NBA

Wizards Roll With NBA’s Worst Bench

tire-fire

Wizards bench.

With an average starting unit and the NBA’s worst bench, the Wizards are lurching toward an inevitable appointment with the 2017 draft lottery — assuming team president Ernie Grunfeld doesn’t trade the pick for the next Markieff Morris in an all-out dash for 9th or 10th.

The disastrous bench was in the works at least a couple years, as the franchise’s top strategists laid plans to have loads of cap space for an offseason in which almost half the league would be able to sign a maximum salary free agent. Their subsequent moves to restock the roster seem to reflect one of the defining characteristics of the Grunfeld era: an elite ability to misdiagnose the source of the team’s problems.

Missing the playoffs in 2015-16, according to public statements by Grunfeld and team owner Ted Leonsis, was due to injuries, a bad bench and poor chemistry caused by having so many players in the final year of their contracts. And they shoveled some blame on the coaching as well.

In reality, the Wizards were affected less by injuries last season than most teams in the league, and their bench was about average. I’ll defer to those closer to the team on the cause of whatever chemistry problems existed, although it’s worth noting that multi-year contracts haven’t seemed to fix the issue.

What’s happening this year? Their starters are (like last year) about average, but their bench is a worst in the league catastrophe. They’re the Secretariat of bad benches.

So far this season, the Wizards starters — Wall, Beal, Porter, Morris and Gortat — have a minutes weighted Player Production Average (PPA) of 135. In PPA, average is 100, higher is better, and replacement level is 45. That’s slightly better than the league average starting group (PPA: 132 so far), and ranks 12th. Not elite, but not terrible either.

The bench’s minutes weighted PPA: 28. The average bench: 66. The second worst bench belongs to Memphis, and its PPA is 44. These are the only two teams with benches that rate below replacement level. To put this in perspective, Trey Burke’s PPA this season is 28. Kevin Seraphin, who ended his Wizards career with PPA scores of 35 and 38 would be an upgrade. Kwame Brown was never this bad in Washington. Even Ike Austin (remember him?) managed a 35 with the Bullets.

The gap between Washington’s starters and bench is the third largest, behind the Clippers who have the second best starting unit and fourth worst bench, and Golden State, which has the best starters and the sixth best bench. How good are the Warriors? They’re starting five has a PPA of 211 — 32 points better than Washington’s best player.

This is the team built by Grunfeld and Leonsis, and their cherished Plan. It’s a disaster — not because of injuries or bad luck, but because of a series of poor decisions.

Player Production Average

There is some good news. Wall is having the best season of his career, Porter is producing at an All-Star level, and Beal is healthy and productive.

Marcin Gortat’s production is down, but I don’t think it’s related to aging (I’ll write about this next time). Morris has been worse than expected. To the numbers…

PLAYER GMS MPG 11/8 11/21 PPA
Otto Porter 20 34.4 173 177 179
John Wall 18 35.9 168 167 171
Bradley Beal 17 34.7 66 92 131
Marcin Gortat 20 35.4 135 146 130
Danuel House 1 1.0 119 116
Sheldon McClellan 7 11.1 478 88 81
Markieff Morris 20 31.7 67 78 59
Marcus Thornton 19 19.5 31 41 50
Kelly Oubre 19 15.5 18 17 41
Tomas Satoransky 18 16.6 18 43 29
Trey Burke 16 11.6 -48 28 28
Andrew Nicholson 14 10.1 33 35 9
Jason Smith 19 11.6 -93 -42 -23
Ian Mahinmi 1 14.0 -98
Daniel Ochefu 3 2.7 -181 -119 -117

Wizards Staggering to Start Season

otto-porter-v-mem

The Wizards fired Randy Wittman for this? Six games into the tenure of Scott Brooks, the team sits 14th in the East with a 1-5 record. Washington’s futility is comprehensive — they rank 23rd in both offensive and defensive efficiency.

There are four key team stats that determine who wins and loses in the NBA. Here’s where the Wizards rank so far on offense:

  • Shooting (eFG): 23
  • Turnovers (tov%): 26
  • Offensive rebounding (oreb%): 12
  • Free throw rate (FTM/FGA): 16

On defense:

  • Shooting (defensive eFG): 30
  • Turnovers (defensive tov%): 9
  • Defensive rebounding (dreb%): 12
  • Free throw rate (dFTM/dFGA): 14

Don’t get too encouraged by their top ranking in defensive turnovers. Forcing turnovers isn’t necessarily an indicator of defensive effectiveness. In the NBA, defense is overwhelmingly about shot defense. And the Wizards are dead last in that category so far.

Remember the old days when Wizards fans wanted Wittman fired because the team took two-point jumpers instead of threes? Welcome to the new Wizards, same as the old. So far this season, they’re 28th in three-point attempt rate, but have attempted the fourth most two-point jumpers.

On defense, they’re still keeping opponents out of the paint (they have the fourth lowest defensive at-rim attempt rate), but they’re allowing the second highest opponent three-point attempt rate, and the worst opponent 3FG%.

Back to those four key stats for a moment: while there are four, they’re not created equal. Dean Oliver, who first wrote about these factors in a comprehensive manner, determined these approximate historic weights: shooting 40%, turnovers 25%, rebounding 20%, free throws 15%.

In recent years, those values have shifted, according to my analysis. Last season, shooting was worth about 55%, rebounding 18%, turnovers 15%, and free throws 12%.

This is a long and tortured way of saying the Wizards are bad where it matters most. Being worst in shooting differential and 25th in turnover differential overwhelms their decent rebounding and break-even free throw rate.

Player Production Average

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 similar to other linear weight rating metrics such as John Hollinger’s PER, David Berri’s Wins Produced, Kevin Pelton’s VORP, and the granddaddy of them all, Dave Heeren’s TENDEX.

PPA is pace neutral, and weighs a player’s performance per possession against the performance of his competitors season by season. While PPA falls into the category of linear weight metrics, the actual values for each statistical category floats a bit from season to season based on league performance.

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 is average, higher is better, and replacement level is 45. Read more here.

Want some good news, look at Otto Porter, John Wall, and (to a lesser extent) Marcin Gortat. The first two have been highly productive so far. Gortat is the team’s only other above-average performer through six games — although his production has been markedly lower than it was last season.

Wall and Porter offer an interesting contrast. Wall’s high PPA is built on volume — he makes LOTS of plays, both good and bad. He uses more than a third of the team’s possessions when he’s in the game, and he’s racking up rebounds, assists, steals and blocks at a prolific rate. He also sports an astronomical turnover rate (7.8 per 100 team possessions).

Porter is all efficiency. He makes the few shots he attempts. He grabs rebounds at a decent rate, plays solid defense, and avoids turnovers and fouls.

The bad news: everyone else. Markieff Morris and Bradley Beal have been terrible, the bench just about useless.

Ernie Grunfeld’s Plan B offseason acquisitions are off to a rough start. Ian Mahinmi is sidelined with injury, Trey Burke has been the next Eric Maynor (but worse), and Jason Smith has been…well…Jason Smith. Tomas Satoransky needs more time to figure out the NBA game.

The numbers:

PLAYER GMS MPG PPA
Sheldon McClellan 2 3.0 478
Otto Porter 6 34.3 173
John Wall 5 34.4 168
Marcin Gortat 6 36.2 135
Markieff Morris 6 34.0 67
Bradley Beal 6 34.8 66
Andrew Nicholson 5 14.0 33
Marcus Thornton 6 17.0 31
Tomas Satoransky 6 13.8 18
Kelly Oubre 5 15.0 18
Trey Burke 6 11.5 -48
Jason Smith 5 10.0 -93
Daniel Ochefu 1 4.0 -181

Those Disappointing Wizards

wittman confused

The surest way to get disappointed is to start with unrealistically high expectations. For exhibit gazillion, I present the 2015-16 Washington Wizards.

During the preseason, there was a fascinating disconnect between fans, media observers, and my statistical analysis. Many, including some of my stat pals at APBRmetrics thought the Wizards would be pretty good. The team seemed to fit a familiar narrative — they’d been bad, they’d gotten a taste of the playoffs (and even won a first round series) in 2013-14, and then had been better yet in 2014-15 (complete with a first round sweep of the Toronto Raptors). Fueled by All-Star John Wall and his young backcourt buddy Bradley Beal, the Wizards would take the next step and become Eastern Conference Contenders.

Over on the message board at RealGM, 76 members predicted the team’s final record. The average prediction: 48.0 wins. (Strictly speaking, 77 members made a prediction. I’m removing my own because it fits into a different category). A helpful soul compiled nine media predictions (strictly speaking, it was eight plus a betting service’s over/under line; also there are ten predictions listed, but 538’s belongs in a different category), which were only slightly less optimistic: 46.6 wins.

Roll all of those up, and it’s 85 predictions ranging from a high of 56 to a low of 37. The group pick: 47.9 wins.

The APBRmetrics crowd was less optimistic — average prediction: 44.8 wins.

My stat-based model predicted 41.4 wins, but I rounded up to 42 in my preseason analysis at Vice. The guys at 538.com predicted 41 wins.

What’s gone wrong? Nothing unexpected, really. Wall’s been maybe a little less productive than anticipated, but he’s quite close to my preseason prediction. Beal hasn’t been as good as I’d predicted — and he got hurt more than I’d expected — but that’s counterbalanced by Marcin Gortat and Otto Porter being healthier and more productive than projected.

So, was it injuries that doomed the Wizards? No. While the Wizards are near the league lead in games missed due to injury, most of the games were missed by bottom of the rotation guys — Alan Anderson, Drew Gooden, Gary Neal. Yes, Nenê and Beal missed their usual allotment. But among players who were on the roster since preseason, they’re fourth and sixth in per possession production. Washington’s three most productive players per possession (Wall, Gortat and Porter) have missed a total of 13 games.

There’s another whopping problem with the “injuries done ’em in” narrative: it’s hopelessly one-sided. For example, when I ran an estimate during the All-Star break on how many additional games the Wizards might have won at full health, I looked only at the Wizards. To do this analysis properly, however, it’s nonsensical to ignore injuries suffered by other teams.

Not having time today for a complete analysis of my own, I turn to ManGamesLost.com. That site lists the Wizards as having the third most games missed due to injury this season. They have two measures of the effect those injuries have had on the team. The Wizards rank 21st in one, and 19th in the other. In other words, injuries have cost Washington LESS in the win column than the average NBA team.

To put it more simply: the injury excuse is bullshit.

So what went wrong? Again, nothing surprising. Most of the players performed to reasonable preseason expectations. The team had been very average in preceding seasons, and several teams in the East improved while the Wizards tried to maintain their averageness.

The reason the Wizards are so disappointing is that fans and media (and apparently the players) set about constructing a narrative of a surging franchise. Unfortunately, the foundation for that narrative consisted of inflated win totals in a historically weak conference, and a massive overestimation of the importance of first round playoff wins.

Keep in mind that the playoffs represent tiny sample sizes. Last season’s postseason lasted 10 games. Washington’s record: 6-4. The previous season, it was 11 games. Their record: 6-5. At any other time in a season, such a performance would be expected for an average team. When it happens in the playoffs, it becomes a portent, an omen. And there’s a dose of that curious one-sidedness when it comes to injuries.

Many said (repeatedly) something to the effect of: “The Wizards might have beat the Hawks if only Wall hadn’t hurt his hand.” Acknowledged far less often is the reality that Washington’s first-round sweep of Toronto was helped by a serious back injury that hobbled Raptors star Kyle Lowry. If we’re going to imagine “what if” scenarios for a full-health Wizards against Atlanta, we also ought to recognize they might not have gotten out of the first round against a full-health Raptors squad.

With five games to go, the Wizards have a slim (about 2%) chance of reaching the postseason. All they need do is win out while Detroit loses three of their remaining four. But, as they limp toward the lottery (with the pick likely going to Phoenix), the team still embodies what I wrote in the preseason: it’s a mediocre roster that lacks an elite producer.

Player Production Average

The ratings below are from a metric I developed called Player Production Average (PPA). In PPA, players are credited for things they do that help a team win, and debited for things that don’t, each in proportion to what causes teams to win and lose. PPA is pace neutral, accounts for defense, and includes an adjustment based on the level of competition faced when a player is on the floor. In PPA, average is 100, higher is better, and replacement level is 45.

League-wide PPA scores through games played 04/05/16 are here.

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 3/14 4/5
Marcin Gortat 71 30.3 91 112 128 133 132 138 147 145 148 151 172 169 171
John Wall 77 36.2 153 129 136 168 157 157 149 144 142 146 153 148 145
Otto Porter 70 30.8 144 158 104 116 107 115 122 127 130 130 134 126 131
J.J. Hickson 11 7.4  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  – -14 96 108
Markieff Morris 24 26.2  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  – 41 58 95
Bradley Beal 52 31.3 128 108 96 87 87 86 85 86 98 108 94 94 95
Jared Dudley 76 26.1 36 92 90 85 98 103 100 105 99 104 106 98 89
Nene Hilario 53 19.1 58 90 80 74 79 78 79 88 92 84 86 90 82
Ramon Sessions 77 19.6 131 119 84 90 87 89 88 91 90 89 88 85 76
Alan Anderson 9 14.4  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  – 97 90 68
Marcus Thornton 11 12.3  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  – -6 65
Garrett Temple 75 24.6 38 106 57 54 70 63 68 79 79 69 59 56 57
Jarell Eddie 22 4.5  –  –  –  –  – 153 119 113 110 86 68 51 55
Kelly Oubre 59 9.8 -103 -4 -40 -44 9 37 43 39 36 29 22 25 27
Drew Gooden 28 10.6 99 51 57 56 56 56 38 47 34 31 26 22 22
DeJuan Blair 29 7.5 -345 -129 -112 -45 -34 -38 -38 -28 -6 -15  –  –  –
Gary Neal 40 20.2 23 49 64 75 78 74 75 78 71 70 69  –  –
Kris Humphries 28 16.6 90 121 95 80 78 76 79 79 78 76  –  –  –
Ryan Hollins 5 9.6  –  – -40 60 59  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –

Good news: Gortat and Porter continue to play well. Leaving aside the issue of the crummy trade that acquired him, Markieff Morris has been solid after his first four games with the team.

Bad news: Wall remains significantly below the game’s elite performers, Beal continues to rate a bit below average, and key role players (Jared Dudley, Ramon Sessions and Nenê) have all seen production slip over the past few weeks.

In the “puzzling” category goes Randy Wittman’s playing time decisions. The team’s top lineup with more than 100 minutes this season has been Wall-Beal-Porter-Morris-Gortat. Their second best lineup is exactly the same except with Dudley instead of Morris. The second lineup has been together for precisely zero minutes over the past month.

Also puzzling has been the benching of Dudley, who has been a solid player for them throughout the season. Dudley seems ideal as a league average caliber player who gets around 24 minutes per game divided between SF and PF. The Wizards started him at PF much of the season, and have now slashed his minutes from 27.0 minutes per game through the first 72 games to just 14.0 over the last five — 4.5 minutes per game fewer than Garrett Temple.

The Surprising Problem for the Wizards

wall frustrated

One of The Official Narratives of the 2015-16 Washington Wizards season is that point guard John Wall is terrific, but is getting sideswiped by a substandard supporting cast. Last month, The Washington Post’s Dan Steinberg lamented that, “The saddest thing here is that the Wizards might be in the process of sacrificing a year of John Wall’s prime.”

In Michael Lee’s excellent article at Yahoo!, Wall echoed Steinberg, saying: “I ain’t trying to waste a season.

Adam McGinnis and I touched on the subject during our podcast last week.

Alas, as is the case with many Official Narratives, there are problems.

  1. On a per-possession basis, Wall isn’t Washington’s most productive player. That honor goes to center Marcin Gortat. Because Wall plays five more minutes per game than Gortat, Wall leads the team in total production.
  2. Wall is not an elite player.
  3. The overall production difference between Wall (Washington’s top producer) and Gortat (second in total production) has been vastly overstated.
  4. The quality of Wall’s “supporting cast” isn’t bad.

Wall’s PPA (see below) is 148 this year. Among players with at least 500 minutes this season, he ranks 54th. Among point guards, he ranks 11th. Wall has had stretches of dominant play, but his performance continues to be plagued by the same bugaboos he’s had throughout his career: turnovers, poor shot selection and poor shooting. Gortat, by the way, ranks 29th in PPA.

Wall isn’t an elite player. For the past few seasons seasons (including this one, most of the year), he’s rated as a top 8-10 point guard and a top 40-50 player overall. That’s very good, but well short of the impact from elite point guards and elite players. He could be great — he was in December, for example. But his performance game-to-game is a mix of fantastic and horrible. Which averages out to very good, not elite.

The average PPA of top total producers for each team is 179 — 31 points better than Wall. Among those top 30 producers, Wall ranks 24th in per possession production — ahead of Carmelo Anthony, Rajon Rondo, Nerlens Noel, Gordon Hayward, Tyson Chandler and Jordan Clarkson.

The average top producer has provided 22.0% of his team’s production. Wall is about average at 21.8%.

The average gap between a top producer and his team’s “number two” is about 4.5%. For Wall and Gortat, it’s 2.7%. Want a player who actually fits The Official Narrative? Try New Orleans where Anthony Davis has a PPA of 189, provides 26.3% of his team’s production, and (at 13.2%) sports the biggest drop to his team’s second most productive.

Since you’re wondering, the top five in total production shares:

  1. Stephen Curry, GSW — 29.6%
  2. Russell Westbrook, OKC — 26.7%
  3. James Harden, HOU — 26.4%
  4. Lebron James, CLE — 26.3%
  5. Anthony Davis, NOP — 26.3%

And, here’s the top five in drop-off to “number two”:

  1. Anthony Davis, NOP — 13.2%
  2. Stephen Curry, GSW — 12.7%
  3. James Harden, HOU — 8.5%
  4. Kawhi Leonard, SAS — 8.3%
  5. Kyle Lowry, TOR — 8.2%

Wall and the Wizards are 20th.

That’s all fine, you might be saying, but The Official Narrative isn’t necessarily that Wall’s “Robin” sucks, it’s that the roster lacks depth. That lack of depth means Wall has to carry a heavier load than other franchise leaders. Unfortunately, this is also wrong.

For this question, I calculated minutes-weighted PPA (mwPPA) for each team — after deducting the production of its top player. mwPPA provides a handy way of measuring the relative quality of each team’s roster.

The league average “supporting cast” posted an mwPPA of 92. The Wizards rank 14th so far this season with a 93. Since you were wondering, here’s the top five in supporting cast mwPPA:

  1. SAS — 124
  2. GSW — 121
  3. ATL — 107
  4. OKC — 105
  5. BOS — 104

So, to recap:

  • Wall isn’t elite.
  • The gap between Wall’s total production and Gortat’s is smaller than average for a number one to a number two.
  • The Wizards “supporting cast” is mediocre, not terrible.

The real problem for the Wizards is in that first bullet. Their problem: they don’t have an elite player.

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 3/14/16 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 3/14
Marcin Gortat 60 30.2 91 112 128 133 132 138 147 145 148 151 172 169
John Wall 66 35.9 153 129 136 168 157 157 149 144 142 146 153 148
Otto Porter 59 30.1 144 158 104 116 107 115 122 127 130 130 134 126
Jared Dudley 65 27.7 36 92 90 85 98 103 100 105 99 104 106 98
J.J. Hickson 6 7.5  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  – -14 96
Bradley Beal 42 30.6 128 108 96 87 87 86 85 86 98 108 94 94
Nene Hilario 42 18.8 58 90 80 74 79 78 79 88 92 84 86 90
Alan Anderson 8 14.0  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  – 97 90
Ramon Sessions 66 20.3 131 119 84 90 87 89 88 91 90 89 88 85
Markieff Morris 14 26.0  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  – 41 58
Garrett Temple 64 25.4 38 106 57 54 70 63 68 79 79 69 59 56
Jarell Eddie 21 4.7  –  –  –  –  – 153 119 113 110 86 68 51
Kelly Oubre 53 10.7 -103 -4 -40 -44 9 37 43 39 36 29 22 25
Drew Gooden 28 10.6 99 51 57 56 56 56 38 47 34 31 26 22
Marcus Thornton 3 15.0  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  – -6
Ryan Hollins 5 9.6  –  – -40 60 59  –  –  –  –  –  –  –
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 69  69
DeJuan Blair 29 7.5 -345 -129 -112 -45 -34 -38 -38 -28 -6 -15  –  –

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.

A First Look at the Wizards Trade for Morris

markieff

In a trade deadline deal, the Washington Wizards acquired power forward Markieff Morris from the Phoenix Suns in exchange for power forward Kris Humphries, forward/center DeJuan Blair, and a first round pick (protected through the top nine picks).

It’s a heavy price to pay for a player who combines Morris’ lack of production with personality issues. It’s also a signal of the front office’s desperation to make the playoffs.

The issue, of course, is that first round pick. Humphries has been injured and below average this season; Blair apparently forgot how to play basketball when he arrived in DC.

What’s that pick going to be worth? Three or four years ago, I used PER to evaluate the expected value of draft picks. Picks 10-14 (where Washington’s pick is likely to fall when they miss the playoffs) have an average four-year PER of 14.5. Morris’ career PER: 14.8. In PER, average is 15.

According to PER, Morris’ peak (so far) was an 18.4 coming off the bench in 2013-14. He followed that up with a 15.8 last season, and an 11.1 this year. So hey, crummy players and a pick who might turn out to be average for a guy who’s been average and had some personal problems this year. Not bad, right?

Well, in my analysis Morris hasn’t been that good. According to Player Production Average (PPA), the metric I developed, Morris has a well-below average 79 (in PPA, average is 100, higher is better, and replacement level is 45). Here’s his year-by-year PPA scores:

  • 2011-12 — 52
  • 2012-13 — 70
  • 2013-14 — 97
  • 2014-15 — 102
  • 2015-16 — 27

What’s behind the difference between PPA and PER? Three key items:

  1. PER rewards players for taking more shots so long as they make about 28% of them; PPA does not.
  2. PPA accounts for defense; PER does not.
  3. PPA includes a “degree of difficulty” factor based on the level of competition faced; PER does not.

What to like about the trade? Morris isn’t old — at 26, he should be entering his prime years. And he’s signed at a flat $8 million per year for the next three seasons after this one. With the cap expected to rise $40 million over the next two seasons, that salary could end up being a relative bargain even with meh production.

What kind of player are the Wizards getting? I ran Morris’ best year (2014-15) through my statistical doppelganger machine — just waving away his crummy play this year. The machine kicked out names like Lamond Murray, Keith Van Horn, Tim Thomas, Morris Peterson, Al Harrington, and Thaddeus Young, with repeat seasons from Thomas and Harrington.

Bucks fans probably remember Grunfeld trading for Thomas, and then awarding him a massive contract — despite thoroughly pedestrian play from Thomas.

Best case scenario, the Wizards get the Morris of 2014-15. He was inefficient on offense and was basically average in the non-scoring part of his game, but he’ll at least be as good as Jared Dudley overall.

Quick addendum: I used PPA to project the Wizards record over their final 31 games assuming they’d get the Morris from 2014-15. That’s a PPA of 102, and represents the best he’s played over a sustained stretch.

For the projection, I assumed perfect health (no one misses any games for any reason), and the following nine-man rotation:

  • Wall 36 mpg
  • Beal 33
  • Porter 32
  • Gortat 32
  • Morris 32
  • Dudley 28
  • Nenê 16
  • Sessions 15
  • Temple 12

After a bit of math, my PPA Wins Projection Machine says Washington will go 16-15 over its final 31 games. That would leave the team with a 39-43 record, and a likely ninth or tenth place finish. Odds are: Phoenix would get the pick in this year’s draft.

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:

POS EAST WEST
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.

TEAM CONF NBA RANK CONF RANK FRANCHISE HEALTH INDEX
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.