The Wizards Are Rising


Credit: Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images

It was a late Monday night on April 5th, and the Washington Wizards season looked all but over. The Wizards had just lost their 4th straight game to the Toronto Raptors, highlighted by a Gary Trent Jr. buzzer-beating three pointer after blowing a 19-point lead in the second half. Bradley Beal had just missed his 5th consecutive game dealing with a nerve injury in his hip, all as the Wizards record dropped 15 games below.500, at 17-32, sitting at 13th in the Eastern Conference. Fast forward to a month later, and Washington has gone streaking; 15-4 since the loss to Toronto (best record in the NBA during that stretch), overtaking the Raptors, the Chicago Bulls, and the Indiana Pacers for the 9th seed; which qualifies for the play-in tournament with room to move up more as the regular season winds down. This stretch included the franchise's first 8-game winning streak since 2001, the days of Michael Jordan wearing blue and gold. Not only is Washington playing its best basketball of the season, but they're also playing some of the best basketball in the LEAGUE. Here are the biggest factors of the turnaround that has saved the Wizards season and made them one of the NBA's hottest teams during this stretch.

 

Defense

Credit: Rob Carr/Getty Images

The biggest key to Washington's success as of late has been their improvement on the defense. Before their recent hot stretch, their defense ranked 26th in the NBA with 113.9 points allowed per 100 possessions (Cleaning The Glass). Since April 6th, their defense has ranked 9th in the NBA, with 111.8 points allowed per 100. The addition of center Daniel Gafford at the trade deadline (more on him later) has given them an athletic paint presence that can challenge and block shots inside, a presence that had been lacking on Washington's roster. In doing so, Washington has found itself with a three-headed monster at the center position, featuring Gafford with veterans Robin Lopez and Alex Len. This trio holds opponents to about 48% shooting when contesting shots, giving Washington a strong front-line and an upgrade from last season's center rotation that featured defensive liabilities in Thomas Bryant and Moe Wagner.

Another factor that has worked in Washington's favor during this hot stretch is a phenomenon that most would refer to as the 'Law of Averages.' Analytically, the Wizards defense does a great job of preventing opponents from taking the most efficient shots an offense can generate, which are three-pointers and layups inside the restricted area. Washington ranked 1st in restricted area shots allowed and 7th in opponent three-pointer frequency. On the flip side, Washington has been great, forcing its opponents to take inefficient shots within the paint outside the restricted area (floater range), and shots within the mid-range, ranking 1st in both types of shots allowed league-wide.

So why was a defense designed well at least analytically, ranked at the bottom of the NBA? To put it simply, the Wizards were getting unlucky. Washington's opponents were knocking down 37.4 percent of their threes before this stretch, tied for Indiana for the worst mark in the league. Opponents were also converting their floater area attempts at the 2nd highest mark in the league (47.3%), while converting their mid-range attempts at the 4th highest mark (43.7%) against Washington. During this stretch, while opponents are still converting a very high rate of mid-range attempts (49.8%), the three-point percentage has slipped to 36.1 percent (4th-lowest), along with floater area percentage (41.6%). From December to February, Washington ranked 1st in expected opponent effective field goal percentage (52.7), but 25th in actual opponent eFG% (55.2). Since the start of March, Washington still ranks #1 in expected opponent eFG% (52.4), but it has ranked them 7th in the NBA in actual opponent eFG% (53.1%).

NBA Leaders in Opponent Expected eFG%, from December to February, per Cleaning The Glass
NBA Leaders in Opponent Expected eFG%, from March to Today, per Cleaning The Glass

Washington's improvement on the defensive end is even more impressive when you consider that versatile forwards Rui Hachimura and Deni Avdija (season-ending ankle injury) have missed time during this stretch because of injury. For years, the Wizards' identity has revolved around a high-powered offensive attack, but they have become an elite defensive unit as of late.

 

Bradley Beal & Russell Westbrook

Credit: Nick Wass/Associated Press

After trading John Wall and a protected first-round pick for Russell Westbrook in the offseason, the expectation was that Westbrook and Beal would form an explosive backcourt tandem that would compete for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Since Westbrook has fully recovered from the effects of a torn quad, that expectation has become reality and the Wizards are thriving because of it. During this 14-4 stretch of games, Westbrook and Beal have combined to average 52.2 points per game, 17.6 rebounds per game, and 17.3 assists per game. Beal has maintained his status as an elite offensive operator, averaging 30,5 points on efficient shooting splits of 48.7/38.2/85.8. He gets his buckets in a way that appears unbelievably smooth. Beal can score at will at all three levels on the floor, making him unguardable while he goes on his way to dropping 30+ points on the opponent even after they've thrown all counters his way. During the Wizards 8-game winning streak that came during this stretch, Beal had 30 points or more in all but 1 of those games, and in that game he had 29.

Beal's outstanding offensive production has been a constant for Washington all season long, but Westbrook's remarkable play as of late is what has made Washington's offense elite while also forming one of the NBA's most dangerous backcourt. The Russell Westbrook we all know, stamping his impact across the board every game with max intensity and effort night in and night out. Westbrook has averaged a staggering 22.3 points, 14 rebounds, and 13.6 assists a night during this hot streak, all while converting 46% of his field goals and logging 38.4 minutes a night (leads the league) at age 32. Westbrook's ability to take on whatever role Washington needs from him on any night is amazing. Westbrook was the primary defender on Giannis Antetokoumpo in a face-off against the Bucks, forcing 3 turnovers from the Greek Freak despite being at a height disadvantage of about 8 inches. Need him to lead the team with his scoring? Look at his games against Utah, Sacramento, and New Orleans where he's taken over down the stretch and led Washington to victories. Need him to give you a bit of everything? See one of his dominating performances against Indiana where he controlled all aspects of the game and manipulated the Pacers' defense at will:

Westbrook is averaging career highs in both rebounds and assists this season, getting back to "playing his game" which factored in his interest to play for Washington. The Wizards have scored 119.3 points per 100 possessions when Westbrook and Beal share the court, which would rank #1 in the NBA. The Westbrook and Beal duo has become one of the scariest in the NBA, and a duo that teams should not want to face in the play-in tournament and/or in a playoff series.

 

Daniel Gafford

Since arriving in Washington from Chicago at the trade deadline, Daniel Gafford has given the Wizards an athletic, rim protecting lob threat Washington has lacked since *checks notes...* JaVale McGee? In a deal that went under the radar amidst all the craziness that trade deadline day brings, Gafford has arguably had the biggest impact of any player traded at the deadline in late March. Gafford has averaged 10.2 points, 5.7 rebounds, and 1.9 blocks on 69.3% shooting while only playing just under 18 minutes a night during his time as a Wizard. Here's a glimpse of how Gafford's shot-blocking presence helped the Wizards defense in an overtime win against the Pelicans, where Gafford had 4 blocks, including 3 on Zion Williamson, one of the league's elite and athletically imposing finishers.

What made Gafford such an amazing pickup for Washington is his athleticism and ability to finish around the basket. At 6'10 with a 7'2 wingspan and a 36-inch vertical leap, Gafford is a freak athlete who uses his immense athletic skill set to catch lobs, throw down powerful dunks, and block or alter shots on the defensive end. Gafford has instantaneously developed a powerful chemistry with Russell Westbrook on offense; Westbrook has assisted on 37 of Gafford's 79 made field goals in Washington, by far the most out of any Wizard (Beal has the 2nd most with 10). Gafford also leads all Wizards centers in screen assists (2.6), all of this coming together to unlock the Wizards offense, providing them with the vertical spacing seen from the NBA's elite centers, such as Rudy Gobert and Clint Capela.

Washington's offensive rating skyrockets to 120.3 points scored per 100 possessions when Gafford is on the floor, and a rating of 124.9 points scored per 100 when the trio of Westbrook-Beal-Gafford is on the floor. Washington is also 14-3 in games that Westbrook, Beal and Gafford all play in. At only 22 years old and on one of the league's most team-friendly contracts, Washington has struck gold with the center out of Arkansas.

 

Washington has also gotten big-time contributions from its supporting cast of role players as well. Guard Raul Neto has moved into the starting five since the injury to Deni Avdija and has become an important part of the team's success. Averaging 10.8 points, 3.1 assists, and 1.4 steals on RIDICULOUS shooting splits of 51.5/55.6/95.8 over his last 10 games, Neto has been one of the offseason's most underrated pickups and a highly valuable player for the Wizards. Davis Bertans has had an up-and-down season after re-signing for $80 million over 5 years, but shot 45% from three-point land in April, and he remains a player who change the trajectory of a game with his shooting much like he did last season. With Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal leading the way, the Wizards are not a team anyone should take lightly as playoff time is just around the corner.

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