- The Washington Times
Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Over the course of his first year at the helm of an NBA team, Wizards coach Wes Unseld Jr. learned a valuable lesson: He realized he’s more patient than he previously thought. “There’s a difference between patient with people and patient with circumstance,” Unseld said. 

Unseld’s patience was certainly tested as the Wizards’ year went on, but the circumstances required it. After all, the Wizards couldn’t sustain a promising start and their priorities shifted as the year went along — starting when Bradley Beal was ruled out with a season-ending wrist injury in February. Unseld and the Wizards finished a disappointing 35-47, missing the playoffs and taking a step back from a year ago. 

Perhaps the biggest surprise? The Wizards actually regressed as a defensive team under Unseld — despite Unseld’s reputation for being a defensive-minded coach and an influx of talent that gave Washington a number of wing defenders. 

Washington finished the year with the league’s sixth-worst defensive rating (113.6 points allowed per 100 possessions). That was down five spots from the year prior when Washington ranked 20th (112.3) under former coach Scott Brooks. 

“We had to guard to give ourselves a chance,” Unseld said. “I thought we let go of that once we started to get into an offensive rhythm, but that’s no excuse. It’s got to be a mindset and a commitment from Day 1 throughout.” 

Unseld cautioned that rankings can be misleading. And, upon closer examination of the numbers, there are some qualifiers that should be noted. For one, until Beal’s final game of the season, the Wizards sported a defensive rating of 111.5 — an improvement over last year. No one would confuse Beal for being a great defender, but the Wizards were explicitly worse without him as their defensive rating was 117 after he was ruled out for the season. 

In Brooks’ final season, the Wizards also made dramatic — and unexpected — improvements over the second half. Washington acquired center Daniel Gafford at the trade deadline and after that, the Wizards ranked as the league’s sixth-best defense in that span. 

It would be an oversimplification to credit that turnaround all to the arrival of Gafford. But the acquisition allowed the Wizards to settle into a rhythm — something that this year’s squad couldn’t really find. 

Unseld noted the wide variety of different lineups the Wizards played down the stretch, as did general manager Tommy Sheppard. A coach, of course, sets the lineup, but injuries — to Beal and later forward Kyle Kuzma — dictated some of the matchups. 

“Most importantly, you’ve got to have a consistent lineup out there every single night,” Sheppard said. “We’re one of only five teams in the league who had two five-man lineups play more than 75 minutes together. We just never were able to put the same five out on the floor and that’s difficult.”

The Wizards’ decline on the defensive end, though, started well before injuries. The team was in a tailspin prior to Beal’s injury, leaving Sheppard to shake up the roster at the deadline by trading Spencer Dinwiddie and Montrezl Harrell, among others.  Washington, after all, started the year 10-3 and sported a top-five defense. The Wizards fell all the way to 22nd by the time Beal was injured.

How much of Washington’s slippage falls on Unseld? It’s fair to wonder, but players had openly talked about needing to have more pride among themselves to lock down and defend. And ultimately, the players are still responsible for their quality of play.

Sheppard gave Unseld nothing but a ringing endorsement when speaking with reporters Tuesday for an end-of-the-season press conference. The executive said Unseld “weathered the storm,” adding that Unseld learned a lot that he can carry over to next season.

On that point, Unseld seems to agree. Despite the slippage on defense, Unseld installed a new scheme that had its strengths. The Wizards, for instance, were one of the better teams in the league in preventing 3-pointers — allowing the fewest attempts (31.8) per game. 

“It’s certainly not where it needs to be or where we want it to be,” Unseld said of the defense. “But overall, we’ll be better for it, just having gone through it and guys coming back with a sense of corporate knowledge of what’s expected and what it takes to really make a stand on that end of the floor.” 

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

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