The Washington Wizards' 2013 season has thus far been nothing short of a disaster. The 0 - 10 Wizards are still the NBA's only winless team and, with a very difficult schedule after Saturday's home game against the Bobcats, there's a possibility that the worst is yet to come. With a discombobulated offense, no go-to scorer, and a constantly-changing rotation, the team looks as bad as it has in a year.
One area where the team has lived up to pre-season expectations, though, is on defense. Despite their league-worst record, the Wizards have defended well this season and are currently ranked 11th in the NBA in defensive rating, allowing 102.3 points per 100 possessions.
It would be easy to assign credit for the team's (relative) success to newcomers Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza. Brought in as veteran defensive specialists, both have reputations as great defenders, with Ariza in particular being well-known due to his high profile playoff games while he was with the Lakers. Surprisingly though, the team has been 6.1 points per 100 possessions worse when Ariza has been on the floor this year, while Okafor has barely moved the needle one way or the other.
So how have they done it? Largely with a combination of depth, teamwork and some really good perimeter defenders. Every frontcourt player on the team is an average-at-worst defensive player who usually knows where to be on the court. Even the struggling Jan Vesely has been surprisingly decent defensively this year, using his length and activity level to provide effective enough help defense that it makes up for his inability to guard stronger players in one-on-one match-ups.
The Wizards have also been extremely good at guarding the perimeter. According to MySynergySports, the team as a whole is the NBA's 4th best against isolations, 6th best at guarding pick and roll ball-handlers, and 4th best at defending spot-up shooters. Ariza gets the headlines, and his length is very useful for contesting shots and passes, but at least some of the credit here should go to Martell Webster and the much-improved Chris Singleton. Both have been very solid, with Webster in particular providing a level of intensity that is rarely seen from players on 0-10 teams.
What's really interesting here is that the Wizards perimeter defense still hasn't reached its ceiling. As per 82games, opposing point guards are posting a 14.8 PER against the Wizards, despite A.J. Price getting torched every time he steps on the court. Once John Wall, a very solid defender in his own right, is back, Price will begin seeing far fewer minutes and could conceivably even lose his spot in the rotation to defensive ace Shaun Livingston, which would cause the team to improve even more. On top of that, shooting guard Bradley Beal should only improve as he gets more acclimated to the NBA, making the team's perimeter defense even more stingy.
That's not to say that the Wizards are going to turn into the 2008 Celtics any time soon, though. The team is still getting killed by bigger post players, something that even the return of Nene Hilario might not be able to help with. Largely due to Okafor's lack of bulk and Seraphin's current pre-occupation with scoring, the team is surrendering 0.93 points per possession on post-ups this year, ranking them 25th in the league, while opposing centers are putting up a mind-boggling 20.4 PER (in layman's terms, a league-average center basically turns into Al Jefferson the second he takes the floor against the Wizards). Nene, while statistically good against post-ups, seems to struggle against the Gasols and Randolphs of the league, largely due to his lack of length.
Saturday's matchup with the Bobcats could reveal a lot about just how legitimate Washington's defensive improvements are. Ramon Sessions and Kemba Walker are both tough covers due to their ability to create off the dribble, and they were largely responsible for Charlotte's shocking blowout victory against the Wizards when the two teams met up on November 13. Charlotte lacks the kind of bulky post players who can give Washington trouble, though, and how much better the team does now that Livingston and Nene are in the lineup could say a lot about whether these improvements are real or just a flash in the pan.