This week in Wizards: High times in the District

By Zach Rice

Another week of exceptional basketball from the Wizards can be described by a quote from the one and only Borat: “Great success!”

The Wizards followed up two phenomenal opening weeks with another seven days of victories, going 2–1 with victories over the Grizzlies and the defending champion Bucks. An impressive 7–3 record puts Washington tied for first in the Eastern Conference standings prior to Wednesday’s contest against the Cavaliers.

When this past week kicked off, terrible three-point shooting (25%) sunk the Wizards in a 109–100 defeat against the Raptors. Kyle Kuzma and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope shot a combined 0-11 from three in the loss.

However, the Wizards quickly rebounded with a 28-point shellacking of the Grizzlies. This was Washington’s best game of the year; they absolutely dominated on both sides of the ball. Every player had a positive plus-minus and did their job. 

Following up a dominant game against Memphis, the Wizards won a nail-biter against Milwaukee. Bradley Beal had one of his best games of the season, dropping 30 points to go along with five rebounds and eight assists. Still, Deni Avdija may have been the most significant Wizards player despite scoring only two points. He played spectacular defense on Giannis Antetokounmpo and came up clutch down the stretch in the victory. 

Here are three takeaways from an astonishing week by the Wizards:

Wes Unseld Jr. was a fantastic hire

The Wizards finally have a coach that knows how to win games. Unlike former coach Scott Brooks, Unseld has the ability to effectively use everybody on the team. Montrezl Harrell, for example, has been a star for the Wizards, and a huge part of that is because Unseld has maximized his athletic talents. Unseld has expanded Harrell out to the three-point line far more than Frank Vogel did for the Lakers last year. This has created plenty of open roll opportunities on screens, and Harrell’s been able to draw mismatches inside all season. Take also Deni Avdija in considering how Unseld has created opportunities for a lot of different players. Deni suffered through injuries and frustration last year, but Unseld has shown his trust in Avdija by throwing him into the fire late in games. Unseld has honed into a lineup with Avdija playing in the fourth quarter instead of KCP and Kuzma, which has allowed the Wizards to close out numerous games so far because of their defense getting key stops late. Another compliment for Unseld: his game management has been stellar all season. Without Daniel Gafford and Spencer Dinwiddie, Unseld was able to effectively run a small ball lineup of Beal, Holiday, KCP, Avdija, and Kuzma. In the absence of sharpshooter Davis Bertans, rookie Corey Kispert has sufficiently played Bertans’ part as a three-point specialist. 

Acquiring Unseld may have been the Wizards’ best move all offseason, or does a blockbuster trade say otherwise…

Washington won the Westbrook trade

That feels so good to read. 

Many Wizards fans, myself included, initially didn’t believe that Washington got enough in return for Russell Westbrook. However, what the Wizards received were parts that have made the team that function better than they were with Westbrook. While Russ was a huge part of what made Washington an electric offense and a playoff team last year, he was also the reason why the Wizards’ defense was so terrible. In addition, Westbrook’s high usage on offense didn’t allow for guys like Deni Avdija and Rui Hachimura to get the touches they needed in order to develop. 

At the time, it was a questionable decision to trade a nine-time All-Star and future Hall of Famer for a group of players who lacked All-Star status and who were all coming off of injuries or disappointing seasons. However, it’s now safe to say that Washington won the trade. Montrezl Harrell is the Six Man of the Year so far. Spencer Dinwiddie has responded in an awe-inspiring way after a torn ACL. Kyle Kuzma has proven to be an excellent rebounder who will keep improving as a scorer. As long as these new additions keep playing their hearts out every night, Washington will have solidified a substantial victory in this trade. 

Washington’s defense could be even better

It’s safe to say that I didn’t think the Wizards’ defense would be better than the Washington Football Team’s in 2021, but that superiority has taken shape. The Wizards’ defense ranks 12th in points per game allowed, an unbelievable improvement from last season, when Washington gave up the most points per game in the league. It might sound silly to claim that the Wizards could still up their game, but Washington ranks 29th in turnover percentage forced per possession. If Unseld Jr. could draw up some more schemes to trap opponents or simply amp up the aggression on defense, that could turn an above average defense into one of the league’s best. The key to Washington’s defensive success has been forcing contested threes and deploying strong help defense. If the Wizards could decrease their reliance on missed shots for defensive stops, the defense and offense would improve with increased transition opportunities.

Hot Take: The Wizards go 3-0 this week, have the best record in the East and lead the NBA in the fewest points per game allowed

Washington has a straightforward schedule next week. The Cavs just lost their best player, Collin Sexton, for at least an extended period of time, so the Wizards’ first matchup is going to be far easier than expected. Next, the Wizards face the lowly Orlando Magic and then take on the New Orleans Pelicans, who are currently in DEFCON-1 regarding Zion Williamson’s foot injury. If the Wizards go 3–0 this week, they’ll have a solid chance of sitting atop the Eastern conference by this time next week.