Inside Wall’s Three-Game Binge

It’s hard to overstate how much fun it’s been watching John Wall erupt these past three games. Wall, whose shooting woes have been well documented, abruptly became a gunner — knocking down an array of shots from everywhere on the floor. The shooting display, paired with skilled passing and overwhelming athleticism left opponents flummoxed, teammates impressed, and fans buzzing with what might be…if he can keep it up.

How abrupt was the change in Wall’s performance level? Regular readers are familiar with my overall rating stat, Player Production Average (PPA). It’s a summary measure I developed that credits players for things they do that help a team win and debits them for things that don’t — each in proper proportion, of course. PPA is pace-adjusted, accounts for defense, and includes a degree of difficulty factor. In PPA, average = 100, higher is better, and replacement level is 45.

Through the first 11 games this season, Wall’s PPA was a pedestrian 106. His non-scoring numbers were good, but his shooting was terrible. Here are his PPA scores for each of the past three games:

  • at Toronto — 280
  • New York — 178
  • LA Lakers — 293

Over the past three games combined, his PPA was 249. To put this in perspective, last season Lebron James was the league’s most productive player with a PPA of 284. Second place was Chris Paul with a 244. In other words, if Wall maintains this level of play, he’ll be producing like an MVP.

His onslaught this past week earned him the league’s Player of the Week honor, and evoked his sensational March from last season. For that month, Wall had a PPA of 201 — a score that would rank him in the top five players in the league most seasons.

The most important question is whether he can maintain this level of performance, and it’s at this point that enthusiasm should be tempered. A little. Wall’s numbers are up across the board, but the surge in his overall impact is because of his stellar shooting.

Consider his shot selection (data courtesy

SPLIT At-Rim Mid-Range Long 2pt 3pt
1st 11 gms 28% 16% 32% 24%
Last 3 32% 16% 42% 11%
March 28% 28% 36% 8%

This table shows where Wall’s field goal attempts have been coming from. He’s been getting to the rim a little more often the past three games than he did early in the season (and last March), but the bulk of his shots are still jumpers. For my taste, he’s still shooting too many low-yield shots from mid-range and long two-point range. Indeed, 58% of his FGA are from what stat goobers not-so-affectionately call “sh*t” shots.

1st 11 gms 170 27 47 0.574 6 28 0.214 16 55 0.291 12 40 0.300
Last 3 57 16 18 0.889 5 9 0.556 11 24 0.458 3 6 0.500
March 275 45 78 0.577 34 76 0.447 44 99 0.444 10 22 0.455

A few things jump out at me. First, his incredible percentage (.889) on at-rim attempts. Wall’s been finishing well at the hoop, and he’s been drawing a ton of fouls. He’s obviously not going to keep shooting near 90% on at-rim attempts, but they’re still his most efficient shot (when he can get it), and his forays to the basket have other excellent results such as drawing fouls (Wall’s a superb free throw shooter) and opening up teammates for shots.

The mid-range shooting percentage isn’t sustainable, but he doesn’t shoot much from there so it doesn’t matter much. His long two-point attempts are a bigger issue because he’s shot from that range frequently throughout his career. His percentage from that range the past week has been acceptable (.458), although it’s still not a very productive shot for him.

Pts Per Shot At-Rim Mid-Range Long 2pt 3pt
1st 11 gms 1.15 0.43 0.58 0.90
Last 3 1.78 1.11 0.92 1.50
March 1.15 0.89 0.89 1.36

Like the rest of the league, Wall is most productive when he gets to the rim or he shoot three-pointers. Obviously it’s not realistic to expect all of his shots to come from those two areas — sometimes he has to take what’s available. But, the principle doesn’t change.

In some ways, the numbers should be downright scary to the rest of the league. Even with 42% of his shots being low-efficiency long twos over the past three games, Wall scored 99 points on just 57 field goal attempts. If opponents start overreacting to Wall’s decent shooting on jumpers, it should pave the way for attacking the hoop. Which will make Wall even more efficient and even more dangerous.


Wizards Reward For Best Week: Brutal Schedule

The Wizards just had their best week of the season, going 3-1 and seeing PG John Wall receive the NBA’s Player of the Week award. Their reward? Four games in five nights with travel between each of the games. Yikes!

The uptick in Wall’s production was as welcome as it was abrupt. His shooting had been atrocious, but became deadly, and he continued doing a first-rate job of finding teammates for open shots at the basket. His play was similar in quality to his transcendent March — when he performed like one of the game’s top five players.

In other good news for the team, Wall wasn’t the only player who improved. Martell Webster enjoyed his return to the starting lineup, and Marcin Gortat and Nene also seemed to settle into their roles. Bradley Beal boosted his production a bit as well, though the youngster still has a ways to go.

The upcoming week will be a challenge for the depth-starved Wizards. They have the makings for a solid top seven, but everything after that remains a major question mark.

Here’s the weekly Player Production Average (PPA) update. PPA is a player rating stat I put together that credits players for things they do that contribute to winning and debits them for things that hurt the cause (each in regression-analyzed proper proportion). PPA includes defense, is pace-adjusted, and incorporates a “degree of difficulty” factor based on the strength of the opposing lineup. In PPA, 100 = average, higher is better, and replacement level is 45.

John Wall 13 37.8 111 158
Martell Webster 13 31.4 110 144
Marcin Gortat 13 33.5 116 139
Nene Hilario 11 32.5 118 127
Trevor Ariza 8 35.1 123 123
Trevor Booker 8 12.6 110 102
Bradley Beal 13 40.2 71 82
Jan Vesely 7 17.3 95 81
Eric Maynor 12 10.4 66 50
Al Harrington 7 18.6 6 7
Glen Rice 5 6.8 -5 -5
Garrett Temple 11 9.2 -36 -18
Kevin Seraphin 10 8.7 -33 -39

As Captain Obvious said, “The bench remains a major weakness.” Jan Vesely’s effectiveness declined as his playing time increased. Trevor Booker’s individual numbers are good, but the defense is a catastrophic failure thus far when he’s on the floor. Al Harrington was awful before he sat with knee trouble. Kevin Seraphin has been even worse than last season — and last season he was the league’s least productive center.

Guard depth is scary as well. Eric Maynor is drawing ire for his crummy play, but what he’s doing is exactly what fans should have expected from him. His PPA this season: 50. His career PPA before this season: 49. His peak PPA for a season was 57. This is his normal level of play. What’s scary: Temple has been worse.

For now, I don’t envy the options head coach Randy Wittman has. The team desperately needs at least two someones from the bench to step up production — one big and one guard. Unfortunately, the roster assembled by Ernie Grunfeld isn’t jammed with “good bets” on a guy or two who might suddenly start playing better.

I’ve been suggesting since offseason that the team’s best option for depth may be to use SF Trevor Ariza at PF (as a stretch four), especially if injured rookie Otto Porter can give them productive minutes at SF. Ariza is likely to be more productive as an S4 than Harrington has been, and he may provide the opposition with challenging match-ups at that spot.

No matter how I look at the various lineup permutations, the team’s rotation is skimpy — at best. With reasonable health for its rotation, the Wizards should be a playoff team. Lose anyone from the top seven or eight, and the playoffs are dicier, even in the East. And, I don’t think can sustain an extended absence from Wall, Nene or Gortat, however.

The Wizards With Jan Vesely

Like many fans, I’ve been encouraged by watching the performance of Jan Vesely since he’s entered the team’s rotation. He’s long and agile, and it’s felt like his offensive game hasn’t hurt much because only one of his 14 shot attempts this season has come from outside of eight feet.

But, the scoreboard is actually telling a different story — at least so far. In the four games where Vesely has had significant playing time, the Wizards have been outscored in each during his minutes on the floor (the team was +3 in his one minute against Dallas). For the season, Vesely is averaging 17.4 minutes per game, and during those minutes the Wizards have been outscored by 42 points. That’s 23.2 points per 48 minutes.

@CLE 22 -19
MIN 19 -2
CLE 23 -3
@SAS 22 -21
DAL 1 3

When he’s been on the floor, they’ve had an offensive rating (points per 100 possessions) of 79. For the full season, the Wizards’ ortg is 102.6. When he’s been on the floor, their defensive rating is 103.1. For the season, the Wizards are at 105.3.

When Vesely has been in the game, the Wizards basically held their own in two of the games (against Minnesota and the first Cleveland matchup), and they’ve been stomped twice. The San Antonio game we can maybe dismiss because it’s the Spurs, and because the game was played in San Antonio, and because it was Vesely’s first game back in the rotation. And there’s no way I’d take any plus/minus stat as definitive after just five games and 87 total minutes.

But, this is something that bears monitoring. Given Vesely’s profoundly limited offensive repertoire, his contributions must be of the rebounding, defense, intangibles variety. If these contributions result in the team getting stomped while he’s in the game, there’s no value to them and the Wizards must find another solution to their frontcourt depth woes.

Hopefully, the scarily bad on/off numbers are the result of a couple small sample flukes. It would be much better for the Wizards (and for Vesely’s hopes of remaining in the NBA beyond this season) if he can be the backup PF/C they desperately need.

The Wizards Under Grunfeld: Month by Month

This is Ernie Grunfeld’s 11th season running the Washington Wizards. During those years, the team has compiled the league’s third worst winning percentage. Wizards fans have long joked about the team’s penchant for getting off to bad starts before winning a string of meaningless games in April. That trend is so entrenched that we dubbed the quintessential Wizard, Andray Blatche, April Fool’s Dray.

But, as with so many things NBA, a comment on the RealGM message board got me wondering… Do the Wizards actually play better late in the season? If so, how much better? So, I looked up the team’s record month by month under Grunfeld’s leadership.

Oct/Nov 47 93 0.336 27.5
December 50 85 0.370 30.4
January 71 88 0.447 36.6
February 46 76 0.377 30.9
March 60 101 0.373 30.6
April 41 55 0.427 35.0
Overall 315 498 0.387 31.8

So, the team’s best month under Grunfeld is January — a time when the Wizards look almost like a playoff team. They’re pretty close in April too, though resembling a 35-win team is even a little less playoff-like.

Here’s what jumps out at me, though: Just how low are the standards of Wizards fans? The April hey, the young guys are playing well and the Wizards are winning some games thing has become an annual ritual. Call it The Coronation of the Scrubs. But even in that “good” month, the Wizards have been a failure. Even if they played a full season at the lofty level of April or January, they’d still be a lottery team.

As Thom Loverro might tweet, a Monumental record.

Wizards Consistent In Futility

In an era characterized by rapid change, it’s good to be able to count on things. When it comes to losing, when it comes to ineptitude, when it comes to futility — Wizards fans have been able to count on the team and its management. Since Ernie Grunfeld took control of the team’s direction in 2003-04, the Wizards have the league’s third worst winning percentage. This season — Grunfeld’s 11th with the team — they’re tied for the league’s fourth worst winning percentage through nine games. Maybe owner Ted Leonsis deems that progress.

How typical is the bad start? Over the past 11 seasons, the Wizards’ record in their first nine games is 30-69. The average start by Washington teams built by Grunfeld 2.7-6.3. That’s a .303 winning percentage. Which is bad. As in, about a 25-win team over the course of an 82-game season.

It’s still early in the season, and I expect the team to improve and make a run at the playoffs, but as the numbers below demonstrate — the team is being hurt by lack of depth and by lack of production from the players who are supposed to be its stars. I’ll get to the “stars” in a moment, but the team’s lack of quality players on its bench was both foreseeable and fixable during the offseason.

Re-litigating the bungled offseason isn’t useful at this point except as a reminder — the roster is the product of front office decisions. Eric Maynor and Al Harrington (the team’s free agent acquisitions) are Wizards instead of DeJuan Blair. The team holds the rights to Tomas Satoransky instead of the production of Jae Crowder, Kyle O’Quinn or Orlando Johnson. They have Glen Rice rather than Nate Wolters.

And this isn’t even going back to 2011, which included gems like picking Jan Vesely AND Chris Singleton ahead of Kenneth Faried.

Trying to look at the bright side, the numbers suggest that the team is getting a bit better than average production from its starters. Bradley Beal is the lone exception — he’s had some good games sprinkled into some real clunkers (about what should be expected from a youngster in his second season).

The problem? The production from John Wall, Nene and Marcin Gortat is perilously close to average. The Wizards need significant production from all three, especially Wall, if they’re going to be a decent team this year. Last March, Wall played like a potential MVP candidate. So far this season, he’s playing like a run-of-the-mill starter.

So, to the first Player Production Average (PPA) update of the season. PPA is a player rating stat I put together that credits players for things they do that contribute to winning and debits them for things that hurt the cause (each in regression-analyzed proper proportion). PPA includes defense, is pace-adjusted, and incorporates a “degree of difficulty” factor based on the strength of the opposing lineup. In PPA, 100 = average, higher is better, and replacement level is 45.

Trevor Ariza 8 35.1 123
Nene Hilario 7 30.6 118
Marcin Gortat 9 33.8 116
John Wall 9 36.9 111
Trevor Booker 5 16.4 110
Martell Webster 9 27.6 110
Jan Vesely 3 15.3 95
Bradley Beal 9 40.1 71
Eric Maynor 8 11.9 66
Al Harrington 7 18.6 6
Glen Rice 3 10.0 -5
Kevin Seraphin 9 8.8 -33
Garrett Temple 7 4.7 -36

Back to bright side stuff for a moment — Trevor Ariza, Jan Vesely and Eric Maynor are each out-performing their pre-season projections and their level of play last season.

It’s tempting to brand Ariza’s play as the standard contract-year surge, except that it’s largely in line with his career norms except for a slight uptick in field goal attempts.

In scant playing time, Vesely has done just about everything the team could hope he’d provide. His offense is abysmal, but he does contribute offensive rebounds, which help. He’s also helping on the defensive glass. I anticipate his PPA to decline as he gets more playing time.

Maynor’s PPA is deceptively high. He had an outstanding 14 minutes against Miami — about 15% of his total minutes to date. The rest of his minutes have been bad. Keep in mind that back in September, Grunfeld had this to say about Maynor (h/t to Matt Kremnitzer’s superior Google search skills for the link):

We wanted to upgrade our backup point guard position and Eric [Maynor] has been with us now, three weeks in a row. He’s very solid, very steady. He brings a little poise to the game. He knows how to play. So we feel we’ve upgraded that position.

Basically, that the PPA table is saying is that when the Wizards top players are on the floor, they’re slightly better than average — something borne out by the on/off data. But there’s a big drop-off when they go to the bench. Big drop-offs to the bench aren’t atypical — lots of teams see major production drops when they use reserves. There are often very good reasons why guys are reserves. But, good teams have their starters outplay the opposing starters.

The Wizards starters hold their own, but the team falls apart when they use the bench. That’s not a recipe to reach the playoffs. It’s the recipe for 2-7. It’s the right mix for consistent futility.

And here’s a truly terrifying question for Wizards fans: How bad would this team be if they weren’t in “win now” mode?

Wizards Off To Even Worse Start Than Last Season

wittman face

If you thought last season’s horrific start by the Washington Wizards couldn’t be duplicated, think again. Through their first three games of the years, the Wizards have been even worse than they were last year.

Season Ortg Drtg Diff PytW82
2013-14 102.7 112.4 -9.7 18.1
2012-13 92.3 99.0 -6.7 22.5
Change -10.4 13.4 -3.0 -4.4

Ortg = points scored per 100 possessions

Drtg = points allowed per 100 possessions

Diff = ortg – drtg (scoring/efficiency differential is a better measure of team strength than a team’s record)

PytW82 = “Diff” translated into projected wins if that differential was maintained over an 82-game schedule

As you can see from the table above, the Wizards have been 10.4 points per 100 possessions better offensively this season than last, BUT they’ve been 13.0 points per 100 possessions worse on defense. The net result: through three games, they’re -3.0 in efficiency differential — a change of 4.4 wins over the course of a full season.

Last season, the team was missing PG John Wall. This year, they’re missing both Nene and Emeka Okafor — two of the team’s more important defenders last season. Marcin Gortat, an adequate defender at best, has been slow to grasp the team’s defensive scheme.

Unfortunately, there probably aren’t any quick fixes to the defense. The team emphasized that end of the court during training camp, but it’s challenging to overcome the loss of quality defensive big men — they’re the linchpin of every good defense in the NBA.

Which, of course, leads to the obvious question: Why did the Wizards go through an offseason without addressing the critical need for depth behind its 30+ year old front line?

Which, of course, leads to another obvious question: Why does Ted Leonsis continue to let Ernie Grunfeld run his basketball team?

Wizards Plan Doesn’t Add Up

Wizards owner Ted Leonsis assures us fans that they have a plan and that they’re sticking to it. However, I think The Plan is a lot messier than it seems to be on the surface — and I don’t think it includes a clear and realistic path to building a championship contender.

What is The Plan exactly? It includes young players like John Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter. It includes trading for veterans like Nene, Emeka Okafor, Trevor Ariza and (most recently) Morcin Gortat. It includes shopping for what Leonsis called a “brand name” free agent. That aspect of The Plan was articulated well by Daniel Friedberg at RealGM. Wrote Friedberg:

The recent transactions by the Wizards (the Marcin Gortat trade, declining the fourth year options of Jan Vesely and Chris Singleton) will give them $15 million in cap space in the summer of 2014, making them major players in free agency. That exact amount also depends on what they choose to do with Gortat. While all the sorcery in the world won’t bring LeBron, Carmelo or Bosh to the nation’s capital, a playoff run this year will make this squad more of a draw for lower tier free agents. After a half decade of basement-dwelling drudgery, the Wiz faithful finally have reason for optimism.

But how much optimism is warranted? The Wizards could indeed have $15 million (or even a little more) in cap room next offseason. All they have to do is renounce Gortat, Ariza, Trevor Booker, Jan Vesely, Kevin Seraphin and Chris Singleton. The last three don’t matter much. They’re bad NBA players and will be gone after the season.

If the Wizards are to make a playoff run this season, Gortat and Ariza will be major contributors, and Booker is likely to be at least a significant part of the rotation. A Wizards “get into the playoffs” rotation is probably going to include Wall and Eric Maynor as the PGs, Beal and Martell Webster or Garrett Temple as the SGs, Ariza and Webster as the SFs (with a possible contribution from Porter), Nene, Booker and Harrington at PF, and Gortat and Nene at center.

That rotation will have to look something like this:

  • PG: Wall and Maynor
  • SG: Beal and Webster/Temple
  • SF: Ariza and Webster
  • PF: Nene and Booker/Harrington
  • C: Gortat and Nene

It’s at this point that the “logic” of the whole getting into the playoffs will make the Wizards more attractive to free agents part of The Plan breaks down. If the Wizards sign a significant free agent next offseason, that free agent cannot be addition. Since the team can’t have cap space unless it’s willing to give up Gortat, Ariza, Booker, etc., any free agent signing will be replacement of those players. In effect, they’ll be trading the departed players for the new guy.

So, put yourself in the mind of a “brand name” free agent. If you’re interested in playing for a winner, why would you pick the Wizards? The group that “won” (meaning they got into the playoffs) can’t be kept together if the team decides to sign you. Key contributors would have to be let go — guys without whom Washington would have missed the postseason.

In other words, a potential free agent can’t go to the Wizards to “join” a winning team — he has to take the place of important contributors and hope that what he has to offer plus the continued development of the team’s remaining players is enough to do more than keep the team treading water. I don’t see how that package would be attractive to a prominent free agent who wants to compete for a championship.

The Wizards’ cap situation provides some flexibility, which is a positive. If the salary cap rises to $62 million (which is what’s expected), Washington could clear as much as $16 million in cap space. That sounds like a lot, but when the cap increases, maximum salaries increase as well. That $16 million would be sufficient to pay a maximum salary to a player with 0-6 years of experience, but would fall short for players with 7-9 years or 10+ years.

If the Wizards decide to let everyone leave so they can sign Chris Bosh, they’ll either need to convince Bosh to take a starting salary $4.2 million less than the maximum he could receive — and $4.5 million less than he’s due to receive under his current contract — OR work a sign and trade with Miami OR trade away other players (like Beal or Porter) to clear additional cap space.

Let’s say they go after Detroit’s Greg Monroe instead. Monroe would have to take slightly less money (about $2.6 million over the four years of a maximum contract), AND Detroit would have to decide not to match. But let’s say all that happens. At that point, the Wizards would have eight players under contract and about $2 million in cap space to fill the rest of their roster — and they’d be working without a first round pick, which they traded to get Gortat. Who, in this scenario, would be playing elsewhere next season.

Which means, the team would continue to lack depth, especially up front where they’d be reliant on Monroe, an aging Nene and whatever they could get from the second round or the free agent “remnants” bin.

The question really comes down to this: What goals does the front office really have? If the Wizards are serious about contending for a championship with this group, the path to contender status is heavily reliant on player development and hoping to get lucky in free agency or the draft. If their goal is to make the playoffs and then see if they can go on a lucky run, they’re probably setting themselves up to make moves that will keep them treading water.

All that said, the team could still become a title contender if some combination of Wall, Beal or Porter develop into true franchise players. The front office has already committed to Wall as its franchise bedrock with the absolute maximum contract they could give him. Wall hasn’t shown to be worth that kind of money yet, though his breakthrough may be coming.

Beal’s rookie season was a lot like Ray Allen’s, a guy who will be in the Hall of Fame, but wasn’t a true franchise player. Porter, of course, is a question mark — his hip injury has kept him on the sidelines. As a college prospect, he graded as a good-but-not-great prospect.

I’m definitely not saying the team is going to stink. They have sufficient resources to be a perennial playoff team for the next few seasons. That path to being a title contender is less clear, however. The two major trades the past couple years (acquiring Okafor and Ariza; then trading Okafor and a first for Gortat) don’t really look like the moves a team aspiring to win a championship in the near future would make. They seem more like the moves of a team content to make the playoffs in the short term, but without a genuine plan to transition from playoff contender to championship contender.

My expectation for the 2014 offseason is that the team will essentially punt on free agency. My guess: they’ll re-sign Gortat and Ariza to four-year contracts in the name of continuity, and use the MLE to add frontcourt depth rather than taking a plunge in the free agent waters. Then they’ll hope that development from Wall, Beal and Porter will be enough to make them title contenders before age and injury wear down their 30-plus year olds up front.

It’s not the way I would have done it, but there’s at least a chance it could work.