When the Washington Wizards acquired Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in a blockbuster trade that sent Russell Westbrook to the Los Angeles Lakers, the franchise underwent a major facelift that left a lot of unknowns this offseason.
A brand new head coach in Wes Unseld Jr. A fresh-faced starting lineup. Seven new players.
And yet, in this case, change has most certainly been welcome.
As of Friday, the Wizards sit with the Chicago Bulls atop the Eastern Conference at 9-3. Make no mistake: this isn’t your par-for-the-course, “Bradley-Beal-carries-and-the-rest-fall-in-line” group that we’ve seen so many different iterations of in Washington D.C. This is a team in every sense of the word.
And the fact that it’s come together this cohesively and this expeditiously, for a franchise that retooled its staff and personnel less than three months ago, is incredibly unique.
“I mean it is a different team. Basically, half the roster's different, so it is remarkable that they've kinda pulled together as quickly as they have,” Unseld said prior to Wednesday’s win in Cleveland. “But I give 'em credit. They were around in September, so we didn't wait 'til the first official day of training camp to say, 'Hey, let's start putting in work.' Those guys were trying to play together, do a small side of [pickup] games, get workouts [in], finding ways to be on the floor and build that chemistry. So it's paid off for us thus far."
"We've got a bunch of dogs, man,” Kuzma added. “Obviously, me and KCP, we've won. We know how to win in this league. Trezz has always been an underdog his whole entire career, being a second-round pick and fighting his way through the G League and all the way to being the Sixth Man [of the Year]. But the people here, too — it's not just us. It's a collective group. It's the coaching staff, it's us, it's Brad wanting to win big in this league. It's [Raul] Neto coming in, being a dog for us, being huge. [Daniel Gafford]. It's everybody. And it's all about the culture. It's all about trying to change cultures and just win. Everything's good when you win."
These Wizards are gritty and feisty. These Wizards have that dog mentality. These Wizards are going to make you earn it. Most importantly, these Wizards gut it out.
And while it is still a work in progress, when you have a collection of castoffs with something to prove and a chip on their shoulder, they’re developing an identity of resiliency.
“It's not something that I really mapped out. I think it's a byproduct of who we have and their individual situations, but I think they've all bought into team success,” Unseld said. “They understand that when the team thrives, the individual stuff will come. They don't have to press for certain things or play out of character. [They] play team ball, continue to play our brand and our style, and it'll work out.
“It's a long season, so it's easy to say, 'Hey we figured it out.' I don't believe that's true. We're playing well right now, which is terrific, but I think it takes time — maybe a year — to say, 'This is who we are, who we have to be.' But a lot of times, that changes with your personnel. So, I think it's gonna take some time. It's easy to say who we want to be. It may be a little different as far as how it plays out."
According to Cleaning the Glass, Washington ranks fourth in the NBA with a 103.6 defensive rating and, as specified by NBA.com, is allowing a league-low 8.5 transition points per game and just a 48.3% Effective Field Goal percentage. It all starts with the players guarding out on the perimeter, and keeping their assignments in front of them.
“I think there's just an urgency to what we're doing. I've said this many times: it's never perfect. There's never a game where you walk away and those were a perfect 48 minutes of defense, but there's urgency to what we're doing,” Unseld said. “I think there's an understanding of how we want to play, how we want to guard concepts and situations. Where we were two weeks ago and where we are now, I think we're in a better place. And just, that's having gone through it. You can't simulate those reps enough, but having played  games now, you have a foundation you can kinda look back on and there's validity to it."
Not even a month into the season, Unseld’s trust in Kuzma is already sky-high.
“We saw it early in the preseason and obviously throughout the regular season, is our ability to switch and keep guys in front, and Kyle's able to do that,” Unseld said. “He's able to absorb some of the physical contact of those bigger wings, those power forwards, as well as keep those smalls in front, which is valuable. It keeps you out of rotations. And the way he's rebounded the ball in general has been dynamic. So if we can put those two things together, and you make a couple threes, you're a pretty good player."
Coming over from the West Coast, Kuzma believes that he and his Laker teammates are defensively-oriented people, but he gives much of the credit to Unseld as the reason why the Wizards are so connected on the most important end of the floor.
“I think a lot of times in this league, what separates good teams and bad teams is defensive schemes,” Kuzma said. “I've been on both sides. I've been on good teams, and I've been on bad teams throughout the early part of my career. And one of the reasons why I thought we were bad was because we didn't really have schemes and whatnot. When you come here, first day of training camp, we want to be a top defensive team. Okay, how do we get that?
“Wes puts us in great situations. It's really no ‘air’ out there. You kinda know what it is. If it's a step-up, clear-side, we know what to do. Same thing, if we're in the lock and the 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 and play."
Kuzma and Beal have logged the most minutes (307) among Washington duos and have allowed 99.8 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com. However, among two-man combinations who have played at least 150 minutes together, Harrell and Deni Avdija carry the top defensive rating (96.0) and net rating (19.1) on the team as a whole.
“I think they did a great job of picking the right head coach, man. As you can see, it's resulting into our play,” Harrell said. “Coach comes in with a simple game plan, both offensively and defensively, as far as each team goes. But Coach does all the little things that some guys may not want to do at points in time, certain situations. But we're all bought in and tied in and we support him 100 percent because at the end of the day, it's a collective group effort. It's not just the coaches and then the players and then the top staff.
“I think this organization moves at its best when we're all working together as one, and I think that's what Coach has done a great job of and instilling with everybody — coaching staff, players, even all the way up to the front office with Tommy [Sheppard] and our owner [Ted Leonsis].”