Path Opening for Wizards to Make Deep Playoff Run

Ariza dominating

As enjoyable as the Wizards-Bulls series has been so far (for Wizards fans, at least), there’s a tangible feeling that Washington has drawn to an inside straight. (That’s a fancy poker way of saying they’ve gotten lucky.) Yes, I’m aware the Wizards have looked good in the playoffs — teams look good when they win.

I’m also aware that the “experts” at ESPN and TNT (and elsewhere) have declared this Washington as a near-perfect squad with “no weaknesses.” But, much (most?) of the commentary has been a veritable catalog of cognitive biases. Over the course of six months and 82 games, the Wizards were average. A perfectly average team playing against their schedule would be expected to win 43-44 games. They won 44. That’s not a team without weakness — it’s an average team.

In the playoffs, they’re beating the Bulls — a slightly better than average team overall this season, but also a team with a major flaw: one of the league’s worst offenses.

Meanwhile, the Indiana Pacers have continued their post-All-Star break swoon and are struggling to keep pace with the sub.500 Atlanta Hawks. The Wizards should be favored against either team in a second round matchup. Which would put Washington into the conference finals against (probably) the Miami Heat.

It’s the 2013-14 NBA Eastern Conference, where being meh is good enough because nearly everyone else is meh-er.

In many ways, the Wizards this season are a fascinating experiment in perception. On one hand, there’s a solidly average regular season and no top-end production. On the other hand, there’s a likely first-round win against the Bulls and a good chance they make a run to the Eastern Conference Finals.

Folks in the “they’re really not that good” camp can point to the historically weak conference and Indiana’s meltdown, which carved out the path. But…it’s not Washington’s fault their opponents suck. The only thing they can do is play their game and beat whoever’s put in front of them. Being average when others are bad might be a functional equivalent of being good.

For me, it’s clear that the Wizards are an average team that’s drawn a flawed opponent in the first round and has a very good chance of getting a flawed opponent in the second round as well. That said, being average this season and next is probably good enough to hang around in the playoffs for the next year or two before Washington’s older players decline and other teams rebuild sufficiently. Washington won’t be a realistic title contender (even if they make the Eastern Conference Finals), but it’ll be fun to see them playing in May.

In other words, have fun, but don’t go overboard revising conclusions drawn from six months and 82 games worth of data over a few weeks against a couple opponents. What would be cause for some revision? Beating the Heat and making it to the Finals.

At any rate, here are a couple looks at the Wizards-Bulls first round series through the first four games. First up, here’s Player Production Average. PPA is an overall evaluation stat I developed. It’s designed to credit players for things they do that help a team win and “debit” them for things that don’t — each in proper proportion. It’s a pace-adjusted, per minute stat that 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 = average, higher is better and 45 = replacement level.)

Taj Gibson CHI 4 32.3 215
Trevor Ariza WAS 4 39.5 212
Mike Dunleavy CHI 4 32.3 168
Bradley Beal WAS 4 40.8 161
Martell Webster WAS 4 18.5 135
John Wall WAS 4 38.5 121
Trevor Booker WAS 4 24.5 99
Marcin Gortat WAS 4 36.8 86
Joakim Noah CHI 4 41.8 85
Carlos Boozer CHI 4 23.3 76
Nene Hilario WAS 3 34.7 74
Jimmy Butler CHI 4 43.8 70
Andre Miller WAS 4 10.8 63
D.J. Augustin CHI 4 29.5 43
Kirk Hinrich CHI 4 32.0 0
Kevin Seraphin WAS 1 1.0 0
Drew Gooden WAS 4 9.0 -33
Tony Snell CHI 4 10.3 -59
Nazr Mohammed CHI 2 2.5 -180
Al Harrington WAS 3 2.3 -346
Garrett Temple WAS 3 0.3 -1408

The top two producers have been Taj Gibson and Trevor Ariza. Mike Dunleavy’s high rating is largely a product of a single terrific game in a small sample size. Bradley Beal is having a good series. John Wall and Martell Webster have also been solid.

Folks have gotten excited about Nenê’s play, but the big man hasn’t really played all that well outside of game one.

Want to see why Chicago is struggling? Their only above average performers in these four games have been Gibson and Dunleavy. Noah, Boozer and Butler have been subpar. Augustin and Hinrich have been wretched — especially Hinrich who has given the Bulls 32.0 minutes per game of nothing.

Last, here’s a look at estimated wins added (call them eWins) for the series:

Trevor Ariza WAS 4 39.5 0.68
Taj Gibson CHI 4 32.3 0.56
Bradley Beal WAS 4 40.8 0.53
Mike Dunleavy CHI 4 32.3 0.44
John Wall WAS 4 38.5 0.38
Joakim Noah CHI 4 41.8 0.29
Marcin Gortat WAS 4 36.8 0.26
Jimmy Butler CHI 4 43.8 0.25
Martell Webster WAS 4 18.5 0.20
Trevor Booker WAS 4 24.5 0.20
Nene Hilario WAS 3 34.7 0.16
Carlos Boozer CHI 4 23.3 0.14
D.J. Augustin CHI 4 29.5 0.10
Andre Miller WAS 4 10.8 0.05
Kirk Hinrich CHI 4 32.0 0.00
Kevin Seraphin WAS 1 1.0 0.00
Nazr Mohammed CHI 2 2.5 -0.02
Drew Gooden WAS 4 9.0 -0.02
Garrett Temple WAS 3 0.3 -0.03
Tony Snell CHI 4 10.3 -0.05
Al Harrington WAS 3 2.3 -0.05

This eWins approach uses total production to estimate each player’s individual share of team wins. It works reasonably well over the full season. For the series, it has the Wizards with a 2.4 to 1.7 eWins lead, which is reflective of a couple very close games (Washington’s overtime win in game two, and Chicago’s narrow game three victory.)


Wizards Slouching Toward the Playoffs

The numbers in the table below are this week’s Player Production Average (PPA) update. PPA is a metric I developed that credits players for things that contribute to winning and debits them for things that don’t — each in proper proportion. PPA is pace adjusted, accounts for defense and includes a degree of difficulty factor. In PPA, 100 = average, higher is better and 45 = replacement level. PPA is a per minute stat.

Marcin Gortat 77 32.9 150 153
Trevor Ariza 73 35.7 151 143
John Wall 78 36.6 141 138
Trevor Booker 68 21.4 115 119
Drew Gooden 20 18.6 127 114
Nene Hilario 50 29.9 101 100
Andre Miller 24 14.4 104 91
Bradley Beal 69 34.7 89 89
Martell Webster 74 28.1 82 80
Jan Vesely 33 14.2 68 68
Kevin Seraphin 50 11.4 35 37
Chris Singleton 24 10.4 34 32
Garrett Temple 71 8.9 25 25
Glen Rice 11 9.9 20 20
Otto Porter 33 8.2 13 19
Al Harrington 30 14.9 13 8
Eric Maynor 23 9.3 8 8

Rough week for the Wizards, which is reflected in the individual numbers. On the positive side were Marcin Gorat, (who continues to have a good season), Trevor Booker (who many fans want removed from the rotation), and Otto Porter (who performed better, but still rates well below replacement level).

Even with a bad week, Trevor Ariza is having a career season. He gets a bit of a pass for the last few games — he’s been beset with the flu, and really shouldn’t have even been on the floor.

John Wall’s production fell for a third straight week. It’s been fashionable to celebrate Wall’s improvement and his ascendancy to All-Star status, but it’s worth noting that his 138 PPA this season is virtually identical to the 139 he posted last year.

Here’s a visualization of each player’s PPA through the season. Since this is basically a weekly rolling season average, the larger fluctuations at the beginning followed by a flatter line toward the end is to be expected. Note the fairly steady climb of Gortat’s PPA — he’s been playing better as the season has progressed. The production slip from Wall the past three weeks is also apparent.

Check out the steady production from Booker. Webster’s season-long decline is apparent in his graph.

Drew Gooden’s production has fallen steeply after a hot start. He may not be the godsend Wizards fans had hoped for. Andre Miller’s play has been up and down, but at least sorta trending up.

ppa trend

Should the Wizards Tank for 7th?

Could 7 be a lucky number for the Wizards?
Could 7 be a lucky number for the Wizards?

Last week, I estimated the Wizards’ odds of winning a seven-game series against the teams most likely to make the Eastern Conference playoffs. It was a useful exercise in seeing how Washington stacks up against possible opponents, but it used numbers from the full season, which means my approach didn’t necessarily capture team form lately.

And, the performance of the other seven teams in the playoffs has changed markedly in some cases since the All-Star break. The biggest shift has been the Indiana Pacers meltdown. After opening the season with a 40-12 record, Indy has gone just 13-13 after the All-Star break. More worrisome for the Pacers: they’ve had a negative efficiency differential over the past 26 games — despite an easy schedule.

Let me say that another way: since the All-Star break, the Pacers have been outscored by their opponents. The only other Eastern Conference playoff team to do that — the New York Knicks.

The decline has been an across the board failure for Indiana. Both their offense and defense have gotten worse, neither is showing much sign of improvement, and it may create an “upset” opportunity for whoever gets that seventh seed.

Using team stats since the All-Star break, the Pacers have the scoring differential of a 32-win team (over an 82-game schedule). That’s the weakest performance of any Eastern Conference team by eight games. Next closest is New York, which has played like a 40-win team. Over the same stretch, the Wizards have played like a 47-win team.

So, what’s wrong with Indiana? First, there may have been some significant overrating based on last year’s playoffs. In 2012-13, the Pacers were good-but-not-great during the regular season. Then they went on a strong playoff run. Before this season, the guys over at Boxscore Geeks cautioned that many were overreacting to those playoffs, and projected Indy as a sub-.500 team. That prediction wasn’t so great either — even with their crummy post-All-Star break performance, Indy has 53 wins, but the Boxscore Geeks made a critical point — the Pacers were being crowned as championship contenders without top-end talent, without a season’s worth of sustained excellence — without demonstrating they could consistently play at a championship level.

Early in the season, Indy looked like it would be a worthy rival for the Heat, but that’s old news. Why? There are few “big” things that jump out. Their offensive decline has been significant, but it seems to be an accumulation of little things — a slight decline in their shooting and a narrower rebounding margin.

What’s really making them vulnerable has been the drop in their defensive efficiency. The numbers practically leap off the screen. There are four key categories that define who wins basketball games — shooting, ball handling (turnovers), rebounds, and getting to the free throw line. The Pacers have been worse at all four on defense since the All-Star break. The most significant drop has been in the most important category: shooting.

To make this even simpler, since the All-Star break Indiana has shot worse, has allowed their opponent to shoot significantly better, has grabbed fewer defensive rebounds, and has forced fewer turnovers. While none of the changes is major (except defensive efg), the across-the-board declines add up.

Looking at the individual players suggests that there’s plenty of “blame” to go around. Roy Hibbert is probably first in line — his production (as measured by my stat, Player Production Average (PPA) — where 100 = average, higher is better, and replacement level = 45) is a shade below league average. His PPA of 98 is down 32 from last season, and 57 from two seasons ago. But, David West’s PPA is down 25, and George Hill’s is down by 20.

Paul George and Lance Stephenson are both improved from last season (George from a 133 to a 164; Stephenson from a 94 to a 121), BUT both are down significantly from pre-All-Star production levels. Through the first 25-30 games, George was posting an All-NBA level 200+ PPA. Stephenson was in the 150 range, which is roughly All-Star level.

And oh yeah, the team has also been hurt by roster decisions that weakened their bench. Specifically, they let Tyler Hansbrough (PPA: 82) depart, and replaced him by trading for Luis Scola (PPA: 43). Ian Mahinimi continues to be terrible. And, the trade for Evan Turner has been a predictable debacle.

All of this is a fairly long way of saying that the Wizards might be smart to position themselves as the seventh seed in the East. The Pacers could pull things back together and play as they did earlier in the season, but their recent performances don’t indicate that’s likely. If recent performance levels continue into the playoffs, Indiana could be in for a short, embarrassing 2014 postseason — no matter who they face.

Wizards Weekly: Playoffs Clinched

wall past carmelo

Since the Wizards cemented a spot in this year’s playoffs, I’m going to focus more on the stellar play of Trevor Ariza and Marcin Gortat, and sorta gloss over the things that bug me a bit in this week’s numbers.

Some positives:

  • Al Harrington had a good enough week that he no longer rates as the league’s least productive power forward. That honor belongs to Brandon Davies.
  • Marcin Gortat’s PPA rose to 150 — the highest its been since December 11.
  • I missed it last week, but the Wizards have no one with a negative PPA. The team’s least productive player is Eric Maynor, but he’s not in the NBA after being released by Philadelphia.
  • Otto Porter scored nine points in five minutes, and added 10 points to his PPA.

Below is this week’s Player Production Average (PPA) update. PPA is a metric I developed that credits players for things that contribute to winning and debits them for things that don’t — each in proper proportion. PPA is pace adjusted, accounts for defense and includes a degree of difficulty factor. In PPA, 100 = average, higher is better and 45 = replacement level. PPA is a per minute stat.

Trevor Ariza 70 35.7 151 151
Marcin Gortat 74 32.7 145 150
John Wall 75 36.6 144 141
Drew Gooden 17 18.9 148 127
Trevor Booker 65 21.0 116 115
Andre Miller 21 14.8 81 104
Nene Hilario 49 30.1 101 101
Bradley Beal 66 34.5 90 89
Martell Webster 71 28.2 81 82
Jan Vesely 33 14.2 68 68
Kevin Seraphin 49 11.5 36 35
Chris Singleton 23 10.7 40 34
Garrett Temple 69 9.1 22 25
Glen Rice 11 9.9 20 20
Al Harrington 28 15.5 1 13
Otto Porter 32 8.2 3 13
Eric Maynor 23 9.3 8 8

Okay, I can’t help myself — now for the stuff that worries me:

  • Wall’s PPA is down to 141. That’s a good score, but his PPA last season was 139. And his offensive efficiency has slipped back below average.
  • Gooden’s PPA dropped sharply this week. His efficiency numbers are still insanely good — heck, all his numbers are, except for defense. There are way too many defensive breakdowns when he’s on the floor, and he continues to lose points in the defense portion of PPA.
  • Beal and Webster both rate solidly below average. This isn’t a surprise — Beal’s still a kid trying to figure out his spot in the league, and Webster is basically regressing to his mean this season. But, it does mean the Wizards aren’t getting a ton of production from their SG — and both rate as below average defenders.


Wizards in the Playoffs?! What Are the Odds?


With last night’s 118-92 thumping of the Boston Celtics, the Wizards clinched a playoff spot for the first since 2008. After a hearty “Woo hoo!” and a few moments of basking in the return to the best basketball tournament on the planet, I immediately started wondering — what are the Wizards chances of advancing?

The answer, of course, depends on the opponent. So, I broke out the odds estimator, and ran the numbers for the Eastern Conference teams that would be in the playoffs if the season ended today (April 3, 2014). I’ll update when the season ends.

1 MIA 19%
2 IND 21%
3 TOR 32%
4 CHI 42%
5 BRK 56%
7 CHA 66%
8 NYK 69%

The “odds” column shows what I estimate the likelihood that the Wizards will defeat that opponent in a seven-game series. So, Washington has a 19% chance of beating the Heat, 21% chance of toppling the Pacers, and so on down the list.

Their most likely first round opponent is either Toronto or Chicago. Between the two, the numbers suggest the Bulls are the more favorable match-up — the Wizards have a 42% chance of beating them in the first round, but only a 32% chance against the Raptors.

The Wizards do NOT want to slip to the seventh or eighth seed to face Miami or Indiana where their chances plummet.

What’s most likely to happen? Well, I ran my odds calculator on the remaining schedules for the Wizards, Raptors, Bulls, Nets and Hornets. Here’s a handy table showing their projected record in their remaining games, their projected final records, and their projected seeds:

  W L W L  
TOR 7 0 50 32 3
BRK 7 1 47 35 4
CHI 3 4 46 36 5
WAS 5 2 44 38 6
CHA 5 2 42 40 7

Chicago has the toughest remaining schedule, but everyone else gets a few games against Eastern Conference bottom feeders. Based on what’s left of the NBA season, it’s tough to see Washington climbing to fourth or fifth. They’d pretty much have to go 7-0 and hope Chicago and/or Brooklyn falter. And, the Wizards will need to close the season strong to avoid getting caught by Charlotte, which would mean a first round series against the Pacers.