- The Washington Times
Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Before he gave any inclination that he wanted to trade Russell Westbrook, general manager Tommy Sheppard’s wish list for the Washington Wizards centered around one idea. He wanted to get the team better at defense.

Specifically, the Wizards needed to add wings who could defend on the perimeter. 

“We’ve got to get better defensively,” Sheppard said in June. “Everything starts and ends there.”

Two months later, Sheppard acquired those pieces — in players not originally known for their defense. By trading Westbrook to the Los Angeles Lakers, Washington got back a package that included guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and forward Kyle Kuzma, two versatile defenders who were a part of a Lakers defense that ranked first last season. 

Caldwell-Pope and Kuzma were important contributors to that success, switching and matching up with other scorers. But their development took time. When Kuzma first entered the league in 2017, he was primarily a score-first option, hungry to get his. Caldwell-Pope was more of a 3-point specialist. 

Neither are seen now as elite defenders, but they’re a level that should be an upgrade to the Wizards

“The situation that I was in, that’s something I really, really had to do,” Kuzma said Tuesday when asked about his defensive improvement, “to improve, but also just to be on the court. … Having the mindset of ‘I want to become a better defender.’ And I think for defense that’s something that’s going to be really important to me this season, but also this team as well.” 

Kuzma was right. LeBron James’ arrival to the Lakers in 2018 meant there was hardly any time to work through the growing pains. The team’s young players, Kuzma included, had to find ways to contribute — or get cast off, otherwise. 

With that pressure, Kuzma found ways to improve. He credited coach Frank Vogel’s arrival in 2019 for putting players in the right positions and having great defensive schemes. That year, when a trade for Anthony Davis moved him to the bench, Kuzma’s scoring average dropped nearly six points per game (from 18.7 to 12.8), but the Lakers trusted him to close games in part because of his growth defensively. 

But playing with James and Davis came with a cost. Due to the win-now expectations that follow those superstars, Kuzma was consistently named in trade rumors because, well, he was young, cheap and had upside. And he was a movable asset for the Lakers, in the hunt for upgrades — especially after a disappointing first-round exit this past season. 

At first, Kuzma said he thought he was headed to Sacramento.

“It was essentially a done deal,” Kuzma said.

Reports indicated that the Lakers were sending him and center Montrezl Harrell to the Kings in exchange for shooter Buddy Hield. But the Wizards swooped in and worked out a trade around Westbrook, rooting Kuzma to the District.

“I was excited about going to Sac, but obviously the Washington deal came up and I was ecstatic because having a chance to play with a superstar like Brad Beal and an organization that’s trying to win,” Kuzma said. “That’s something that Brad wants to do bad.” 

An improved defense should help the Wizards earn more wins, even though the Eastern Conference appears to be more competitive than a year ago. Last season, the Wizards ranked 20th in overall defensive rating. That was a jump from recent years, but not good enough.

The defensive shortcomings are why Sheppard hired coach Wes Unseld Jr., a defensive guru with the Denver Nuggets, to replace Scott Brooks. Besides acquiring Kuzma and Caldwell-Pope, the Wizards also traded for former Indiana Pacers guard Aaron Holiday — whose brother, Jrue, is regarded as one of the league’s best defenders.

The younger Holiday is more of an offensive threat than Jrue, but can hold his own when matched up against guards.

“Personally, I feel like I can bring energy,” Holliday said. “When you see someone picking up full court, even trying to pressure up, I feel like it brings energy to the whole team. And that can get other guys going on the defensive end.”

Despite the additions, the one potential problem that Unseld might face next season is determining what players to play and when. Just at forward, Kuzma, Rui Hachimura, Davis Bertans, Deni Avdija and first-rounder Corey Kispert all have positional overlap. 

Kuzma said he doesn’t see it as a “logjam,” but rather a reflection of the modern NBA.

“Teams always have a bunch of guys that are 6’6 and above that can all play on the court at the same time,” Kuzma said. “This league has transformed into kind of positionless. 

“If you have guys that know how to play basketball and defend at a high level, then now you’re in business.”

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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