Wes Unseld Jr. couldn’t fix Wizards’ defense in first year

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As the season wound on, Wes Unseld Jr. developed a pat response to the greeting, “How are you, coach?”

“How do I look?” he’d shoot back with a grin, alluding to the accumulation of nearly sleepless nights, meals on the road and daily onslaught of decisions NBA head coaches face. It wasn’t exactly President Barack Obama after eight years in office, but Unseld believed the toll had started to show.

His first year helming the Washington Wizards was an eye-opening experience into just how much of a difference lies in, as Unseld likes to say, the 18 inches of space between the lead assistant’s chair and that of the head coach. As he completed his evaluations of his players and staff in April’s early days, many of the Wizards’ core gave their impressions of Unseld in his first season.

The verdict, according to Kristaps Porzingis, Kyle Kuzma and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, is that Unseld is a frank, easy communicator who welcomes dialogue and isn’t so married to his on-court schemes that he won’t adjust. Players say he is as even-tempered as he appears in games.

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“Sometimes he’ll raise his voice when he wants to get his point across, but that’s the nice point about Wes I really like,” Kuzma said. “He’s even-keeled, but he’s passionate. He wants to do well here, he wants to win. When you see him on the sideline, something bad happens, you can tell he wants to win. But at the same time, when he’s in the huddle, locker room, it’s even keeled to the right extent.”

Yet the Wizards did not hire Unseld for his temperament.

He was credited in playing a large part in turning around the Denver Nuggets’ defense as an assistant; defensive improvement was the Wizards’ priority for the 2021-22 season. Washington finished 20th in defensive rating allowing 112.3 points per 100 possessions last year.

This season, they ranked No. 25, allowing 113.6 points per 100 possessions, a number Unseld dismisses as not indicative of the whole picture.

But the Wizards’ defense didn’t just rate poorly; it didn’t pass the eye test this season, either. It struggled to make teams uncomfortable and allowed stars play to their strengths, letting three players in three straight games in March go off for at least 44 points each. The Wizards were also subpar rebounders for much of the year and often looked either lost or nonchalant on defense.

Unseld was upfront throughout the year about the team’s defensive communication being weaker than he wanted it to be, and a bombshell trade deadline deal meant that after the all-star break, quite a few Washington players were unfamiliar with the team’s defensive schemes. Even Deni Avdija, the player who made the most significant strides on defense — arguably the only player to have made such a leap this season — looked discombobulated at times late in the season.

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Third-year forward Rui Hachimura, the team’s 2019 lottery pick, missed training camp and didn’t join the team until January because of personal reasons. All of that slowed Washington’s progress and is why Unseld believes the team could improve defensively even if it didn’t change a thing about the roster over the summer. The issue, Unseld said, is more familiarity and consistency among lineups than personnel.

“I think the biggest thing is just guys getting more comfortable with what we’re doing,” Unseld said. “I know it sounds crazy when we’re playing guys out of position, we had to make adjustments to some of our coverages throughout the season after we made those changes in February, so some of it’s new to certain guys.

“The communication component, that should be cleaner. All those things will be easier going into next season, these guys 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 diagnoses of the defense in that both said the primary issue was effort. Kuzma said simplifying schemes — which Unseld did when new key pieces arrived such as Hachimura (in January) and Porzingis (in February) — will help, though ultimately, “we have to give a damn, too, as players,” Kuzma said. Caldwell-Pope saw the same problem as Washington slipped from a competent defensive team in November into defensive dissonance.

“I feel like we’ve got great defensive players now, it’s just all about effort, what you put in on that side of the ball,” he said.

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Unseld said the final few weeks of the season, after Porzingis joined the group and Washington’s lineup was more settled, were productive in that he felt players were absorbing his defensive concepts more and were able to better adjust on the fly.

Defensive highlights were still 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 just about everyone but Luka Doncic.

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

After his first year sitting in the head coach’s chair, Unseld’s players are confident he can get it done.

“I think Wes has been good, honestly,” Kuzma said, “for all the cards that he’s been dealt.”