Wes Unseld Jr. failed to fix Wizards’ defense in the first year

As the season wound down, Wes Unseld Jr. came up with a snotty response to the greeting: “How are you, Coach?”

“How do I look?” he’d shoot back with a grin, alluding to the accumulation of near-sleepless nights, meals on the go, and the daily onslaught of decisions faced by NBA head coaches. It wasn’t exactly President Barack Obama after eight years in office, but Unseld believed the toll was beginning to be felt.

His first year at the helm of the Washington Wizards was an eye-opening experience of just how different there is, as Unseld likes to say, the 18-inch gap between the executive assistant’s chair and the head coach’s. As he completed his assessments of his players and staff in the early days of April, many of the Wizards core gave their impressions of Unseld in his first season.

According to Kristaps Porzingis, Kyle Kuzma, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, the verdict is that Unseld is an open, easy communicator who welcomes dialogue and isn’t so wedded to his plans on the pitch that he won’t conform. Players say he’s as balanced as he appears in games.

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“Sometimes he raises his voice when he wants to get his point across, but that’s the beauty of Wes that I really like,” Kuzma said. “He’s even-tempered, but he’s passionate. He wants to do well here; he wants to win. When you see him on the touchline something bad happens, you can tell he wants to win. But at the same time, when he’s in the dressing room, it’s even being keeled to the right degree.”

But the wizards didn’t hire Unseld because of his temper.

He was credited with playing a large role in reversing the Denver Nuggets’ defense as an assistant. Defense improvement was the Wizards’ priority for the 2021-22 season. Washington ranked 20th in defensive standings and had 112.3 points per 100 possessions last season.

This season, it ranked 25th and allowed 113.6 points per 100 possessions, a number Unseld dismisses as not indicative of the bigger picture.

But the wizards’ defense wasn’t all badly rated; It failed the eye test again this season. It strove to make teams uncomfortable and let the Stars play to their strengths, allowing three players to have at least 44 points each in three consecutive games in March. The Wizards were also underperforming rebounders for most of the season and often looked either lost or casual on defense.

Unseld was open about the team’s defensive communications being weaker than he’d like, and a bomb-deal deal meant quite a few players in Washington were familiar with the team’s defensive systems after the All-Star break. Even Deni Avdija, the player who has made the most progress in defense – arguably the only player to have made such a leap this season – looked confused at times late in the season.

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Third-year forward Rui Hachimura, who was selected by the lottery in 2019, missed training camp and only joined the team in January due to personal reasons. All of this has slowed Washington’s progress, and that’s why Unseld believes the team could improve defensively even if it didn’t change the roster in the summer. The problem, Unseld said, is more familiarity and consistency between lineups than staffing.

“I think the biggest thing is that the guys are more comfortable with what we’re doing,” Unseld said. “I know it sounds crazy when we play people out of position; After making these changes in February, we’ve had to make adjustments to some of our coverage throughout the season, so some of this is new to certain guys.

“The communication component that should be cleaner. All of these things will be easier next season; These people will have a corporate knowledge of what we’re doing, what we’re trying to do.”

Caldwell-Pope and Kuzma differed slightly from their coach in their defensive diagnoses, as both said the main issue was effort. Kuzma said simplification schemes — which Unseld did when key new plays arrived like Hachimura (in January) and Porzingis (in February) — will help, although ultimately “we have to give ourselves a damn as players, too,” Kuzma said. Caldwell-Pope saw the same problem when Washington slipped from a competent defensive team into defensive dissonance in November.

“I feel like we have great defenders now; it’s all about effort, what you put in on that side of the ball,” he said.

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Unseld said the last few weeks of the season, after Porzingis joined the group and Washington’s lineup became more solid, were productive as he felt players were more internalizing his defensive concepts and able to adapt better on the fly.

Defensive highlights were few and far between, including a win over Detroit on March 25 that showed what the Wizards could look like with the right energy, and a win over Dallas on April 1 in which they limited almost everyone but Luka Doncic .

But a few standout games are far from where Unseld and Tommy Sheppard, the team president and general manager, want to be. Sheppard vowed Tuesday that defense will be “absolutely the focus” next season, and Unseld said it must be the foundation of the team’s identity going forward.

After his first season in the head coaching chair, Unseld’s players are confident he will make it.

“I think Wes was honestly good,” Kuzma said, “for all the cards that were dealt to him.”

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