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.

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