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On multiple occasions during Wes Unseld Jr.’s introductory press conference on July 19, the Wizards’ new head coach and the individuals sitting to the left and right of him—team owner Ted Leonsis and general manager Tommy Sheppard—mentioned the need to improve the team’s defense. The Wizards finished the 2020-2021 regular season ranked 20th out of 30 teams in defensive rating, a stat that measures the number of points allowed per 100 possessions by a team. The Denver Nuggets, where the 45-year-old Unseld spent the last six seasons, first as an assistant coach and then as the associate head coach for one season, ranked 11th.
“The defensive side of the ball has been an issue here,” Unseld said when asked about his vision for the team. “And that’s an area where I’ve been charged with for the past five seasons [with the Nuggets]. We’ve seen markable improvement in that area. And it boils down to buy-in and commitment. And I think all parties involved, including the players, they know for us to take that next step to really get to the level which we think we can attain, it’s going to take that commitment to that side of the ball.”
Defense came up again when Sheppard spoke about how Unseld, a former assistant coach with the Wizards and the son of Washington Bullets legend and Basketball Hall of Famer Wes Unseld, fits what the team was looking for in its next head coach after parting ways with Scott Brooks. During Brooks’ five-year tenure in Washington, the team never finished better than 15th in the league in team defensive rating, while mostly languishing near the bottom of the rankings. In that same span, the Nuggets have climbed from 29th to being consistently ranked within the top half of the league.
“The one thing that always stood out with Wes is his intelligence about the game, where the game is headed, the modern NBA, and certainly his proficiency on the defensive side of the ball, which is an area that we absolutely must address immediately,” Sheppard said.
Even Leonsis pointed out Unseld’s reputation for improving a team’s defense. In talking to the players during their exit interviews, Leonsis said that players spoke about lacking “defensive intensity.” Early this past season, in January, before the Wizards went on a second half run to make the playoffs, Bradley Beal lamented how the team couldn’t “guard a parked car.”
“Wes’ focus on defense and game planning, and all of the little things, all the details that get you to win a couple of more games every year because you’re out-preparing the other team really gave great comfort to everyone in our ownership group that this was a good move,” Leonsis said.
Unseld has had conversations with Beal and Russell Westbrook and said Monday that both of them know that “offense is not the issue right now.”
“So there’s buy-in right now,” Unseld continued. “And we’ll see as we get into training camp and the preseason there has to be carry over. So I think there’s an alignment there in thought, I think we’re all on the same page is what was going to be required. But the best part about that is both of them as leaders of this team are committed to being better on that end.”
And while Unseld understands that he will tasked with improving another team’s defense with the Wizards, in the end, what matters is getting the players to buy into his system.
“You may be in charge of certain area, but we’re all basketball coaches,” he said. “So I’m not concerned about the offensive end, the defensive end. It’s basketball, obviously you want to put your players in the best light to have the most success.”