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.)

Player TEAM G MPG PPA
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:

Player TEAM G MPG eWINS
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.)

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5 comments

  1. Kevin – I always enjoy your blogs and posts on realgm. However, I think you have a flaw when it comes to your views on the wiz. For far too long, your favorite team has stunk and has been run by idiots. This forces you to be overly negative about the team when they are at the most enjoyable place in years.

    Yes, they were average all year. However, they had injuries, and didn’t have Miller or Gooden coming off the bench. Regardless, they look pretty good right now. I believe in stats and especially advanced stats. It’s why I really appreciate what you do. But without looking at any stats, I believe they are passing the “eye test” and could be a problem for any team they play; Miami included. Do I think they’d beat Miami? No. But if they play like this, I believe they could make it interesting.

    Also, you say that they will continue to be average the next few years and won’t be serious contenders, so fans shouldn’t get too excited. We might be tight on cap space, but teams that are tight on space make blockbuster moves all the time. This is a league where the players demand where they go. It’s possible that these playoffs may entice better players to want to come to DC. Hopefully, to the point that even Ernie can’t F it up (I know – unlikely). Hell, Monroe even came to the last game with his agent.

    But regardless of personnel moves, you completely discount the fact that Wall, Beal & Porter will likely keep improving. This is the real key. This is why the same exact team next year could have a better chance. Miami might not even be a super power next year. Hell, Lebron could be in the West. If our young studs continue to improve, we can definitely be title contenders. Their improvement could be more important than any personnel changes.

    But anyways, after all the of criticism, I do truly like & respect your work. I just wish that you weren’t so negative about them all the time. I despise Ernie and hate that this season will likely keep him around. However, my mood right now is, “who knows how far we can go if we keep playing like this” instead of “this is fun, but we’re not really any good”. And for next year, i’ll keep thinking “our young guys are hungry and can improve” rather than “we’ll just be average again”.

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    1. Appreciate the comments. I don’t agree, though. 🙂

      I’m analyzing the team and sharing what I think. When they started making moves to bring in older players a couple years back, this is basically what I predicted: that they’d make the playoffs and folks would get excited about that. I questioned then what I question now, which is how much better they can get.

      I’m not discounting how much the young players might improve (young players being Wall, Beal and Porter), but I’m not just assuming it’ll just happen. It really didn’t this season, for example.

      The difficulty they have is that while Wall, Beal and Porter may well improve, there’s also the likelihood that Nenê will continue to decline (both physically and in productivity), that Gortat will begin to decline (he’s past 30 now), and that Ariza will regress to a level more like his previous career norms. Booker is a solid player who’s useful, but not likely to get significantly better. Miller and Gooden are rentals, at best.

      All that said, I’m enjoying the run too. I’m hoping it continues for 12 more wins. 😀

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  2. Valid points. Though I still think they are a bit negative. Of course, if EG is still running the show, then negative might continue to be realistic. His upcoming extension is the worst thing about this season.

    Anyways, I do think we should assume they will continue to improve. Maybe Wall is already closing in on his PPA ceiling, but I think it’s safe to assume that both Beal & Porter can increase their regular season PPAs by a significant margin.

    And while I agree it’s pretty obvious that the older guys will start to decline, they A) may not decline at such a rapid pace that it offsets growth from our young guys and B) might not even be here. As you mentioned months ago, the likely result from the Gortat trade is us resigning him and probably Ariza too. But in today’s NBA, that doesn’t mean they’ll be here for the entire contract. And Nene only has 2 years. I know it’s complicated and big pay days for our young guys will continue, but there is still a lot that can change.

    Anyways, screw tomorrow, we agree on today! Let’s go Wiz in round 2!!! (something that could only said twice since I’ve been alive).

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    1. Completely agree that all this is possible. It could be that Nenê bounces back for another high-quality year, that Ariza has found a new “normal” that he can sustain for 3-4 years, and that Gortat (relatively low mileage for his age/experience) can play well for another 2-4 years.

      If that happens, and some combo of Wall, Beal or Porter become perennial All-Stars (with one or more being All-NBA level), the Wizards could be title contenders over the next few seasons.

      Seems a little far-fetched, but it’s possible. For now, just get 12. 😀

      Like

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