The surest way to get disappointed is to start with unrealistically high expectations. For exhibit gazillion, I present the 2015-16 Washington Wizards.
During the preseason, there was a fascinating disconnect between fans, media observers, and my statistical analysis. Many, including some of my stat pals at APBRmetrics thought the Wizards would be pretty good. The team seemed to fit a familiar narrative — they’d been bad, they’d gotten a taste of the playoffs (and even won a first round series) in 2013-14, and then had been better yet in 2014-15 (complete with a first round sweep of the Toronto Raptors). Fueled by All-Star John Wall and his young backcourt buddy Bradley Beal, the Wizards would take the next step and become Eastern Conference Contenders.
Over on the message board at RealGM, 76 members predicted the team’s final record. The average prediction: 48.0 wins. (Strictly speaking, 77 members made a prediction. I’m removing my own because it fits into a different category). A helpful soul compiled nine media predictions (strictly speaking, it was eight plus a betting service’s over/under line; also there are ten predictions listed, but 538’s belongs in a different category), which were only slightly less optimistic: 46.6 wins.
Roll all of those up, and it’s 85 predictions ranging from a high of 56 to a low of 37. The group pick: 47.9 wins.
The APBRmetrics crowd was less optimistic — average prediction: 44.8 wins.
My stat-based model predicted 41.4 wins, but I rounded up to 42 in my preseason analysis at Vice. The guys at 538.com predicted 41 wins.
What’s gone wrong? Nothing unexpected, really. Wall’s been maybe a little less productive than anticipated, but he’s quite close to my preseason prediction. Beal hasn’t been as good as I’d predicted — and he got hurt more than I’d expected — but that’s counterbalanced by Marcin Gortat and Otto Porter being healthier and more productive than projected.
So, was it injuries that doomed the Wizards? No. While the Wizards are near the league lead in games missed due to injury, most of the games were missed by bottom of the rotation guys — Alan Anderson, Drew Gooden, Gary Neal. Yes, Nenê and Beal missed their usual allotment. But among players who were on the roster since preseason, they’re fourth and sixth in per possession production. Washington’s three most productive players per possession (Wall, Gortat and Porter) have missed a total of 13 games.
There’s another whopping problem with the “injuries done ’em in” narrative: it’s hopelessly one-sided. For example, when I ran an estimate during the All-Star break on how many additional games the Wizards might have won at full health, I looked only at the Wizards. To do this analysis properly, however, it’s nonsensical to ignore injuries suffered by other teams.
Not having time today for a complete analysis of my own, I turn to ManGamesLost.com. That site lists the Wizards as having the third most games missed due to injury this season. They have two measures of the effect those injuries have had on the team. The Wizards rank 21st in one, and 19th in the other. In other words, injuries have cost Washington LESS in the win column than the average NBA team.
To put it more simply: the injury excuse is bullshit.
So what went wrong? Again, nothing surprising. Most of the players performed to reasonable preseason expectations. The team had been very average in preceding seasons, and several teams in the East improved while the Wizards tried to maintain their averageness.
The reason the Wizards are so disappointing is that fans and media (and apparently the players) set about constructing a narrative of a surging franchise. Unfortunately, the foundation for that narrative consisted of inflated win totals in a historically weak conference, and a massive overestimation of the importance of first round playoff wins.
Keep in mind that the playoffs represent tiny sample sizes. Last season’s postseason lasted 10 games. Washington’s record: 6-4. The previous season, it was 11 games. Their record: 6-5. At any other time in a season, such a performance would be expected for an average team. When it happens in the playoffs, it becomes a portent, an omen. And there’s a dose of that curious one-sidedness when it comes to injuries.
Many said (repeatedly) something to the effect of: “The Wizards might have beat the Hawks if only Wall hadn’t hurt his hand.” Acknowledged far less often is the reality that Washington’s first-round sweep of Toronto was helped by a serious back injury that hobbled Raptors star Kyle Lowry. If we’re going to imagine “what if” scenarios for a full-health Wizards against Atlanta, we also ought to recognize they might not have gotten out of the first round against a full-health Raptors squad.
With five games to go, the Wizards have a slim (about 2%) chance of reaching the postseason. All they need do is win out while Detroit loses three of their remaining four. But, as they limp toward the lottery (with the pick likely going to Phoenix), the team still embodies what I wrote in the preseason: it’s a mediocre roster that lacks an elite producer.
Player Production Average
The ratings below are from 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 04/05/16 are here.
Good news: Gortat and Porter continue to play well. Leaving aside the issue of the crummy trade that acquired him, Markieff Morris has been solid after his first four games with the team.
Bad news: Wall remains significantly below the game’s elite performers, Beal continues to rate a bit below average, and key role players (Jared Dudley, Ramon Sessions and Nenê) have all seen production slip over the past few weeks.
In the “puzzling” category goes Randy Wittman’s playing time decisions. The team’s top lineup with more than 100 minutes this season has been Wall-Beal-Porter-Morris-Gortat. Their second best lineup is exactly the same except with Dudley instead of Morris. The second lineup has been together for precisely zero minutes over the past month.
Also puzzling has been the benching of Dudley, who has been a solid player for them throughout the season. Dudley seems ideal as a league average caliber player who gets around 24 minutes per game divided between SF and PF. The Wizards started him at PF much of the season, and have now slashed his minutes from 27.0 minutes per game through the first 72 games to just 14.0 over the last five — 4.5 minutes per game fewer than Garrett Temple.