Though the Wizards took a tough loss in Atlanta on Monday night, they remain tied for third in the Eastern Conference at 5-2. That still marks their best start since the 2014-15 season and they can count wins against the Atlanta Hawks, who were in the Eastern Conference Finals just months ago, as well as the Toronto Raptors (5-3) and the Boston Celtics (twice).
Under new head coach Wes Unseld Jr., the Wizards have mostly looked like an improved team that plays with sound defensive structure and has the depth to withstand injuries. They beat the Hawks last week while missing three players who, if they were available, would have been in the starting lineup.
All in all, it has been an impressive start for the Wizards. And while some may wonder how legitimate their start has been, the early returns have been encouraging when it comes to the numbers. They are showing up well in just about all the most important categories and it should give fans belief that what they have shown so far will continue.
Here’s a look at the positives…
9th in net rating (+2.5)
It’s early enough in the season where the Wizards’ offensive and defensive ratings are fluctuating quite a bit game-to-game. After Monday’s loss, they are 10th in offensive rating (108.8) and 13th in defensive rating (106.3), both above average but their defense has shown signs of being better than that. Overall, though, they show up well in net rating at +2.5, ninth-best in the NBA.
The Wizards have slowed their pace down from first in the NBA last year to 24th and in doing so have achieved more efficient possessions. They are also tops in the league in free throw attempts (23.9/g) while the league as a whole is shooting fewer free throws than ever before in the NBA’s 75-year history, at 19.9 per team per game. The Wizards are also shooting the fifth-best free throw percentage (82.0). All of this suggests they are doing a good job of controlling the pace and also adapting to the league’s new standards for enforcing foul rules.
2nd in three-point defense
One of the most important areas the Wizards are shining in is three-point defense. They are second-best in all three of the major categories; three-pointers allowed (9.0/g), attempts allowed (30.4/g) and percentage allowed (29.4%). That is a huge jump from last year when they ranked about league average and a massive improvement from the year before when they were one of the worst defensive teams in the NBA.
Clearly, the wing defense the Wizards added in the offseason has helped. Guys like Spencer Dinwiddie, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Aaron Holiday and Kyle Kuzma have infused the team with size, length, quickness and willing defenders. Meanwhile, holdovers like Bradley Beal and Deni Avdija have shown improvement.
2nd-lowest turnover percentage (12.7)
Also near the top of the list of positive signs is the Wizards’ ability to protect the ball. This is also likely a result of slowing the game down and also, of course, not having the league leader in giveaways (Russell Westbrook) anymore. The Wizards are second in turnover percentage and sixth in turnovers per game (13.3/g).
The Wizards don’t beat themselves and that is always a difficult trait for opposing teams because it gives them little to work with. It cuts down on fastbreak opportunities. Dinwiddie being seventh in assist-to-turnover ratio (4.8) is a big reason for why.
10th in rebound percentage (50.7)
While the Wizards were likely to improve at protecting the ball with Westbrook’s departure, it was a legitimate question how they would replace his rebounding. Unseld Jr. said rebounding was a big point of emphasis in training camp and the preseason. He has to be pleased with how things have gone because the Wizards are 10th in rebound percentage, seventh in defensive rebound percentage (79.5) and eighth in total rebounding (48.3/g).
The Wizards do not have a single player on their roster who averaged more than 6.2 rebounds per game last season, but this year has been completely different. Kuzma has been the biggest contributor, averaging a career-high 11.0 boards per game which ranks 11th in the league. But Montrezl Harrell (9.9 rpg) has also been great and so have Beal (5.5 rpg) and Dinwiddie (5.3 rpg). Amazingly, in addition to Kuzma, all three are averaging career-highs.
4th-highest RPI (.569)
Beal remarked after Monday’s loss that he viewed the Wizards’ first 10 opponents this season as playoff teams. While the standings don’t reflect that yet, there’s no question they have had no gimmes. The worst team they beat is probably the Indiana Pacers and they still have loads of talent and now Rick Carlisle as their head coach.
The schedule has indeed been difficult. The Wizards rank 4th in ESPN’s RPI metric, which accounts for opponent win percentage, and they are 12th in strength of schedule. Now, anyone who has watched this team over the years will know that the bad teams are sometimes just as big a test as the good ones. They have had a tendency to play up and down to their opponents. So, perhaps we will learn a little more about them later this month when they play the Cleveland Cavaliers, Orlando Magic and New Orleans Pelicans.
Areas for improvement
The Wizards have not been perfect by any means and there are some problems they will want to clean up. One would be three-point shooting offense. They are 20th in threes made (11.1/g), 19th in attempts (34.0/g) and 18th in percentage (32.8). They need guys like Beal (22.9%) and Davis Bertans (33.3%) to shoot better and it will also help to get Thomas Bryant back in December.
As a result of their three-point shooting, the Wizards are 20th in effective field goal percentage (50.5). They are sixth in points per game (112.4), but could improve their efficiency.
But overall, the Wizards are performing well in just about all the areas you would want for a basketball team. Unseld Jr. is putting it all together sooner than anyone thought and suggests their current trajectory will continue.