Is the Washington Wizards’ stellar defense sustainable for the season?

Through the first week of the NBA season, the Washington Wizards are 2-0. Despite the offense being inconsistent at times, the defense has been remarkable. It’s certainly encouraging to see this type of energy on that side of the ball — however, we’ve seen this movie before.

Just last year, the Wizards started the season 10-3 and had the best record in the Eastern Conference. The defense was elite despite many key players missing time due to injury. However, as is all too familiar to Wizards fans, the team imploded and the defense came down to earth, never to be seen again for the remainder of the season.

The feeling that this season will be different has been echoed throughout the fanbase. While this is certainly a possibility, one must wonder how sustainable this level of play is. As of Sunday afternoon, the Wizards have the sixth-best defense in the league and a -6.0 relative defensive rating. For context, the Wizards posted similar numbers around this time last year. They were a top 10 defense and posted a -4.2 relative defensive rating through the first thirteen games last season.

What made last season’s start so shocking was that the Wizards roster was not by any means a defensively slanted roster. After Daniel Gafford, there was no rim protection for Washington to rely upon. In my evaluation of Gafford, I mentioned how foul trouble plagued him most of last season, which forced Washington to rely on center minutes from Montrezl Harrell and Anthony Gill, two undersized bigs who can’t protect the rim effectively.

Kristaps Porzingis is making a defensive difference

With Porzingis at center, the Wizards now have more size at the center position. Porzingis has always been a capable defender. Even post-ACL injury, he has impressed in every defensive metric there is. To start this season, he has been absolutely magnificent. Despite fouling out in Friday’s game against the Chicago Bulls, Porzingis was tied for the highest net rating on the team with a 30.3. He was a huge difference maker.

With Chicago missing their star shooting guard Zach Lavine, Chicago turned to a more post-centric approach, relying on Nikola Vucevic low post isolations to generate offense. Porzingis did a phenomenal job. This size and effective rim protection wasn’t available for the Wizards last season.

Daniel Gafford is certainly a capable rim protector, but he tends to frequently get in foul trouble, which was also a problem on Friday. Porzingis is averaging two blocks per game to start the year, a mark he hasn’t reached over the course of an entire year since the 2019-20 season.

Delon Wright is having an impact early

The best pickup of the offseason for Washington appears to be Delon Wright. There are only five players in the NBA that have recorded 80+ steals over the past five seasons and Delon Wright is one of them. Last year, he averaged 2.3 steals per 36 minutes, and this year, those numbers have skyrocketed to 3.7.

He also ranks near the top of the league in deflections, a stat in which the Wizards ranked dead last in last season. After Wednesday night’s victory against Indiana, Delon Wright was named Wizards defensive Player of the Game for his performance.

Wright posted six points, four assists, three rebounds, three steals, and a block in 21 minutes of play. He did all of that while having the assignment of Tyrese Haliburton and Buddy Hield on the perimeter. After the game, head coach Wes Unseld Jr. had nothing but kind words to say about his play.

“ I thought Delon was great with his hand activity, deflections, and the one-on-one containment.”

Along with Wright’s play, Deni Avdija was also phenomenal. He is clearly the Wizards’ best perimeter defender and in Friday’s game against the Bulls, he saw himself guarding Chicago’s bigs for extended stretches. Going from Tyrese Haliburton as his primary matchup on Wednesday to DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic for extended stretches on Friday was not an easy task, but he held his own.

Avdija’s versatility on the defensive end is vital to the Wizards’ game plan. He posted the second best plus-minus on the team Friday (+16) and his impact was felt the entire night. If Wright and Avdija can stay healthy and bring consistent energy, the Wizards could very well find themselves on the winning path long term.

Bradley Beal has renewed his focus on defense

They say a team takes the identity of their best player. So when Bradley Beal mentioned his goal was to bring better effort on the defensive end this season, it was clear from the jumpball on Wednesday that the team adopted that same mindset. In Friday’s game, Beal had a tremendous chasedown block on Ayo Dosunmu, which led to an open Deni Avdija three.

It should be noted that Beal was impressive on defense to start the season last year, but the effort waned and was not consistent for the rest of the year. The moment the Wizards hit a rough patch in the season, the defense disappeared. This Wizards team goes as Beal goes, so his consistency on both ends of the floor will be needed to stay afloat in the tough Eastern Conference. It’s not an easy job, but he’s being paid the big money to do it.

The offense hasn’t been there for Washington and will likely take time to develop given that the trio of Beal, Kuzma, and Porzingis have not played many minutes together. This means the defense has to be imposing for them to win games. It’s easy to say the Wizards defense is sustainable, however, we won’t know the answer to this question until they’ve played better offensive teams.

Looking at the schedule, the Wizards won’t face a top ten offense (based on last year’s numbers) until next Sunday against Boston. They won’t see an extended stretch of facing great offensive teams until mid-December when they face the Nets, Clippers, and Nuggets in a seven-day span.

By then, we will have a better understanding of what this team’s potential can be; however, the caveats remain — the Wizards must stay healthy and play consistently for this stretch to be sustainable. They have the personnel to be elite, but now they must stay elite.