Wizards Update: Rolling in the East

It’s good to be a Wizards fan right now. The team is 9-3, and reasonable forecasts suggest they’re probably the second best team in their conference. That the conference is historically weak isn’t their fault. The front office put together a solid, veteran squad, and the rest of the conference backed up.

So far this season, the NBA’s collective record vs. Eastern Conference teams is 111-85. That’s a .566 winning percentage, which works out to about 46 wins over an 82-game schedule.

Against the Western Conference, the NBA’s collective record is 86-112, which is a .434 winning percentage. That means about 36 wins over an 82-game schedule.

In other words, we would expect an average team facing the East to win about 46 games…which is what Basketball-Reference forecasts for the Wizards. To highlight the relative power differential between conferences, Basketball Reference predicts the Wizards will finish the season as the second best team in the East, but with an SRS (a robust and “simple” rating system that combines a team’s scoring differential with that of its opponents) that would land it 11th in the West.

But, this is a “moment in time” snapshot. The picture changes a bit with every game played. And there are still a ton of games on the schedule.

Before I get to this week’s stat update, I wanted to address a recurring sentiment I’ve been hearing from an array of Wizards fans. Basically, it’s some variation on the theme that Kevin Seraphin is having a good season or a breakout game or a coming out party or developing into a valuable reserve.

He’s not. At least not so far.

In fact, he’s playing poorly, even compared to his previous performances, which ranked him as the league’s least productive center (per minute) two seasons ago, and the second least productive center last season.

On offense, he’s shooting a good percentage this season, but continues to be a poor passer and a turnover machine. He rates as having very little defensive impact,because of his anemic defensive rebounding and rampant fouling.

The measuring stick on Seraphin is so off that one fan (who later suggested it was the beer talking) tweeted a rave about Seraphin being a revelation on a night the big fella shot 2-7 from the floor.

Here’s Seraphin’s game-by-game PPA scores for this season:

1 7.7 -202
2 1.9 -1003
3 22.1 184
4 13.9 -84
5 18.1 64
6 19.5 139
7 16.7 -70
8 16.1 -36
9 10.6 -36
10 23.4 83
11 13.1 -29

In PPA, 100 = average and higher is better. In 11 games, Seraphin has managed an above-average production rate twice. He’s been a net negative seven times — six, if you prefer to throw out the two-minute stint in the second game of the season.

I like Seraphin, the person. But, he’s not a good NBA player. He hasn’t become one. He’s showing very few signs of developing into one. The Wizards need to find another option as their backup center.

Below is the Player Production Average (PPA) update. PPA is an overall rating stat I developed that credits players for things they do that help a team win and debits them for things that hurt the cause. PPA is per-minute, pace neutral, 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 replacement level is 45.

John Wall 12 35.7 185 180 180
Marcin Gortat 12 30.9 181 186 170
Paul Pierce 12 27.5 140 138 165
Bradley Beal 3 30.7 122
Rasual Butler 8 16.4 60 131 116
Otto Porter 11 24.4 97 106 101
Garrett Temple 12 26.8 121 112 96
Andre Miller 12 12.6 72 69 92
Kris Humphries 11 15.6 46 87 90
Nene Hilario 11 27.1 108 102 68
Drew Gooden 7 18.0 42 40 59
Kevin Seraphin 11 14.8 38 13 17
DeJuan Blair 3 3.7 -41 -40 -40
Glen Rice 5 8.6 -120 -117 -117

This week, I’ve added a column to show each of the previous PPA updates. I’ll keep doing that as long as there’s space.

Wall seems to be settling in at a very high performance level. It’s scary to think there’s still lots of room for improvement too. Seth Partnow at BBall Breakdown did a nice job of summarizing the problem with Wall’s shot selection. Improved decision-making would likely improve the PG’s individual efficiency, and give his team a much-needed boost.

I don’t see how the Wizards could have hoped for more from Pierce, who is performing at a high level in the early going this season.

Nenê suffered a plantar fascia injury to his right foot in the win over Milwaukee. While it’s not good to lose a starter, Nenê has been playing nothing like a starter. His defense shows up as a slight net positive, but doesn’t come close to offsetting his awful offensive efficiency.


Wizards Update: Still Cause for Concern

wittman & gortat

The Wizards are 7-2 to start the season, which ought to be cause for celebration. And, judging by media reports and fan reaction, that’s mostly what’s happening. So what’s wrong with me?

I’m unconvinced that the good record is particularly meaningful. This is not to suggest the Wizards need to apologize for the competition they’ve faced. They don’t make the schedule, and it’s not their fault that the East is possibly weaker than it was last season — when it was aggressively bad. All Washington can do is keep beating whoever’s on the calendar, which is what they’ve been doing so far.

But…I’m still concerned because of the way they’ve been winning. In sports, the best teams typically have the highest scoring differentials. The Wizards this season stand 11th in scoring differential at +2.22, which doesn’t sound bad except that their opponents have a collective scoring differential of -2.52. In other words, the Wizards are winning by less than the rest of the league against their opponents. At least so far.

There’s a strong sentiment that’s something like: Hey, the Wizards are winning games they should win, which is real progress for this franchise. To an extent, I agree. But, what often happens to an average team (and the numbers are suggesting the Wizards are pretty average) is that over time, they’ll lose games they “shouldn’t.” And there are a TON of games left on the schedule.

Some have pointed out that Washington has played so far without Bradley Beal, which is true but perhaps not as meaningful as some think. Beal was pretty average last season, and didn’t project to make a huge leap this year (at least not in my preseason analysis). Much of what I anticipated he’d provide has been produced by Garrett Temple and Rasual Butler thus far.

Perhaps the best reason to think Washington might be able to win 48-50 games this season is the good fortune of playing in a historically weak conference. Just six Eastern Conference teams have a positive scoring differential so far, and the sixth (Brooklyn) is us by one point total so far this season. All that said, in Basketball-Reference’s simple rating system (which combines scoring margin with strength of schedule), the Wizards currently sit 16th overall and 6th in the East. If they want to make some noise this season, they need to play better.

Below is the Player Production Average (PPA) update. PPA is an overall rating stat I developed that credits players for things they do that help a team win and debits them for things that hurt the cause. PPA is pace neutral, 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 replacement level is 45.

Marcin Gortat 9 31.3 181 186
John Wall 9 35.6 185 180
Paul Pierce 9 27.4 140 138
Rasual Butler 5 19.2 60 131
Garrett Temple 9 31.1 121 112
Otto Porter 9 24.2 97 106
Nene Hilario 8 28.6 108 102
Kris Humphries 8 13.9 46 87
Andre Miller 9 12.9 72 69
Drew Gooden 6 19.5 42 40
Kevin Seraphin 8 14.5 38 13
DeJuan Blair 3 3.7 -41 -40
Glen Rice 5 8.6 -120 -118

The numbers show Gortat and Wall playing outstanding basketball. Both are performing at an All-Star level. Wall could push his way into All-NBA consideration, if he continues. Gortat’s PPA is currently sixth among centers behind Tyson Chandler, Omer Asik, DeAndre Jordan, DeMarcus Cousins and Robin Lopez.

Biggest improvers this week were Butler and Humprhies. Largest drop was from Seraphin, whose field goal percentage dropped while his rebounding, turnovers and fouling remained poor.

How Does Robert Griffin III Compare to Other Young QBs?

griffin sacked

In what has become an annual event, the Washington Slurs have ended the competitive portion of their season. Sure, there’s another games to go, but with a 3-7 record, there’s no realistic scenario that gets the Slurs into the playoffs. So, the Washington coaching staff and front office will surely go into player evaluation mode to see what they have to build upon.

Their most important evaluation will be at quarterback. Three years ago, the franchise paid a heavy price to acquire Robert Griffin III, and even the most ardent of Griffin supporters would have to agree that major improvement is necessary.

While the knee-jerk reaction from fans (judging by Twitter commentary, office chit-chat, and sports radio callers) is that Washington should move on from Griffin. The verdict: he’s shown he’s not an NFL-caliber QB. He doesn’t read defenses well enough, and when he does try to run, he seems to be missing that world-class sprinter speed he exhibited before the wrecked knee and the dislocated ankle.

To me, what makes the most sense is to ride out the season with Griffin and see if he’s able to learn and improve. While Griffin had a tough game against the pitiful Buccaneers, backups Colt McCoy and Kirk Cousins each performed worse when given extended chances to play. McCoy did have a good game a few weeks ago, but was dismal as the starter in Cleveland. Cousins may have potential, but had a tendency to throw the ball to the other team.

I don’t see a ton of reason to play McCoy or Cousins, barring an injury or a catastrophic meltdown. Griffin looks like a guy who needs experience, which he won’t get by standing on the sideline. If he doesn’t show improvement, I’d lean toward picking up that fifth year option, and then holding an open competition for the QB job.

But, before diving headfirst into the wreckage of the future, it’s worth a look at how Griffin compares to other QBs at a similar point in their respective careers. In his third season, and with 32 starts, Griffin is obviously struggling. My search through the historical record suggests that’s actually pretty normal for young QBs.

To find similar players, I used Pro Football Reference’s database to find QBs with at least 20 starts in their first three seasons (since 1995). Using PFR’s passer rating index (Rate+) (where average = 100 and higher is better), Griffin is tied for 14th with Jay Cutler. A total of 63 QBs made the list. Here’s the top 20:

  1. Kurt Warner — 132
  2. Jeff Garcia — 119
  3. Daunte Culpepper — 118
  4. Carson Palmer — 114
  5. Russell Wilson — 114
  6. Marc Bulger — 113
  7. Brian Griese — 113
  8. Tom Brady — 110
  9. Peyton Manning — 110
  10. Nick Foles — 109
  11. Colin Kaepernick — 109
  12. Mark Brunell — 108
  13. Ben Roethlisberger — 108
  14. Jay Cutler — 106
  15. Robert Griffin III — 106
  16. Joe Flacco — 105
  17. Matt Ryan — 104
  18. Aaron Brooks — 101
  19. Cam Newton — 101
  20. Matthew Stafford — 101

Notable players falling just outside the top 20: Andy Dalton (21st), Donovan McNabb (23), Andrew Luck (26), Michael Vick (32), Drew Brees (38), Eli Manning (44), Vince Young (55), Trent Dilfer (58), and Alex Smith (60).

At least a few of those guys seemed to turn out okay in the long run.

However, recall that Griffin’s rookie season was one of the best ever. His Rate+ was 122, which tied with Roethlisberger for second best all-time behind Dan Marino’s 125. He obviously hasn’t performed to that level the past two seasons. The more “normal” progression is for young QBs to improve as they gain experience. Griffin was great immediately, but then played worse. It begs the question…What happens if we look ONLY at second and third seasons?

To answer that question, I pinged PFR’s database to find QBs who started at least 15 games in their second and third seasons (Griffin has 17 starts so far in his second and third seasons). As a rookie, Griffin’s Rate+ was 122, which is outstanding. For his full career, it’s 106 (a bit above average). But for the past two seasons, it’s 95, which is a little below average.

This suggests Griffin isn’t playing catastrophically bad (which he’s sometimes accused of doing), but it’s also clear he’s nowhere near the offensive force the Slurs need him to be.

Among the 67 QBs with at least 15 starts in their second and third seasons (since 1995), Griffin ranks 39th in Rate+. At the top of the list are a virtual who’s-who of good-to-great QBs. Kurt Warner tops the list. Peyton Manning landed fourth. Russell Wilson — selected 73 picks after Griffin — ranks 11th. Tom Brady is 12th.

Players in the “about the same” grouping with Griffin include names like: David Carr, Shaun King, Gus Frerotte, J.P. Losman, Kyle Orton, Derek Anderson, Eli Manning,and Patrick Ramsey.

Guys who rated worse, but became good QBs later include Drew Brees (51st), Alex Smith (63rd), Drew Bledsoe (65th) and (kinda-sorta) Trent Dilfer (67th).

Not very encouraging.

Probably the most hopeful scenario for Griffin is the Ben Roethlisberger story, but that narrative is different. Roethlisberger was terrific as a rookie, and followed it up with an outstanding second season. His third season was rough, but he bounced back in year four and has been a solid-to-excellent QB since.

Griffin, of course, had a great rookie season, a MAJOR drop-off in year two, and a modest recovery in year three (so far). Unless Griffin can find a way to improve, he’s far more likely to be someone’s backup in the near future than to be the franchise bedrock the Slurs were hoping he’d be.

Wizards Update: The Worries

wall the leap

The Washington Wizards are off to a 5-2 start, tied with Miami for first place in the NBA’s Southeast Division, and sitting on pretty good odds of getting to 7-2 before they face Dallas at Verizon Center. And yet…in classic Wizards’ follower fashion, I’m actually a little worried.

Yep, it’s good they’re winning. But, they should be winning given the quality of the opponents they’ve faced so far. No, this isn’t one of those “they would be X record if they’d faced teams A, B and C” critiques. I don’t believe a team (or its fans) should ever have to apologize for the schedule, which is something they don’t control.

What has me a little worried is how pedestrian the Wizards have looked so far this season. They’ve outscored their opponents by 1.57 points per game so far this season; the league has outscored their opponents by 1.99 points per game.

I’d be more willing to buy the injury excuse if they weren’t getting career-best play from Garrett Temple standing in for Bradley Beal and Martell Webster.

But, this is this “little worry” because we’re still in the annual performance of Small Sample Size Theater. A study by Kevin Pelton, then-writing for Basketball Prospectus, showed that team-level stats tend to stabilize around the 25th of the season. Other research has shown that per minute stats for individual players begin to have validity as quick as 150 minutes. More is better, though.

Still, the early indications are that, despite the good record early on, the Wizards are an average team again this season. They’ve been good defensively, but a bit below average on offense. The hope is that getting Beal and Webster will help bolster the team offensively when they can return from injury.

Here’s the first Player Production Average (PPA) update of 2014-15. PPA is an overall rating stat I developed that credits players for things they do that help a team win and debits them for things that hurt the cause. PPA is pace neutral, 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 replacement level is 45.

John Wall 7 35.7 185
Marcin Gortat 7 32.7 181
Paul Pierce 7 28.0 140
Garrett Temple 7 33.7 121
Nene Hilario 6 29.2 108
Otto Porter 7 24.7 97
Andre Miller 7 12.9 72
Rasual Butler 3 14.3 60
Kris Humphries 6 9.8 46
Drew Gooden 6 19.5 42
Kevin Seraphin 6 13.8 38
DeJuan Blair 3 3.7 -41
Glen Rice 5 8.6 -120

Wall and Gortat should jump out immediately (they are at the top of the chart). Both guys have produced at an All-NBA level in the first seven games. This could be The Leap from Wall that fans have been waiting for. If he keeps it up. Gortat has actually performed at a 180ish PPA for a full season (2011-12).

Pierce has been everything Washington could have hoped he’d be. Over the summer, I went hunting through the stats to find players who’d be most likely to replace what Trevor Ariza had provided. The top name on the list: Paul Pierce. His offense could be more efficient, but he’s producing at about the level Ariza did last season — and his defense has been outstanding.

Nenê appears to have picked up more or less where he did last season, and that’s not such a great thing for the Wizards. He’s still a good defender, but his offensive efficiency seems to be departed.

It’s good to see Porter hovering around average. He’s been an asset off the bench, and seems to be figuring out the NBA game. Porter hasn’t been helped much by his oldster bench mates Miller and Gooden, who have been awful defensively since arriving in Washington.

And check out Porter look-alike Garrett Temple, who has so far played at the level of an almost-average NBA starter. Major kudos to Temple for all the work he’s done on his jumper. It shows in his form — especially in the way he sets his feet for takeoff, freezes the follow-through, and plants the landing.

I know folks are going to wonder about Kevin Seraphin, who rates below replacement level yet again. Seraphin is shooting 63% from the floor, and has had a couple nice games. His offensive efficiency is above average. And yet…he continues to be plagued by the same problems he’s had since his rookie year. Specifically, his rebounding is sub-par, he’s turnover prone, and he fouls too much.

Also worth noting are Kris Humprhies and DeJuan Blair, who were acquired in the offseason to provide frontcourt depth. So far, they’ve been behind Seraphin on the depth chart, which is astonishing. Humphries at least has some excuse — he missed three weeks of preseason with a hand injury. Blair has apparently been healthy, but can’t get on the floor despite dreadful play from Seraphin.

At some point, I gotta believe they’ll end the Seraphin experiment and give playing time to Humphries and/or Blair. Based on what they’ve done on the court so far this season, it’s fair to say that neither has made a case for playing ahead of Seraphin. At least not yet.