Weekly Wizards Check-Up: The Over .500 Edition

seraphin dunks

Wanted to get this up before tonight’s match-up with the San Antonio Spurs — a team the Wizards haven’t beaten since 2005. For those keeping score at home, that’s 15 consecutive losses to the Spurs. But, I’m digressing (in the lede, no less). The point is to celebrate that the Wizards are a game over .500 for the first time in four years.

When I told my 17-year old the other night, he said (and this is an exact quote): “Wow. Is the East really that bad this year?”

When I tried to tell my 14-year old, I’d gotten to “…for the first time in…” He finished the sentence with, “…my lifetime?”

Wiseass.

Although, now that I reflect on it, I’m not sure he was joking. The team has been bad enough for long enough that it’s probably a reasonable question for a less-than-casual follower of the team. Put another way, it’s been nearly 29% of my 14-year old’s life since the Wizards had a record over .500.

Anyway, not much time for this week’s update. The table below presents results from my Player Production Average (PPA) metric. PPA 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.

A few quick observations:

  • Biggest improvers this week were Kevin Seraphin and Garrett Temple. John Wall had a good week, and Marcin Gortat wasn’t bad either. Trevor Ariza maintained at a high level of production.
  • In consecutive games against Oklahoma City and Portland, Seraphin had single-game PPA scores of 179 and 178. If he could somehow manage that kind of play over a full season, it would put him among the league’s 10-12 most productive centers — in a general grouping with Joakim Noah, Nikola Pekovic and DeAndre Jordan. I do not expect this kind of performance to continue for long.
  • Martell Webster’s PPA slipped for a fifth consecutive update. His production for the season is now slightly below average. His shooting continues to be excellent, but he’s very low usage (about 14% of the team’s possessions when he’s in the game), and he doesn’t rebound or assist much. His defense rates as a little below average in my analysis.
  • Nenê’s production continues to hover around league average. The trajectory of his production is looking scarily like a fairly typical NBA aging curve. The team continues to be better when he’s on the floor, but the dip in his overall production has to be a concern — especially since he’s due $13 million for two more seasons after this one.
  • Eric Maynor didn’t exactly give a good example of staying ready. After getting DNP-CD for a month, Maynor finally got a shot. In just 6:37 of playing time, Maynor was bad enough to lower his PPA for the season by five points. When it comes to Maynor, keep in mind this quote from Ernie Grunfeld on the eve of training camp:

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.

PLAYER GMS MPG LW PPA
Trevor Ariza 42 35.2 151 152
John Wall 47 36.9 143 149
Marcin Gortat 47 32.6 136 139
Trevor Booker 37 21.2 136 125
Nene Hilario 40 29.6 104 103
Martell Webster 45 30.0 100 94
Bradley Beal 38 32.8 89 86
Jan Vesely 29 15.7 72 72
Chris Singleton 14 10.6 60 60
Kevin Seraphin 34 10.8 17 32
Glen Rice 11 9.9 21 21
Garrett Temple 45 11.5 3 13
Eric Maynor 23 9.3 13 8
Al Harrington 7 18.6 6 6
Otto Porter 22 9.4 4 4
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Washington Wizards: Total Mediocrity

beal shoots

Ask a Wizards fan to describe the team, and odds are he’d say the starters are pretty good, but the bench is awful. And he’d probably take a shot at Randy Wittman’s coaching — something Wittman would deserve for no other reason than the passion he’s instilling for two-point jump shots (aka The Worst Shots in the Game; or The Shots the Defense Wants You to Take).

However, an analysis of starting lineups and benches around the league suggests that these assumptions may not be accurate. The analysis used my overall player rating metric, called Player Production Average (PPA), weighted by minutes played. I ran an overall minutes-weighted PPA for each team’s most commonly used starting five, and then for each team’s bench.

PPA 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.

The league’s average starting lineup produced a PPA of 129. Washington’s starters ranks 14th overall with a 127. The average bench produced a PPA of 67. Washington’s bench ranks 15th with a 69.

I’m as surprised as you are.

I suspect that a big reason the Wizards bench rates in the middle is because of Wittman’s short seven-and-a-half man rotation. Most nights, Wittman uses what amounts to a two-man bench of Martell Webster and either Nenê or Booker (whichever didn’t start). Nenê was counted as a starter, by the way. Garrett Temple plays only long enough for John Wall to catch his breath. The rest of the squad gets spot minutes when they can.

What does this show? This is a thoroughly mediocre team — starters AND bench.

Here’s a table showing minutes-weighted PPA scores for the starters and bench of each NBA team, sorted by Starter PPA:

TEAM STARTER PPA BENCH PPA Starter Rank Bench Rank
MIA 173 74 1 11
LAC 166 70 2 14
SAS 165 101 3 1
MIN 158 51 4 26
OKC 156 76 5 8
POR 156 52 6 25
GSW 153 40 7 30
ATL 148 76 8 9
IND 145 56 9 23
HOU 145 67 10 17
DAL 140 83 11 5
NOP 132 77 12 7
DEN 128 72 13 12
WAS 127 69 14 15
CLE 126 42 15 29
PHO 126 85 16 3
TOR 121 65 17 19
DET 120 51 18 27
NYK 119 71 19 13
SAC 118 63 20 20
MEM 118 85 21 4
CHI 116 75 22 10
CHA 116 55 23 24
LAL 114 69 24 16
UTA 109 58 25 22
PHI 107 43 26 28
ORL 106 59 27 21
BRK 100 88 28 2
BOS 93 67 29 18
MIL 70 79 30 6
         
AVG. 129 67    

A few observations:

  • Only Boston and Milwaukee have starting lineups that rate below the league average PPA (100). Incredibly, the Bucks bench rates as slightly more productive than the starters.
  • San Antonio has the league’s third best starting lineup AND the most productive bench.
  • Oklahoma City has the fifth best starting lineup, which is downright incredible because it includes 876 minutes of Kendrick Perkins (PPA: 24).
  • Minnesota is continuing its decades-long practice of not putting an adequate roster around a high-quality PF named Kevin. In years past, the “Kevin” was Garnett. The past few years, it’s been Love. The Timberwolves roll with the 4th best starters and the 5th worst bench.
  • Brooklyn is kind of a reverse image of Minnesota. The Nets’ starting lineup has been bad (minutes-weighted PPA of 100 — good for third worst), but they have the league’s 2nd most productive bench.

Moving on to the Wizards’ PPA update…no real surprises.

PLAYER GMS MPG LW PPA
Trevor Ariza 38 34.8 144 151
John Wall 43 37.0 147 143
Trevor Booker 34 21.2 137 136
Marcin Gortat 43 32.6 135 136
Nenê Hilario 36 29.6 102 104
Martell Webster 41 30.4 105 100
Bradley Beal 34 32.9 84 89
Jan Vesely 28 16.0 72 72
Chris Singleton 14 10.6 60 60
Glen Rice 11 9.9 18 21
Kevin Seraphin 31 9.9 20 17
Eric Maynor 22 9.5 13 13
Al Harrington 7 18.6 7 6
Otto Porter 21 9.8 3 4
Garrett Temple 41 11.5 6 3

Trevor Ariza had a good week while the rest of the team performed “about the same.” Webster’s production slipped for a fourth consecutive update — he’s now right at league average. If Washington is to break out of this rut of mediocrity, they need someone to significantly boost his production. The prime candidate would seem to be Bradley Beal, who had a terrific second half last season.

All-Stars and a Wizards Update

Before I get to the weekly Wizards update, I want to take a quick look at All-Stars through the prism of Player Production Average (PPA) — an overall rating system I developed. PPA 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.

As usual, fan voting doesn’t correlate well with my metric or with what causes teams to win. I’m not one to complain much about that reality — the fan vote is a popularity contest, not a referendum on who’s best. The top vote-getter typically appears on about a quarter of all ballots cast. I first noted this phenomenon with Michael Jordan, who regularly collected the most All-Star votes. Going by All-Star voting, roughly 75% of NBA fans each year thought Jordan (wildly popular and widely considered the best player in the game — if not all time) didn’t deserve to be an All-Star.

Anyway, I’ll present the list in two ways: the first using PPA, which is a per minute metric; the second using total production (which could weed out guys who missed time due to injury).

Per MINUTE EAST WEST
G Kyle Lowry Chris Paul
G Dwyane Wade Stephen Curry
F Lebron James Kevin Durant
F Paul George Kevin Love
F Andre Drummond Anthony Davis
G John Wall Mike Conley
G Lance Stephenson Goran Dragic
F Brook Lopez Dirk Nowitzki
F Al Horford DeMarcus Cousins
F Joakim Noah Tim Duncan
G Kyle Korver Ty Lawson
F Carmelo Anthony LaMarcus Aldridge

The quality imbalance between the conferences is evident in these lists. Carmelo Anthony takes the East’s final frontcourt slot while ranking just 21st among all frontcourt players league-wide. The Wizards only All-Star, John Wall, rates as the East’s third most productive guard per minute, but ranks just 16th in the league (minimum 500 total minutes).

Here’s the “totals” list:

TOTAL PRODUCTION EAST WEST
G Kyle Lowry Chris Paul
G John Wall Stephen Curry
F Lebron James Kevin Durant
F Paul George Kevin Love
F Andre Drummond LaMarcus Aldridge
G Kemba Walker Damian Lillard
G Aaron Afflalo Wesley Matthews
F Carmelo Anthony Blake Griffin
F Joakim Noah DeAndre Jordan
F Paul Millsap Anthony Davis
G Lance Stephenson James Harden
F Chris Bosh Dirk Nowitzki

Probably the biggest surprise for me was Kemba Walker. He hasn’t impressed me much, but he’s an above average producer on a per minute basis and he plays a lot of minutes. Notice Brook Lopez and Al Horford dropping off the list in the East — their total production is down because of injury. DeAndre Jordan is another mild surprise. It’s easy to focus on his limitations, which are abundant. However, Jordan rebounds, blocks shots, and limits his offensive repertoire to things he can do well: dunks, layups, put-backs and setting screens.

Moving on from All-Stars, let’s talk Wizards. (See what I did there?)

PLAYER GMS MPG LW PPA
John Wall 40 36.9 140 147
Trevor Ariza 35 34.6 144 144
Trevor Booker 31 21.4 137 137
Marcin Gortat 40 32.1 132 135
Martell Webster 39 30.4 109 105
Nenê Hilario 33 29.3 107 102
Bradley Beal 31 33.1 73 84
Jan Vesely 28 16.0 73 72
Chris Singleton 14 10.6 64 60
Kevin Seraphin 28 10.1 12 20
Glen Rice 11 9.9 18 18
Eric Maynor 22 9.5 13 13
Al Harrington 7 18.6 7 7
Garrett Temple 38 11.2 2 6
Otto Porter 19 9.7 15 3

It’s largely status quo, which is normal at this point in the season. Players have established their performance levels for the most part so I don’t expect to see major changes week to week. Any large changes are going to show up in lower minute players for whom a one-week sample size can still be significant.

Improvers this week include Wall, Beal, and Seraphin — the big Frenchman upped his production for a fourth consecutive update. Temple also did a little better, but still has been less productive this season than even Maynor.

On the downside were Webster, Nenê, and Porter. Nenê is interesting and worth further analysis. The team continues to be better when he’s on the floor even as his personal production slides.

Now for the shameless plug: check out the FREE first chapter of my mystery novel set for publication later this month. 

Should the Wizards Give Wittman A Sympathy Firing?

NBA-Coach-Randy-Wittman-Face-Smashed-By-Basketball

Here’s how weird things have gotten for me as I follow the Washington Wizards: I feel sympathy for a coach I never would have hired in the first place. Team president Ernie Grunfeld and owner Ted Leonsis awarded the full-time coaching job to Randy Wittman, who’d done a solid job as interim coach when they fired Flip Saunders. According to reports at the time, they neither considered nor interviewed other candidates for the position. Had it been my call…well, Wittman wouldn’t have been the choice.

Despite the howls of fans angered by a three-game losing streak, Wittman isn’t a bad coach. He isn’t a good one either — at least not by NBA standards. He’s standard issue NBA coaching material. Good at some things, not so good at others. On balance, probably on the “below” side of average, but close enough to the league standard that he’s not a drag on his team’s performance. When he gets fired by the Wizards, he could take a year off, go down to college and be great at that level. Sure, a guy like Phil Jackson, Pat Riley or Greg Popovich would win a few more games with the same roster, but a) those guys aren’t coming to Washington, and b) the Wizards wouldn’t be title contenders even with an elite coach.

I’m not saying it would be pointless to fire Wittman and replace him with Someone Else — maybe Mr. Else could get an extra win or two from this team over the remainder of the season. But no coach is going to transmogrify this group into a title contender for one simple reason: the roster is inadequate. They’re good enough to avoid missing the playoffs in the misbegotten East. They might even be good enough to win a playoff series if they’re reasonably healthy and they can avoid a first round matchup with Indiana or Miami. But there isn’t a coach on the planet who could get them further — not with this roster.

As you’ll see in the table below, Wittman has been given a team that’s effectively six deep. Bradley Beal could be a seventh, if he starts performing the way he did in the second half of last season. Wittman’s options are further diminished by minutes restrictions for Beal and (more importantly) Nene.

There are plenty of things I’d love to see the team do differently — starting with taking fewer two-point jump shots. (Umm, fellas — those shots are open for a reason.) Maybe better coaching could change some of those things. But, NBA reality is that everyone knows what everyone else is doing strategically. Coaches come up with stuff to surprise each other now and then, but most games are decided by overall talent and execution.

A coach’s most important job is getting lineups on the floor that maximize his team’s chances of winning. Those lineup decisions have largely been taken from Wittman by the team’s wafer-thin roster. Unless Nene’s Achilles gets better or someone on the Wizards bench radically improves, the coaching staff is stuck with few options to patch over the lack of depth. That this situation was entirely predictable (in fact, was predicted before the season) makes it no less frustrating.

Below is this week’s Player Production Average (PPA) update. PPA is a player rating stat 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.

PLAYER GMS MPG LW PPA
John Wall 31 37.2 149 147
Trevor Ariza 26 34.2 154 146
Trevor Booker 23 22.0 118 139
Marcin Gortat 31 32.5 130 130
Nene Hilario 24 29.4 132 120
Martell Webster 30 31.2 151 120
Bradley Beal 22 34.9 84 76
Chris Singleton 11 12.9 48 66
Jan Vesely 22 15.8 53 55
Otto Porter 12 12.2 -47 23
Glen Rice 11 9.9 21 21
Eric Maynor 22 9.5 18 13
Al Harrington 7 18.6 6 6
Kevin Seraphin 23 10.0 -15 2
Garrett Temple 29 10.8 -21 -2

Normally, I update weekly, but this one went a couple weeks — eight games total. The Wizards went 4-4 during that stretch, including their current three-game winning streak. The performance levels of John Wall, Trevor Ariza and Marcin Gortat appear to have largely stabilized.

Wall’s “grade” is interesting because it’s at once encouraging and disappointing. On the encouraging side, this is the longest sustained period of well-above average play of his career. So far, he’s the most productive guard in the East. But…his per minute production is still not close to “franchise cornerstone” level. And while he’s the East’s best PG, he still ranks behind nine Western Conference PGs in per minute production.

I have a similar reaction to Gortat’s score. He’s a solid producer, but…he ranks only about 20th among centers. The Wizards need more from him, especially on the boards and on defense.

Ariza is — by some strange coincidence — playing the best basketball of his career in a contract year.

Other positives: Trevor Booker becoming a solid producer upon entering the starting lineup (though his team defense continues to be a problem), Otto Porter improved from a HUGE negative to a net positive, and Kevin Seraphin finally got out of the negative PPA range.

A word on Seraphin — the big man currently rates as the NBA’s least productive center. He managed the same “feat” last season. There seems to be some kind of a message there, but I could be over-thinking things.

Oh yeah, Chris Singleton also showed signs of life with not atrocious play in a couple garbage time appearances.

On the negative side: Nene’s production is (unsurprisingly) down as he tries to play through that Achilles injury. Martell Webster’s play declined significantly this update, as well. And, of course, the Wizards continue to get absolutely nothing from their backup PGs.

With teams now able to sign free agents to 10-day contracts, I’m hoping the Wizards front office will start bringing in D-League PGs for tryouts until they find one they like. I’d also like to see them try some PF/C types in hopes of getting even replacement level play off the bench. They can make room by releasing one or more from the group of Temple, Seraphin, Harrington and Maynor. Yes, I know there’s no way they’d just cut Maynor because of the player option he holds for next season. It could be a correct move, however.

Even 7 Isn’t All That Lucky for Wizards

Short of trading additional future assets, getting lucky with a D-League pickup, or getting radical in-season improvement from one or more players currently on the roster, there just isn’t getting around the reality that this year’s Washington Wizards is solidly mediocre — at best.

I went into this week’s update on the team trying to conjure up a “modest proposal” type of post. Best I could come up with was the notion of shortening the game to 32 minutes so that teams would need to play only their top seven. And, Washington’s top seven is pretty good.

In this imaginary “top 7” league, so far this season, Washington would move up the standings a bit. According to my estimates, their top 7 would rank 4th in the East behind Miami, Atlanta and Indiana.

Overall, their top 7 rates 12th best, which sorta gives some perspective to how weak the East is so far this season. Washington’s seven best players rate as 4th best in the East, but would be only 9th best in the West.

Just to extend the silliness to its “logical” end — in this hypothetical, Washington would win a first round series against Brooklyn only to get bludgeoned in round two by Miami. The West would be a dogfight, but (if my PPA ratings held sway — and in this alternate reality, they do) San Antonio would emerge victorious. That would set up a repeat of last season’s Heat-Spurs final. Which the Heat would win.

Of course, the league isn’t going to shorten the game time anymore than it can guarantee Washington’s top seven can actually stay healthy. The bright side: a fully healthy Wizards team might be good enough to win a first round series if they can make the postseason. The downside: “fully healthy” seems like a fantasy.

To this week’s Player Production Average (PPA) update. PPA is a player rating stat 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.

PLAYER GMS MPG LW PPA
Trevor Ariza 18 36.1 172 154
Martell Webster 22 33.0 148 151
John Wall 23 37.7 168 149
Nene Hilario 16 32.6 134 132
Marcin Gortat 23 34.6 150 130
Trevor Booker 15 20.1 114 118
Bradley Beal 14 39.5 81 84
Jan Vesely 17 17.6 54 53
Chris Singleton 7 15.6 29 48
Glen Rice 11 9.9 4 21
Eric Maynor 20 10.0 16 18
Al Harrington 7 18.6 7 6
Kevin Seraphin 18 8.3 -32 -15
Garrett Temple 21 10.3 -23 -21
Otto Porter 4 12.0 -70 -47

No real surprises for a team that lost two of three since the last update (and barely won the third). Ariza, Wall and Gortat led the “decliners.” The “improvers” were of the awful to slightly less awful variety — Singleton getting to replacement level, Rice getting out of single digits, Seraphin becoming a bit less negative.

Sorta looping back to the “modest proposal” portion of this post, here’s another look at the Wizards this season — one that shows the hard demarcation between their top 7 and their bottom 8.

Wiztop7bottom8

Wizards Lack of Depth Continues to Hurt

Get used to repeats of that old Wizards pattern — keeping the score tight (even holding a lead in the fourth quarter) only to lose in the end. The problem isn’t that Washington lacks a mystical “ability to close,” it’s that their bench can’t hold the leads its starters provide, and its starters wear down at the end of competitive games.

This is not the fault of Randy Wittman and the coaching staff. Most of the failing bench players are producing at levels consistent with career norms. Eric Maynor, a fan whipping boy so far this season, is playing worse than usual, but not abnormally so. He’s been unproductive throughout his career — that’s he’s even less productive should surprise no one. The same is true of Kevin Seraphin, Jan Vesely, Chris Singleton and Garrett Temple. They’ve established themselves as unproductive. There’s little reason beyond hope to imagine them becoming productive.

With the “make the playoffs or else” mandate, Wittman has little option but to play his key players heavy minutes and pray they don’t get hurt. And that’s exactly what’s happening. John Wall and Bradley Beal lead the league in minutes per game at PG and SG. Among SFs, Trevor Ariza ranks eighth and Martell Webster sits 15th. Marcin Gortat is second in minutes per game among centers. The fragile Nene plays the 12th most minutes per game for a PF.

If this was the playoffs, there’d be little reason for concern. But there are 62 games remaining in the regular season, and they’ve already sustained injuries to Ariza, Webster, Nene and Beal. Another injury could put the playoffs out of reach. That would be a shame (as would limping into the playoffs) because at full strength, it’s core rotation players could at least put a scare in a post-season opponent. They’ll need to get (and stay) healthy to do that, however.

For a further demonstration of Wittman’s lack of options, peruse the table below, which shows the (approximately) weekly update of Player Production Average (PPA). PPA is a player rating stat I developed. It 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.

PLAYER GMS MPG LW PPA
Trevor Ariza 15 36.1 146 172
John Wall 20 37.8 169 168
Marcin Gortat 20 34.6 152 150
Martell Webster 19 32.5 156 148
Nene Hilario 16 32.6 133 134
Trevor Booker 12 16.5 96 114
Bradley Beal 13 40.2 81 81
Jan Vesely 14 18.1 75 54
Chris Singleton 6 17.5 51 29
Eric Maynor 19 10.3 35 16
Al Harrington 7 18.6 6 7
Glen Rice 9 8.0 -10 4
Garrett Temple 18 10.1 -14 -23
Kevin Seraphin 15 7.9 -27 -32
Otto Porter 2 10.5 -70

Ariza is playing a lot like he’s in a contract year, which is to say — superbly. His production is All-Star level, though it would astonish me if he actually received the honor. But, with Lebron more a PF these days, it’s arguable that Ariza has been the East’s second best SF so far this season (behind Paul George).

Recovered from injuries last season, Gortat is producing at a good level again. Like Ariza, his timing is superb — he’s in a contract year as well.

Wall seems to have settled in at All-Star level production. PPA currently has him rated as the top PG in the East, and fifth most productive overall behind Chris Paul, Stephen Curry, Ty Lawson and Mike Conley.

This week’s update shows Vesely’s production dropping off. Hopefully he can turn things around. Whether or not he does, the coaching staff would be wise to give more minutes to Booker, who continues to be an “about average” producer. That’s nothing to get excited about, but it makes him a solid reserve.

Finally, note that the Wizards have seven players who rate below replacement level so far this season. Collectively, they’ve played 823 minutes — nearly 17% of the team’s total. This is a direct result of the front office’s persistent failure to properly assess players, and their inability to address the team’s glaring need for depth. This misjudgment is costing the team wins now, and could cost them even more as the season wears on.

Wizards Must Try Not To Let Success Go To Their Heads

Seen on Twitter the past few days is the heady news that the Washington Wizards went .500 in November — tied for the franchise’s third best winning percentage for month in the past 30 years. Forgive me if I don’t join the parade. For a team like the San Antonio Spurs — a good team that competes for championships — the same record would be their ninth worst in the same time span.

A .500 record for a month is not cause for celebration. The Wizards have a good starting group, but an awful bench. The net result: precisely average. The team is improved, but that’s not the same thing as being good. In a weak East where several teams are tanking, even a meh team can make the playoffs.

All that said, let me reiterate — the Wizards are improved. John Wall is the best PG in the East, and currently ranks 7th overall at his position. The team is getting well-above average play from Martell Webster, Trevor Ariza, Marcin Gortat and Nene. The team’s depth makes any success feel tenuous, but they have a core of good players for this season.

One common thread of Wizards discussion I’d like to address before posting the weekly PPA update is this notion that PG Eric Maynor was at some point “good” and that he’s abruptly and inexplicably gotten worse in Washington.

The facts are that Maynor has been a sub-par player throughout his career. That people believed otherwise is testament to attributing to Maynor that which should have been attributed to his teammates. In other words, folks believed Maynor was causing (or contributing) teammates to be better when, in fact, those other players were producing on their own.

The reason I’m addressing this topic is that asserting that Maynor was at some point “good” or “serviceable” is to let the Wizards’ front office off the hook. In reality, signing Maynor was a terrible waste of resources, and evidence that Ernie Grunfeld and his team still haven’t figured out how to evaluate players. They thought they were getting a steal. Instead, they were getting a lemon. And what’s head-bangingly frustrating is that fairly rudimentary look at the numbers would have told them so.

With that out of the way, here’s the weekly Player Production Average update. PPA is a player rating stat I developed. It 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.

PLAYER GAMES MPG LW PPA
John Wall 17 37.6 158 169
Martell Webster 17 33.6 144 156
Marcin Gortat 17 34.4 139 152
Trevor Ariza 12 35.6 123 146
Nene 14 33.3 127 133
Trevor Booker 9 14.0 102 96
Bradley Beal 13 40.2 82 81
Jan Vesely 11 17.9 81 75
Chris Singleton 3 8.7 51
Eric Maynor 16 10.5 50 35
Al Harrington 7 18.6 7 6
Glen Rice Jr. 6 6.3 -5 -10
Garrett Temple 15 11.5 -18 -14
Kevin Seraphin 13 8.5 -39 -27

What jumps out? On the plus side, the team has a good group of starters. Wall appears to be doing what I predicted at the start of the season — making The Leap to becoming a top-shelf PG. Webster, Gortat, Ariza and Nene round out a quality lineup.

On the down side, there’s the rest of the team. Booker has dipped below average for the first time this season on scant playing time. So far this season, the team falls apart on defense when Booker is on the floor.

Vesely appears to be the beneficiary of lowered expectations from fans. He was so inept last season that anything positive gets exaggerated. He is better than last season in that his play hasn’t been a total train wreck. But, he remains well below average.

Some fans (and perhaps the Wizards as well) hoped that Singleton would provide some kind of significant contribution when he returned from a foot injury. Thus far…not so much. Very small sample size, however.

Maynor’s production has slipped below replacement level. Seriously, the Wizards would do better (or at least do no worse) giving his minutes to someone from the D-League. What’s scary: as bad as he’s been, Harrington, Rice, Temple and Seraphin have been worse.

The Wizards will need to either a) get some level of production from The Bench That Grunfeld Built, or b) bolster the bench with a trade or from the D-League. Without radical improvement from its reserves, this team seems perfectly constructed for a first-round playoff ouster — regardless of the opponent.

Wizards Reward For Best Week: Brutal Schedule

The Wizards just had their best week of the season, going 3-1 and seeing PG John Wall receive the NBA’s Player of the Week award. Their reward? Four games in five nights with travel between each of the games. Yikes!

The uptick in Wall’s production was as welcome as it was abrupt. His shooting had been atrocious, but became deadly, and he continued doing a first-rate job of finding teammates for open shots at the basket. His play was similar in quality to his transcendent March — when he performed like one of the game’s top five players.

In other good news for the team, Wall wasn’t the only player who improved. Martell Webster enjoyed his return to the starting lineup, and Marcin Gortat and Nene also seemed to settle into their roles. Bradley Beal boosted his production a bit as well, though the youngster still has a ways to go.

The upcoming week will be a challenge for the depth-starved Wizards. They have the makings for a solid top seven, but everything after that remains a major question mark.

Here’s the weekly Player Production Average (PPA) update. PPA is a player rating stat I put together that credits players for things they do that contribute to winning and debits them for things that hurt the cause (each in regression-analyzed proper proportion). PPA includes defense, is pace-adjusted, and incorporates a “degree of difficulty” factor based on the strength of the opposing lineup. In PPA, 100 = average, higher is better, and replacement level is 45.

PLAYER GAMES MPG LW PPA
John Wall 13 37.8 111 158
Martell Webster 13 31.4 110 144
Marcin Gortat 13 33.5 116 139
Nene Hilario 11 32.5 118 127
Trevor Ariza 8 35.1 123 123
Trevor Booker 8 12.6 110 102
Bradley Beal 13 40.2 71 82
Jan Vesely 7 17.3 95 81
Eric Maynor 12 10.4 66 50
Al Harrington 7 18.6 6 7
Glen Rice 5 6.8 -5 -5
Garrett Temple 11 9.2 -36 -18
Kevin Seraphin 10 8.7 -33 -39

As Captain Obvious said, “The bench remains a major weakness.” Jan Vesely’s effectiveness declined as his playing time increased. Trevor Booker’s individual numbers are good, but the defense is a catastrophic failure thus far when he’s on the floor. Al Harrington was awful before he sat with knee trouble. Kevin Seraphin has been even worse than last season — and last season he was the league’s least productive center.

Guard depth is scary as well. Eric Maynor is drawing ire for his crummy play, but what he’s doing is exactly what fans should have expected from him. His PPA this season: 50. His career PPA before this season: 49. His peak PPA for a season was 57. This is his normal level of play. What’s scary: Temple has been worse.

For now, I don’t envy the options head coach Randy Wittman has. The team desperately needs at least two someones from the bench to step up production — one big and one guard. Unfortunately, the roster assembled by Ernie Grunfeld isn’t jammed with “good bets” on a guy or two who might suddenly start playing better.

I’ve been suggesting since offseason that the team’s best option for depth may be to use SF Trevor Ariza at PF (as a stretch four), especially if injured rookie Otto Porter can give them productive minutes at SF. Ariza is likely to be more productive as an S4 than Harrington has been, and he may provide the opposition with challenging match-ups at that spot.

No matter how I look at the various lineup permutations, the team’s rotation is skimpy — at best. With reasonable health for its rotation, the Wizards should be a playoff team. Lose anyone from the top seven or eight, and the playoffs are dicier, even in the East. And, I don’t think can sustain an extended absence from Wall, Nene or Gortat, however.

Wizards Consistent In Futility

In an era characterized by rapid change, it’s good to be able to count on things. When it comes to losing, when it comes to ineptitude, when it comes to futility — Wizards fans have been able to count on the team and its management. Since Ernie Grunfeld took control of the team’s direction in 2003-04, the Wizards have the league’s third worst winning percentage. This season — Grunfeld’s 11th with the team — they’re tied for the league’s fourth worst winning percentage through nine games. Maybe owner Ted Leonsis deems that progress.

How typical is the bad start? Over the past 11 seasons, the Wizards’ record in their first nine games is 30-69. The average start by Washington teams built by Grunfeld 2.7-6.3. That’s a .303 winning percentage. Which is bad. As in, about a 25-win team over the course of an 82-game season.

It’s still early in the season, and I expect the team to improve and make a run at the playoffs, but as the numbers below demonstrate — the team is being hurt by lack of depth and by lack of production from the players who are supposed to be its stars. I’ll get to the “stars” in a moment, but the team’s lack of quality players on its bench was both foreseeable and fixable during the offseason.

Re-litigating the bungled offseason isn’t useful at this point except as a reminder — the roster is the product of front office decisions. Eric Maynor and Al Harrington (the team’s free agent acquisitions) are Wizards instead of DeJuan Blair. The team holds the rights to Tomas Satoransky instead of the production of Jae Crowder, Kyle O’Quinn or Orlando Johnson. They have Glen Rice rather than Nate Wolters.

And this isn’t even going back to 2011, which included gems like picking Jan Vesely AND Chris Singleton ahead of Kenneth Faried.

Trying to look at the bright side, the numbers suggest that the team is getting a bit better than average production from its starters. Bradley Beal is the lone exception — he’s had some good games sprinkled into some real clunkers (about what should be expected from a youngster in his second season).

The problem? The production from John Wall, Nene and Marcin Gortat is perilously close to average. The Wizards need significant production from all three, especially Wall, if they’re going to be a decent team this year. Last March, Wall played like a potential MVP candidate. So far this season, he’s playing like a run-of-the-mill starter.

So, to the first Player Production Average (PPA) update of the season. PPA is a player rating stat I put together that credits players for things they do that contribute to winning and debits them for things that hurt the cause (each in regression-analyzed proper proportion). PPA includes defense, is pace-adjusted, and incorporates a “degree of difficulty” factor based on the strength of the opposing lineup. In PPA, 100 = average, higher is better, and replacement level is 45.

PLAYER GMS MPG PPA
Trevor Ariza 8 35.1 123
Nene Hilario 7 30.6 118
Marcin Gortat 9 33.8 116
John Wall 9 36.9 111
Trevor Booker 5 16.4 110
Martell Webster 9 27.6 110
Jan Vesely 3 15.3 95
Bradley Beal 9 40.1 71
Eric Maynor 8 11.9 66
Al Harrington 7 18.6 6
Glen Rice 3 10.0 -5
Kevin Seraphin 9 8.8 -33
Garrett Temple 7 4.7 -36

Back to bright side stuff for a moment — Trevor Ariza, Jan Vesely and Eric Maynor are each out-performing their pre-season projections and their level of play last season.

It’s tempting to brand Ariza’s play as the standard contract-year surge, except that it’s largely in line with his career norms except for a slight uptick in field goal attempts.

In scant playing time, Vesely has done just about everything the team could hope he’d provide. His offense is abysmal, but he does contribute offensive rebounds, which help. He’s also helping on the defensive glass. I anticipate his PPA to decline as he gets more playing time.

Maynor’s PPA is deceptively high. He had an outstanding 14 minutes against Miami — about 15% of his total minutes to date. The rest of his minutes have been bad. Keep in mind that back in September, Grunfeld had this to say about Maynor (h/t to Matt Kremnitzer’s superior Google search skills for the link):

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.

Basically, that the PPA table is saying is that when the Wizards top players are on the floor, they’re slightly better than average — something borne out by the on/off data. But there’s a big drop-off when they go to the bench. Big drop-offs to the bench aren’t atypical — lots of teams see major production drops when they use reserves. There are often very good reasons why guys are reserves. But, good teams have their starters outplay the opposing starters.

The Wizards starters hold their own, but the team falls apart when they use the bench. That’s not a recipe to reach the playoffs. It’s the recipe for 2-7. It’s the right mix for consistent futility.

And here’s a truly terrifying question for Wizards fans: How bad would this team be if they weren’t in “win now” mode?

Wizards Plan Doesn’t Add Up

Wizards owner Ted Leonsis assures us fans that they have a plan and that they’re sticking to it. However, I think The Plan is a lot messier than it seems to be on the surface — and I don’t think it includes a clear and realistic path to building a championship contender.

What is The Plan exactly? It includes young players like John Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter. It includes trading for veterans like Nene, Emeka Okafor, Trevor Ariza and (most recently) Morcin Gortat. It includes shopping for what Leonsis called a “brand name” free agent. That aspect of The Plan was articulated well by Daniel Friedberg at RealGM. Wrote Friedberg:

The recent transactions by the Wizards (the Marcin Gortat trade, declining the fourth year options of Jan Vesely and Chris Singleton) will give them $15 million in cap space in the summer of 2014, making them major players in free agency. That exact amount also depends on what they choose to do with Gortat. While all the sorcery in the world won’t bring LeBron, Carmelo or Bosh to the nation’s capital, a playoff run this year will make this squad more of a draw for lower tier free agents. After a half decade of basement-dwelling drudgery, the Wiz faithful finally have reason for optimism.

But how much optimism is warranted? The Wizards could indeed have $15 million (or even a little more) in cap room next offseason. All they have to do is renounce Gortat, Ariza, Trevor Booker, Jan Vesely, Kevin Seraphin and Chris Singleton. The last three don’t matter much. They’re bad NBA players and will be gone after the season.

If the Wizards are to make a playoff run this season, Gortat and Ariza will be major contributors, and Booker is likely to be at least a significant part of the rotation. A Wizards “get into the playoffs” rotation is probably going to include Wall and Eric Maynor as the PGs, Beal and Martell Webster or Garrett Temple as the SGs, Ariza and Webster as the SFs (with a possible contribution from Porter), Nene, Booker and Harrington at PF, and Gortat and Nene at center.

That rotation will have to look something like this:

  • PG: Wall and Maynor
  • SG: Beal and Webster/Temple
  • SF: Ariza and Webster
  • PF: Nene and Booker/Harrington
  • C: Gortat and Nene

It’s at this point that the “logic” of the whole getting into the playoffs will make the Wizards more attractive to free agents part of The Plan breaks down. If the Wizards sign a significant free agent next offseason, that free agent cannot be addition. Since the team can’t have cap space unless it’s willing to give up Gortat, Ariza, Booker, etc., any free agent signing will be replacement of those players. In effect, they’ll be trading the departed players for the new guy.

So, put yourself in the mind of a “brand name” free agent. If you’re interested in playing for a winner, why would you pick the Wizards? The group that “won” (meaning they got into the playoffs) can’t be kept together if the team decides to sign you. Key contributors would have to be let go — guys without whom Washington would have missed the postseason.

In other words, a potential free agent can’t go to the Wizards to “join” a winning team — he has to take the place of important contributors and hope that what he has to offer plus the continued development of the team’s remaining players is enough to do more than keep the team treading water. I don’t see how that package would be attractive to a prominent free agent who wants to compete for a championship.

The Wizards’ cap situation provides some flexibility, which is a positive. If the salary cap rises to $62 million (which is what’s expected), Washington could clear as much as $16 million in cap space. That sounds like a lot, but when the cap increases, maximum salaries increase as well. That $16 million would be sufficient to pay a maximum salary to a player with 0-6 years of experience, but would fall short for players with 7-9 years or 10+ years.

If the Wizards decide to let everyone leave so they can sign Chris Bosh, they’ll either need to convince Bosh to take a starting salary $4.2 million less than the maximum he could receive — and $4.5 million less than he’s due to receive under his current contract — OR work a sign and trade with Miami OR trade away other players (like Beal or Porter) to clear additional cap space.

Let’s say they go after Detroit’s Greg Monroe instead. Monroe would have to take slightly less money (about $2.6 million over the four years of a maximum contract), AND Detroit would have to decide not to match. But let’s say all that happens. At that point, the Wizards would have eight players under contract and about $2 million in cap space to fill the rest of their roster — and they’d be working without a first round pick, which they traded to get Gortat. Who, in this scenario, would be playing elsewhere next season.

Which means, the team would continue to lack depth, especially up front where they’d be reliant on Monroe, an aging Nene and whatever they could get from the second round or the free agent “remnants” bin.

The question really comes down to this: What goals does the front office really have? If the Wizards are serious about contending for a championship with this group, the path to contender status is heavily reliant on player development and hoping to get lucky in free agency or the draft. If their goal is to make the playoffs and then see if they can go on a lucky run, they’re probably setting themselves up to make moves that will keep them treading water.

All that said, the team could still become a title contender if some combination of Wall, Beal or Porter develop into true franchise players. The front office has already committed to Wall as its franchise bedrock with the absolute maximum contract they could give him. Wall hasn’t shown to be worth that kind of money yet, though his breakthrough may be coming.

Beal’s rookie season was a lot like Ray Allen’s, a guy who will be in the Hall of Fame, but wasn’t a true franchise player. Porter, of course, is a question mark — his hip injury has kept him on the sidelines. As a college prospect, he graded as a good-but-not-great prospect.

I’m definitely not saying the team is going to stink. They have sufficient resources to be a perennial playoff team for the next few seasons. That path to being a title contender is less clear, however. The two major trades the past couple years (acquiring Okafor and Ariza; then trading Okafor and a first for Gortat) don’t really look like the moves a team aspiring to win a championship in the near future would make. They seem more like the moves of a team content to make the playoffs in the short term, but without a genuine plan to transition from playoff contender to championship contender.

My expectation for the 2014 offseason is that the team will essentially punt on free agency. My guess: they’ll re-sign Gortat and Ariza to four-year contracts in the name of continuity, and use the MLE to add frontcourt depth rather than taking a plunge in the free agent waters. Then they’ll hope that development from Wall, Beal and Porter will be enough to make them title contenders before age and injury wear down their 30-plus year olds up front.

It’s not the way I would have done it, but there’s at least a chance it could work.