After nearly one month of the new NBA season, the best team in the Eastern Conference is not the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks, nor the high-powered Brooklyn Nets. It's the upstart Washington Wizards, who moved to 10-3 on Monday night following a 19-point comeback win over the New Orleans Pelicans.
Playing without Bradley Beal (personal reasons) for the second straight game, the Wizards got off to a slow start against the Pels and trailed by as many as 19 points early in the third quarter. It looked like they were heading for their first defeat in nearly two weeks, but they flipped a switch in the second half. They cut the deficit to just seven points entering the fourth quarter and used a 14-0 run down the stretch to take the lead and secure the win.
Spencer Dinwiddie led the way with 27 points, five rebounds and nine assists, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope went for 18 points and Deni Avdija had his best game of the season with 11 points and 10 rebounds off the bench as the Wizards secured their best start in 47 years. In a nice bit of synergy, that 1974-75 Wizards team was led by Wes Unseld Sr.; this team is coached by his son, Wes Unseld Jr.
The Wizards' hot start is obviously unexpected, but the fashion in which they're doing it is especially surprising. They've been downright nasty on the defensive end and currently boast the fourth-best defensive rating (102.7) while leading the league in opponent field goal percentage (42.4) and opponent 3-point percentage (30.7).
"I think a lot of it comes from us new guys coming in," Kyle Kuzma said recently after a win over the Cavailers. "We're defensive-oriented people, but also coach Wes (Unseld Jr.). He does a great job. I think a lot of times in this league, what separates good teams and bad teams is defensive schemes."
"When you come here -- first day of training camp, we want to be a top-10 defensive team," Kuzma continued. "OK, how do we get that? Wes puts us in great situations, and it's really no error out there. You know what to do. [If] it's a step up, near side, we know what to do. Same thing, if they're locking and trail, we know what to do. That just clears up a lot of thoughts you may have on the court so you can just play freely."
In the past three seasons, the Wizards have finished 20th, 29th and 27th in the league in defensive rating. But with Unseld's leadership, the new offseason additions and a high level of buy-in, the Wizards have become one of the toughest teams to play. They leaned on that defensive mindset down the stretch against the Pelicans, holding them scoreless for nearly five minutes as they went on their game-changing 14-0 run.
Let's take a closer look at how they got it done.
Making things tough on Ingram
With Zion Williamson still injured, much of the offensive burden for the Pelicans falls to Brandon Ingram. And though he finished with 31 points in this game, he needed 23 shots to get there. The Wizards really made him work and shut him down in the fourth quarter, limiting him to 3-of-11 shooting.
They did so with good old fashioned hard work. Deni Avdija has become a key defender for the Wizards because of plays like this. Here he battles through two screens, then sits down to keep Ingram out of the lane and contests a long two-pointer.
This is a perfect example of how succeeding on the defensive end isn't always about spectacular, lock-down possessions, but making solid plays over and over again. Teams might not respect Avdija on the defensive end, but they will soon if he keeps playing like this.
"I think I was a good defender even last year, but last year I didn't get the most respect," Avdija said earlier this season. "I'm just, it's my heart, you know? I'm not the most athletic. You see people bring me in pick-and-roll all the time. They think they can attack me, they think they can score on me, and it's fun."
Protecting the rim
A second-round pick in 2019, Daniel Gafford didn't do much of note at the beginning of his career. But after getting traded to the Wizards at the deadline last season, he burst onto the scene and was a big part of the team's playoff push. He's earned the starting center spot this season and gives the team a much-needed boost of athleticism and defense around the rim.
His three blocks against the Pelicans gave him his third three-block game of the season already, and he's currently seventh in the league at 1.7 blocks per game. Perhaps his biggest one came late in the fourth when Herb Jones got downhill off a screen and tried to take it all the way to the rim. Gafford played it perfectly and got up for a huge rejection.
One interesting aspect of the Wizards' defense is that they don't actually force that many turnovers. In fact, they're last in the league with just 12.5 opponent turnovers per game. But against the Pelicans they came up with some big ones when it mattered.
Trailing by two with less than three minutes to play, the Pelicans got a crucial stop of their own and had a chance to tie or retake the lead. Instead, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope jumped the passing lane for a big steal that eventually led to two free throws for Montrezl Harrell to push the Wizards' lead to four.
Not forcing turnovers might make it difficult for the Wizards to sustain this level of defense, but it's clear that they care, are all on the same page and are willing to put in the work to be great on that end of the floor. That alone is going to be enough most nights.
"Coach comes in with a simple game plan, both offense and defensively as far as each team goes," Harrell said earlier this season. "But you know, Coach does all the little things that some guys may not want to do at point in times. We're all bought in and tied in and support him 100 percent because at the end of the day, it's a collective group effort."