Riding a five-game winning streak with just three losses, the Washington Wizards currently have the best record in the Eastern Conference. That isn’t a sentence I thought I’d find myself saying one month into the season! Their surprising surge to start the new campaign has caught most casual NBA fans off guard and there are three key factors in particular that have helped them get off to a flier.
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Addition By Subtraction
Russell Westbrook’s contract was viewed as one of, if not the most untradeable deals in the entire league at one point. That didn’t stop the Wizards from opting to trade for the 9x All-Star and then 38 triple-doubles later, ship him off to Los Angeles after just eight months with the franchise. While their returns in the deal were questioned, it’s clear now that netting 3-and-D Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, energetic big-man Montrezl Harrell and versatile forward Kyle Kuzma has helped the franchise dramatically.
In the 2020-21 season, Russell Westbrook attempted 19 shots a game and contributed 22.2 PPG – a far cry from his career-best scoring numbers, but a decent line nonetheless. Fast forward, and the three players Washington received from the Lakers are combing for 31.9 shot attempts a night and a scoring average of 42.2 PPG. Those numbers alone don’t highlight a huge improvement, but releasing themselves from the shackles of Westbrook’s contract gave them the flexibility to chase another playmaking guard such as Spencer Dinwiddie in free agency.
When you account for Dinwiddie’s offensive contribution, the new Washington quartet of he, Kuz, Montrzel and KCP attempt 45.9 shots a game and account for 59.2 PPG – costing the franchise just $8.7 million than Westbrook would alone. There are a lot of numbers I’ve thrown around in the last few paragraphs, but to translate: instead of paying $44M for 22.2 PPG, the Wizards are able to get nearly 60 points of production for roughly $53M. Addition by subtraction.
Slowing The Pace
This isn’t an anti-Westbrook piece by any means, but the absence of the speed demon at point has certainly altered Washington’s offence. With first-year head coach Wes Unseld Jr calling the shots, his new ball club has made a cognitive shift to slow things down when they’re in control of the rock. Not only have they gone from being the fastest team in the NBA a year ago to now the owners of the 19th highest pace, Unseld’s men have recorded the 5th fewest total possessions so far compared to leading the league in that stat by a wide margin last season.
With their reduction in pace and possessions, the Wizards have been able to increase their efficiency a season after they finished 3rd in PPG, but were a measly 17th in offensive rating. While Washington is averaging 8.2 fewer points a night, they’re still getting an even spread of shots and their patience when operating their offence is evident. Batting much deeper with their lineup this season, there isn’t as desperate a need for them to lean on one of their All-NBA guards to bail them out like they would have last season. Whether it is a contributing factor or not, the slower pace has seen Bradley Beal’s scoring numbers dip; however, it hasn’t sent the franchise into a tailspin as they seek desperately to find a source of points.
Perhaps the biggest factor that has helped Washington burst out of the blocks has been their defence with the Wiz a near juggernaut on that side of the ball. No team sacrificed more points to their opponents last year and through the 2021-22 season, they’ve made drastic improvements to make life much harder for their foes. From the 20th ranked defence to the 4th best now, the Wizards are the stingiest squad in the entire league for opponent field goal percentage (42.4%) AND opponent three-point percentage (30.7%).
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They’ve also made a concerted effort on the glass to improve their rebounding rate. As it stands right now, Washington averages the 4th most rebounds on a nightly basis, with no team better at hauling in defensive boards. A big reason for their boost in that category has been the growth Kyle Kuzma has shown as a rebounder, currently pulling down a career-best 9.1 RPG. It’s a small sample size but Montrezl Harrell (8.5 RPG) and even Bradley Beal (5.5 RPG) are averaging personal best numbers rebounding the rock with Thomas Bryant set to return in the near future in another boost for their frontcourt.
Only time will tell if this new-look Wizards outfit has briefly caught lightning in a bottle or if they’re here to stay. Although, Bradley Beal’s lowest scoring average since his pre-All-Star days hasn’t led to furious trade rumours and there is a lot to like about how Unseld has Washington clicking on all cylinders right now. With a promising core and young players in the mould of Daniel Gafford, Deni Avdija, Corey Kispert and Rui Hacimura who can contribute, it’s a welcome change to see the Wizards up and about – even if it is just 13 games into the season.
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