It may seem strange to worry about the Wizards making the playoffs this season when they still have 49 games to play, but history suggests they’re already running out of time to turn things around and reach the postseason.
It’s likely going to take 45 wins to earn the eighth seed in this year’s East. With Washington at 15-18, simple math says they’ll need another 30 wins in their final 49 games. That means playing at about .600 level the rest of the way — basically at the level of a 50-win team (over an 82-game schedule).
This is possible and not unprecedented in basketball history. Teams have dramatically improved after a poor start. But not many of them. Teams that started a season like the Wizards were much more likely to remain at the same level than markedly improve. One of those teams (the 04-05 Denver Nuggets) made two coaching changes and played .800 ball (32-8) to finish the season with 49 wins. That record is a dreamworld best-case fantasy, though.
In the real world, last season’s Wizards actually began the year a 31-18 record in their first 49 games. That’s a .633 winning percentage, and if they could replicate it over the final 49 games of this season they’d end up with 46 wins and a berth in the playoffs. Last year in reverse has a patina of plausibility, which makes it seem more possible than the evidence indicates.
Unfortunately, there are several good reasons to think that quality of play is unlikely. Since that 31-18 start, the Wizards are 36-40 — 15-18 to finish 2014-15, 6-4 in the playoffs, and 15-18 this season. That’s the quality of a 37-win team across a BIG stretch (93% of a regular season). And it’s notably consistent.
In addition, the team’s scoring differential through that 49-game stretch suggested they weren’t quite as good as their record. Scoring differential analysis indicated a 28-win team during that stretch — about the level of a 46-win team over an 82-game schedule, not the 51-win level suggested by their 31-18 record. At 33 games last season, the team was 22-11 — about three wins ahead of their expected win total. The difference wasn’t an indication that the Wizards “knew how to win” or had become “clutch,” it was a signal that the team wasn’t as good as their record.
And here’s where things get even more worrisome for the 2015-16 edition of the Wizards: their scoring differential says they’re the quality of a 13-win team through their first 33 games. Their won/loss record is running about two games ahead of their expected wins. This is a sign of weakness. Widely perceived as under-performing, the team is actually playing even worse than their already bad record. Their winning percentage is that of a 37-win team over an 82-game schedule. Their scoring differential suggests they’re playing at the level of a 32-win team. Another way of looking at it: they’re 19th in winning percentage, and 22nd in scoring differential.
The task ahead of them is not impossible. They could improve, and they are just 2.5 games from the eighth seed. But it’s time for some urgency. It’s time for them to start playing at a higher level and to string together wins. Because with every additional loss, the goal of making the playoffs this season becomes less and less probable.
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 01/06/16 are here.
Wall’s season has been…odd. He was mediocre through the first month of the season, posting a PPA of just 94. When the calendar shifted to December, he abruptly transmogrified into an All-NBA caliber point guard, posting a December PPA of 202. Then in January, he’s posted three straight crummy games, and has a PPA of just 86. His wildly vacillating performance level gives ample ammunition to fans who believe he should be starting the All-Star game (look at the sensational play in December), as well as those who think other players are more deserving (look at the bad first month of the year). In PPA, he’s a borderline All-Star candidate — fifth among guards in the East (minimum 750 minutes), but with frontcourt players rated ahead of him.