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.
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?