Reality vs. the Wizards

The Wizards are not going to make the playoffs this year. They’re not quite as good as they’ve been the past couple years, which is to say they’re a bit worse than mediocre.

Wizards fans — and perhaps the Wizards themselves — are hanging their dreams of postseason participation on some fragile hooks:

  1. the schedule gets easier, and
  2. key Wizards players have returned from injury.

Neither factor holds as much promise for the Wizards as adherents might imagine. The schedule does get easier, but the Wizards are five games below .500 because they’ve played below average basketball through their first 51 games, not because the schedule was difficult.

Before the All-Star break, Washington’s opponents were 0.67 points per game better than average. That’s the approximate quality of a 43-win team over an 82-game schedule. Against this very slightly better than average level of competition, the Wizards got outscored by 2.7 points per game. Which means Washington performed about two points per game worse than average.

The schedule does get easier. Opponents the rest of the way have been a point per game worse than average the rest of the way — about the quality of a 38-win team over an 82-game schedule. In other words, the Wizards are going from playing the approximate quality of an eighth or ninth place team to playing opponents the approximate quality of a ninth or tenth place team.

There are a couple problems, though. First, the Wizards have been worse by a point per game than the aggregate of their remaining opponents. And second, 17 of their remaining games are on the road, and the post All-Star break sprint starts with three games in three nights.

Run the numbers on their remaining schedule, and at this point they’d be the favorite in 11 of their remaining 31 games. If you believe (as I do) the real quality of the team is about average, they’ll probably win between 14 and 17 games the rest of the way – meaning they’d finish with 37 to 40 wins, and would miss the playoffs.

So what about the injuries? The Wizards have indeed lost the NBA’s highest number of player games to injury so far this season. Unfortunately, the players who missed games weren’t the team’s major producers of wins, and their replacements did a reasonable job filling in.

Prior to the All-Star break, I used PPA to quantify how much injuries cost the team. That involved reapportioning minutes (taking playing time from Garrett Temple, Gary Neal and others, and assigning it to players who missed time like Bradley Beal, Nenê, and others). Based on the performance levels of the players involved, I estimate the team would have won two additional games with perfect health.

Two wins is a significant number, but it wouldn’t change the overall trajectory of the season. Washington would be 25-26 – closer to eighth in the East, but still in ninth or tenth place. Even with an easier schedule the rest of the way, the numbers in this “ideal health” scenario would project the Wizards to finish with 41 to 42 wins, and a likely ninth place finish.

Washington still has a theoretical chance to finish eighth. Chicago and Charlotte have suffered injuries — Jimmy Butler’s being far more damaging to the Bulls than Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s to the Hornets. But, the eighth seed in the East is going to need a minimum of 42 wins, and to do even that well, the Wizards would need to transmogrify from playing like a 37-win team to playing like a 50-win team.

Here’s a simple table showing the task the Wizards have created for themselves. It’s not impossible for them to make the playoffs, but it is highly improbable. The W82 column shows the quality level the Wizards would need to reach the target wins. So, to reach 44 wins this season, they’d need to finish 21-10, which is the approximate level of a 56-win team over an 82-game schedule.

44 38 21 10 56
43 39 20 11 53
42 40 19 12 50

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 2/11/16 are here.

PLAYER GMS MPG 11/10 11/22 12/3 12/13 12/21 12/30 1/6 1/13 1/27 2/11
Marcin Gortat 45 31.2 91 112 128 133 132 138 147 145 148 151
John Wall 51 36.1 153 129 136 168 157 157 149 144 142 146
Otto Porter 44 31.0 144 158 104 116 107 115 122 127 130 130
Bradley Beal 30 31.8 128 108 96 87 87 86 85 86 98 108
Jared Dudley 50 28.9 36 92 90 85 98 103 100 105 99 104
Ramon Sessions 51 20.4 131 119 84 90 87 89 88 91 90 89
Jarell Eddie 14 5.6  –  –  –  –  – 153 119 113 110 86
Nene Hilario 28 18.8 58 90 80 74 79 78 79 88 92 84
Kris Humphries 28 16.6 90 121 95 80 78 76 79 79 78 76
Gary Neal 40 20.2 23 49 64 75 78 74 75 78 71 70
Garrett Temple 49 25.6 38 106 57 54 70 63 68 79 79 69
Drew Gooden 22 12.4 99 51 57 56 56 56 38 47 34 31
Kelly Oubre 43 11.9 -103 -4 -40 -44 9 37 43 39 36 29
DeJuan Blair 29 7.5 -345 -129 -112 -45 -34 -38 -38 -28 -6 -15
Ryan Hollins 5 9.6  –  – -40 60 59  –  –  –  –  –

Beal has returned from injury playing well. Wall, Gortat and Porter continue to lead the team in production. The numbers indicate the Wizards actually have some decent professional players. What they lack is an elite producer. More on that coming tomorrow.

Wizards Update: All-Star Edition

Wall all star

All-Star rosters will be released tonight, and while Wizards point guard John Wall will likely be selected, he’s borderline at best, and wouldn’t make the team if I was making the picks. I’ve looked at the numbers several different ways — total production, per game production, per minute production — and Wall remains just on the fringes of the All-Star roster.

This is in no small part because of the fan vote, which picked the starters in each conference. In the East,  at least according to my analysis, Dwyane Wade, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony are undeserving of All-Star status — even as reserves. This pushes all guards down one spot, and all front-court players down two. In my analysis, the next guard up for the East: John Wall. The next front-court guys: Greg Monroe and Al Horford.

In the West, the only poor choice was Kobe Bryant, who received a career achievement honorific. The next deserving front-court player was Blake Griffin, whose injury would have pushed to next man up Dwight Howard.

Here’s the way Player Production Average (my metric, see below) would divvy up the teams:

G Kyle Lowry Stephen Curry
G Dwyane Wade Russell Westbrook
F Lebron James Kobe Bryant
F Paul George Kevin Durant
F Carmelo Anthony Kawhi Leonard
G Jimmy Butler Chris Paul
G Kemba Walker James Harden
F Paul Millsap Draymond Green
F Hassan Whiteside Anthony Davis
F Andre Drummond DeAndre Jordan
G Isaiah Thomas Damian Lillard
F Chris Bosh Derrick Favors

My guess is that Wall will probably be chosen over Walker and that Horford will make it over Whiteside. In the West, I’d anticipate Thompson over Lillard and Howard or Demarcus Cousins over Favors.

Those Mediocre Wizards

Talk about the Wizards potentially becoming trade deadline “sellers” inspired me to apply my “Real Trade Value” toy in an all-new way to measure the team’s pervasive mediocrity.

I haven’t written much about Real Trade Value, which is still a work-in-progress. RTV attempts to determine the trade value of each player in relation to the league’s MVP. In RTV, there’s accounting for age (younger players get a bonus; older players get a deduction), and total production and per minute production are given equal weight. So, RTV “likes” players who are young, productive and durable.

There’s no accounting (yet) for contract or position.

In RTV, the top value (this year it’s Stephen Curry) is set at 1,000. Other players are scaled beneath. The idea is similar to the NFL draft pick value sheet. A theoretical trade for Curry would cost 1,000 RTV points. Here are the players closest to each 100-point mark:

  • 1,000 — Stephen Curry
  • 900 — Kawhi Leonard
  • 800 — no one (here’s how outlandish Curry and Leonard have been: Curry’s RTV is 1,000; Leonard’s is 878; next closest is Westbrook at 721)
  • 700 — Russell Westbrook, Andre Drummond, Kevin Durant, Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Davis
  • 600 — Greg Monroe, Hassan Whiteside
  • 500 — Al Horford, Kevin Love, Derrick Favors, Paul George, Clint Capela, Chris Bosh
  • 400 — Zaza Pachulia, Mike Conley, C.J. McCollum, LaMarcus Aldridge, Enes Kanter
  • 300 — Ryan Anderson, Bismack Biyombo, T.J. McConnell, Jrue Holiday, Jeff Teague
  • 200 — Trevor Booker, Kyle Anderson, Frank Kaminsky, Jeremy Lin, Ramon Sessions
  • 100 — Mike Muscala, Jamal Crawford, E’Twaun Moore, Jameer Nelson, Kevin Martin
  • 0 — Vince Carter, Sasah Vujacic, Emmanuel Mudiay, Markieff Morris

Got all that? There’ll be a quiz later.

In terms of actual trade value, contracts and position almost certainly need to be included. But, for looking at franchise health — weighing productivity and health vs. age — it works reasonably well.

Here’s a table with the results, sorted by conference.

BOS E 5 1 77
ORL E 6 2 75
ATL E 7 3 74
TOR E 8 4 74
CLE E 10 5 71
MIL E 12 6 70
IND E 13 7 69
CHO E 14 8 69
WAS E 19 9 65
NYK E 20 10 65
DET E 21 11 64
MIA E 24 12 62
CHI E 25 13 62
PHI E 27 14 59
BRK E 28 15 59
GSW W 1 1 100
OKC W 2 2 89
SAS W 3 3 84
UTA W 4 4 78
NOP W 9 5 72
DEN W 11 6 70
HOU W 15 7 69
LAC W 16 8 69
POR W 17 9 68
MIN W 18 10 67
SAC W 22 11 63
PHO W 23 12 63
DAL W 26 13 61
MEM W 29 14 52
LAL W 30 15 52

The last column is a “franchise health” index where the top team (Golden State) is set at 100 and other teams are scaled below. The Wizards rank 19th overall and 9th in the East. League average “index” score is 69, indicating they rate a little below average.

IF this measure has any predictive value at the team level (and that’s a HUGE “if” because I’ve done precisely zero research on that question), the Wizards have significant work ahead of them to upgrade the roster.

Player Production Average

The ratings below are a 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 01/27/16 are here.

PLAYER GMS MPG 11/10 11/22 12/3 12/13 12/21 12/30 1/6 1/13 1/27
Marcin Gortat 37 31.7 91 112 128 133 132 138 147 145 148
John Wall 43 35.7 153 129 136 168 157 157 149 144 142
Otto Porter 36 32.1 144 158 104 116 107 115 122 127 130
Jarell Eddie 11 6.9  –  –  –  –  – 153 119 113 110
Jared Dudley 42 28.7 36 92 90 85 98 103 100 105 99
Bradley Beal 22 32.9 128 108 96 87 87 86 85 86 98
Nene Hilario 22 18.4 58 90 80 74 79 78 79 88 92
Ramon Sessions 43 21.2 131 119 84 90 87 89 88 91 90
Garrett Temple 41 24.7 38 106 57 54 70 63 68 79 79
Kris Humphries 27 17.1 90 121 95 80 78 76 79 79 78
Gary Neal 35 21.1 23 49 64 75 78 74 75 78 71
Kelly Oubre 36 13.4 -103 -4 -40 -44 9 37 43 39 36
Drew Gooden 14 13.8 99 51 57 56 56 56 38 47 34
DeJuan Blair 26 7.9 -345 -129 -112 -45 -34 -38 -38 -28 -6
Ryan Hollins 5 9.6  –  – -40 60 59  –  –  –  –

The numbers aren’t too encouraging. Wall has followed up his Player of the Month December with a thoroughly meh January. If the Wizards are going to get back in contention for a spot in the playoffs, they need something closer to the December Wall than they’ve been getting.

Wizards Update: Level Best

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.

PLAYER GAMES MPG 11/10 11/22 12/3 12/13 12/21 12/30 PPA
John Wall 33 35.7 153 129 136 168 157 157 149
Marcin Gortat 30 31.2 91 112 128 133 132 138 147
Otto Porter 30 32.2 144 158 104 116 107 115 122
Jarell Eddie 5 11.6 153 119
Jared Dudley 32 27.8 36 92 90 85 98 103 100
Ramon Sessions 33 21.3 131 119 84 90 87 89 88
Bradley Beal 17 36.5 128 108 96 87 87 86 85
Kris Humphries 27 17.1 90 121 95 80 78 76 79
Nene Hilario 13 17.0 58 90 80 74 79 78 79
Gary Neal 25 22.1 23 49 64 75 78 74 75
Garrett Temple 31 22.8 38 106 57 54 70 63 68
Ryan Hollins 5 9.6     -40 60 59 59 59
Kelly Oubre 26 13.4 -103 -4 -40 -44 9 37 43
Drew Gooden 7 11.6 99 51 57 56 56 56 38
DeJuan Blair 18 8.4 -345 -129 -112 -45 -34 -38 -38

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.

Wizards Update: Mediocrity, Naturally

Sports fandom involves some cognitive bias. We assign importance to patterns without real meaning, see signs in events that are essentially random. We hope for the best and steadfastly convince ourselves this is the time things finally work out for the good guys. Long-time Wizards fans are experts at this kind of thing. Our brains are wired for it.

For example, the Wizards won four games in a row before falling to the Clippers and Raptors. Winning streaks are usually interpreted as a sign that a team is good. They’re finding their groove, hitting their stride, getting a rhythm. Right?

Well, no, actually. Long streaks, like Golden State’s (or Philadelphia’s) to start the season provide meaningful information about the relative quality of those teams. But, for virtually every NBA team, including a  mediocre one like the Wizards, three- and four-game streaks are inevitable. According to the handy table in Dean Oliver’s 2004 book, Basketball On Paper, a team that wins half its games during an 82-game season has a 99.4% chance of winning four in a row at some point. Naturally, that .500 team has the same odds of losing four in a row. By their 28th game, the Wizards had accomplished both, plus an independent three-game winning streak.

A .400 team — one that would win about 33 games — has an 87% chance of winning at least four in a row during an 82-game season. Even a 25-win team has nearly a 50% chance of at least one four-game winning streak.

Sometimes randomness is fun, like Rasual Butler’s hot streak last season, or Gary Neal’s this year, or Garrett Temple’s binge of three straight games with at least 20 points. Other times, it’s not so fun, like Butler’s second half of the season, or any of Neal’s “non-hot” games, or the dud performances Temple produced in the games preceding and following the scoring outburst.

This is not meant to be a nihilistic “everything is random and therefore meaningless” screed. Some teams and players are better than others. But, the true quality of a team is found by what they do on average, over time.

The Wizards in recent years have been decidedly, consistently, mediocre. I can hear the arguing already: 46 wins last season; 44 wins the year before; trips to the second round of the playoffs both years. These are signs of the Wizards being a team on the rise that’s hoarding cap space for a run at a superstar, and they’ve had some bad luck with injuries this season. Maybe. But, more likely: fan-think.

In an 82-game season, how many games would a truly mediocre team win? The easy answer is 41. That’s exactly half, right in the middle. Therefore, 46 wins is five better than average, which means the Wizards were better than average. This isn’t wrong — just incomplete.

Let’s imagine a team that’s perfectly mediocre in quality. By the end of an 82-game season, it will score exactly as many points as its opponent. How many games will this mediocre team win? They might win 41, but they might win a few more or a few less. Their win total depends on how those points get distributed. Having a 50% chance of winning each individual game doesn’t mean a team will actually win half the games.

For a simple randomness test, google up a coin-flipping simulator or flip a coin yourself. Just for kicks, I ran a coin-flip simulator on 11 sets of 82 trials, one set of 66 trials, and one set of 30 trials. Astute readers might notice the number of “trials” matches the number of regular season games the Wizards have played since Ernie Grunfeld became president.

Of the 998 trials, heads came up 516 times — 51.8% of the time. Variance, right off the bat. If “heads” equals “wins” (and it does here because it’s my blog), that works out to about 42.5 “wins” per 82 games.

Here are the “win” results from each set of the 82 coin-flip trials:

  1. 47
  2. 48
  3. 39
  4. 46
  5. 37
  6. 35
  7. 38
  8. 36
  9. 42
  10. 44
  11. 53

In other words, in a random test where each independent coin flip has identical odds of producing a win or a loss, there’s a low of 35 wins and a high of 53. For the heck of it, I ran the simulation again and got a cumulative “winning percentage” of .454 with a high of 43 and a low of 34. Remember: this is totally random. A perfectly mediocre team could see its actual win total vary significantly from .500.

Which brings me back to the Wizards. There are a few good measures of relative team strength besides record. Chief among these are scoring differential, and efficiency differential, which are basically the same thing, and those same measures adjusted by strength of schedule.

Those differential numbers (adjusted for strength of schedule or not) can be used to estimate how many games each team would be expected to win. Last season, for example, the Wizards’ scoring differential suggested a team that would win 42-43 games. Winning 46 felt good, but was probably more about random outcomes for a mediocre team. The playoff “runs” were hella fun to watch, but represent a small sample size that’s even more prone to random variation. In other words, us fans (and maybe folks in the league as well) overrate results from the first round of playoffs.

Let’s go back to Team Perfectly Mediocre, and let’s say they’ve met their match in the first round of the playoffs. We’ll call the opponent: the Toronto Raptors. Who’s going to win this festival of random mediocrity? It might be a closely-matched, 4-3 series, but maybe not. I replicated 10 seven-game series for Team Mediocre vs. the Raptors, and the “series” went seven games three times, and six games three times. It also had three consecutive “sweeps” and one five-game series. Remember: this is totally random.

Back to the Wizards. Since Grunfeld took over Washington’s basketball operations before the 2003-04 season, the team has been meaningfully worse than mediocre, even allowing for randomness. Under Grunfeld’s leadership — now in its 13th season — Washington has won 417 out of 998 regular season games. That’s a winning percentage of .418. Just to see, I ran the “perfectly mediocre” test of Grunfeld’s 998-game (so far) term with the Wizards 10,000 times and couldn’t come up with a variance close to Washington’s actual performance. This is a fancy way of saying the Wizards have been truly bad under Grunfeld.

Over the course of his 12 full seasons, the Wizards have compiled a record of .500 or better six times, but have managed a positive scoring margin just three times. Grunfeld’s teams in Washington have averaged 34.3 wins per 82 games — slightly outpacing the 33.9 predicted by scoring differential and the 33.3 predicted by adjusted scoring differential.

If the 998 games represented a single, massively long basketball contest, the Wizards have been outscored by 2,467 points with Grunfeld at the helm.

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 12/30/15 are here.

PLAYER GAMES MPG 11/10 11/22 12/3 12/13 12/21 PPA
John Wall 30 35.5 153 129 136 168 157 157
Jarell Eddie 3 12.7 153
Marcin Gortat 27 31.2 91 112 128 133 132 138
Otto Porter 27 32.0 144 158 104 116 107 115
Jared Dudley 29 27.4 36 92 90 85 98 103
Ramon Sessions 30 21.0 131 119 84 90 87 89
Bradley Beal 17 36.5 128 108 96 87 87 86
Nene Hilario 12 17.4 58 90 80 74 79 78
Kris Humphries 25 17.5 90 121 95 80 78 76
Gary Neal 24 22.1 23 49 64 75 78 74
Garrett Temple 28 21.5 38 106 57 54 70 63
Ryan Hollins 5 9.6     -40 60 59 59
Drew Gooden 6 12.8 99 51 57 56 56 56
Kelly Oubre 23 12.7 -103 -4 -40 -44 9 37
DeJuan Blair 18 8.4 -345 -129 -112 -45 -34 -38

The basic message in the numbers: Wall and Gortat need help. The Wizards don’t have starter-quality players at power forward, shooting guard or (arguably) small forward. Wall remains in the good-not-great range; Gortat’s production is still solid, but diminished significantly from last season.

The other basic message: Wall and Gortat need help fast. Teams in the East have improved, and it’s probably going to take 44-45 wins to make the playoffs. The Wizards are on pace for 38. To reach 45 wins, they’ll need to go 31-21 over their remaining games — about the pace of a 49-win team. Theoretically possible, but not very likely. Barring a major turnaround, the conversation about the Wizards in April won’t be about their matchup in the playoffs, but about their odds of getting the top pick in the draft lottery.

Wizards Update: A Silver Lining

As if the 2015-16 Wizards season wasn’t crummy enough, the team released news over the weekend that Bradley Beal would miss at least a couple weeks with yet another stress reaction in his leg. While this was a bummer of a development — especially when combined with Beal’s fourth consecutive season of pedestrian production — I’m writing today not to induce depression, but to give hope.

Wizards point guard John Wall began the season well: after a strong performance against the Spurs, Wall’s PPA (see below) sat at a heady 184 — not an MVP candidate, but probably in the conversation for All-NBA, and definitely All-Star level.

And then, for some reason (possibly a previously undisclosed ankle injury) his production tanked. After four consecutive good-to-great games to start the year, eight of his next ten games rated below average in PPA. In two of the games (at Boston and home against Toronto), Wall rated a net negative; a scary place for the team’s star. After posting a -70 vs. the Raptors, Wall’s PPA for the season stood at a slightly below average 96.

And then…the calendar switched to December and Wall abruptly began playing like an MVP candidate. In the eight games since that -70, Wall has produced a PPA of 300 or better four times, and another three better than 200. His lone dud was a 74 against Phoenix.

Wall’s PPA for October and November was 96. In December: 278. For context, here are the top five full-season PPA scores on record:

  1. Lebron James, MIA, 2012-13 — 282
  2. Stephen Curry, GSW, 2014-15 — 277
  3. Lebron James, CLE, 2008-09 — 275
  4. Michael Jordan, CHI, 1990-91 — 268
  5. Lebron James, CLE, 2009-10 — 267

Now, even posting a 278 the rest of the way won’t get Wall into this year’s MVP conversation because Curry’s PPA is another 70 points better, but still. Wall has been playing great the past couple weeks, and seems to be turning his season around. That’s a genuine reason for optimism.

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.

PLAYER GAMES MPG 11/10 11/22 12/3 PPA
John Wall 22 35.0 153 129 136 168
Marcin Gortat 19 29.6 91 112 128 133
Otto Porter 22 33.0 144 158 104 116
Ramon Sessions 22 19.0 131 119 84 90
Bradley Beal 17 36.5 128 108 96 87
Jared Dudley 21 26.5 36 92 90 85
Kris Humphries 17 17.6 90 121 95 80
Gary Neal 20 22.0 23 49 64 75
Nene Hilario 12 17.4 58 90 80 74
Ryan Hollins 5 9.6 -40 60
Drew Gooden 6 12.8 99 51 57 56
Garrett Temple 20 17.6 38 106 57 54
Kelly Oubre 15 6.9 -103 -4 -40 -44
DeJuan Blair 12 8.5 -345 -129 -112 -45

If I could have one Christmas present for the Wizards, it’d be a starting quality power forward.

Wizards Update: The Everyone Problem

worried wall

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?

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

John Wall 16 33.7 153 129 136
Marcin Gortat 16 28.9 91 112 128
Otto Porter 16 32.1 144 158 104
Bradley Beal 13 35.5 128 108 96
Kris Humphries 16 17.6 90 121 95
Jared Dudley 15 24.7 36 92 90
Ramon Sessions 16 17.8 131 119 84
Nene Hilario 12 17.4 58 90 80
Gary Neal 14 19.6 23 49 64
Drew Gooden 6 12.8 99 51 57
Garrett Temple 14 15.8 38 106 57
Ryan Hollins 1 11.0     -40
Kelly Oubre 11 7.5 -103 -4 -40
DeJuan Blair 6 8.5 -345 -129 -112

Wizards Update: Porter Leading The Way

otto porter

I have to say I’m pretty torn on the Wizards so far. On one hand, they’re 6-4 despite injuries to Bradley Beal, Alan Anderson and Martell Webster, as well as growing pains as they figure out how their personnel can mesh with their new Pace & Space offense.

Sticking with the positives: Otto Porter is having a terrific season (leads the team in PPA — see below), and they’re getting some decent play Ramon Sessions, Nenê and Jared Dudley off the bench.

On the other hand…John Wall — despite his publicly stated desire to be an MVP candidate this season — is performing like a pretty average starter, the team seems to crumble whenever Kris Humphries is on the floor (despite decent production from Humphries), and Marcin Gortat is lost on offense.

Since I believe Wall and Gortat will perform more like they did last season, my biggest area of concern is at power forward. Humphries continues to be fairly productive, and has even added a three-point shot. So far this season, he’s at .412. An analysis I did in July suggested .365 could be anticipated.

The problem: the Wizards collapse when he’s out there. So far, Washington is 5.2 points per 100 possessions worse offensively and 5.9 points per 100 possessions worse defensively (net -11.1 points per 100 possessions) when Humphries is out there. While the results are a bit extreme because of the small sample size, keep in mind the Wizards were worse on both ends of the floor with Humphries last season, and Boston was worse on offense with him out there.

My theory: Humphries plays like my iPhone 4 trying to load an app. When it’s time for business (like catching a pass), there’s a pause, then a blank screen, then a spinning wheel, and then maybe some action. It could be that Humphries is just better against reserves than starters.

Unfortunately, the Wizards don’t really have a viable option to start at power forward. Nenê can’t be relied on in that role, and moving him into the starting lineup leaves the team without a reserve center. I’m dubious about Jared Dudley as a viable option — he’s been a below-average rebounder for a SMALL forward throughout his career. (It’s worth mentioning that in the tiny sample size recorded thus far, Dudley is rebounding at his best rate since his rookie year.)

If the team can’t figure out how to play with Humphries as a starter, they may be forced to start Dudley and take some lumps on the board.

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 11/22/15 are here.


Otto Porter 10 32.9 144 158
John Wall 10 32.7 153 129
Kris Humphries 10 20.8 90 121
Ramon Sessions 10 18.0 131 119
Marcin Gortat 10 27.5 91 112
Bradley Beal 7 33.9 128 108
Garrett Temple 8 15.4 38 106
Jared Dudley 9 21.7 36 92
Nene Hilario 9 18.6 58 90
Drew Gooden 6 12.8 99 51
Gary Neal 10 18.7 23 49
Kelly Oubre 6 10.0 -103 -4
DeJuan Blair 4 8.5 -345 -129


Wizards Renovated Offense Needs Time

beal rips

The Washington Wizards have embarked on a major renovation of their offense, and while the results are decidedly mixed through their first six games, the right thing is to stay the course and see if players can grow into new roles.

Last season, the Wizards were 18th in pace and 28th in three-point attempt rate (the percentage of field goal attempts from three-point range). So far in 2015-16, they’re second in pace (a whopping 8.4 possessions per 48 minutes faster) and 12th in three-point attempt rate.

The positives so far: decent shooting and an uptick in trips to the free throw line. The negatives: the league’s worst turnover rate, a drop-off in rebounding effectiveness, and an elevated opponent shooting percentage.

While patience is warranted as the team figures out how to operate in the new system, the emphasis on playing at a fast pace continues to be a concern for me. Why? Because pace of play has nothing to do with what causes teams to win games. Go through the record of games and seasons, and you’ll find good (and bad) teams that played fast, slow and in-between. What makes sense is for a team to play at a pace where it’s comfortable, where the players are under control, and where it can get good shots and maximize efficiency. If that’s fast, then play fast. If it’s slower, then slow down.

At the risk of oversimplifying, basketball is a game where teams take turns with the ball until the clock runs out. The number of possessions are about the same for each team over the course of a game — sometimes there’s a possession or two variance based on end-of-period exchanges. Playing fast doesn’t get a team extra possessions because no matter how quick they shoot the ball, the other team gets it back. What matters is efficiency — generating more points on your possessions than the other guy does on his.

The emphasis on playing fast — at least as it’s been implemented by the Wizards so far — seems misguided to me. Pushing the ball up the floor every possession is a good strategy because it can stress the defense, catch defenders out of position, and give Washington more time to run its half court offense. But if rushing leads to more turnovers, and weakened defensive rebounding, the strategy is missing the point.

What really concerns me about the “play fast” mantra is the question of whether the Wizards truly have a grasp on what’s important for a team to win. There’s a palpable feeling that they’re mimicking Golden State without a true understanding of why that style of play works for the Warriors, and how it fits Washington’s personnel. What wins games in the NBA? Doing these things better than the opponent (in order of importance): shooting from the floor, controlling turnovers, getting to the free throw line, and rebounding. Pace ain’t on the list.

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.

John Wall 6 34.8 153
Otto Porter 6 34.0 144
Ramon Sessions 6 17.2 131
Bradley Beal 6 34.7 128
Drew Gooden 4 15.0 99
Marcin Gortat 6 28.0 91
Kris Humphries 6 20.5 90
Nene Hilario 6 18.0 58
Garrett Temple 4 3.5 38
Jared Dudley 5 21.6 36
Gary Neal 6 17.7 23
Kelly Oubre 3 5.3 -103
DeJuan Blair 2 6.0 -345

In many ways, I find these numbers (drawn from a small sample size) encouraging. The team’s most productive players so far are its youthful trio of high draft picks: John Wall, Otto Porter, and Bradley Beal.

It’s hard to believe veterans like Marcin Gortat and Jared Dudley will continue playing this poorly. Look for Nenê’s production to improve some as well.

On the other hand, don’t expect big jumps in productivity from DeJuan Blair (who apparently has forgotten how to play basketball), Gary Neal and Garrett Temple.

Also, much as I hate to write it, I think Porter’s PPA is ripe for a drop-off. It’s not likely he’ll continue to shoot 70% from two-point range or have a 60-plus percent efg.

Projection: Wizards to Win 42

wall 02My 2015-16 Wizards preview is up at Vice Sports. I won’t steal my own thunder much, except to say that my projection approach says the Wizards will win 41-42 games this season. Not as encouraging as I’d hoped, and I had some mild surprises in the numbers — younger players not being predicted to improve as much as I’d have intuitively expected.

At any rate, please click over and give it a read at Vice.

Wizards Update: A Season of Discontent

wall 02

The Wizards concluded the regular season portion of a #SoWizards season losing back-to-back overtime games. The first of those losses — a double overtime snoozer against Indiana — was perhaps the most #SoWizards moment of the season: on the eve of the playoffs, Randy Wittman played John Wall, Marcin Gortat, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter and Drew Gooden more than 38 minutes each in a desperate effort to win a game that meant literally nothing to the Wizards.

Washington concluded the season 46-35, two wins better than last year’s record (and one game better than my pre-season projection). And yet, there’s a pervasive discontent with the team and its management. Some of the disappointment is a reaction to expectations that were pushed beyond the bonds of reality when the team was rolling through the junior varsity portion of their early-season schedule.

The dissatisfaction may run deeper than simply feeling let down that Washington didn’t get to 50-plus wins for the first time since the 1978-79 season. I think part of the reaction is the collective realization that what’s been sold to Wizards fans the past couple seasons has been kind of a fraud.

Getting above .500 and making the playoffs was supposed to be a sign of growth. It was supposed to be a progression. First, have a chance to win most nights. Second, make the playoffs and gain valuable experience. Third, build on that trip to the playoffs and ride the improvement of the team’s young core to deeper and deeper postseason runs until they can compete for a title.

But, making the playoffs has been built largely on NBA senior citizens who had something left in the tank, but not much of a future. In the span of a few short years, the Wizards paid a steep price in player acquisition resources to construct and old team. Sure, the old guys can be replaced, but the man leading the rebuild is likely to be the same one who steered the franchise into a ditch and then perpetrated the “fraud.” There is little reason to have confidence in Ernie Grunfeld reconstructing the roster in a manner that will make it anything other than a mid-level playoff team.

Meanwhile, their young core — Wall, Beal and Porter — hasn’t improved much. Wall has made the biggest improvement, yet still ranks solidly below the game’s elite. The best that can be said of Beal and Porter is that they possess potential. Whether that potential ends up getting translated into meaningful production is a question mark, especially considering how poorly the team is coached.

In general, fans overrate the impact of coaches. It’s clear, however, the Wizards operate at something of a disadvantage because of Randy Wittman’s antiquated notions of offensive basketball. Washington actually shoots the ball decently, but they’re rendered less efficient than they could be by their reliance on two-point jumpers. As has been pointed out numerous times by numerous commentators, two-point jumpers are exactly the shot the defense wants an opposing offense to take. The Wizards offense is built around that shot.

It’s almost impossible to unpack how much Wittman’s offense hinders the Wizards. I’ll give it a shot during the offseason, though.

On the bright side, there’s the team’s defense — fifth best in the league this year, and in a virtual tie with Golden State for league’s best over the last half of the season.

I’m hoping to have some playoffs analysis up tomorrow, but for now, here are the final PPA numbers for the Wizards.

Player Production Average Update

Player Production Average (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.

The numbers under each date represent the player’s PPA for the entire season to that date. The number in the far right column (labeled PPA) is the player’s current PPA through games played last night. For a look at how players on other teams rate, visit here.

2015-04-17 -- wiz ppa

Perhaps Wall was cruising over the last couple months of the season. He still ended up with the best PPA of his career (he posted a 139 each of the preceding two seasons), but I’m convinced he’s capable of MUCH more. The areas for biggest improvement remain what they’ve been since he entered the league: shooting from the floor and turnovers.

By my reckoning, this was the second best season of Gortat’s career (the best was a 186 PPA with Phoenix (and Steve Nash) in 2011-12). He was edged out by Wall in total production because Wall played more minutes. He’s not an elite center, but he’s more than solid.

Paul Pierce made news this week with candid comments in an interview with ESPN. While his production has declined during the season, his overall performance has been remarkable for his age. In my historical database (which goes back to 1977-78), Pierce’s 126 PPA is the best season for a 37-year old SF. The closest contenders are Scottie Pippen (120) and Dominique Wilkins (119).

After those three, it’s difficult to generate much to say that’s positive. Beal ended up a hair below average for a third straight season. Nenê continued to decline. This was his least productive season since he was 25 years old. It’s a good thing his contract expires after next season.

The bright side for Washington is that they play in the epically weak Eastern Conference. As mediocre as they are (and they are mediocre), they have a chance in the first round against the vulnerable Toronto Raptors. More on that tomorrow.