Kevin Seraphin

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.

The Inside Story of How the Wizards Beat the Raptors

Gortat warrior

The Washington Wizards vanquished the Toronto Raptors in the first round of the NBA playoffs thanks to an innovative approach conceived by team president Ernie Grunfeld, funded by owner Ted Leonsis, and implemented by head coach Randy Wittman. Drawing upon unique abilities possessed by point guard John Wall, Wittman and Grunfeld developed a plan that in the days before the playoffs sent Wall and center Marcin Gortat on a (until now) top secret mission to prehistoric times.

“It was just a little time travel,” Wall said, stifling a yawn. “Just doing whatever I can to help my teammates out.”

” ‘Time travel?’ He said that?” Wittman snapped when told of Wall’s comment. “Okay, first of all, it’s not time travel. It’s just a way of using John’s ability to alter the space-time continuum to bridge the interdimensional gap between this reality and another in which conditions very much like our prehistoric era continue to exist.”

According to sources, Wall was essential to executing the project, but Gortat volunteered.

“We were going to play Raptor,” the Polish center said. “This way I could study real raptor, see how it move, see how it fight, see how it love. I fight six velociraptor at same time — hand-to-hand. After that, Toronto Raptor not so tough.”

While Gortat engaged in mortal battle with ferocious dinosaurs from the later Cretaceous Period, Wall did no fighting and did not engage with the ferocious reptiles.

“I’m competitive, but I’m not a fighter,” Wall said. “i just mostly slept.”

While Wall’s account of an extended nap — made necessary, he said, by the rigors of time travel — had its charm, it did not stand up to investigation. In reality, Wall executed the second part of the Grunfeldian Plan, and tracked down a pubescent Paul Pierce.

“Paul’s one of the oldest players in the league, and we were concerned about his physical condition,” said Wizards vice president Tommy Sheppard, speaking on condition of anonymity. “By sending John and March back seventy-one million years, we felt we could get March first-hand experience with some velociraptors and we could do something to help Paul get back to top form. This was definitely a two birds, one stone kind of thing.”

Wall’s mission was to locate the young Pierce and persuade him to provide biological samples, including blood, spinal fluid and stem cells. The samples would then be combined in Wittman’s laboratory, located deep beneath the Verizon Center, into a genetic cocktail that would rejuvenate the aging Pierce.

“Gotta say it didn’t take much convincing,” Wall said when he learned that details of his trip were known. “Once I told him about his later self being on a team in the playoffs, his competitive nature kicked in and he wanted to help. ‘Course I first had to beat him in a game of Micropachycephalosaurus before he’d do it, but basketball hadn’t even been invented back then so I had a little bit of an advantage. It was tough, but…well…you saw what happened in round one. Look man, Pierce ain’t changed a bit.”

Successful execution of the Grunfeldian Plan had several positive effects fans could see. Gortat and Pierce performed spectacularly in round one. And, freed from the rigors of researching and theorizing about interdimensional temporal travel, Wittman was able to refocus his attention on coaching the team.

“I looked at the numbers and said to the guys ‘What the hell is this?’ ” Wittman said. “Why are we taking so many two-point jumpers? What’s wrong with you people? Do I have to think of everything? Attack the hoop and shoot threes.”

The plan nearly backfired, however, when Wall, exhausted from interdimensional travel, searching for the younger version of Pierce, and the epic game of Micropachycephalosaurus, played horribly in game one. Sources with knowledge of the situation said Wall recovered thanks to some remaining bottles of Caron Butler’s “Tuff Juice.”

While details remain scarce, preparation for the team’s second round matchup with the Atlanta Hawks involved a journey to Middle Earth where Gortat taught teammates the art of riding the Great Eagles of Manwë. Sources could not corroborate the story with cell phone photos or video by publication time. I was able to obtain this image of a young Marcin Gortat riding one of the Great Eagles in Middle Earth, which Gortat claims is located not far from where he was born in Lodz, Poland.

A young Marcin Gortat riding a Great Eagle of Manwë.

A young Marcin Gortat riding a Great Eagle of Manwë.

Player Production Average: First Round

Player Production Average (PPA) is an overall rating stat I developed that credits players for things they do that help a team win and debits them for things that hurt the cause. PPA is pace neutral, accounts for defense, and includes a “degree of difficulty” factor based on the level of competition a player faces while on the floor. In PPA, 100 = average, higher is better and replacement level is 45.

WASHINGTON WIZARDS
POS GMS MPG PPA
Marcin Gortat C 4 31.3 294
Paul Pierce SF 4 28.5 209
Will Bynum SG 1 4.0 183
John Wall PG 4 38.0 165
Otto Porter SF 4 32.0 147
Kris Humphries PF 1 5.0 146
Bradley Beal SG 4 41.8 116
Drew Gooden PF 4 20.5 107
Nene Hilario PF 4 24.3 82
Ramon Sessions PG 4 16.5 67
Kevin Seraphin C 3 11.0 50
Martell Webster SF 1 4.0 36
Rasual Butler SF 2 3.5 -85
TORONTO RAPTORS POS GMS MPG PPA
Greg Stiemsma C 1 2.0 535
Jonas Valanciunas C 4 26.5 142
Patrick Patterson PF 4 26.5 122
Amir Johnson PF 4 28.0 91
DeMar DeRozan SG 4 39.8 75
Terrence Ross SF 4 26.8 38
Lou Williams SG 4 25.5 26
Greivis Vasquez PG 4 25.3 14
Kyle Lowry PG 4 32.8 -6
Tyler Hansbrough PF 4 12.0 -13
James Johnson PF 2 6.0 -118

While the playoffs are the most important part of the NBA season, fans and analysts tend to go overboard in using postseason results to reach new conclusions. The Wizards were impressive in round one, but it’s worth keeping in mind that any given round of the post-season (especially a four-game sweep) is the very definition of Small Sample Size Theater. Bradley Beal led the Wizards with 167 minutes in the first round.

I’d caution against overreaching in using the win over Toronto to make a significant reassessment of the Wizards. They’ll get a tougher test against the Hawks.

That said, the good news from round one was getting good production from the team’s youthful triumvirate. Washington was led by Gortat and Pierce, both of whom were outlandishly efficient, and got outstanding play from Wall and Otto Porter, and solid production from Bradley Beal.

Unsurprisingly (considering Washington’s resounding series win), five Wizards were more productive than the most productive Toronto player. The Raptors were hampered by an extreme lack of production from its backcourt, including a net negative performance from All-Star Kyle Lowry.

Meanwhile, Gortat was the league’s most productive player in the first round, and Pierce’s production ranked eighth.

Wizards Update: A Season of Discontent

wall 02

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Player Production Average Update

Player Production Average (PPA) is an overall rating stat I developed that credits players for things they do that help a team win and debits them for things that hurt the cause. PPA is pace neutral, accounts for defense, and includes a “degree of difficulty” factor based on the level of competition a player faces while on the floor. In PPA, 100 = average, higher is better and replacement level is 45.

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

2015-04-17 -- wiz ppa

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

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

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

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

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

Wizards Update: The Home Stretch

sessions ramon

There’s a temptation to note the Wizards have won four in a row and five of their last six and conclude they’re headed for the playoffs in good form. I don’t share that optimism, however. This is a stretch of games where Washington was expected to win with four games against three of the league’s weakest teams — Charlotte (21st in Simple Rating System — a power ranking published by Basketball-Reference.com that combines scoring differential with strength of schedule), New York (30th) and Philadelphia (29th) twice.

Failing to win at least four of the six would have been cause for real concern. Getting an “extra” win against Memphis was encouraging, although it’s worth noting the Grizzlies were coming off a hard-fought win against Oklahoma City the previous night while the Wizards coasted to an easy (and restful — the only starter to play more than 30 minutes was Bradley Beal) over the hapless Knicks.

The Wizards aren’t “fixed,” they’re playing bad opponents. It’s good that they’re beating those teams, but that’s not the same as saying they’re in good shape. Realistically speaking, they continue to look how they’ve looked all season — a slightly better than average team that feasts on the 99-pound weaklings in the East and can sometimes summon the game to challenge (and even beat) a good team if stuff goes right for them and wrong for the other side.

The preceding is talking about the team’s big picture. The overall. They’re excellent on defense, and have been since the end of January. Unfortunately, their offense has been terrible during the same time frame. Since the playoffs are about to start, we’re about to hear a bunch of the old maxim that defense wins in the postseason. Like a lot of truisms, it’s half true. Unless the Wizards are able to operate with some level of offensive efficiency against higher-quality opponents, they’re not going deep in the playoffs.

I’ll get more into postseason matchups when the regular season concludes, but it does help that Washington is in the East. First, because they’ll be in the playoffs at all. Out West, they’d at best be scrapping for the eighth seed. In their actual conference, they’ll have a punchers chance in the first round against Toronto or Chicago.

Player Production Average Update

Player Production Average (PPA) is an overall rating stat I developed that credits players for things they do that help a team win and debits them for things that hurt the cause. PPA is pace neutral, accounts for defense, and includes a “degree of difficulty” factor based on the level of competition a player faces while on the floor. In PPA, 100 = average, higher is better and replacement level is 45.

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

2015-04-09 -- wiz ppaSearching for encouragement as the playoffs approach? Look at Gortat and Wall — both of whom have been consistently good all season. Beal has played better the past few weeks, as have Sessions, Porter and Gooden.

On the other hand, Nenê and Pierce have struggled. The hope is that they’re recharging for the playoffs. But, they’re also the team’s oldest players, and they could be wearing down from the long season.

Wizards Update: Bouncing Back?

sessions

After a lengthy stretch of losing basketball, the Wizards have won four of their last six. Have they shaken off their mid-season swoon? Are they poised to win like it’s November or December?

No, and not likely.

While the Wizards have played better over the past six games, their offense has remained below average, and their defense has been unsustainably fantabulous. During this 4-2 stretch, Washington has allowed its opponents just 96.5 points per 100 possessions. If they managed to do that over a full season, they’d be one of the 15 best defenses since 1973-74 when the league began collecting the stats necessary to calculate defensive rating. For the season, the Wizards are allowing 102.8 points per 100 possessions.

Another factor: they’ve had the good fortune of meeting injury-depleted teams. And even then, the results have been mixed. They lost to Chicago, which was missing Jimmy Butler, Derrick Rose and Taj Gibson. They eked out a two-point victory against Miami, which didn’t have Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade or Luol Deng. And, they beat the snot out of Memphis, which lacked Mike Conley, Tony Allen, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph — also known as the Grizzlies’ four best players.

I know Randy Wittman and Ernie Grunfeld have said the Wizards just need to play better on defense and work harder. I respectfully disagree. Their defense — even during the period of sustained losing — wasn’t bad. The decline has been on offense, and it still needs to be fixed.

Player Production Average Update

Player Production Average (PPA) is an overall rating stat I developed that credits players for things they do that help a team win and debits them for things that hurt the cause. PPA is pace neutral, accounts for defense, and includes a “degree of difficulty” factor based on the level of competition a player faces while on the floor. In PPA, 100 = average, higher is better and replacement level is 45.

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

2015-03-13 -- wiz ppa

My apologies for the format. The spreadsheet has reached a width that WordPress struggles to accommodate.

Good weeks for Gortat, Wall, Pierce and Gooden. Not so good for Beal, Temple, Porter and Butler.

Ramon Sessions provided hope with a couple decent games.

Martell Webster isn’t able to physically compete at an NBA level, presumably because of his back.

I’ve thought all season that DeJuan Blair should have been playing ahead of Kevin Seraphin, but Blair looks unable to compete physically at an NBA level because of too much eating and insufficient exercise.

Wizards Update: Death Spiral

wall wtf

When the NBA entered its annual All-Star break, I started work on a piece intended to look at how teams similar to this year’s Wizards throughout league history fared when they reached the playoffs. At the time, Washington was 33-21, and their Simple Rating System (SRS) — a measure of team strength that combines scoring differential with strength of schedule — was +1.67 per game.

In the six games they’ve played since the break, they faced opponents with a combined scoring differential of -1.15. Even an average team would have been expected to win four of the six. The Wizards went 1-5 and were outscored by a whopping 86 points. That’s 14.3 points per game. Even if I throw out the 38-point loss to Cleveland as an aberration, Washington lost the other five by 9.6 points per game. Their SRS now stands at -0.02.

All season, I’ve been writing variations on the theme of “The Wizards Just Ain’t That Good,” but I’m still surprised by their catastrophic collapse since the All-Star break. What’s scary: their remaining 22 games don’t look as easy as they did just a few weeks ago.

Fourteen of their remaining contests are against likely playoff teams. And, the key statistical indicators of team strength I watch are all dipping. This recent stretch of horrific basketball could merely be a rough patch for an average team, but it could also be a signal of an aging group that’s about to flat line.

When I run the numbers through my “who’s gonna win” machine, the results are…well…bad. In a worst-case scenario, the Wizards would limp into the playoffs with just seven wins over their last 22. I think they’ll be better than that, but it’s hard to find more than 11 wins the rest of the way (which, by the way, would give them a final record of 45-37, which happens to be what I projected for them back in October). Barring a miracle about-face, those dreams of a 50-win season will remain just that.

As long as I’m fretting, here’s another reason for Wizards fans to be concerned: this interview of team president Ernie Grunfeld by radio guy Dave Johnson. Presented with respectful softball questions by Johnson, Grunfeld offered his thoughts on how his team could pull out of its skid — and thoroughly misdiagnosed what’s wrong.

In the interview, Grunfeld suggested the team’s biggest problem has been a decline in their defense. He said their results will improve when they play better defense, get out on the fast break and “compete” on a nightly basis.

Here’s a look at the Wizards pre- and post-All-Star break:

TIME PACE ORTG DRTG
Pre-ASB 93.5 105.4 102.9
Post-ASB 96.7 93.4 108.3
CHANGE 3.2 -11.9 -5.4

What the numbers show is that the Wizards have played faster since the All-Star break, but have been worse. Grunfeld gets partial credit on the “play better defense” portion of his prescription since that would be a good thing to do. However, The drop in offensive efficiency is more than double their change in defensive efficiency. That means the team’s struggles are first and foremost because of its offense.

In case you were wondering, forgetting the debacle against Cleveland doesn’t change the analysis. Their defense the past three games has been excellent and yet they lost two because their offense was a horror show. If the Wizards want to start winning, they do need to get better on both ends, but their most important fix will be on offense.

There’s another issue with Grunfeld’s prescription — the data show the team’s offensive and defensive efficiency are uncorrelated. I’ve been tracking offensive and defensive efficiency by pace for years now, and this season’s result is the same as every other year. Good defense doesn’t cause good offense. Good offense doesn’t cause good defense. It’s almost as if offense and defense occur at different ends of the floor.

This season, if the numbers suggest anything it’s the Wizards show a very slight tendency to play better defense when they’re worse on offense. In terms of pace effects, Washington has a very slight tendency to play worse on offense in faster-paced games. But these “effects” are so small they’re basically meaningless.

Player Production Average Update

Player Production Average (PPA) is an overall rating stat I developed that credits players for things they do that help a team win and debits them for things that hurt the cause. PPA is pace neutral, accounts for defense, and includes a “degree of difficulty” factor based on the level of competition a player faces while on the floor. In PPA, 100 = average, higher is better and replacement level is 45.

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

2015-03-03 -- wiz ppa

My apologies for the format. The spreadsheet has reached a width that WordPress struggles to accommodate.

Early returns on the Andre Miller for Ramon Sessions trade aren’t good. As the table above shows, Miller had a PPA of 80 with the Wizards; Sessions has managed a Maynor-esque 13 so far. Meanwhile, Miller’s PPA with the Kings is a robust 90 (good for a backup PG). Sessions in Sacramento posted a 16 PPA.

Unsurprisingly for a team that barely ended a five-game losing streak, production for most guys was down. The biggest decliner was John Wall, but he was hardly alone. The team also saw drop-offs from Nenê, Garrett Temple, Rasual Butler, and Kevin Seraphin.

Perhaps the Wizards can turn things around, but it’s an old team that doesn’t have a ton of upside. Over the season’s final 22 contests, Wall will likely play more like he did earlier in the season, but it’s not realistic to think any of the team’s older players have much room for improvement. Maybe Beal or Porter can play better to close out the season, but neither looks ready to provide a surge in production.

Realistically speaking, if the Wizards can go .500 the rest of the way, I’d call it a success. But, winning just seven or eight of their remaining 22 is a realistic possibility as well. That would leave them with 41 or 42 wins, which would almost certainly relegate them to the sixth seed. Where they’d probably draw Cleveland and get bounced from the playoffs in the first round.

So. Wizards.

Wizards Update: Designed to Piss Off Charles Barkley

Drew Gooden celebrates being the biggest improver in this week's Player Production Average update.

Drew Gooden celebrates being the biggest improver in this week’s Player Production Average update.

Charles Barkley doesn’t like analytics. His argument works out to this: “I don’t know anything about analytics and I never will. Also, you stat people never played the game and couldn’t get girls in high school.”

Partial credit to the new number one on my list of people I’d like to meet at a poker table — I didn’t “get girls” in high school, perhaps because I was too busy playing basketball.

Of course, if we apply Barkley’s fatuous logic that only people who have played the game are qualified to offer opinions about the game, then only people who have done analytics would be qualified to offer opinions about analytics. Which means, by Barkley’s own Rules of Living, we should all shut the hell up — on a lot of things. Hmm, maybe he’s on to something.

Despite Barkley’s assertion that “analytics don’t work,” the facts are that in recent years, top teams have made extensive use of analytics to improve their teams. Of course, there are crappy teams that use analytics, but the same was true when teams were built by Men Who Stared At Players.

Analytics are not an end to themselves, and they’re not intended to eliminate people from decision-making. They’re tools to help inform decisions — sorta like being able to estimate odds in poker. You’re playing both the cards and the people across the table, but it’s a sucker who wagers without a good sense for their chances of winning. Which reminds me that Barkley really sucks at gambling.

Speaking of analytics, the Wizards could use some help. Despite dominating wins over sad-sack Brooklyn and Orlando, there’s a pervasive sense of gloom about the team lately. Since starting the season 22-8, they’re 11-13. The struggles weren’t a shock — it was the toughest part of the team’s schedule.

Heading into the All-Star break, areas for concern are much the same as they were when I wrote about them more than a month ago:

  • Age — Production has dropped significantly over the past month for the team’s oldest players, Paul Pierce and Andre Miller. Nenê has been doing better, but remains below average for a starter. The team has been terrific with him on the floor, however. And, in the “no shock” category, Rasual Butler’s production has dropped.
  • No Elite Producers — No, not even Wall, at least not on a per minute basis. His PPA (see below) is 166. That would rank fourth on the Atlanta Hawks behind Al Horford (203), Jeff Teague (190), and Paul Millsap (175). Among players with at least 500 minutes this season, Wall ranks 30th in per minute production. He’s 11th in total production, so I’ll take that as an argument in favor of “elite” status, even though he’s played the second most minutes in the league this year, and seven of the 10 ahead of him have played significantly fewer minutes. Wall IS playing well. But, I think there’s still major room for improvement.
  • Kevin Seraphin — He was better in January, but seems to have flattened out in February. Overall, he continues to rate right around replacement level. I think the team can get by with him against bad teams, but will need better play off the bench when they face tougher competition.
  • Lack of Progress From The Youngsters — Bradley Beal’s PPA has been hovering in the average range; Porter’s in the below-average-but-still-useful range. But, neither guy has taken a significant step forward, and now Beal is sidelined for a third time with a “stress reaction” in his leg.
  • Health — Beal with the stress reaction. Webster recovering from back surgery. Wall with the migraines and the (maybe) Achilles soreness, and/or ankle soreness. Humphries with the back. Nothing major yet, but these bumps and bruises can affect productivity, and there are always injury concerns with older players.

Weekly Player Production Average Update

Player Production Average (PPA) is an overall rating stat I developed that credits players for things they do that help a team win and debits them for things that hurt the cause. PPA is pace neutral, accounts for defense, and includes a “degree of difficulty” factor based on the level of competition a player faces while on the floor. In PPA, 100 = average, higher is better and replacement level is 45.

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

2015-02-12 -- Wizards PPA update

My apologies on the format, but I was running out of space for the full week-by-week PPA table. By the end of the season, we’ll all need a magnifying glass to read it.

A lot of consistency at this point. Most of the guys seem to have found their levels. My biggest worries are with the old guys, who seem to be wearing down as the season progresses. Hopefully they’ll be rejuvenated by this year’s extra-long All-Star break.