Raise your hand if you know what to make of the Washington Wizards.
You’re lying. Put your hand down.
After starting the year 10-7, the Wizards went on a disastrous skid starting at Thanksgiving when they lost 13 of their next 14 games. Injuries played a factor, but the losing streak very much felt like a regression to the mean.
Since Dec. 20, the Wizards have won six of eight, climbing back into the playoff picture and throwing out the narrative about a collapsing group. The successful run of late has coincided with a conscious lineup decision made by head coach Wes Unseld Jr. to insert Daniel Gafford into the starting unit, committing the Wizards to playing a gargantuan frontcourt. Along with Kyle Kuzma and Kristaps Porzingis, the Wizards frontcourt is now a mismatch nightmare, one that each individual cog in the wheel contributes to and can exploit in their own right.
Kyle Kuzma: The Unabashed Confidence Man
I’m not sure if the general NBA fan realizes just how good Kyle Kuzma has been this season. He’s averaging 21.3 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 3.8 assists per game. Kuzma has never lacked confidence and came into the league as a scoring-minded wing with the Los Angeles Lakers. Since coming to the Wizards, he’s gotten the opportunity to operate with the ball in his hands more and show some real mismatch potential.
Kuzma has already taken 103 shots out of the pick-and-roll this season and is on pace to shatter career highs in terms of usage. He’s playing with a better change of speed than ever before while using his strong frame to go straight at contact. The Wizards can invert their offense a ton as a result, having big-to-big ball screens where Kuzma is the handler and one of Porzingis, Hachimura, or Gafford the roller:
The real change for Kuzma since joining the Wizards has been with his playmaking. He’s averaging 3.9 assists per 36 minutes, many of which come out of the pick-and-roll. Against the Milwaukee Bucks last week, Kuzma got into the lane against their deep drop coverage and engaged one of the NBA’s premier rim protectors in Brook Lopez. Kuzma, partnered with the hard-rolling Gafford, got open shots for the roller and made reads to involve weak-side shooters:
In those lineups where the Wizards play three of Kuzma, Gafford, Porzingis, and Hachimura together, there’s bound to be a size advantage somewhere. All are 6’8” or larger with strong builds and a ton of offensive firepower. Aside from Gafford, all can also shoot the ball and provide spacing around the interior.
As a result, mismatch post-ups become common for the Wizards. Different guys will go down low on different nights, depending on the matchups and how their opponent chooses to guard them. Against the Phoenix Suns on December 28th, Kuzma found himself covered by the much smaller Damion Lee and took Lee into the post. As the Suns would collapse, he’d throw kickouts to their other mismatch forward in Hachimura, and the Wizards scored on both occasions:
Kuzma’s scoring is far and away his biggest asset, but his development as a willing passer enables the Wizards to play more score-first guys together and why the Porzingis-Kuzma pairing has been Washington’s most successful two-man lineup combination. The Wizards can play inside-out and exploit any matchup their opponent gives them.
Rui Hachimura: The Second Unit Stinger
After a very strong first two years in the league, Hachimura faded into the background last year, missing time and stepping away from the team for a bit. An injury halted some early season progress back in November, causing him to miss about a month. But Hachimura has been on fire since his return. In his seven games back, Rui is averaging 18 points, 4.6 rebounds, and 1.7 assists on 58 percent shooting and 44 percent shooting from 3.
In essence, Hachimura is a 6’8” power wing. While he isn’t the fastest in the world and played the big man spot in college at Gonzaga, his game has adapted very well to the perimeter and playing as a big wing. According to his basketball-reference page, about 23 percent of Hachimura’s career minutes coming into this season came at the 3. This year, that number is up to 54 percent as he joins bigger lineups and has evolved into an efficient 3-point threat.
The appeal of having a guy like Hachimura come off the bench at the forward spot is to be able to punish smaller second units on the interior. Hachimura’s interior scoring arsenal he developed at Gonzaga comes in handy when the Wizards rest their other primary options and attempt to stagger minutes with their scorers.
In the early moments of the second quarter — or the late parts of the first and third — Hachimura gets to eat down low and be a post-up scorer, feasting on smaller guys while carrying Washington’s offense.
Rui is shooting 60 percent on post-ups this year and commanding a lot of extra attention as a result. He’s turned into an adequate passer when double teams come, looking inside to other bigs in the dunker spot or throwing skip passes out to the plethora of shooters around him.
Rui is also a master mid-range shooter, with a great pull-up and a competent enough handle to blow past his defender. With his combination of skill and physicality, Hachimura blends in well on this Wizards team and is a key cog in the team’s ability to constantly be hunting and exploiting interior mismatches. His game has evolved beyond the post-ups, and that’s why he’s one of the best bench scorers in the entire league. But the bread-and-butter of his attack — and what the Wizards rely upon — is how he operates with his back to the basket.
Kristaps Porzingis: The Healthy Latvian Launcher
The key for Washington’s overall success is in the rejuvenation of Kristaps Porzingis. An afterthought and salary dump from the Dallas Mavericks a year ago, Porzingis is finally healthy and playing confident basketball on both ends once again. On the season, KP is averaging 22.2 points, 8.9 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.1 steals, and 1.6 blocks. The only other player to average 20-8-2-1-1 this season: Joel Embiid.
Porzingis is utilized a ton in pick-and-pop actions within the Wizards offense, but because he’s 7’2”, the size advantage he features down low means there’s always going to be the temptation to play him in the mid-post. Such a strategy has been polarizing over the last few years around Porzingis, but he’s proving this season that there are true merits to letting him feast on the inside. He’s shooting 58.4% on post-ups and scores 4 points per game on the action, according to Synergy Sports, sixth-most in the NBA.
Porzingis is much more jumper-heavy down low than physical in going through guys to the rack. When he’s healthy and his legs are underneath him, he’s perfected using the physical lean-in to create some separation, moving defenders just enough for him to shoot over the top of them.
Porzingis is playing at an All-Star level and shooting a career-high 56 percent from inside the arc. Most importantly, he’s found relevance on defense after a disappointing few seasons in that regard with the Mavericks.
Daniel Gafford: The Smackdown Hotel Manager
Back in the day, WWE wrestler The Rock would get on the mic every week and talk about the Smackdown Hotel, teaching his opponents to “know their role and shut their mouth”.
Daniel Gafford is the epitome of knowing his role and, without saying much, just going out there every night and doing his job. Gafford is shooting 74.1 percent from the field, tops in the NBA, and swatting 2.7 shots per 36 minutes. Moving him into the starting lineup has rejuvenated the Wizards on both ends; Washington is 6-2 in games he starts this year, all of which have come since December 20th.
Playing a true rim-running big with Kuzma and Porzingis makes the Wizards absolutely gargantuan on their frontline. Defensively, having a rim protector behind those two helps make up for the lack of footspeed at the point of attack, and helps blanket Bradley Beal from getting picked on in continual ball screens.
Anyone trying to check into the Smackdown Hotel gets sent packing. Gafford’s swats aren’t just great in drop coverage where he stays home to protect the basket, they are deflating for an opponent because of how violently he sends them flying.
Offensively, the Wizards shoot the ball well enough around Gafford to make such a big lineup work. But they need his presence on defense in order to have a balanced rotation. It may seem counterintuitive to have a non-shooting big at the 5 next to a mismatch post-up attack. However, Gafford’s rugged style and physicality on the glass forces opponents to put their big man on him, preventing a cross-match. As a result, Porzingis, Kuzma, and Hachimura can then feast on smaller wings.
The Wizards have been streaky from the start of the season and are a difficult team to grasp. At times, their roster feels like a ton of misfit toys and unique pieces thrown together. They have talent, enough scoring and some fascinating young role players like Deni Avdija and Corey Kispert.
They’re starting to win games — with or without the oft-injured Bradley Beal — because they’re leaning into playing jumbo lineups. Once all their pieces get healthy, it’s not only the optimal use of their roster but a frustrating proposition for opponents to deal with. In being big and playing inside-out, there appears to be real staying power.