Marcus Thornton

Wizards Roll With NBA’s Worst Bench

tire-fire

Wizards bench.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Player Production Average

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

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

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

otto-porter-v-mem

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

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

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

On defense:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Player Production Average

Player Production Average (PPA) is an overall rating stat I developed that credits players for things they do that help a team win and debits them for things that hurt the cause. PPA is similar to other linear weight rating metrics such as John Hollinger’s PER, David Berri’s Wins Produced, Kevin Pelton’s VORP, and the granddaddy of them all, Dave Heeren’s TENDEX.

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

PPA is pace neutral, accounts for defense, and includes a “degree of difficulty” factor based on the level of competition a player faces while on the floor. In PPA, 100 is average, higher is better, and replacement level is 45. Read more here.

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

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

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

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

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

The numbers:

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

Those Disappointing Wizards

wittman confused

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Player Production Average

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

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

PLAYER GMS MPG 11/10 11/22 12/3 12/13 12/21 12/30 1/6 1/13 1/27 2/11 3/1 3/14 4/5
Marcin Gortat 71 30.3 91 112 128 133 132 138 147 145 148 151 172 169 171
John Wall 77 36.2 153 129 136 168 157 157 149 144 142 146 153 148 145
Otto Porter 70 30.8 144 158 104 116 107 115 122 127 130 130 134 126 131
J.J. Hickson 11 7.4  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  – -14 96 108
Markieff Morris 24 26.2  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  – 41 58 95
Bradley Beal 52 31.3 128 108 96 87 87 86 85 86 98 108 94 94 95
Jared Dudley 76 26.1 36 92 90 85 98 103 100 105 99 104 106 98 89
Nene Hilario 53 19.1 58 90 80 74 79 78 79 88 92 84 86 90 82
Ramon Sessions 77 19.6 131 119 84 90 87 89 88 91 90 89 88 85 76
Alan Anderson 9 14.4  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  – 97 90 68
Marcus Thornton 11 12.3  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  – -6 65
Garrett Temple 75 24.6 38 106 57 54 70 63 68 79 79 69 59 56 57
Jarell Eddie 22 4.5  –  –  –  –  – 153 119 113 110 86 68 51 55
Kelly Oubre 59 9.8 -103 -4 -40 -44 9 37 43 39 36 29 22 25 27
Drew Gooden 28 10.6 99 51 57 56 56 56 38 47 34 31 26 22 22
DeJuan Blair 29 7.5 -345 -129 -112 -45 -34 -38 -38 -28 -6 -15  –  –  –
Gary Neal 40 20.2 23 49 64 75 78 74 75 78 71 70 69  –  –
Kris Humphries 28 16.6 90 121 95 80 78 76 79 79 78 76  –  –  –
Ryan Hollins 5 9.6  –  – -40 60 59  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –

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

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

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

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