Michael Lee

Randy Wittman vs. Analytics

wittman grimace

Yesterday, Wizards head coach Randy Wittman appeared Sportstalk 980’s “Sports Fix” with Kevin Sheehan and Thom Loverro (as transcribed by the Washington Post’s Dan Steinberg) and provided a treasure trove of comments worth some analysis.

Let’s unpack a bit, shall we?

Writes Steinberg:

The Wizards have their own special history with the [analytics]. There were critics throughout much of the 2014-2015 season who wanted Randy Wittman’s Wizards to play a smaller, faster, more three-point-friendly game, and who sometimes used numbers to make their case. Owner Ted Leonsis, at least in one blog post, seemed sympathetic with their cause.

ESPN the Magazine gave the Wizards a mediocre “analytics” rating, writing that “Washington lags in terms of applying the lessons of analytics to its shot chart even in the midst of the team’s best season since 1978-79.” The Wizards went smaller in the playoffs and found some success. After the season ended, the Wizards held an “analytics” scrimmage, and Leonsis defended the franchise’s use of analytics. And by the start of this season, they were debuting a faster “pace and space” offense that seemed more aligned with modern NBA thinking.

A very fair and cogent summary of the Wizards’ recent history with statistical analysis. The thing that makes me twitch is the notion that “analytics” said the Wizards should play faster. The numbers I track indicated that a) playing fast hadn’t helped the team in recent years, b) that if anything the Wizards were slightly better in slower-paced games, and c) that playing fast or slow or in-between is a bad goal because it doesn’t mean anything. There’s no prize for having a lot of possessions.

During 2014-15 (and the several preceding seasons where stat guys made similar points), the lesson from the numbers was that the Wizards could benefit by exchanging two-point jumpers for threes, at-rim attempts and free throws — to the extent possible. The team’s “go fast” approach was a leap of faith unsupported by the numbers.

From Steinberg:

At least one local critic — ESPN 980 host Kevin Sheehan — has pointed the finger at the “analystics”-inspired change.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if we find out down the road that this small lineup pace-and-space style of play was forced on Randy Wittman and his staff,” Sheehan said recently, “forced on them by some advanced-analytics stats geek who convinced the technological visionary who owns the team that this team was stuck in yesteryear, that this team was stuck in old ways of playing basketball that weren’t going to work anymore:

Hey Ted, Ted, I’ve got this logarithm that I wrote, it’s really cool stuff, I got the idea from an app that I created for sci-fi movies and it’s really gonna work in the NBA, bad twos, you can’t take those anymore, you’ve got to take threes, you’ve got to space and pace, you’ve got to go small, you’ve got to play a stretch 4, this is the way of the future, Ted, this is the way you’ve got to do it. And Ted said to Randy ‘Hey Randy, what do you think about this pace and space and stretch 4s and shoot more threes and it worked in the playoffs and we almost made it to the Eastern Conference finals.

“Jesus!” Sheehan concluded. “This whole thing all season long is just a blown opportunity. A major blown opportunity. I would love to know what Ted is thinking right now.”

If Washington has a stat goober who told them the numbers said they should play fast, he should be fired. Second, the space part of the new offense has probably helped a bit. Last season, the team ranked 22nd in offensive efficiency, 1.9 points per 100 possessions below league average. So far this season, they rank 18th — about 1.0 points per 100 possessions below average.

This is a fairly small effect, which at least one stat goober expected before the season. The Wizards weren’t the only team to apply the lessons of statistical analysis, defenses have been adapting, and games generally come down to overall talent and execution. And the team has middle-of-the-road talent.

Washington’s real problem, of course, has been defense, which has nothing to do with pace or space. Last year, they ranked fifth overall defensively, 2.6 points per 100 possessions better than average. This year: 17th, about a half point per 100 possessions below average. Over the past two seasons (individually or combined), there was no relationship between pace and defensive efficiency.

Appearing on Sheehan and Loverro’s show, Wittman had this to say (courtesy Steinberg):

“I’ve got to coach the team. Analytics haven’t won a ballgame. You’ve got to take what you have and put guys in position that they can best succeed at. And there are some things with numbers that help that, but if you see some of the number sheets that we have, it would drive you crazy. But you know what, that’s the world we live in. You can fight that, but that does you no good. Listen, I’ve been in the business 32 years now. We had analytics back in the ’80s, alright? We had numbers. Plus-minus, and guys playing with certain guys, and that’s never changed. It’s just now, for whatever reason … Hey, it’s good for some people. Because guys have gotten a lot of jobs because that of word.”

A few thoughts. “Analytics” is the study of what wins and loses basketball games. “Analytics” are drawn from the actual games. They’re not made up. When done well, they reveal what’s really happening on the floor, pinpoint what’s important, help coaches and players identify advantages and disadvantages that can be discerned in the numbers, but might escape the naked eye. Analytics are a tool to help coaches and players perform their jobs better, and (hopefully) win more games.

Wittman’s comments suggest the Wizards have some serious internal problems, though — and NOT because he’s resistant to “analytics.” The telling statement is “…if you see some of the number sheets that we have, it would drive you crazy…”

A head coach should not be getting buried with sheets of numbers. He’s a basketball coach, not a statistical analyst. Like many busy people, when presented with an overload of information, he’s going to ignore most of it, seize on a few things he thinks he understands, and then go with what his experience tells him is the right strategy.

The proper role for a statistical analyst is to crunch the numbers, perform the analysis, and then communicate the findings in a way that coaches and decision-makers can understand. If Wittman is being driven crazy by the data, then the analysis department is failing. It sounds like the Wizards may be missing the crucial ability to communicate the findings of their analysts.

Also worth considering is the kind of numbers and information being analyzed and presented. It has become fashionable in recent years to break players into their component skills and seek to construct a roster as if completing a puzzle.

Based on comments made by GM Ernie Grunfeld, the Wizards are big into this kind of analysis. Symptoms include statements such as: the team needs to add “shooting” or “defense” or “rebounding” or “ball handling” or “length” or…you get the idea. As if “shooting” can be “added” to a lineup.

This approach has been borrowed from other sports like football or baseball, where specialists can be extremely valuable. This is much less true in a flowing game like basketball. “Adding” a shooter to the lineup means “subtracting” another player from the floor. Whatever specialty a player is put on the floor to perform, the team gets his whole game — offense and defense. So while it’s worth analyzing what guys are good at doing, it MUST be coupled with analysis of his overall impact on the game.

From Steinberg:

“And not to try to get you into trouble, but it’s been sort of a season-long question for Wizards fans, and I’m a big one,” Sheehan said. “And that is how on board were you with sort of this space-and-pace and pace-and-space and going small?”

“Well, I didn’t have big decisions to make,” Wittman said, “because after the roster was put together with the guys that left and the additions that we had, I had nobody that could back up Marcin [Gortat] at the 5 spot. Kevin Seraphin left and I had nobody there. I thought what was best for our team was to take Nene out of the starting lineup and play him more at 5 than at 4. And that was more just because of the makeup, and we had success with it.”

Good question from Sheehan. Wittman’s answer is…interesting. I agree with his point that the roster construction left him with few lineup choices. I’m baffled by his comment about Seraphin because the big fella was terrible with the Wizards and has been even worse with the Knicks.

From Steinberg:

Wittman said he’s sympathetic with armchair coaches, because he does the same thing when he’s watching baseball or football. But he noted with some amusement that last year critics said his team was playing too big, and this year other critics say his team is playing too small. He said he would run out of minutes if he started a big lineup but then also used Nene as his second-string center, but added that a bigger lineup could be used in a shorter playoff series. And he said this year’s changes have both helped Washington’s offense and hurt its defense.

“There’s no question about it, [it] hurt our rebounding a little bit as well,” he said. “And that’s an important factor for us because we want to run. If you don’t rebound the ball, you can’t run.”

The first part of this struck me as a strawman. Statistical analysis suggested the team would be better off taking fewer two-point jump shots, and that the team could probably benefit by adding a stretch-four. That doesn’t mean “playing smaller” — at least not to me.

I disagree with Wittman that the changes are what hurt the defense. And the rebounding really hasn’t suffered much at all. Last season, the Wizards were third in defensive rebounding at 77.3%. This year, they’ve fallen to tenth, but their defensive rebounding percentage is still a robust 77.0%. More teams than ever are opting to emphasize getting back on defense rather than going for offensive rebounds.

If it’s not rebounding, what’s causing the decline in Washington’s defense? Answer: an inability to make opponents miss. Like last year, the team still does a good job keeping opponents out of the paint (fifth best at preventing opponent at-rim attempts; down from third best last year). However, opponent efficiency on at-rim and three-point attempts has improved. That could be about playing smaller lineups (taller players tend to force lower opponent shooting percentages), but it could be something else such as less effective close-outs on three-point attempts, and/or random variation.

Bottom line: bad analytics didn’t sabotage the Wizards — at least not at the coaching level. What’s hampered them this year is the reality that they have very average talent across the board.

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 3/1/16 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 3/1
Marcin Gortat 53 31.0 91 112 128 133 132 138 147 145 148 151 172
John Wall 59 35.9 153 129 136 168 157 157 149 144 142 146 153
Otto Porter 52 30.5 144 158 104 116 107 115 122 127 130 130 134
Jared Dudley 58 28.4 36 92 90 85 98 103 100 105 99 104 106
Alan Anderson 3 16.0  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  – 97
Bradley Beal 38 31.0 128 108 96 87 87 86 85 86 98 108 94
Ramon Sessions 59 20.4 131 119 84 90 87 89 88 91 90 89 88
Nene Hilario 35 18.7 58 90 80 74 79 78 79 88 92 84 86
Gary Neal 40 20.2 23 49 64 75 78 74 75 78 71 70 69
Jarell Eddie 18 5.0  –  –  –  –  – 153 119 113 110 86 68
Garrett Temple 57 25.3 38 106 57 54 70 63 68 79 79 69 59
Markieff Morris 7 24.1  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  – 41
Drew Gooden 27 10.8 99 51 57 56 56 56 38 47 34 31 26
Kelly Oubre 48 11.2 -103 -4 -40 -44 9 37 43 39 36 29 22
J.J. Hickson 2 5.5  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  – -14
Kris Humphries 28 16.6 90 121 95 80 78 76 79 79 78 76  –
Ryan Hollins 5 9.6  –  – -40 60 59  –  –  –  –  –  –
DeJuan Blair 29 7.5 -345 -129 -112 -45 -34 -38 -38 -28 -6 -15  –

On a per minute basis, Gortat remains the Wizards’ top producer. Wall leads in total production because he plays more minutes.

Markieff Morris has had a rough start to his career in Washington, but should improve over time.

Wizards Enjoy Soft Schedule Without Nenê

drew gooden

The Wizards have run their “without Nenê” record to 5-2 — a subject well-covered by the Washington Post’s Michael Lee this morning. Lee even broke out “points per 100 possessions,” which was nice to see. My only quibble with the story was that it didn’t mention Washington’s ultra-soft schedule, which may have ended up on the cutting room floor as editors tried to make the story fit into their print edition.

Here’s a quick look at the Wizards season — rolling averages of their offensive and defensive ratings (points scored/allowed per 100 possessions), as well as pace (possessions per 48 minutes).

2013-14 Wizards -- rtg & pace rolling

Red = defensive rating
Green = offensive rating
Dark blue = pace
Light blue = league average offensive rating
Orange = date of Nenê’s knee injury

That the Wizards have had a nice run without Nenê shouldn’t be much of a surprise. His overall play (see the PPA table below) has been mediocre, and while he’s helped the team on defense, he’s hurt them on offense. And, the Wizards have faced a series of cupcake opponents — four of their last seven have been in full tank mode. Their win against Toronto is the only one that could be considered a surprise. Even using the Nenê on/off numbers from the date he got hurt, the Wizards should have been expected to win at least four.

What have the Wizards done differently without their big man? They’ve been WAY more efficient on offense (115.3 points per 100 possessions over the last seven games vs. a season average of 105.7), but worse on defense (a defensive rating of 109.7 vs. 104.9 for the season).

The offense was largely expected. As noted previously, Washington has been more efficient without Nenê this season. The defense is worrisome. They got shredded by Orlando (28th ranked offense), Memphis (about average), and Milwaukee (27th on offense). The Heat also toasted them pretty good, but no shock — Miami boasts one of the league’s top three offensive units.

Also helping the Wizards get by without Nenê: the additions of Drew Gooden and Andre Miller. In still-tiny sample sizes for each, they’ve both been exactly what the team needed. Gooden has dominated opposing reserves — at least on the offensive end — and has provided much-needed rebounding and efficient scoring off the bench. Miller has been a steady veteran facilitator who somehow produces despite playing in “epic movie slow-motion” mode.

Miller’s production is sustainable — it’s about the same as what he was doing in Denver before he got sent home because of an argument with Nuggets coach Brian Shaw. Gooden’s production will almost certainly moderate, though he’s likely to still be useful the rest of the season. Gooden’s career PPA is 122, and he’s just two seasons removed from a 141. He’s never been this efficient on offense, though. And, his good play to this point is likely to earn him more minutes, which means he’ll end up facing more starters than he’s gone up against so far this season. Worth mentioning: his defense has long been a concern, and so far he grades out as well-below average in the defense part of PPA.

To the update. What is PPA? It stands for Player Production Average, which is a metric I developed that credits players for things that contribute to winning and debits them for things that don’t — each in proper proportion. PPA is pace adjusted, accounts for defense and includes a degree of difficulty factor. In PPA, 100 = average, higher is better and 45 = replacement level. PPA is a per minute stat.

Trevor Ariza 58 35.9 159 159
Marcin Gortat 63 32.8 141 149
Drew Gooden 5 13.4 -146 149
John Wall 63 36.8 150 144
Trevor Booker 53 20.7 115 114
Nene Hilario 49 30.1 103 103
Andre Miller 9 13.7 52 96
Bradley Beal 54 33.9 93 94
Martell Webster 59 28.9 88 90
Jan Vesely 33 14.2 69 69
Chris Singleton 20 11.4 54 45
Kevin Seraphin 43 12.2 42 42
Garrett Temple 59 10.5 21 21
Glen Rice 11 9.9 21 21
Eric Maynor 23 9.3 8 8
Otto Porter 29 8.8 2 3
Al Harrington 16 15.3 -9 -6

Trevor Ariza continues to maintain a high level of play. In PPA, he ranks 4th in the league among SFs with at least 500 total minutes; third overall in total production. Marcin Gortat’s production ticked up this week, while John Wall’s went down.

I really think it’s time to shelve talk of Wall being a superstar. He’s very good and he has great potential, but there’s still a loooooooong ways to go for him to be considered an elite player.

Nice to see Martell Webster’s PPA go up slightly — the first time since December 17th that his PPA hasn’t dropped in one of my updates.

With or without Nenê, the week ahead could be a good one for the Wizards. My odds estimator suggests Washington should be favorites to win each of their next four games, although the matchups with Orlando and Sacramento fall into “coin flip” territory. Their odds of actually winning all four are only about 10%, but 3-1 is realistic.

What Else Would They Be?

Eric Maynor is supposed to be an upgrade at backup PG. Unfortunately, he's not.

Mike Lee offered up this piece about Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld, Coach Randy Wittman optimistic about upcoming season. Leaving aside the “well, of course, what else would they be?” factor, there were some tidbits that are worth a little scrutiny.

Grunfeld on expectations for upcoming season: ”We’re excited about the upcoming season. We finished last year off strong. Obviously, our young players have worked hard in the offseason. They’ve shown improvement and we want to build on what we started to establish last year. Obviously, our initial goal is to be a playoff contender and ultimately, by the end of the year, make the playoffs.

Standard GM babble that doesn’t mean much of anything. The first sentence that catches my eye is that one about young players working hard in the offseason. This is a story being repeated right now in every NBA city by owners, executives, coaches, players, journalists, pundits and fans alike. It sounds and feels good, but if every team’s young players are working hard and getting better…how much advantage does one team get over another?

In reality, a large number of those stories are chicken manure. Some guys worked hard; others didn’t. Some guys used their time well and improved their games; others didn’t.

And there’s yet another thing to consider — let’s say for the sake of discussion that Kevin Seraphin, Jan Vesely and Chris Singleton all put in a ton of work this offseason and really, truly, genuinely got better. How much will it make a difference? These guys were among the league’s least productive players last season. They’re each coming from such a low level that they could make major improvements and still be bad.

Wittman on his expectations for Kevin Seraphin: “I have high expectations for all of our guys coming in. Do I have expectations for Kevin to have a better year than he did last year? Yes. … Kevin…his confidence level now, and how he holds himself now, being here pretty much all summer working on his game to make that next step. Yeah, I expect that from our young guys to continue that growth. I think we saw it with Jan. Jan had a good summer, whether it was just with us in the summer league or what he did, playing with his national team. You know, those are positive things and you hope that now they can carry that over into the season.”

The team is still prepping for training camp so they’re still peddling optimism. You’re not going to hear a coach saying something like, “Seraphin was really bad last season and we’ll have to see if he’s improved before we’ll count on him as a part of the rotation.”

It would surely be nice if Seraphin could somehow regain the form he showed at the end of the season before last. That guy was at least a competent NBA player. Last season, he was awful — the league’s least productive center, according to my analysis. Seraphin is a weird bundle of contradictions. He has a massive, muscle-bound frame (he says he currently weighs 277 and has a body fat percentage 0f 9.5%), but he rebounds like a small forward. He has a smooth looking post-up game, but those smooth-looking shots miss more often than they hit. And he’s a turnover machine.

Confidence is wonderful, but it needs to come with competence. After his terrible play last season, I’m skeptical about whether he’ll ever be a useful NBA player. By all means give him a chance in training camp to show he’s improved. But I wouldn’t count on him as part of the rotation.

Grunfeld on meeting offseason goals: “I think we had some goals of what we wanted to accomplish. We wanted to upgrade our backup point guard position and Eric [Maynor] has been with us now, three weeks in a row. He’s very solid, very steady. He brings a little poise to the game. He knows how to play. So we feel we’ve upgraded that position. We wanted to get a stretch four and Al [Harrington] will provide that for us. And we also wanted to make sure our young players continue to develop. Our young players, like Seraphin and Vesely, as Randy just spoke about, and Bradley Beal. I think one of the things that Brad also did was improve his ball handling, and try to play better in the pick and roll. He worked on his body and is outstanding shape. As all of our young players are. So, we wanted to see improvement from within and we wanted also address some of the positional needs that we felt like we had and I think we have. And I feel like the continuity of having 11 players back from last year’s roster will also help us.”

Here, Grunfeld is making the same assertion I’ve been seeing all summer — the Wizards have upgraded at backup PG by signing Eric Maynor. Maybe Grunfeld and “everyone” will turn out to be correct, but I don’t think so. My analysis reveals Maynor as unproductive throughout his career — both before and after his knee injury.

Last season, A.J. Price was better. Per 36 minutes, Maynor generated exactly one assist more than Price. But, Price shot better from the floor and the free throw line, got nearly twice as many rebounds, and had 1.2 fewer turnovers per 36 minutes.

For what (in my analysis) is actually a DOWNgrade at backup PG, the Wizards spent their biannual exception. On the first of day of free agency. Which meant that they didn’t have the BAE to spend later when they could have signed other reserve PGs who would have been upgrades over Price, or when they could have signed a reserve big man like DeJuan Blair. But, hey, who needs depth in the frontcourt when you have Seraphin and Jan Vesely?

Wittman on maintaining continuity: “We’re going, as a coaching staff, the last two or three weeks, evaluating how we want to conduct camp, and it’s so much easier when you’ve got … 11 that understand why we’re doing things, how we’re going to do things. That makes it a lot easier in my mind, in terms of evaluating how much you throw at them and how they handle it and all that. So that’s a positive. We established ourselves from a standpoint defensively, and that’s not going to change. That’s got to be first and foremost as we head into camp, that foundation that we built and that they built. They bought into this system and that system won’t change. They know what that system is already compared to last year with as many new faces as we had, that you had to teach that new system. That’s always a positive.”

The team has been selling “continuity” as part of its plan since they made the trade to get Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza. As I’ve written in other places, I think they have the “let’s keep everyone together” part too early in their plan. Continuity is outcome, not a goal. When a team starts winning, it makes sense to keep it together. When a team loses, it’s nuts to say, “We’ll start winning if we keep these guys together.”

No, teams are bad because the players are unproductive. The GM of a bad team shouldn’t be thinking about continuity, he should be thinking about how he get rid of dead weight on his roster and bringing in better players.

Then of course there’s consideration given to what the team’s goals are. In this case, their goal is to compete for a playoff spot. When you’re 178 games under .500 over the past decade (by some weird coincidence, the number of years Grunfeld has been at the helm), I guess that qualifies as a stretch goal. And, they have a realistic goal of achieving it, especially if Okafor’s neck heals. Still, it might have been wise to get another big man (not a SF masquerading as a PF like Al Harrington) in case something happened to one of the team’s 30+ year old bigs.

Speaking of Harrington — while it made Wall (and some fans) happy to sign an officially designated “stretch four” (a power forward who shoots jump shots and doesn’t rebound much), Harrington’s biggest contribution will be to keep Vesely, Singleton and (possibly) Seraphin off the floor. Each of that group landed among the league’s 15 least productive players last season, and it’ll be a net gain if some combination of Harrington and Trevor Booker can consume some of the 3,246 minutes they played last season.

Think about that a sec. Three of the 15 least productive players in the game last season were on the floor for 16.3% of the team’s minutes. Wow.

So, Harrington can help just by playing reasonably competent basketball (which he’s done in the past) and keeping those three on the bench. That said, I continue to think that the team’s best stretch four is Trevor Ariza — a tough-as-nails competitor who can shoot the three.

A Look at Blatche’s Shooting

Inspired by Michael Lee’s attempt to explain Andray Blatche’s low shooting percentage this season, my latest at the Washington Post breaks down Blatche’s shooting numbers.

In his recent article about Andray Blatche’s “career-best two-game stretch,” Michael Lee explains Blatche’s poor shooting with this:

“His problems began when he broke a bone in his right foot last June and was unable to do much basketball-related activity. He gained weight, arrived in training camp out of shape, and developed problems with his left knee that affected his burst and his lift. With his shot getting blocked inside, Blatche was forced to take jumpers, resulting in a 43.8 field goal percentage that is his worst since his second season.”Sounds plausible, but is this accurate? Did Blatche shoot more jumpers because his shot was getting blocked inside? Is this what caused Blatche’s sub-par shooting? Let’s test these theories against data extracted from the league’s official play-by-play reports.

Turns out, Lee’s explanation doesn’t hold up. But, there may still be some encouraging signs for Blatche’s future.

Read the rest.