Aldridge: For Wizards to flourish, they need to believe in the Unicorn

Bradley Beal made it clear that he isn’t all that much into the numbers.

“From an effort standpoint, that’s all I can really pinpoint,” he said Monday after the Wizards ended a three-game losing streak with an offensive eruption, blowing the Wolves off the Capital One Arena floor with 15 3s and 57 percent shooting from the floor. Kristaps Porziņģis hit six 3s, including three in the first 90 seconds, en route to a career-high 41 points, and Washington put up a season-high buck forty-two in the victory. (Side note: Even before Karl-Anthony Towns went down in the third quarter with a calf strain that will keep him out for several weeks, the Wolves looked utterly lost. It was a schedule loss, to be sure; Minnesota played at home Sunday afternoon and flew to DC afterward to play Monday night in one of the worst back-to-backs any team could have. But, still. Something’s not right with the canines.)

“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Kyle Kuzma said after the 142-127 win, noting that the Wizards still get their defensive juice from when they’re playing well offensively. And that can’t be the case going forward.

You may recall this was around the time of last season’s pageant when the Wizards collapsed, blowing a 10-3 start. The defense, top 10 the first month of 2021-22, had cratered by February. The sniping about roles and inability to coalesce forced Tommy Sheppard’s hand, leading to the trade that sent Spencer Dinwiddie and Dāvis Bertāns to Dallas for Porziņģis. Trades for Monté Morris and Will Barton followed this past offseason, along with the signing of Delon Wright. So, Wes Unseld Jr. is right, as he pointed out Monday, that last season’s implosion doesn’t necessarily portend another this year.

“It’s a different group,” Unseld said. “I think there’s better synergy, better connectivity with this group. I think there’s more care factor in some of the things we’re doing. I think having gone through it for a year and understanding exactly what we’re trying to do in certain scenarios and situations, there’s a better comfort level. We’ve been able to make more adjustments on the fly than we were (able) 20 games into the season. So there’s a lot of positive in that regard.”

After Monday’s win, Washington hit the quarter pole at 11-10, in the top eight in the East but far from settled. As our Josh Robbins noted Tuesday, this season could go either way. But while Beal goes game-to-game in his evaluations of him, which is understandable for players, the season-long numbers produce a clear road map for how the Wizards can win at a high level.

More Porziņģis, at both ends.

Everyone knows by now how Porziņģis tilts the floor offensively with his range. No matter who’s guarding him, his team benefits — either from the enhanced floor spacing he creates by pulling a big out of the paint or from mismatches he gets at the nail or elbow when teams put a guard on him.

But until just a few days ago, it was the 7-foot-3 Latvian’s defense that was at an elite level. Not coincidentally, the Wizards were playing some of their best basketball.

“Teams want to use me as a rim protector, and I think that’s where I’m the best at,” Porziņģis said last week. “Yeah, just trying to match me up with guys that aren’t maybe as good of a shooter so I can kind of sag off more and help my teammates. I’ve been trying to do that to the best of my abilities, and I think, yeah, the coaching staff is doing a great job of putting each individual based off of their skills and characteristics in the best position possible.”

Before Washington’s back-to-back Thanksgiving losses in Miami and a rout by Boston on Sunday in which the final score was only close because the Celtics took the fourth quarter off, Washington was a top-10 defense in just about all of the advanced and terrestrial metrics. That much of that came with jack-of-all-defensive-trades Wright out with a hamstring pull spoke to its potential long-term potency.

During that stretch, Porziņģis was top five in the NBA in FiveThirtyEight’s Defensive RAPTOR metric. Only Brook Lopez, Nikola Jokić, Clint Capela and Charlotte guard Dennis Smith Jr. were better.

After back-to-backs against Miami’s Bam Adebayo and Minnesota’s Rudy Gobert on Monday, Porziņģis’ individual defensive numbers have slipped. A week ago, per NBA.com, his defensive field goal percentage allowed was .580; now, it’s .610. But he’s still tied for second in the league among centers, behind Jokić and with Lopez, in FiveThirtyEight.com’s total WAR (2.9). Offensively, per Cleaning the Glass, Porziņģis is sixth among bigs in usage rate, at 25.8 percent, ranking in the 95th percentile. And he’s tied for 24th, with DeMar DeRozan, among all players in FiveThirtyEight’s Offensive RAPTOR (4.0).

Adebayo is a load to handle. Most nights, Porziņģis isn’t facing a big with that kind of skill set and strength. Nor does Porziņģis often face someone like … himself. So Washington can utilize Porziņģis in drop coverage against most opponents, allowing him to contest or alter shots in the paint. As a result, Washington is still seventh-best in the league in opponent paint points allowed per game (47.3). And the Wizards are also getting better at defending without fouling; entering play Tuesday, they were tied with the Grizzlies and Jazz for 10th in the league in lowest opponent free-throw rate (.258).

In a league where teams hunt two things, and two things only, on offense — 3s and layups — Porziņģis and Daniel Gafford are taking the latter away at a high level. And Monday, Porziņģis got the defensive player of the game belt from Beal.

“I was just trying, like every night, protect the rim, get a steal or two,” he said. “Thrill (Barton) had some good defensive plays. So, me and him, we both got the belt tonight.”

Beal and Kuzma, at least, seem to get the assignment in playing alongside Porziņģis. So far, even though his scoring average is down (23.5 ppg) from recent campaigns, Beal is having one of his most efficient offensive seasons in years. His current effective field goal percentage of 58.3 would be, by far, the best of his career, as would his current 58.9 percentage on 2s and overall field goal percentage (52.8). He’s shooting 37.8 percent from deep, which would be his highest mark in six seasons. His turnovers are down.

And Kuzma isn’t forcing things in a contract year. His shot attempts by him, both on 2s and 3s, are up, but not inordinately so. He’s still rebounding at a high clip and taking advantage of the open spacing with Porziņģis lifted by attacking the rim more.

But Monday was, in some ways, the worst kind of win for Washington — one in which the Wizards came out blazing offensively and were never really stopped. Washington, normally below league average in 3s, made them early and often against Minnesota — which, while hardly stifled on offense, couldn’t make enough 3s to keep up. The Wolves are one of the worst shooting teams from deep in the league (at 32.7 percent; only the Knicks, Hornets and Lakers are worse). But that’s not a combo the Wizards can rely on most nights.

The Wiz still seem to get intoxicated by those kinds of “my turn, your turn” games. But that’s not where playoff runs are incubated. They come when teams never waver in their defensive commitment, transcending whoever it is they’re playing that night or whether they’re home or on the road. The Wizards are better at this than they were a couple of years ago, and getting Wright back in the next few weeks will help. But they’re still not where they need to be.

(Photo by Kristaps Porzingis: Stephen Gosling / NBAE via Getty Images)

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