Drew Gooden

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.

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.

Reality vs. the Wizards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TARGET   NEED   W82
W L W L
44 38 21 10 56
43 39 20 11 53
42 40 19 12 50

Player Production Average

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

League-wide PPA scores through games played 2/11/16 are here.

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

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

Wizards Update: All-Star Edition

Wall all star

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

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

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

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

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.

Wizards Update: Level Best

It may seem strange to worry about the Wizards making the playoffs this season when they still have 49 games to play, but history suggests they’re already running out of time to turn things around and reach the postseason.

It’s likely going to take 45 wins to earn the eighth seed in this year’s East. With Washington at 15-18, simple math says they’ll need another 30 wins in their final 49 games. That means playing at about .600 level the rest of the way — basically at the level of a 50-win team (over an 82-game schedule).

This is possible and not unprecedented in basketball history. Teams have dramatically improved after a poor start. But not many of them. Teams that started a season like the Wizards were much more likely to remain at the same level than markedly improve. One of those teams (the 04-05 Denver Nuggets) made two coaching changes and played .800 ball (32-8) to finish the season with 49 wins. That record is a dreamworld best-case fantasy, though.

In the real world, last season’s Wizards actually began the year a 31-18 record in their first 49 games. That’s a .633 winning percentage, and if they could replicate it over the final 49 games of this season they’d end up with 46 wins and a berth in the playoffs. Last year in reverse has a patina of plausibility, which makes it seem more possible than the evidence indicates.

Unfortunately, there are several good reasons to think that quality of play is unlikely. Since that 31-18 start, the Wizards are 36-40 — 15-18 to finish 2014-15, 6-4 in the playoffs, and 15-18 this season. That’s the quality of a 37-win team across a BIG stretch (93% of a regular season). And it’s notably consistent.

In addition, the team’s scoring differential through that 49-game stretch suggested they weren’t quite as good as their record. Scoring differential analysis indicated a 28-win team during that stretch — about the level of a 46-win team over an 82-game schedule, not the 51-win level suggested by their 31-18 record. At 33 games last season, the team was 22-11 — about three wins ahead of their expected win total. The difference wasn’t an indication that the Wizards “knew how to win” or had become “clutch,” it was a signal that the team wasn’t as good as their record.

And here’s where things get even more worrisome for the 2015-16 edition of the Wizards: their scoring differential says they’re the quality of a 13-win team through their first 33 games. Their won/loss record is running about two games ahead of their expected wins. This is a sign of weakness. Widely perceived as under-performing, the team is actually playing even worse than their already bad record. Their winning percentage is that of a 37-win team over an 82-game schedule. Their scoring differential suggests they’re playing at the level of a 32-win team. Another way of looking at it: they’re 19th in winning percentage, and 22nd in scoring differential.

The task ahead of them is not impossible. They could improve, and they are just 2.5 games from the eighth seed. But it’s time for some urgency. It’s time for them to start playing at a higher level and to string together wins. Because with every additional loss, the goal of making the playoffs this season becomes less and less probable.

Player Production Average

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

League-wide PPA scores through games played 01/06/16 are here.

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

Wall’s season has been…odd. He was mediocre through the first month of the season, posting a PPA of just 94. When the calendar shifted to December, he abruptly transmogrified into an All-NBA caliber point guard, posting a December PPA of 202. Then in January, he’s posted three straight crummy games, and has a PPA of just 86. His wildly vacillating performance level gives ample ammunition to fans who believe he should be starting the All-Star game (look at the sensational play in December), as well as those who think other players are more deserving (look at the bad first month of the year). In PPA, he’s a borderline All-Star candidate — fifth among guards in the East (minimum 750 minutes), but with frontcourt players rated ahead of him.

Wizards Update: Mediocrity, Naturally

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Player Production Average

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

League-wide PPA scores through games played 12/30/15 are here.

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

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

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

Wizards Update: Just the Numbers

four

As Dean Oliver first wrote, there are four key factors that determine who wins and loses in the NBA. In order of importance: shooting, rebounding, getting to the free throw line and turnovers. So far this season, the data suggests that variation in efg differential accounts for about 44% of variation in scoring differential; rebounding accounts for 26%, getting to the free throw line about 18%, and turnovers about 11%.

How are the Wizards doing? They’re 25th in efg differential, 24th in rebounding differential, 9th in turnover differential and 10th in free throw differential. All that combines to rank 23rd in average scoring margin, which means they haven’t played even as well as their 19th ranked winning percentage might suggest.

At this point, Basketball-Reference forecasts the Wizards to win about 36 games and indicates the team’s odds of winning the draft lottery (2.5%) are about the same as them making the playoffs this season (2.4%).

While the team embarked on an effort to play faster, the results through 25 games indicates they may still benefit by slowing down. The defense appears to be largely unaffected by pace, but the numbers suggest the team may be a bit more efficient in slower-paced games. The effect is small, but at this point the team needs every advantage it can get.

rtg by pace

Player Production Average

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

League-wide PPA scores through games played 12/20/15 are here.

PLAYER GAMES MPG 11/10 11/22 12/3 12/13 PPA
John Wall 25 35.1 153 129 136 168 157
Marcin Gortat 22 30.2 91 112 128 133 132
Otto Porter 24 32.3 144 158 104 116 107
Jared Dudley 24 26.9 36 92 90 85 98
Ramon Sessions 25 19.7 131 119 84 90 87
Bradley Beal 17 36.5 128 108 96 87 87
Nene Hilario 12 17.4 58 90 80 74 79
Gary Neal 23 22.4 23 49 64 75 78
Kris Humphries 20 18.1 90 121 95 80 78
Garrett Temple 23 18.0 38 106 57 54 70
Ryan Hollins 5 9.6 -40 60 59
Drew Gooden 6 12.8 99 51 57 56 56
Kelly Oubre 18 9.3 -103 -4 -40 -44 9
DeJuan Blair 14 9.5 -345 -129 -112 -45 -34

As I’ve been writing seemingly for years now, the Wizards continue to lack elite production. Click over to the full league numbers and you’ll find 11 players with at least 500 minutes who have a PPA of at least 200. Wall ranks 10th among point guards, but in a virtual tie with Reggie Jackson and Rajon Rondo.

This isn’t Wall’s “fault” exactly, he’s a very good player. But he needs more help than he’s getting. Beal ranks 24th among shooting guards, Porter 16th among small forwards, Gortat 18th among centers, and Dudley 31st among power forwards.