Good thing for the Wizards that the NBA season is long because if it ended today, they’d be out of the playoffs and looking at a 2.8% chance of getting Ben Simmons in the 2016 draft.
Washington is just 7-9 with a scoring differential (weighted for strength of schedule) that ranks 23rd — more than a point per game below 22nd ranked Sacramento. This isn’t what fans (or many analysts) expected after the team escaped the first round of the playoffs each of the past two seasons. Washington was supposed to be an Eastern Conference contender, an echelon below Cleveland, but still a force to be reckoned with.
Not so much.
Leaving aside the issue of whether those expectations were realistic, what’s wrong? Lots. As Dean Oliver wrote, there are four key factors that determine winning and losing in basketball: shooting from the floor (efg), turnovers, rebounding, and free throws. Shooting is the most important of these, and the Wizards are tied for 18th in shooting from the floor. They’re second worst at controlling the ball. They’re 27th in offensive rebounding. They get to the free throw line frequently (sixth best), but overall they rank 28th thus far in offensive efficiency.
The situation isn’t much better on defense. They’re 22nd in defensive efg, average in defensive rebounding, and do a good job of forcing turnovers and keeping opponents off the free throw line. But, making the other team miss is the decisive factor: they rank 20th in defense.
Who’s at fault? Everyone, really.
The front office assembled a roster without a starter-quality power forward. While they made a good trade for Jared Dudley (solid player in exchange for nothing), he’s a small forward they’re asking to masquerade as a stretch four. He can get by in the S4 role off the bench, but his lack of rebounding (low career numbers even for a SF), size and athleticism gets exposed against starters. Kris Humphries is a backup; Drew Gooden a bench-warmer; Nenê is aging and injured.
The team obviously established a goal of preserving cap space for free agents in 2016, but wasted short-term signings on Gary Neal, Alan Anderson and Ryan Hollins.
So, put “front office” at the top of the “at fault” list — even without diving down the rabbit hole of botched draft picks and free agent acquisitions in previous years.
Next up: the coaching staff. This season, the team’s braintrust decided to enter basketball modernity by cutting back on two-point jump shots and taking more threes. This shift should have helped the offense run more efficiently even with the team shooting slightly worse from three-point range, but Randy Wittman and company confounded the issue by coupling changed shot selection with playing faster.
The problem: playing faster has nothing to do with playing better. Smart coaching emphasizes strategies that improve efficiency. Swapping two-point jumpers for threes, at-rim attempts and free throws is smart. Playing faster because it’s fashionable is not. (Especially when analysis of the team the past few years suggests the Wizards may have been better in slower-paced games.)
There’s room on the “blame bus” for the players, and rightfully so — virtually everyone who wears the Wizards uniform is under-performing. The only players with a PPA (see below) higher than last year are Otto Porter and Gary Neal, and Porter’s production has cratered since a promising start.
Despite back-to-back outstanding games (vs. Cleveland and the Lakers), John Wall’s PPA is 15 points lower than last season. Marcin Gortat’s production is down 42 points. Bradley Beal is “about the same” (down three points in PPA), but now in his fourth season still rates just average.
Kris Humphries, Jared Dudley, Ramon Sessions, Nenê, Drew Gooden, and Garrett Temple are all performing worse so far this season. All are showing double-digit drops in PPA.
For crissake, even DeJuan Blair, coming off the worst season of his career, is performing worse.
While they don’t belong on the “blame bus,” the Eastern Conference gets some credit for Washington’s poor start. Last season, a stat goober whose name I can’t remember (please take/give credit where it’s due if you read this and know who I’m talking about) estimated that top five teams in the East gained about three wins in 2014-15 because of the sorry state of the conference. This year, several Eastern teams improved while the Wizards attempted to be about the same.
How can the Wizards get better?
- De-emphasize pace. Stop worrying about trying to be like Golden State, and play at a pace that makes sense for the roster currently in place. Change the emphasis to valuing possessions and getting good shots, and look for offensive efficiency to rise.
- Get Wall and Gortat back to normal. Both are established veterans with production levels significantly better than what they’ve done thus far. It’s hard to believe they’re going to continue playing this poorly.
- Get improvement from Beal and/or Porter. Unfortunately, Beal continues to show improvement. He’s much the same player (in terms of overall impact) as he was in his rookie year. Porter started the season well, but has struggled since as teams developed a scouting report. Now it’s time for Porter to come up with ways to produce anyway.
- Make a trade. They don’t have a starter-quality PF on the roster.
The season is still young and the Wizards are probably going to start playing better. But, that’s what the Nationals kept saying, and then they ran out of games and the story of their 2015 season was they just weren’t good enough. For the Wizards, there’s an added concern because they need to be good enough to persuade a prominent free agent to join the young core.
Player Production Average
The ratings below are a metric I developed called Player Production Average (PPA). In PPA, players are credited for things they do that help a team win, and debited for things that don’t, each in proportion to what causes teams to win and lose. PPA is pace neutral, accounts for defense, and includes an adjustment based on the level of competition faced when a player is on the floor. In PPA, average is 100, higher is better, and replacement level is 45.
League-wide PPA scores through games played 12/03/15 are here.