Wizards Stagger Continues

grunfeld & leonsis

No time for major analysis the next couple weeks, but…here’s the Player Production Average update. It’s not pretty.

Player GMS MPG LW PPA
Otto Porter 12 35.3 173 177
John Wall 10 33.1 168 167
Marcin Gortat 12 34.8 135 146
Danuel House 1 1.0 119
Bradley Beal 9 32.1 66 92
Sheldon McClellan 6 12.7 478 88
Markieff Morris 12 31.0 67 78
Tomas Satoransky 12 19.3 18 43
Marcus Thornton 12 21.4 31 41
Andrew Nicholson 9 11.1 33 35
Trey Burke 10 13.0 -48 28
Kelly Oubre 11 13.5 18 17
Jason Smith 11 10.9 -93 -42
Daniel Ochefu 3 2.7 -181 -119

The NBA is still mostly in Small Sample Size Theater, but they’re closing in on the “it’s real” portion of the early season.

Good news: Otto Porter and John Wall have been outstanding, though I remain concerned with Wall’s stratospheric turnover rate. Marcin Gortat has been good despite a radical drop in his usage rate vs. his career norms. The other starters (Bradley Beal and Markieff Morris) both rate below average, but at least improved since the first update.

The bad news: every other player in the rotation rates at or below replacement level.

The team actually has played a difficult schedule (about 1.09 points per game tougher than average). Unfortunately, they’ve been outscored by 3.42 points per game, suggesting the Wizards have been 2.33 points per game worse than average. Overall, they’ve played at about the level of a 32-win team over an 82-game season — just a little behind the 34.5* wins per season they’ve averaged under the leadership of Ernie Grunfeld.

* This includes pro-rating 2011-12, the lockout-shortened 66-game season, to an 82-game schedule.

Wizards Staggering to Start Season

otto-porter-v-mem

The Wizards fired Randy Wittman for this? Six games into the tenure of Scott Brooks, the team sits 14th in the East with a 1-5 record. Washington’s futility is comprehensive — they rank 23rd in both offensive and defensive efficiency.

There are four key team stats that determine who wins and loses in the NBA. Here’s where the Wizards rank so far on offense:

  • Shooting (eFG): 23
  • Turnovers (tov%): 26
  • Offensive rebounding (oreb%): 12
  • Free throw rate (FTM/FGA): 16

On defense:

  • Shooting (defensive eFG): 30
  • Turnovers (defensive tov%): 9
  • Defensive rebounding (dreb%): 12
  • Free throw rate (dFTM/dFGA): 14

Don’t get too encouraged by their top ranking in defensive turnovers. Forcing turnovers isn’t necessarily an indicator of defensive effectiveness. In the NBA, defense is overwhelmingly about shot defense. And the Wizards are dead last in that category so far.

Remember the old days when Wizards fans wanted Wittman fired because the team took two-point jumpers instead of threes? Welcome to the new Wizards, same as the old. So far this season, they’re 28th in three-point attempt rate, but have attempted the fourth most two-point jumpers.

On defense, they’re still keeping opponents out of the paint (they have the fourth lowest defensive at-rim attempt rate), but they’re allowing the second highest opponent three-point attempt rate, and the worst opponent 3FG%.

Back to those four key stats for a moment: while there are four, they’re not created equal. Dean Oliver, who first wrote about these factors in a comprehensive manner, determined these approximate historic weights: shooting 40%, turnovers 25%, rebounding 20%, free throws 15%.

In recent years, those values have shifted, according to my analysis. Last season, shooting was worth about 55%, rebounding 18%, turnovers 15%, and free throws 12%.

This is a long and tortured way of saying the Wizards are bad where it matters most. Being worst in shooting differential and 25th in turnover differential overwhelms their decent rebounding and break-even free throw rate.

Player Production Average

Player Production Average (PPA) is an overall rating stat I developed that credits players for things they do that help a team win and debits them for things that hurt the cause. PPA is similar to other linear weight rating metrics such as John Hollinger’s PER, David Berri’s Wins Produced, Kevin Pelton’s VORP, and the granddaddy of them all, Dave Heeren’s TENDEX.

PPA is pace neutral, and weighs a player’s performance per possession against the performance of his competitors season by season. While PPA falls into the category of linear weight metrics, the actual values for each statistical category floats a bit from season to season based on league performance.

PPA is pace neutral, accounts for defense, and includes a “degree of difficulty” factor based on the level of competition a player faces while on the floor. In PPA, 100 is average, higher is better, and replacement level is 45. Read more here.

Want some good news, look at Otto Porter, John Wall, and (to a lesser extent) Marcin Gortat. The first two have been highly productive so far. Gortat is the team’s only other above-average performer through six games — although his production has been markedly lower than it was last season.

Wall and Porter offer an interesting contrast. Wall’s high PPA is built on volume — he makes LOTS of plays, both good and bad. He uses more than a third of the team’s possessions when he’s in the game, and he’s racking up rebounds, assists, steals and blocks at a prolific rate. He also sports an astronomical turnover rate (7.8 per 100 team possessions).

Porter is all efficiency. He makes the few shots he attempts. He grabs rebounds at a decent rate, plays solid defense, and avoids turnovers and fouls.

The bad news: everyone else. Markieff Morris and Bradley Beal have been terrible, the bench just about useless.

Ernie Grunfeld’s Plan B offseason acquisitions are off to a rough start. Ian Mahinmi is sidelined with injury, Trey Burke has been the next Eric Maynor (but worse), and Jason Smith has been…well…Jason Smith. Tomas Satoransky needs more time to figure out the NBA game.

The numbers:

PLAYER GMS MPG PPA
Sheldon McClellan 2 3.0 478
Otto Porter 6 34.3 173
John Wall 5 34.4 168
Marcin Gortat 6 36.2 135
Markieff Morris 6 34.0 67
Bradley Beal 6 34.8 66
Andrew Nicholson 5 14.0 33
Marcus Thornton 6 17.0 31
Tomas Satoransky 6 13.8 18
Kelly Oubre 5 15.0 18
Trey Burke 6 11.5 -48
Jason Smith 5 10.0 -93
Daniel Ochefu 1 4.0 -181

Wizards Remain Mediocre and Will Miss Playoffs for Second Straight Season

Oklahoma City Thunder v Memphis Grizzlies - Game Six

Yeah, I know the season is underway. Many teams have three games in the books; the Spurs already have four. This still serves as my Wizards preview, because while I’ve watched their first two contests (both losses), I’ve used nothing from the 2016-17 in the projection.

The approach this year is similar to the one I used for previous seasons: every player gets run through my statistical doppelganger machine, which spits out similar players from my historical database (similar production at similar age). There’s a process to weed out players with dissimilar career patterns — it makes no sense to compare a guy who stunk four years and suddenly had a terrific season to a guy like John Wall (for example) who’s been consistently quite good.

Once the list of “similars” is assembled, the system looks at the future of those players as a guide to the potential performance of the players being projected for the upcoming season. When the predicted performance (expressed in terms of Player Production Average — PPA for short) for each individual player has been completed, I estimate minutes (using an approach that must be similar to Kevin Pelton’s since the results were so similar). That gets translated into individual wins, which are totaled to team wins. Wins league-wide are capped at the number of wins available in a season (1230).

What’s new this year? Volume. For the first time, I projected the top 10-12 rotation players of every team. In previous seasons, I ran numbers for only the Wizards. This year — in a never-ending quest to make wrong predictions — I looked at everyone.

The Wizards

The Wizards spent two years hording cap space for an offseason in which nearly half the league would have sufficient room under the cap to pursue free agents with a maximum salary offer. The big prize was hometown hero Kevin Durant, who declined to even meet with the team. The team’s braintrust went after Al Horford (who signed in Boston) before managing to get Ian Mahinmi — a career backup coming off a career year who’s about to turn 30.

Their other roster moves were less inspiring: free agent deals for Andrew Nicholson and Jason Smith, and a trade for Trey Burke. They did manage to sign international guard Tomas Satoransky to a reasonable contract.

Here’s a quick look at what my projection system had to say about this year’s roster:

  • John Wall — Good news: Wall’s similars were a collection of very good players (albeit with a penchant for reputations that were better than their production). Bad news: half of the 10 most similar reached their career peak before age 26. More than half saw production declines following their age 25 season. Last season, Wall finished with a PPA of 144. Projected PPA: 130.
  • Bradley Beal — Beal’s persistent injury troubles overshadow what may be a bigger problem: his consistently mediocre play when he’s been on the floor. His PPA by season (average is 100 and higher is better): 92, 96, 99, 98. Players like Beal tended to peak at “decent starter,” not All-Star or All-NBA. The Wizards awarded him a max contract. Projected PPA: 108.
  • Otto Porter — Porter has improved during his career, and his future looks terrific (projected peak PPA would put him at All-Star level). But, the exercise in projecting the performance of individual players makes clear that it’s unwise to assume a young player will a) improve at all, b) that improvement will be linear, and c) that he’ll ever achieve imagined potential. Similar were useful defensive SF types who were also efficient on offense. But, there was no pattern of improvement after seasons most similar to Porter’s last year. So, Porter projects “about the same” as last year. Projected PPA: 127.
  • Markieff Morris — Last season, Ernie Grunfeld and Ted Leonsis swapped their first round pick in 2016 for Morris, who was deeply unhappy in Phoenix. What they got was a career mediocrity with little chance of getting better. The average peak of players like Morris (in Washington) last season was fairly low (acceptable starter level), and came (on average) at age 25.9. Morris is 27. Projected PPA: 95.
  • Marcin Gortat — The big man has been very good and consistent in Washington. He defied the decline I predicted for last season, and will have to do the same this year. At age 32, a drop in performance is probable — eight of the ten players most similar to Gortat declined the following season, and a ninth maintained. One oldster (Robert Parish) actually improved significantly in his age 35 season. I don’t anticipate something similar in Gortat’s age 32 season. Projected PPA: 147.
  • Trey Burke — The Wizards got him for next to nothing, which was the right price to pay. Burke started his career well below average, and has been less productive each year since. His comps were mostly backups who had short NBA careers. Surprisingly, Eric Maynor didn’t make the list. I’m actually predicting a modest improvement for Burke, although he’s unlikely to be close to what Ramon Sessions provided. Projected PPA: 67.
  • Tomas Satoransky — No comps for Satoransky since he didn’t play in the NBA last season. Although he has experience overseas, the NBA is the world’s most competitive sports league, and most players struggle to make the transition. Projected PPA: 65.
  • Kelly Oubre — The second year swingman seems to have abundant potential despite a horrific rookie season. Unfortunately, the history of players who performed like Oubre isn’t a pleasant one. Improvement was surprisingly modest (I double-checked the spreadsheet cells to make sure they were calculating correctly), and peaks were depressingly low. It’s worth mention that the same was true after Porter’s rookie year, although Porter had an injury. Projected PPA: 37.
  • Andrew Nicholson — The PF is coming off his best season (PPA: 81), which could mean he’s figured things out and is ready to become a useful backup, or…it could be the best he’ll ever play and he’ll recede to previous levels. His comps are useful backup types, and my projection suggests the latter. Projected PPA: 86.
  • Ian Mahinmi — When the Wizards whiffed on their other free agent targets, they turned to Mahinmi. It’s not exactly a bad contract under the league’s new financial realities, but it’s a #SoWizards kinda move. Mahinmi was a career backup who finally got a chance to start and responded with a career year. That’s good, right? Sure, except a) he’s going back to the bench in Washington (the team’s most productive player per possession the past few years (Gortat) plays the same position), and b) he’s about to turn 30. His “most similar” list is mostly journeyman centers. Some had high peaks, but few sustained it. What’s most likely is that he’ll be decent, but not nearly as good as he was last year. Projected PPA: 112.
  • Jason Smith — The decision to give Smith a multi-year deal was puzzling. He has a career PPA of 59, posted a 57 last season, and is 30 years old. It’s another #SoWizards move: no chance of meaningful contributions and no upside. It’s a nice lotto payout for Smith, though. Projected PPA: 50.

A potential wildcard: new head coach Scott Brooks. Previous coach Randy Wittman had his strengths, but would have ranked in the bottom third in the NBA. Brooks figures to be better, but the relevant research suggests the differences between professional coaches is pretty small. The exceptions are the very best and very worst coaches, but there’s a broad middle ground where coaches help a little or hurt a little, but don’t fundamentally alter their teams’ trajectories. While I think Brooks is an upgrade from Wittman, I also think they both occupy that middle ground.

Options

As I projected the entire league, I found that my process tended to push each team back towards the middle. The gap between the strongest team (Golden State) and the weakest (Phoenix) was about 26.7 wins. In recent years, the difference has been almost double that amount. So, I came up with an alternate method that ranked every team by their projected production, and then applied the average win total for that rank over the past five seasons.

The Wizards project to be ninth team in the East, and 19th in the NBA. Don’t go betting the mortgage, because my approach produced some results that are at odds with my gut and with predictions made by others I respect, such as:

  • My system likes Chicago and thinks the Bulls could finish as a top four team in the East.
  • Orlando projects to make the playoffs (7th seed).
  • Milwaukee and Atlanta both project to be worse than the Wizards.
  • In the West, my system likes Oklahoma City, Minnesota, Utah and Houston more than Portland.

For the Wizards, the win total from my projection system: 41.0. From the average record by league rank approach: 37.5. Take your pick.

My prediction: 41 wins and 9th place in the East.

Wizards Turn To Plan B

horford

After spending two years carefully clearing cap space for an offseason in which nearly half the league would be able to have room to add a maximum salary free agency, the Washington Wizards top free agent target (Kevin Durant) declined to meet with them, forcing the team to turn to plan B.

Plan B could take a variety of forms as the front office tries to make the best of a disappointing situation. The primary options:

  1. Build the Bench: They have a theoretical starting five on the roster, and they’ve told reporters they’re happy with that group. So, the team could eschew upper-shelf free agents to focus on mid-level guys who could give the team depth.
  2. Reach for (Near) Stars — Durant being gone doesn’t mean the cupboard is bare. The team still has sufficient money to land a maximum-salary free agent, and possibly a significant role player. They’d then be left with the room exception (about $2.9 million) to fill out the bench.
  3. Wait ’til Next Year — They’ve spent the past two offseasons avoiding long-term contracts. Not even getting an at-bat with Durant, the team could opt for lather-rinse-repeat and sign players to one-year contracts. Then they could enter the 2017 free agent market with $30+ million in cap space. Of course, if they strike out with top free agents next season, then what? At some point a team has to commit to trying to build the best roster possible. Right?

There are perils with each approach. The first seems to be the one they’re going to pursue, and it’s the least realistic way to build a contending team. Their problem this season wasn’t a bad bench or depth, it was a lack of elite talent. They could get some good luck and see significant development from Bradley Beal, Kelly Oubre, Otto Porter or John Wall, but more likely they’ll end up “contending” for the playoffs.

The other two are somewhat compatible. They could pursue an upper-level free agent, and then fall back to a Plan C of “Wait ’til Next year” if they whiff.

In my analysis, the Wizards could use upgrades in the starting lineup at shooting guard and power forward. They’ve publicly committed themselves to re-signing Beal, and have spent some time congratulating themselves on using their draft pick to acquire Markieff Morris, but those are the actual needs. Wall is a very good point guard, Marcin Gortat is a solid center, and Otto Porter is a criminally underrated small forward.

Here’s how I’d prioritize the team needs:

  • starting PF
  • starting SG
  • starting SF
  • backups at every position

So, who are some potential free agent targets? I identified some who are worth the money, likely bargains, and likely cap albatrosses over at Vice. But, here are some free agents who intrigue me for the Wizards.

  • Al Horford — the PF/C is entering his age 30 season, and I’m normally hesitant to commit significant money to players past 30. But, the bigs tend to age a little better than guards, and Horford’s game is likely to age reasonably well (as was the case for his historical comps). In my analysis, Horford has a good chance of having 2-3 All-Star level seasons. The fourth year he’s sure to get is much iffier, though. A maximum salary offer would be a very modest overpay in the first year, but it gets more reasonable with the cap surging even higher next season. In Washington, he could split time between PF and C, help lead a recommitted defense, and give the team the future option to trade Gortat to fill other positions of need. Contract: 4 years, $113.6 million. First year salary: $26.6 million. Estimated added wins: 8-10.
  • Jared Sullinger — Just 23 years old, and unpopular with fans in Boston, Sullinger has nonetheless been a productive performer. He has offensive skills that would make him a good partner with Wall, and he rebounds well and passes superbly. Plus, he’s likely available for less than the max. Contract: 4 years, $72.6 million. First year salary: $17.0 million. Estimated added wins: 6-8.
  • Nicolas Batum — I’m not as excited about Batum as others, but he’s skilled, versatile, fairly productive and should be entering his prime. He’s apparently a candidate for a maximum salary, which would be a significant overpay in my analysis. I’d still consider it because he’d be terrific in various combinations with Wall, Beal and Porter. And he’d be insurance for the oft-injured Beal. Contract: 4 years, $113.6 million. First year salary: $26.6 million. Estimated added wins: 6-8.
  • Mirza Teletovic — The Wizards are reportedly ready to make a major financial offer to stretch four Ryan Anderson. I wanted them to acquire Anderson four years ago, but they traded their cap space to New Orleans for Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza (and New Orleans then used said cap space to acquire Anderson from Orlando). But, Anderson hurt his back and endured personal tragedy, and he hasn’t been the same player. Instead of paying $18+ million (in the first year), the Wizards could likely land Teletovic — an even more prolific long-range shooter who rebounds and defends about as poorly as Anderson — for half the money. Teletovic is past 30, but might be obtainable on a shorter contract because of it. I project Anderson adding about four wins next season; Teletovic about three. That difference isn’t worth an additional $9 million per season.
  • The Wizards are going to need a backup PG. My top two — both of whom might be available for the $2.9 million room exception — Donald Sloan and Ramon Sessions. Sloan was just about the definition of average, but he’s good passer (over 10 assists per 100 team possessions last year) and competent, albeit not prolific, three-point shooter. Sessions did a solid job backing up Wall last season, and while similar in effectiveness to Sloan, he was stylistically quite different. Where Sloan is in more of a passing PG mold; Sessions is a penetrator and scorer who makes frequent trips to the free throw line. Both guys were efficient last season. Either could be an adequate backup for Wall next year.
  • The Wizards should also strongly consider bringing back versatile forward Jared Dudley, and using him as PF or SF depending on the matchup. Dudley is probably going to be one of the biggest bargains in free agency this year. He’s a solid player who’s going to end up signing for less than his on-court production deserves.

Predicting deep-discount bargains is a big challenge because there’s so much free agent money available. For example, it’d be fun to take a flyer on Spurs big man Boban Marjanovic. He was wildly productive last season, but in 504 minutes of mostly garbage time. Could he be effective with more playing time? It’s an intriguing question, but it could be an expensive experiment given the ocean of free agent money and the thin free agent talent.

Some possible bargains, according to my Diamond Rating (a metric that attempts to identify players who were productive in limited playing time that might perform well in an expanded role)…

  • Boban Marjanovic, San Antonio
  • Cole Aldrich, LA Clippers
  • Festus Ezeli, Golden State
  • Quincy Acy, Sacramento
  • Dwight Powell, Dallas

You may have noticed those are all big men. The backcourt free agent group looks pretty thin in my analysis. The best “bargain” candidate is Seth Curry, who performed well in just 725 minutes for the Kings. Another intriguing name is Indiana’s Solomon Hill, who might be a tweener without a position, but might also be a small-ball PF.

All this written, I can’t say I’m optimistic about the Wizards and free agency. The Ernie Grunfeld-led front office has shown a propensity for suboptimal moves. My guess is they’ll land Ryan Anderson, and then seek to fill out the bench with veterans. I don’t expect them to pursue the lather-rinse-repeat strategy and try to roll cap space into next offseason. There’s internal pressure to make the playoffs, and I anticipate low-risk moves designed to achieve that modest goal.

 

 

Those Disappointing Wizards

wittman confused

The surest way to get disappointed is to start with unrealistically high expectations. For exhibit gazillion, I present the 2015-16 Washington Wizards.

During the preseason, there was a fascinating disconnect between fans, media observers, and my statistical analysis. Many, including some of my stat pals at APBRmetrics thought the Wizards would be pretty good. The team seemed to fit a familiar narrative — they’d been bad, they’d gotten a taste of the playoffs (and even won a first round series) in 2013-14, and then had been better yet in 2014-15 (complete with a first round sweep of the Toronto Raptors). Fueled by All-Star John Wall and his young backcourt buddy Bradley Beal, the Wizards would take the next step and become Eastern Conference Contenders.

Over on the message board at RealGM, 76 members predicted the team’s final record. The average prediction: 48.0 wins. (Strictly speaking, 77 members made a prediction. I’m removing my own because it fits into a different category). A helpful soul compiled nine media predictions (strictly speaking, it was eight plus a betting service’s over/under line; also there are ten predictions listed, but 538’s belongs in a different category), which were only slightly less optimistic: 46.6 wins.

Roll all of those up, and it’s 85 predictions ranging from a high of 56 to a low of 37. The group pick: 47.9 wins.

The APBRmetrics crowd was less optimistic — average prediction: 44.8 wins.

My stat-based model predicted 41.4 wins, but I rounded up to 42 in my preseason analysis at Vice. The guys at 538.com predicted 41 wins.

What’s gone wrong? Nothing unexpected, really. Wall’s been maybe a little less productive than anticipated, but he’s quite close to my preseason prediction. Beal hasn’t been as good as I’d predicted — and he got hurt more than I’d expected — but that’s counterbalanced by Marcin Gortat and Otto Porter being healthier and more productive than projected.

So, was it injuries that doomed the Wizards? No. While the Wizards are near the league lead in games missed due to injury, most of the games were missed by bottom of the rotation guys — Alan Anderson, Drew Gooden, Gary Neal. Yes, Nenê and Beal missed their usual allotment. But among players who were on the roster since preseason, they’re fourth and sixth in per possession production. Washington’s three most productive players per possession (Wall, Gortat and Porter) have missed a total of 13 games.

There’s another whopping problem with the “injuries done ’em in” narrative: it’s hopelessly one-sided. For example, when I ran an estimate during the All-Star break on how many additional games the Wizards might have won at full health, I looked only at the Wizards. To do this analysis properly, however, it’s nonsensical to ignore injuries suffered by other teams.

Not having time today for a complete analysis of my own, I turn to ManGamesLost.com. That site lists the Wizards as having the third most games missed due to injury this season. They have two measures of the effect those injuries have had on the team. The Wizards rank 21st in one, and 19th in the other. In other words, injuries have cost Washington LESS in the win column than the average NBA team.

To put it more simply: the injury excuse is bullshit.

So what went wrong? Again, nothing surprising. Most of the players performed to reasonable preseason expectations. The team had been very average in preceding seasons, and several teams in the East improved while the Wizards tried to maintain their averageness.

The reason the Wizards are so disappointing is that fans and media (and apparently the players) set about constructing a narrative of a surging franchise. Unfortunately, the foundation for that narrative consisted of inflated win totals in a historically weak conference, and a massive overestimation of the importance of first round playoff wins.

Keep in mind that the playoffs represent tiny sample sizes. Last season’s postseason lasted 10 games. Washington’s record: 6-4. The previous season, it was 11 games. Their record: 6-5. At any other time in a season, such a performance would be expected for an average team. When it happens in the playoffs, it becomes a portent, an omen. And there’s a dose of that curious one-sidedness when it comes to injuries.

Many said (repeatedly) something to the effect of: “The Wizards might have beat the Hawks if only Wall hadn’t hurt his hand.” Acknowledged far less often is the reality that Washington’s first-round sweep of Toronto was helped by a serious back injury that hobbled Raptors star Kyle Lowry. If we’re going to imagine “what if” scenarios for a full-health Wizards against Atlanta, we also ought to recognize they might not have gotten out of the first round against a full-health Raptors squad.

With five games to go, the Wizards have a slim (about 2%) chance of reaching the postseason. All they need do is win out while Detroit loses three of their remaining four. But, as they limp toward the lottery (with the pick likely going to Phoenix), the team still embodies what I wrote in the preseason: it’s a mediocre roster that lacks an elite producer.

Player Production Average

The ratings below are from a metric I developed called Player Production Average (PPA). In PPA, players are credited for things they do that help a team win, and debited for things that don’t, each in proportion to what causes teams to win and lose. PPA is pace neutral, accounts for defense, and includes an adjustment based on the level of competition faced when a player is on the floor. In PPA, average is 100, higher is better, and replacement level is 45.

League-wide PPA scores through games played 04/05/16 are here.

PLAYER GMS MPG 11/10 11/22 12/3 12/13 12/21 12/30 1/6 1/13 1/27 2/11 3/1 3/14 4/5
Marcin Gortat 71 30.3 91 112 128 133 132 138 147 145 148 151 172 169 171
John Wall 77 36.2 153 129 136 168 157 157 149 144 142 146 153 148 145
Otto Porter 70 30.8 144 158 104 116 107 115 122 127 130 130 134 126 131
J.J. Hickson 11 7.4  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  – -14 96 108
Markieff Morris 24 26.2  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  – 41 58 95
Bradley Beal 52 31.3 128 108 96 87 87 86 85 86 98 108 94 94 95
Jared Dudley 76 26.1 36 92 90 85 98 103 100 105 99 104 106 98 89
Nene Hilario 53 19.1 58 90 80 74 79 78 79 88 92 84 86 90 82
Ramon Sessions 77 19.6 131 119 84 90 87 89 88 91 90 89 88 85 76
Alan Anderson 9 14.4  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  – 97 90 68
Marcus Thornton 11 12.3  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  – -6 65
Garrett Temple 75 24.6 38 106 57 54 70 63 68 79 79 69 59 56 57
Jarell Eddie 22 4.5  –  –  –  –  – 153 119 113 110 86 68 51 55
Kelly Oubre 59 9.8 -103 -4 -40 -44 9 37 43 39 36 29 22 25 27
Drew Gooden 28 10.6 99 51 57 56 56 56 38 47 34 31 26 22 22
DeJuan Blair 29 7.5 -345 -129 -112 -45 -34 -38 -38 -28 -6 -15  –  –  –
Gary Neal 40 20.2 23 49 64 75 78 74 75 78 71 70 69  –  –
Kris Humphries 28 16.6 90 121 95 80 78 76 79 79 78 76  –  –  –
Ryan Hollins 5 9.6  –  – -40 60 59  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –

Good news: Gortat and Porter continue to play well. Leaving aside the issue of the crummy trade that acquired him, Markieff Morris has been solid after his first four games with the team.

Bad news: Wall remains significantly below the game’s elite performers, Beal continues to rate a bit below average, and key role players (Jared Dudley, Ramon Sessions and Nenê) have all seen production slip over the past few weeks.

In the “puzzling” category goes Randy Wittman’s playing time decisions. The team’s top lineup with more than 100 minutes this season has been Wall-Beal-Porter-Morris-Gortat. Their second best lineup is exactly the same except with Dudley instead of Morris. The second lineup has been together for precisely zero minutes over the past month.

Also puzzling has been the benching of Dudley, who has been a solid player for them throughout the season. Dudley seems ideal as a league average caliber player who gets around 24 minutes per game divided between SF and PF. The Wizards started him at PF much of the season, and have now slashed his minutes from 27.0 minutes per game through the first 72 games to just 14.0 over the last five — 4.5 minutes per game fewer than Garrett Temple.

The Surprising Problem for the Wizards

wall frustrated

One of The Official Narratives of the 2015-16 Washington Wizards season is that point guard John Wall is terrific, but is getting sideswiped by a substandard supporting cast. Last month, The Washington Post’s Dan Steinberg lamented that, “The saddest thing here is that the Wizards might be in the process of sacrificing a year of John Wall’s prime.”

In Michael Lee’s excellent article at Yahoo!, Wall echoed Steinberg, saying: “I ain’t trying to waste a season.

Adam McGinnis and I touched on the subject during our podcast last week.

Alas, as is the case with many Official Narratives, there are problems.

  1. On a per-possession basis, Wall isn’t Washington’s most productive player. That honor goes to center Marcin Gortat. Because Wall plays five more minutes per game than Gortat, Wall leads the team in total production.
  2. Wall is not an elite player.
  3. The overall production difference between Wall (Washington’s top producer) and Gortat (second in total production) has been vastly overstated.
  4. The quality of Wall’s “supporting cast” isn’t bad.

Wall’s PPA (see below) is 148 this year. Among players with at least 500 minutes this season, he ranks 54th. Among point guards, he ranks 11th. Wall has had stretches of dominant play, but his performance continues to be plagued by the same bugaboos he’s had throughout his career: turnovers, poor shot selection and poor shooting. Gortat, by the way, ranks 29th in PPA.

Wall isn’t an elite player. For the past few seasons seasons (including this one, most of the year), he’s rated as a top 8-10 point guard and a top 40-50 player overall. That’s very good, but well short of the impact from elite point guards and elite players. He could be great — he was in December, for example. But his performance game-to-game is a mix of fantastic and horrible. Which averages out to very good, not elite.

The average PPA of top total producers for each team is 179 — 31 points better than Wall. Among those top 30 producers, Wall ranks 24th in per possession production — ahead of Carmelo Anthony, Rajon Rondo, Nerlens Noel, Gordon Hayward, Tyson Chandler and Jordan Clarkson.

The average top producer has provided 22.0% of his team’s production. Wall is about average at 21.8%.

The average gap between a top producer and his team’s “number two” is about 4.5%. For Wall and Gortat, it’s 2.7%. Want a player who actually fits The Official Narrative? Try New Orleans where Anthony Davis has a PPA of 189, provides 26.3% of his team’s production, and (at 13.2%) sports the biggest drop to his team’s second most productive.

Since you’re wondering, the top five in total production shares:

  1. Stephen Curry, GSW — 29.6%
  2. Russell Westbrook, OKC — 26.7%
  3. James Harden, HOU — 26.4%
  4. Lebron James, CLE — 26.3%
  5. Anthony Davis, NOP — 26.3%

And, here’s the top five in drop-off to “number two”:

  1. Anthony Davis, NOP — 13.2%
  2. Stephen Curry, GSW — 12.7%
  3. James Harden, HOU — 8.5%
  4. Kawhi Leonard, SAS — 8.3%
  5. Kyle Lowry, TOR — 8.2%

Wall and the Wizards are 20th.

That’s all fine, you might be saying, but The Official Narrative isn’t necessarily that Wall’s “Robin” sucks, it’s that the roster lacks depth. That lack of depth means Wall has to carry a heavier load than other franchise leaders. Unfortunately, this is also wrong.

For this question, I calculated minutes-weighted PPA (mwPPA) for each team — after deducting the production of its top player. mwPPA provides a handy way of measuring the relative quality of each team’s roster.

The league average “supporting cast” posted an mwPPA of 92. The Wizards rank 14th so far this season with a 93. Since you were wondering, here’s the top five in supporting cast mwPPA:

  1. SAS — 124
  2. GSW — 121
  3. ATL — 107
  4. OKC — 105
  5. BOS — 104

So, to recap:

  • Wall isn’t elite.
  • The gap between Wall’s total production and Gortat’s is smaller than average for a number one to a number two.
  • The Wizards “supporting cast” is mediocre, not terrible.

The real problem for the Wizards is in that first bullet. Their problem: they don’t have an elite player.

Player Production Average

The ratings below are from a metric I developed called Player Production Average (PPA). In PPA, players are credited for things they do that help a team win, and debited for things that don’t, each in proportion to what causes teams to win and lose. PPA is pace neutral, accounts for defense, and includes an adjustment based on the level of competition faced when a player is on the floor. In PPA, average is 100, higher is better, and replacement level is 45.

League-wide PPA scores through games played 3/14/16 are here.

PLAYER GMS MPG 11/10 11/22 12/3 12/13 12/21 12/30 1/6 1/13 1/27 2/11 3/1 3/14
Marcin Gortat 60 30.2 91 112 128 133 132 138 147 145 148 151 172 169
John Wall 66 35.9 153 129 136 168 157 157 149 144 142 146 153 148
Otto Porter 59 30.1 144 158 104 116 107 115 122 127 130 130 134 126
Jared Dudley 65 27.7 36 92 90 85 98 103 100 105 99 104 106 98
J.J. Hickson 6 7.5  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  – -14 96
Bradley Beal 42 30.6 128 108 96 87 87 86 85 86 98 108 94 94
Nene Hilario 42 18.8 58 90 80 74 79 78 79 88 92 84 86 90
Alan Anderson 8 14.0  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  – 97 90
Ramon Sessions 66 20.3 131 119 84 90 87 89 88 91 90 89 88 85
Markieff Morris 14 26.0  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  – 41 58
Garrett Temple 64 25.4 38 106 57 54 70 63 68 79 79 69 59 56
Jarell Eddie 21 4.7  –  –  –  –  – 153 119 113 110 86 68 51
Kelly Oubre 53 10.7 -103 -4 -40 -44 9 37 43 39 36 29 22 25
Drew Gooden 28 10.6 99 51 57 56 56 56 38 47 34 31 26 22
Marcus Thornton 3 15.0  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  – -6
Ryan Hollins 5 9.6  –  – -40 60 59  –  –  –  –  –  –  –
Kris Humphries 28 16.6 90 121 95 80 78 76 79 79 78 76  –  –
Gary Neal 40 20.2 23 49 64 75 78 74 75 78 71 70 69  69
DeJuan Blair 29 7.5 -345 -129 -112 -45 -34 -38 -38 -28 -6 -15  –  –

Randy Wittman vs. Analytics

wittman grimace

Yesterday, Wizards head coach Randy Wittman appeared Sportstalk 980’s “Sports Fix” with Kevin Sheehan and Thom Loverro (as transcribed by the Washington Post’s Dan Steinberg) and provided a treasure trove of comments worth some analysis.

Let’s unpack a bit, shall we?

Writes Steinberg:

The Wizards have their own special history with the [analytics]. There were critics throughout much of the 2014-2015 season who wanted Randy Wittman’s Wizards to play a smaller, faster, more three-point-friendly game, and who sometimes used numbers to make their case. Owner Ted Leonsis, at least in one blog post, seemed sympathetic with their cause.

ESPN the Magazine gave the Wizards a mediocre “analytics” rating, writing that “Washington lags in terms of applying the lessons of analytics to its shot chart even in the midst of the team’s best season since 1978-79.” The Wizards went smaller in the playoffs and found some success. After the season ended, the Wizards held an “analytics” scrimmage, and Leonsis defended the franchise’s use of analytics. And by the start of this season, they were debuting a faster “pace and space” offense that seemed more aligned with modern NBA thinking.

A very fair and cogent summary of the Wizards’ recent history with statistical analysis. The thing that makes me twitch is the notion that “analytics” said the Wizards should play faster. The numbers I track indicated that a) playing fast hadn’t helped the team in recent years, b) that if anything the Wizards were slightly better in slower-paced games, and c) that playing fast or slow or in-between is a bad goal because it doesn’t mean anything. There’s no prize for having a lot of possessions.

During 2014-15 (and the several preceding seasons where stat guys made similar points), the lesson from the numbers was that the Wizards could benefit by exchanging two-point jumpers for threes, at-rim attempts and free throws — to the extent possible. The team’s “go fast” approach was a leap of faith unsupported by the numbers.

From Steinberg:

At least one local critic — ESPN 980 host Kevin Sheehan — has pointed the finger at the “analystics”-inspired change.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if we find out down the road that this small lineup pace-and-space style of play was forced on Randy Wittman and his staff,” Sheehan said recently, “forced on them by some advanced-analytics stats geek who convinced the technological visionary who owns the team that this team was stuck in yesteryear, that this team was stuck in old ways of playing basketball that weren’t going to work anymore:

Hey Ted, Ted, I’ve got this logarithm that I wrote, it’s really cool stuff, I got the idea from an app that I created for sci-fi movies and it’s really gonna work in the NBA, bad twos, you can’t take those anymore, you’ve got to take threes, you’ve got to space and pace, you’ve got to go small, you’ve got to play a stretch 4, this is the way of the future, Ted, this is the way you’ve got to do it. And Ted said to Randy ‘Hey Randy, what do you think about this pace and space and stretch 4s and shoot more threes and it worked in the playoffs and we almost made it to the Eastern Conference finals.

“Jesus!” Sheehan concluded. “This whole thing all season long is just a blown opportunity. A major blown opportunity. I would love to know what Ted is thinking right now.”

If Washington has a stat goober who told them the numbers said they should play fast, he should be fired. Second, the space part of the new offense has probably helped a bit. Last season, the team ranked 22nd in offensive efficiency, 1.9 points per 100 possessions below league average. So far this season, they rank 18th — about 1.0 points per 100 possessions below average.

This is a fairly small effect, which at least one stat goober expected before the season. The Wizards weren’t the only team to apply the lessons of statistical analysis, defenses have been adapting, and games generally come down to overall talent and execution. And the team has middle-of-the-road talent.

Washington’s real problem, of course, has been defense, which has nothing to do with pace or space. Last year, they ranked fifth overall defensively, 2.6 points per 100 possessions better than average. This year: 17th, about a half point per 100 possessions below average. Over the past two seasons (individually or combined), there was no relationship between pace and defensive efficiency.

Appearing on Sheehan and Loverro’s show, Wittman had this to say (courtesy Steinberg):

“I’ve got to coach the team. Analytics haven’t won a ballgame. You’ve got to take what you have and put guys in position that they can best succeed at. And there are some things with numbers that help that, but if you see some of the number sheets that we have, it would drive you crazy. But you know what, that’s the world we live in. You can fight that, but that does you no good. Listen, I’ve been in the business 32 years now. We had analytics back in the ’80s, alright? We had numbers. Plus-minus, and guys playing with certain guys, and that’s never changed. It’s just now, for whatever reason … Hey, it’s good for some people. Because guys have gotten a lot of jobs because that of word.”

A few thoughts. “Analytics” is the study of what wins and loses basketball games. “Analytics” are drawn from the actual games. They’re not made up. When done well, they reveal what’s really happening on the floor, pinpoint what’s important, help coaches and players identify advantages and disadvantages that can be discerned in the numbers, but might escape the naked eye. Analytics are a tool to help coaches and players perform their jobs better, and (hopefully) win more games.

Wittman’s comments suggest the Wizards have some serious internal problems, though — and NOT because he’s resistant to “analytics.” The telling statement is “…if you see some of the number sheets that we have, it would drive you crazy…”

A head coach should not be getting buried with sheets of numbers. He’s a basketball coach, not a statistical analyst. Like many busy people, when presented with an overload of information, he’s going to ignore most of it, seize on a few things he thinks he understands, and then go with what his experience tells him is the right strategy.

The proper role for a statistical analyst is to crunch the numbers, perform the analysis, and then communicate the findings in a way that coaches and decision-makers can understand. If Wittman is being driven crazy by the data, then the analysis department is failing. It sounds like the Wizards may be missing the crucial ability to communicate the findings of their analysts.

Also worth considering is the kind of numbers and information being analyzed and presented. It has become fashionable in recent years to break players into their component skills and seek to construct a roster as if completing a puzzle.

Based on comments made by GM Ernie Grunfeld, the Wizards are big into this kind of analysis. Symptoms include statements such as: the team needs to add “shooting” or “defense” or “rebounding” or “ball handling” or “length” or…you get the idea. As if “shooting” can be “added” to a lineup.

This approach has been borrowed from other sports like football or baseball, where specialists can be extremely valuable. This is much less true in a flowing game like basketball. “Adding” a shooter to the lineup means “subtracting” another player from the floor. Whatever specialty a player is put on the floor to perform, the team gets his whole game — offense and defense. So while it’s worth analyzing what guys are good at doing, it MUST be coupled with analysis of his overall impact on the game.

From Steinberg:

“And not to try to get you into trouble, but it’s been sort of a season-long question for Wizards fans, and I’m a big one,” Sheehan said. “And that is how on board were you with sort of this space-and-pace and pace-and-space and going small?”

“Well, I didn’t have big decisions to make,” Wittman said, “because after the roster was put together with the guys that left and the additions that we had, I had nobody that could back up Marcin [Gortat] at the 5 spot. Kevin Seraphin left and I had nobody there. I thought what was best for our team was to take Nene out of the starting lineup and play him more at 5 than at 4. And that was more just because of the makeup, and we had success with it.”

Good question from Sheehan. Wittman’s answer is…interesting. I agree with his point that the roster construction left him with few lineup choices. I’m baffled by his comment about Seraphin because the big fella was terrible with the Wizards and has been even worse with the Knicks.

From Steinberg:

Wittman said he’s sympathetic with armchair coaches, because he does the same thing when he’s watching baseball or football. But he noted with some amusement that last year critics said his team was playing too big, and this year other critics say his team is playing too small. He said he would run out of minutes if he started a big lineup but then also used Nene as his second-string center, but added that a bigger lineup could be used in a shorter playoff series. And he said this year’s changes have both helped Washington’s offense and hurt its defense.

“There’s no question about it, [it] hurt our rebounding a little bit as well,” he said. “And that’s an important factor for us because we want to run. If you don’t rebound the ball, you can’t run.”

The first part of this struck me as a strawman. Statistical analysis suggested the team would be better off taking fewer two-point jump shots, and that the team could probably benefit by adding a stretch-four. That doesn’t mean “playing smaller” — at least not to me.

I disagree with Wittman that the changes are what hurt the defense. And the rebounding really hasn’t suffered much at all. Last season, the Wizards were third in defensive rebounding at 77.3%. This year, they’ve fallen to tenth, but their defensive rebounding percentage is still a robust 77.0%. More teams than ever are opting to emphasize getting back on defense rather than going for offensive rebounds.

If it’s not rebounding, what’s causing the decline in Washington’s defense? Answer: an inability to make opponents miss. Like last year, the team still does a good job keeping opponents out of the paint (fifth best at preventing opponent at-rim attempts; down from third best last year). However, opponent efficiency on at-rim and three-point attempts has improved. That could be about playing smaller lineups (taller players tend to force lower opponent shooting percentages), but it could be something else such as less effective close-outs on three-point attempts, and/or random variation.

Bottom line: bad analytics didn’t sabotage the Wizards — at least not at the coaching level. What’s hampered them this year is the reality that they have very average talent across the board.

Player Production Average

The ratings below are from a metric I developed called Player Production Average (PPA). In PPA, players are credited for things they do that help a team win, and debited for things that don’t, each in proportion to what causes teams to win and lose. PPA is pace neutral, accounts for defense, and includes an adjustment based on the level of competition faced when a player is on the floor. In PPA, average is 100, higher is better, and replacement level is 45.

League-wide PPA scores through games played 3/1/16 are here.

PLAYER GMS MPG 11/10 11/22 12/3 12/13 12/21 12/30 1/6 1/13 1/27 2/11 3/1
Marcin Gortat 53 31.0 91 112 128 133 132 138 147 145 148 151 172
John Wall 59 35.9 153 129 136 168 157 157 149 144 142 146 153
Otto Porter 52 30.5 144 158 104 116 107 115 122 127 130 130 134
Jared Dudley 58 28.4 36 92 90 85 98 103 100 105 99 104 106
Alan Anderson 3 16.0  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  – 97
Bradley Beal 38 31.0 128 108 96 87 87 86 85 86 98 108 94
Ramon Sessions 59 20.4 131 119 84 90 87 89 88 91 90 89 88
Nene Hilario 35 18.7 58 90 80 74 79 78 79 88 92 84 86
Gary Neal 40 20.2 23 49 64 75 78 74 75 78 71 70 69
Jarell Eddie 18 5.0  –  –  –  –  – 153 119 113 110 86 68
Garrett Temple 57 25.3 38 106 57 54 70 63 68 79 79 69 59
Markieff Morris 7 24.1  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  – 41
Drew Gooden 27 10.8 99 51 57 56 56 56 38 47 34 31 26
Kelly Oubre 48 11.2 -103 -4 -40 -44 9 37 43 39 36 29 22
J.J. Hickson 2 5.5  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  – -14
Kris Humphries 28 16.6 90 121 95 80 78 76 79 79 78 76  –
Ryan Hollins 5 9.6  –  – -40 60 59  –  –  –  –  –  –
DeJuan Blair 29 7.5 -345 -129 -112 -45 -34 -38 -38 -28 -6 -15  –

On a per minute basis, Gortat remains the Wizards’ top producer. Wall leads in total production because he plays more minutes.

Markieff Morris has had a rough start to his career in Washington, but should improve over time.