Wednesday, an Eastern Conference team with a 5-10 record came into Phoenix, on the second night of a back-to-back, and manhandled an above-average defense. The Phoenix Suns were down a few key players, but the Washington Wizards lit them up from every angle. They scored 140 points, made 19 of their 35 3-pointers, dished out 32 assists and shot a blistering 57.3 percent overall.
“Listen, they shot the lights out of the ball,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said. “Who would expect those guys to shoot like that on a back-to-back? No one did, but they did it, so you have to give them a ton of credit for the way they played tonight.”
The thing is, though, that’s kind of been Washington’s calling card all season.
When the Wizards lost John Wall yet again to injury, a look at their roster for the 2019-20 campaign was pretty much Bradley Beal, rookies, G League call-ups and a bunch of assorted role players and youngsters trying to make their way in the league. And yet, the Wiz boast one of the NBA’s most powerful offenses, routinely scorching defenses with a hodgepodge of role players taking turns stepping up. Preparing for that kind of versatility is proving tough for Washington’s opponents so far.
“It’s defense and it’s KYP: knowing your personnel,” Williams explained when assessing how so many different players hurt them in a 140-132 defeat. “Our defense, knowing who’s hot, getting a hand up on guys who shoot 3-point shots.”
The Wizards’ second-ranked defense comes down to four major components: pace, ball movement, 3-point shooting and yes, the element of surprise. They have a hive of efficient shooters, which explains how they rank first in field goal percentage (48.2 percent), sixth in 3-point percentage (38 percent) and sixth in free-throw percentage (80.9 percent).
But they’re also extremely methodical in the way they engineer those shots, ranking fourth in pace (105.28) and first in assists (28.8 per game) while only committing 14.6 turnovers a night (ninth-best in the NBA). They’re shooting a higher volume of 3s than they ever have, but their 34.9 attempts per game only ranks 11th in this run-and-gun league. They throw the third-most passes per game but are in the bottom-half of the league in distance ran.
“It’s everything we talked about and planned for — it happened,” Williams said.
His frustration over not being able to stop this unexpectedly formidable offense is becoming more and more common. Without one of the game’s elite facilitators to pound the air out of the ball, it’s been zipping all over the court. The Wizards play at a frenetic pace, but all that empowerment means they’re selective with how they deploy all these weapons that don’t typically show up on the scouting report.
Defenses will adjust as they continue to build tape on this young group, but to this point, the Wizards have enjoyed useful contributions across the board. It starts with Beal and his 28.9 points and 7.0 assists per game, obviously, but the Wiz have six different players averaging at least 12 points a night.
“It’s fun to play for one another and it doesn’t matter who gets the shot,” head coach Scott Brooks said. “It always ends up that the better shooters always get the shots, the better attackers get the opportunity to drive. It works itself out. Our offense is about trying to spread things around.”
Isaiah Thomas has struggled at times, but he looks more like a useful NBA player than he has at any point over the past two years. Averaging 12.0 points per game on 39.7 percent shooting from 3, Washington is learning to implement him into its attack.
“He’s come back from two years of not really playing and it’s gonna take some time,” Brooks said. “Will he be the focal point in the offense? Probably not gonna happen. Brad’s pretty good and Brad’s gonna always be the focal point and the facilitator, but he can add to our offense and he has.”
Thomas Bryant, the team’s second-leading scorer at 14.8 points per game and leading rebounder at 8.8 boards per game, is driving daggers into opponents like the Suns every night with his 57.5 percent shooting. Davis Bertans, the first killer off Washington’s bench who ranked sixth in 3-point percentage last year, is knocking down 44.3 percent of his whopping 7.6 long range attempts per game.
“Ish is a classic example, I think Ish is more than a speedy point guard,” Brooks said. “I think he can be a pest defensively, I think he can make some shots, he can be a layup-maker. [Bertans] is the same way. Everybody thinks he’s just a shooter, and I kinda like that because we don’t think of him as just a shooter. That’s why he can help us in so many different ways.”
This sentiment sheds light on the true strength behind Washington’s success on offense: Brooks’ coaching philosophy and ability to develop young talent. It was a common denominator during his time with the Oklahoma City Thunder, and although there’s no Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook waiting in the wings here, he’s clearly comfortable not putting labels on his players.
“As a coach, there’s so many ways to do it,” he said. “I like to empower and make sure guys push themselves to maybe places they didn’t think they could get to. A lot of times, it’s giving them the freedom and telling them what they need to work on, giving them the freedom on the court. And sometimes, you put them on the bench and tell them, ‘This is what you need to do’ and ‘Do better.’”
As an example, Brooks had a breakfast meeting with his team Wednesday morning. The Wizards were coming off a thorough road defeat at the hands of the Denver Nuggets the night before and were facing a well-rested (albeit shorthanded) Suns squad. He used that time to talk about responding to that adversity in the early stages of what many on the outside see as a season with low expectations.
“Coach got on us about it in our breakfast meeting,” Ish Smith said. “I thought we responded to that real well. I thought that is a tribute to who is coaching us. Turn the page, next game. He is always talking to us about building our identity of who he wants to be and who he wants our team to be.”
Right now, the Wizards’ identity is a double-edged sword. They’re a fast-moving, fast-passing, fast-scoring offense, racking up 113.5 points per 100 possessions … but because of their defense, they still boast a negative Net Rating and a losing record at 6-10. In fact, their defensive rating (114.7) ranks dead last in the league.
Some nights, they’ll score 158 points in regulation, like they did against the Houston Rockets in late October. Unfortunately, on those same nights, they’ll still lose because they gave up 159.
“Defensively is something coach is preaching on us for us to be better at,” Smith admitted. “I thought we have gotten a little bit better.”
The numbers don’t really back that assertion up, since over the last five games, the Wizards still rank 24th in defensive rating. However, even as that continues to be a work in progress, there will still be plenty of nights where Beal and a collection of role players shooting the lights out will be too much for opponents to handle.
Sleep on the Wizards, and they’re going to hit you with the occasional uppercut to put you to sleep. Brooks’ ability to reach his younger players with a coherent, consistent message may be the biggest driving force behind that sucker punch.
“I like players that just wanna play hard,” he said. “You’re gonna make mistakes. This game is a beautiful game, but it’s not a perfect game. But if you play hard, with great effort, you don’t have to be an old veteran to play hard, you can be right outta college. Get in here and play hard and compete and play your minutes tough and physical.”