A.J. Price

Responding to Ted Leonsis “Wizards Add Talented Big Man” Post

Wizards owner Ted Leonsis weighed in at his blog with his thoughts on the team’s acquisition of center Marcin Gortat. As usual, I’m not sure whether Leonsis actually believes what he’s saying, or if he’s merely careless with words, or if he’s applying PR spin, or if he’s being cynical. Either way, I thought some of what he wrote was worth a response:

Leonsis opened his blog posting with this:

The Wizards made a trade to add a talented big man to our roster Friday night — and Marcin Gortat will contribute right away to our team. It was important to our franchise to enter this season at full strength and to have depth and show upside and improvement.

Lots here. Yep, Gortat is talented, and he will contribute immediately. Part of that is because the other guys on the roster at power forward and center are so awful. More on that in a moment.

That second sentence is one of those that make me wonder if he’s being careless with words or whether he’s really that cynical about fans of his team. In sports-speak, “upside” means potential and “depth” means having more than one good player at a position.

Maybe I’m just THAT stupid, but I can’t figure out how trading for a 29-year old center on a one-year contract can count as “upside.” If Gortat does his job, the team will likely get to the playoffs, which won’t mean much unless they re-sign him, which they really don’t want to do because of Leonsis’ previous chest-thumping about signing a “brand name” free agent.

His “depth” comment is a face palm moment. Why wasn’t frontcourt depth important to “show” during the summer? With a solid small forward on the roster for another year (Trevor Ariza) and two more swingmen joining the team through the draft (Otto Porter and Glen Rice Jr.), why spend the mid-level exception on yet another SF (Martell Webster)? With an acceptable backup point guard easily re-signed for the league minimum (A.J. Price), why rush out the first day of free agency and burn the bi-annual exception on a scrub (Eric Maynor)?

As for that “improvement” thing — it’s kinda hard to know what he means. Does he mean the team’s record? If so, then I’d sort of agree. The team should win more games this season. It could be an illusory improvement, however because Gortat and Ariza are on expiring contracts and could depart whether the Wizards want to re-sign them or not. Plus, as mentioned above, Leonsis is hoping to attract a free agent — something that can’t happen if the team re-signs Gortat and/or Ariza.

Moving on:

We traded a protected first round pick to get the deal done. We have many young players on our team today and we believed that  using our conditional pick to get the deal done was the prudent  move for our franchise at this time in its development. Of our 15 players under contract 8 players have been drafted by us in the first or second round in the last 4 off seasons. We are a very young team still.

We have noted that we would use the draft, first and foremost, to rebuild our team. 8 players and make trades to bring on vets such as Trevor Ariza, Nene, and now Gortat — or free agency such as Martell Webster, Eric Maynor and Al Harrington. We dipped into the D league for Garrett Temple.

This kind of claptrap has me leaning more toward the conclusion that Leonsis is being cynical. Leonsis is suggesting that the team is actually building through the draft and that they’re just bringing in a few veterans here and there to kinda supplement these wonderful young players, who dangit arejust too young to carry the burden themselves.

But let’s go through who these eight draftees he’s talking about:

  1. John Wall — Consensus number one overall pick. Woefully inefficient on offense throughout his career (terrible shooting and lots of turnovers). Had a month last season where he played like a potential league MVP candidate. While he received a maximum salary contract extension, Wall has been more potential than production through his first three seasons.
  2. Bradley Beal — Third overall pick last season. Struggled at first, but played at a borderline All-Star level for a stretch until he had to sit due to a leg injury. His rookie season statistically looked a lot like Ray Allen’s.
  3. Otto Porter — This year’s third overall pick has been injured. In my pre-draft analysis machine “YODA,” Porter rated as a top five pick in most drafts. When he was selected, Cody Zeller and Nerlens Noel rated as better prospects. Porter should be a good pro, however.
  4. Glen Rice Jr. — The team trade two second round picks for the second round pick they used on Rice. His amateur/minor league career has been…interesting. He rated poorly as a draft prospect in college, but played well in the D-League last season. If he’d done in the NCAA what he did in the D-League, he’d have rated as a mid-first round pick. Assuming his off-court baggage is abandoned, he could make for a solid reserve SG/SF.
  5. Trevor Booker — The team made a draft-day trade to acquire him three years ago. The big issue with Booker: health. He’s been solidly productive when he’s played, but he’s missed substantial time due to a series of injuries.
  6. Kevin Seraphin — Obtained in a 2010 draft-day trade, Seraphin’s awful play was a big reason why the team had to trade a future first round pick to get a good player at center when Okafor got hurt. Last season, he was the league’s least productive center (minimum 500 minutes).
  7. Jan Vesely — Chosen sixth overall, Vesely has been an abject disaster. While Vesely has been awful, others chosen later (like Kawhi Leonard, Nikola Vucevic and Kenneth Faried) have thrived. In my analyis, Vesely last season rated as the league’s least productive power foward (minimum 500 minutes).
  8. Chris Singleton — Chosen 18th in the same draft that brought the Wizards Vesely, the team’s braintrust picked Singleton over Faried, Reggie Jackson, Jimmy Butler and Chandler Parsons. This was not a good decision. Singleton has been almost as bad as Vesely. Last season, he rated as the league’s second least productive power forward (ahead of only Vesely).

So, to recap, these young building blocks include a potentially good PG, a potentially good SG, a potentially good SF, a probable rotation swingman, a decent rotation PF, and three of the worst basketball players in the league. And oh yeah, Booker and Seraphin are on expiring contracts, and the team just declined to pick up the fourth year options on Vesely and Singleton. In other words, half of these eight draft picks that make this team so young, will likely be gone after the season. In effect, the team already released Vesely and Singleton. And, any money they spend re-signing Booker or Seraphin would cut into their salary cap space, which would hinder their pursuit of a “brand name” free agent.

Here are some additional clips regarding the trade.Check them out here,here,here, and here.

Shocking that he didn’t include my analysis.

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Gortat Trade Is Culmination of Series of Bad Moves for Wizards

Late Friday afternoon, news emerged that the Washington Wizards had traded injured center Emeka Okafor and a first round pick to the Phoenix Suns for center Marcin Gortat and salary cap ballast. While Gortat is a good player who will help the Wizards more games than they would have with Okafor sidelined, it’s a terrible move for a rebuilding franchise.

Unfortunately for fans who had hoped to see Ted Leonsis and Ernie Grunfeld construct a team that could contend for championships in the near future, it’s merely another example of the team squandering opportunities and mismanaging its assets. In the summer of 2012, for example, the Wizards could have amnestied Andray Blatche and released Rashard Lewis — moves that would have carved out enough cap space to acquire a quality front court player, sign good young players to mid-priced contracts, AND preserved future cap space for possible future free agents.

Instead, they traded for Okafor and Trevor Ariza — both of whom figured to be two-year rentals, at best. While the rebuilding Wizards added a 30-year old Okafor to pair up front with the 31-year old Nene, rebuilding New Orleans used the cap space they’d obtained from the Wizards to acquire Ryan Anderson — a productive 24-year old power forward.

This offseason was even worse. After last season, the team’s biggest need was obvious: front court depth. Okafor and Nene were reasonably effective, but both were 30-plus years old — an age at which NBA players typically see declines in productivity and increases in time missed due to injury.

So, they went into the offseason stocked with these assets:

  • Promising starters in the backcourt (John Wall and Bradley Beal)
  • A solid SF in the final year of his contract (Ariza)
  • The third overall pick in the draft
  • Two second round picks
  • The Bi-Annual Exception (BAE)
  • The Mid-Level Exception (MLE)

They used that draft pick on SF Otto Porter, who should be a good professional player once he’s healthy. In my pre-draft analysis, I had Porter rated in a tie for fourth overall, so picking him third wasn’t much of a stretch. And, the difference between Porter and at least two of the guys I had ahead of him (Cody Zeller and Nerlens Noel) was small enough that reasonable minds could differ on which of the three projected to be the best pro.

They swapped their 2nd round picks to move up a spot and take Glen Rice Jr., which might work out as a decent move. My analysis of his D-League performance suggests Rice may have been worth a mid-first round selection — he could turn out to be a terrific value as a 2nd rounder.

But here’s where things got puzzling. On the first day of free agency, they spent their BAE to sign reserve PG Eric Maynor — a consistently crummy NBA player. Guys who performed like Maynor are ones teams invite to training camp on non-guaranteed minimum salary contracts. The Wizards acted like they were getting a steal.

Weirder yet, they never made an offer to their incumbent backup PG, A.J. Price, who was a) better last season than Maynor has ever been as a pro, and b) would have been happy to get the minimum salary for another year.

Then, with Ariza coming back for another year, having drafted Porter third overall, and having dealt to get Rice (a SG/SF type), Grunfeld gave the full MLE to bring back Webster — yet another SF. Now, Webster did play well last season, and his three-point shooting and heady play was certainly valuable to the team. But, having spent their draft picks on swing men and their BAE on a scrub PG, they still had gaping holes up front, and no way to fill them other than trading or signing minimum salary free agents.

They flirted with San Antonio’s DeJuan Blair, but presented with competing minimum salary offers, Blair chose Dallas. They did manage to sign Al Harrington — one of the more overrated players of the past decade, who was available at a deep discount because he’s 32 years old, coming off the worst season of his career (due to illness), and working his way back into shape after recovering from that illness.

And oh yeah, burning that BAE on Maynor knocked them out of the running for good reserve guards like Nate Robinson and Darren Collison — each of whom signed for the BAE or less.

Taken together, the Wizards spent all of their offseason assets without addressing their single biggest need: depth up front. In effect, they were gambling on the health and productivity of 30-plus year olds, and the insanity of that gamble became evident when Okafor herniated a disk in his neck. With an uncertain timetable for recovery, the Wizards were stuck. The team’s stated goal was to reach the playoffs — something that just wasn’t going to happen if they had to rely on Kevin Seraphin and Jan Vesely, who were two of league’s least productive players last season.

And so, staring into the maw of yet another 30-win season, Grunfeld and Leonsis blinked. They swapped Okafor (who may not play this season) and a first round pick for Gortat, who played at borderline All-NBA caliber a couple years ago. Make no mistake: Gortat is a good player. But here’s the problem — the Wizards spent a future asset on a guy they’re hoping will be on the team for just one year. See, during the summer, Leonsis talked openly about signing a “brand name” free agent. That’s something they’ll need cap room to accomplish, and the only way they’ll have cap space is if they let Gortat depart.

Perhaps the most prevalent counterargument in favor of this trade is that the pick is top 12 protected in 2014 and that good players aren’t usually picked that late in the draft. This is unpersuasive to me because it ignores the reality that in every NBA draft, quality players are selected 13th or lower. Sure, a GM like Grunfeld has a lower probability of finding a good player later in the draft, but that’s a point in favor of keeping picks and acquiring extras, if possible. More picks increase the odds of getting a quality player. Now that’s not even an option.

Another line of argument is that the Wizards could re-sign Gortat, which would make the trade look better for the team. The problem with this thinking is that it would mean the team struck out in free agency (or decided not to even take a swing). Gortat is good, but he’s most certainly not a “brand name” free agent. Plus, Gortat turns 30 next spring, which means he’s more likely to be in the expensive decline portion of his career than he is to remain productive.

It seems like such a classically Wizards transaction. Presented with opportunities to build a potential title contender, the owner and the GM opted to pursue short-term goals that don’t mean much. I find it cynical and disappointing. Makes we wonder why I’m still following this team. But that’s a topic for another day.

How Can the Wizards Improve? Shoot Better

wall jumper

Writing at Grantland, Kirk Goldsberry introduced a new metric he dubbed “ShotScore.” Basically, the idea is to compare a player’s shooting from various locations on the floor to the league average from that spot. Effectively, it adds a degree of difficulty component to NBA shooting stats.

I could do without his strawman stuff about field goal percentage — the problems with FG% are why stat goobers switched to effective field goal percentage, which accounts for the effect of the 3pt shot — but Goldsberry’s work is both good and flawed. Want a more in-depth look at what’s wrong with it, check out Tom Ziller’s piece. To summarize: ShotScore is way complex, and it rewards players for shooting better than average from anywhere on the floor — even if it’s just a low-percentage shot, period. Also, it doesn’t account for a valuable way players produce points: shooting free throws.

Let me illustrate. Let’s say that the league average on long two-point attempts is 40%. If a player came along and shot nothing but long twos (and lots of them), and shot 45%, ShotScore would say that player was a good shooter — +100 points compared to the league average taking those same shots.

Except, that player would actually be taking a low value shot. The league’s eFG (which accounts for the 3pt shot) was .496 last season, which means that given 1,000 FGA, we’d expect the league to produce (on average) 992 points — 92 more than the “good” shooter.

To further illustrate, let’s say Mr. Long Two has a teammate who by some weird design shoots only three-pointers (and lots of them), but shoots just league average. Archaic FG% would say Long Two is the better shooter, .450 to .359. ShotScore would agree. Long Two produced 100 points more than the league average shooter would have produced on the same number of long two-point attempts.

Both would be wrong. Because that average three-point shooter would have produced 992 points on his 1,000 FGA — 92 points more than the “better” shooter taking long two-point attempts. Any coach with a bit of sense would want an average 3pt shooter over a “better than average” shooter on long twos.

In his article, Ziller introduces some simpler metrics that actually do a better job of determining which players shoot the best. His “simpler” approach uses a bit of logic and stats that are already publicly available. I’m not going to waste time explaining — if you’re interested in the details, click over to Ziller’s article.

Using my spreadsheets, I pointed Ziller’s formulas at the Wizards last season. And, it’s not a pretty sight. Using Ziller’s “Extra Field Points” metric, only three Wizards last season were a net positive: Martell Webster, Trevor Ariza and Jan Vesely.

Now, before you throw out the stat because of Vesely, keep in mind that he had an efg of .500 last season — league average was .496. Given Vesely’s number of shot attempts, the league would have scored 113 points — Vesely generated 114 points off his field goal attempts, a net of +1.

Here’s a quick table from last season:

PLAYER Extra Field Points
Martell Webster 70
Trevor Ariza 4
Jan Vesely 1
Cartier Martin 0
Trevor Booker -2
Shelvin Mack -4
Jason Collins -4
Earl Barron -11
Jannero Pargo -13
Shaun Livingston -18
A.J. Price -18
Nene Hilario -20
Garrett Temple -20
Jordan Crawford -23
Emeka Okafor -26
Bradley Beal -27
Chris Singleton -48
Kevin Seraphin -51
John Wall -70

This table tells us why the Wizards lost so many games last season. Given the same number of field goal attempts, the league would have produced 6,645 points from the field. The Wizards produced 6,365 — a deficit of 280 points. The team’s overall scoring deficit last season: 208. At the bottom of the list is a stark reminder of what John Wall’s poor shooting AND poor shot selection costs the team.

Washington was better from the free throw line, but still below the league standard. For the season, the team’s free throw shooting cost them 36 points. That works out to about 0.4 points per game — one extra loss over an 82-game schedule.

Here’s a look at the team’s free throw shooting:

PLAYER Extra FT Points
Martell Webster 19
John Wall 16
Jordan Crawford 7
Trevor Ariza 6
Bradley Beal 5
Shaun Livingston 4
A.J. Price 2
Jason Collins 0
Jannero Pargo 0
Shelvin Mack -1
Cartier Martin -1
Earl Barron -2
Garrett Temple -2
Kevin Seraphin -5
Nene Hilario -7
Chris Singleton -13
Trevor Booker -14
Jan Vesely -17
Emeka Okafor -35

This table shows Wall regaining some ground from the FT line that he gives up with his bad shooting from the floor. Some, but not all.

One last table looking strictly at shooting — this one combining extra field goal points (EFPT) with extra free throw points (EFTP) into a unified Extra Points (EPTS). Hmm, I guess if we’re talking Wizards, it could “in-EPTS” couldn’t it?

PLAYER EFGP EFTP EPTS
Martell Webster 70 19 88
Trevor Ariza 4 6 11
Cartier Martin 0 -1 -1
Jason Collins -4 0 -3
Shelvin Mack -4 -1 -4
Jannero Pargo -13 0 -12
Earl Barron -11 -2 -12
Shaun Livingston -18 4 -14
A.J. Price -18 2 -16
Jordan Crawford -23 7 -16
Jan Vesely 1 -17 -17
Trevor Booker -2 -14 -17
Bradley Beal -27 5 -22
Garrett Temple -20 -2 -22
Nene Hilario -20 -7 -26
John Wall -70 16 -54
Kevin Seraphin -51 -5 -56
Emeka Okafor -26 -35 -61
Chris Singleton -48 -13 -61

The numbers may not add exactly because of rounding, but it’s good enough for my purposes today. Note that only two players were net positives when they shot the ball: Webster and Ariza — both of whom shot less than their inaccurate teammates.

Wall, for example, led the team in per minute true shooting attempts, but was the team’s fourth worst shooter overall. Seraphin was third in usage (behind Wall and Jordan Crawford), and third worst shooting the ball. The team needs to either redistribute its shot attempts or get significant improvement from the guys pulling the trigger.

So, while all this is good, it’s still focused only on shooting. Players contribute in other ways offensively that show up in the box score — getting offensive boards, assisting, avoiding turnovers.

Using Ziller’s principle and my own revised version of Dean Oliver’s individual offensive rating formula (expressed as points produced per 100 individual possessions), I calculated an expected points produced based on the number of possessions a player used. So, finding Additional Points Produced (APTS) is EPP – PROD (that’s expected points produced minus points produced).

Let’s take Webster as our example. Last year, through FGA, FTA, turnovers, offensive rebounds and assists, Webster used 681 possessions. The league’s offensive rating was 105.8 points per 100 possessions, so the “expected points produced” for those 681 possessions was 721. Webster produced 797, meaning that (with rounding) Webster produced 77 Additional Points.

Note: points produced is NOT the same thing as points scored. Points produced includes non-scoring contributions to the offense (offensive rebounds, assists, turnovers) and shares credit with teammates.

PLAYER APTS
Martell Webster 77
Trevor Booker 11
A.J. Price 1
John Wall 0
Jason Collins -3
Shelvin Mack -4
Shaun Livingston -11
Jannero Pargo -13
Earl Barron -14
Jan Vesely -14
Trevor Ariza -14
Nene Hilario -17
Cartier Martin -25
Bradley Beal -28
Garrett Temple -30
Jordan Crawford -36
Emeka Okafor -39
Chris Singleton -54
Kevin Seraphin -127

Unsurprisingly, Webster is still at the top. He shot the ball extremely well last season and committed few turnovers. But check out number four on the list — Wall. It’s a net zero, which means that the PG produced an average number of points given the possessions he used. What impresses me, however, is the value of his non-shooting contributions. Remember, Wall’s shooting from the floor was a net -70 points. His overall shooting (free throws and field goals combined) was a net -54. Even so, his overall impact was average. If he ever really learns how to shoot…

At the bottom of the list we see the heavy cost of Kevin Seraphin’s terrible shooting, few offensive boards, no assists, and abundant turnovers. Chris Singleton’s -54 is bizarrely impressive given the forward’s low usage and fairly low minutes.

Assuming they’re able to maintain the defense, the team must get better on offense to reach the playoffs. Some of that is possible (likely even) by individual improvement. Bradley Beal had a rough start to his rookie year, but was significantly more efficient as the season wore on. And he’s looked good in preseason.

Nene has long been one of the league’s more efficient offensive players, but hampered by injuries, he had his least efficient full season since he was a rookie — in 2002-03. Will Nene be able to get back to his career norms (offensive rating of about 112 vs. 103 last season), or was last year a sign of the inevitable age-related decline?

No matter how they do it, the Wizards must get better on offense if they hope to make the playoffs — especially with the possibility of an extended absence from defensive stalwart Emeka Okafor.

What Upgrade?

Since the Washington Wizards signed free agent Eric Maynor on the opening day of free agency, it’s been widely accepted  that the team had found an upgrade at backup point guard from A.J. Price.

I’ve been over the data several times now, and I still can’t find justification for the belief that replacing Price with Maynor improves the team. It’s a different name at a higher salary, but better? Not unless Maynor improves significantly.

Through four seasons, Maynor has been pedestrian. As regular readers know, I’ve developed an overall rating stat I call Player Production Average (PPA for short). PPA is derived primarily from the box score, with each category weighted according to how it relates to a team’s scoring differential. In PPA, I account for defense, adjust for pace, and include a “degree of difficulty” factor based on the level of competition a player faces while on the floor.

In PPA, average is always 100. Higher is better, and replacement level is 45. Maynor’s career PPA: 49. His PPA last season was 32. Even in Portland, where he was better, his PPA was 41. There’s some reason to think he’ll be a bit better this season, which will be his first full season back from a serious knee injury. His pre-injury PPA was 57, which is solidly above replacement level (though still a long ways from being a quality rotation player).

Maynor’s primary contributions are purported to be on the offensive end, which is a good thing since he doesn’t rebound (even for a PG), and his defense is average at best. The numbers reveal him to be inefficient offensively (a career offensive rating of 101 points per 100 possessions vs. a league average of around 105 during his career; an ortg of just 96 last season). He’s a slightly better assist man than Price, but it comes with more turnovers as well.

One argument I’ve seen is that Maynor is better than Price at running the team and getting it into proper sets. I’m willing to accept this claim with the proviso that for this “ability” to be meaningful, it would have to show up on the scoreboard — in the on/off stats. And, the data is, at best, equivocal.

For his career, Maynor’s teams have been slightly worse offensively when he’s been on the floor (to the tune of 1.3 points per 100 possessions — a small difference that could just be randomness). Going season by season suggests to me that the best conclusion to reach is that Maynor has little to no effect on his team’s offense. As a rookie, his teams (Utah and Oklahoma City) were worse offensively when he was on the floor. In his second year, OKC was a little better when he was in the game. In his brief third season (just 137 total minutes), OKC was much better +7.1 points per 100 possessions (but with so few minutes that the data is virtually meaningless).

Last season? OKC was worse offensively when he was in the game; Portland was better. In sum, his teams last season were the same whether he was in the game or out.

This is not to say the Wizards have lost anything great in Price. He posted a career-best PPA of 84 last season, and seems like an adequate reserve PG. Like Maynor, Price’s offensive on/off numbers don’t suggest an impact player. For his career, Price’s teams have been “about the same” whether he’s in the game or not (they’ve been 0.5 points per 100 possessions less efficient offensively when he’s been on the floor). Last season, the Wizards were bad offensively when Price was in the game (100.3 points per 100 possessions), and they were just as bad offensively when he was out of the game (100.2 points per 100 possessions).

At this point, I’ve been over the data several times. I don’t see anything to support the notion that Maynor is any kind of upgrade over Price. Maynor might make an extra dynamic play now and then, but it comes at the cost of more turnovers, fewer rebounds, and iffy defense.

And all of this is before even getting to the Wizards’ rush to sign Maynor on the first day of free agency, burning the biannual exception on a marginal player, and precluding themselves from using it on other (more productive) guards who signed elsewhere OR from using it to sign a reserve big man like DeJuan Blair.

As a fan of the team, I hope I’m wrong, but the only way this can be an upgrade for the Wizards is if Maynor plays significantly better in Washington than he has in his previous four seasons.