Predictions

Wizards Remain Mediocre and Will Miss Playoffs for Second Straight Season

Oklahoma City Thunder v Memphis Grizzlies - Game Six

Yeah, I know the season is underway. Many teams have three games in the books; the Spurs already have four. This still serves as my Wizards preview, because while I’ve watched their first two contests (both losses), I’ve used nothing from the 2016-17 in the projection.

The approach this year is similar to the one I used for previous seasons: every player gets run through my statistical doppelganger machine, which spits out similar players from my historical database (similar production at similar age). There’s a process to weed out players with dissimilar career patterns — it makes no sense to compare a guy who stunk four years and suddenly had a terrific season to a guy like John Wall (for example) who’s been consistently quite good.

Once the list of “similars” is assembled, the system looks at the future of those players as a guide to the potential performance of the players being projected for the upcoming season. When the predicted performance (expressed in terms of Player Production Average — PPA for short) for each individual player has been completed, I estimate minutes (using an approach that must be similar to Kevin Pelton’s since the results were so similar). That gets translated into individual wins, which are totaled to team wins. Wins league-wide are capped at the number of wins available in a season (1230).

What’s new this year? Volume. For the first time, I projected the top 10-12 rotation players of every team. In previous seasons, I ran numbers for only the Wizards. This year — in a never-ending quest to make wrong predictions — I looked at everyone.

The Wizards

The Wizards spent two years hording cap space for an offseason in which nearly half the league would have sufficient room under the cap to pursue free agents with a maximum salary offer. The big prize was hometown hero Kevin Durant, who declined to even meet with the team. The team’s braintrust went after Al Horford (who signed in Boston) before managing to get Ian Mahinmi — a career backup coming off a career year who’s about to turn 30.

Their other roster moves were less inspiring: free agent deals for Andrew Nicholson and Jason Smith, and a trade for Trey Burke. They did manage to sign international guard Tomas Satoransky to a reasonable contract.

Here’s a quick look at what my projection system had to say about this year’s roster:

  • John Wall — Good news: Wall’s similars were a collection of very good players (albeit with a penchant for reputations that were better than their production). Bad news: half of the 10 most similar reached their career peak before age 26. More than half saw production declines following their age 25 season. Last season, Wall finished with a PPA of 144. Projected PPA: 130.
  • Bradley Beal — Beal’s persistent injury troubles overshadow what may be a bigger problem: his consistently mediocre play when he’s been on the floor. His PPA by season (average is 100 and higher is better): 92, 96, 99, 98. Players like Beal tended to peak at “decent starter,” not All-Star or All-NBA. The Wizards awarded him a max contract. Projected PPA: 108.
  • Otto Porter — Porter has improved during his career, and his future looks terrific (projected peak PPA would put him at All-Star level). But, the exercise in projecting the performance of individual players makes clear that it’s unwise to assume a young player will a) improve at all, b) that improvement will be linear, and c) that he’ll ever achieve imagined potential. Similar were useful defensive SF types who were also efficient on offense. But, there was no pattern of improvement after seasons most similar to Porter’s last year. So, Porter projects “about the same” as last year. Projected PPA: 127.
  • Markieff Morris — Last season, Ernie Grunfeld and Ted Leonsis swapped their first round pick in 2016 for Morris, who was deeply unhappy in Phoenix. What they got was a career mediocrity with little chance of getting better. The average peak of players like Morris (in Washington) last season was fairly low (acceptable starter level), and came (on average) at age 25.9. Morris is 27. Projected PPA: 95.
  • Marcin Gortat — The big man has been very good and consistent in Washington. He defied the decline I predicted for last season, and will have to do the same this year. At age 32, a drop in performance is probable — eight of the ten players most similar to Gortat declined the following season, and a ninth maintained. One oldster (Robert Parish) actually improved significantly in his age 35 season. I don’t anticipate something similar in Gortat’s age 32 season. Projected PPA: 147.
  • Trey Burke — The Wizards got him for next to nothing, which was the right price to pay. Burke started his career well below average, and has been less productive each year since. His comps were mostly backups who had short NBA careers. Surprisingly, Eric Maynor didn’t make the list. I’m actually predicting a modest improvement for Burke, although he’s unlikely to be close to what Ramon Sessions provided. Projected PPA: 67.
  • Tomas Satoransky — No comps for Satoransky since he didn’t play in the NBA last season. Although he has experience overseas, the NBA is the world’s most competitive sports league, and most players struggle to make the transition. Projected PPA: 65.
  • Kelly Oubre — The second year swingman seems to have abundant potential despite a horrific rookie season. Unfortunately, the history of players who performed like Oubre isn’t a pleasant one. Improvement was surprisingly modest (I double-checked the spreadsheet cells to make sure they were calculating correctly), and peaks were depressingly low. It’s worth mention that the same was true after Porter’s rookie year, although Porter had an injury. Projected PPA: 37.
  • Andrew Nicholson — The PF is coming off his best season (PPA: 81), which could mean he’s figured things out and is ready to become a useful backup, or…it could be the best he’ll ever play and he’ll recede to previous levels. His comps are useful backup types, and my projection suggests the latter. Projected PPA: 86.
  • Ian Mahinmi — When the Wizards whiffed on their other free agent targets, they turned to Mahinmi. It’s not exactly a bad contract under the league’s new financial realities, but it’s a #SoWizards kinda move. Mahinmi was a career backup who finally got a chance to start and responded with a career year. That’s good, right? Sure, except a) he’s going back to the bench in Washington (the team’s most productive player per possession the past few years (Gortat) plays the same position), and b) he’s about to turn 30. His “most similar” list is mostly journeyman centers. Some had high peaks, but few sustained it. What’s most likely is that he’ll be decent, but not nearly as good as he was last year. Projected PPA: 112.
  • Jason Smith — The decision to give Smith a multi-year deal was puzzling. He has a career PPA of 59, posted a 57 last season, and is 30 years old. It’s another #SoWizards move: no chance of meaningful contributions and no upside. It’s a nice lotto payout for Smith, though. Projected PPA: 50.

A potential wildcard: new head coach Scott Brooks. Previous coach Randy Wittman had his strengths, but would have ranked in the bottom third in the NBA. Brooks figures to be better, but the relevant research suggests the differences between professional coaches is pretty small. The exceptions are the very best and very worst coaches, but there’s a broad middle ground where coaches help a little or hurt a little, but don’t fundamentally alter their teams’ trajectories. While I think Brooks is an upgrade from Wittman, I also think they both occupy that middle ground.

Options

As I projected the entire league, I found that my process tended to push each team back towards the middle. The gap between the strongest team (Golden State) and the weakest (Phoenix) was about 26.7 wins. In recent years, the difference has been almost double that amount. So, I came up with an alternate method that ranked every team by their projected production, and then applied the average win total for that rank over the past five seasons.

The Wizards project to be ninth team in the East, and 19th in the NBA. Don’t go betting the mortgage, because my approach produced some results that are at odds with my gut and with predictions made by others I respect, such as:

  • My system likes Chicago and thinks the Bulls could finish as a top four team in the East.
  • Orlando projects to make the playoffs (7th seed).
  • Milwaukee and Atlanta both project to be worse than the Wizards.
  • In the West, my system likes Oklahoma City, Minnesota, Utah and Houston more than Portland.

For the Wizards, the win total from my projection system: 41.0. From the average record by league rank approach: 37.5. Take your pick.

My prediction: 41 wins and 9th place in the East.

Projection: Wizards to Win 42

wall 02My 2015-16 Wizards preview is up at Vice Sports. I won’t steal my own thunder much, except to say that my projection approach says the Wizards will win 41-42 games this season. Not as encouraging as I’d hoped, and I had some mild surprises in the numbers — younger players not being predicted to improve as much as I’d have intuitively expected.

At any rate, please click over and give it a read at Vice.

NBA Playoffs: What Are The Odds?

steph curry

Okay, I’ve tried several different ways to talk myself into predicting that the Wizards will somehow beat the Toronto Raptors in the first round of the playoffs and meet their doom in a second round matchup with the Atlanta Hawks. Hasn’t worked, though.

I know Toronto struggled over the last couple months of the season. So did the Wizards. I know the Raptors have a not-so-good coach. So do the Wizards. In a way, the two teams are opposing images of the other. Washington has a good defense and a crummy offense; Toronto has a terrific offense and a bad defense. The key difference: Toronto is better.

The gap between the teams isn’t oceanic. Washington’s odds in any one particular contest in the upcoming series aren’t awful. They have basically a 41% chance of winning at Toronto and a slightly better than coin flip odds of winning at home. In terms of probability, it would be something like winning three straight coin flips, and then winning a “loaded” toss where the odds have been lowered from 50-50 to 60-40. It’s possible, but not likely.

The Wizards could be helped a bit by Kyle Lowry’s iffy back, but the numbers accumulated over a six-month season say they’ll be lucky to pull off the upset. On the bright side for fans hoping to at least be entertained, there’s only about a 9% chance the Raptors sweep.

As you can see from the table below, the Wizards are significant underdogs against the Raptors. The only teams with worse odds of winning their first round series are the eight seeds (Brooklyn and New Orleans), and the East’s seven seed (Boston). The best chances for first-round upsets come in the more balanced West. Houston vs. Dallas and the Clippers vs. the Spurs look to tight.

The best chance for a seeding upset is likely to happen in the second round where the Clippers would be favored against either Houston or Dallas.

The numbers suggest that Golden State — the league’s best team all season — has the best chance of winning the championship this season. I actually estimate them with a better than 50% chance of being champions. Despite coasting through the last few weeks of the season, Atlanta finished the regular season as the East’s best team by a significant margin. They’ll be tested in the Eastern Conference Finals against Cleveland and Lebron James.

EAST
1st RND HOME ROAD WINNER ODDS
1 vs 8 ATL BRK ATL 91%
2 vs 7 CLE BOS CLE 79%
3 vs 6 CHI MIL CHI 70%
4 vs 5 TOR WAS TOR 70%
2nd RND HOME ROAD WINNER ODDS
1 vs 4 ATL TOR ATL 69%
2 vs 3 CLE CHI CLE 64%
ECF HOME ROAD WINNER ODDS
1 vs 2 ATL CLE ATL 61%
WEST
1st RND HOME ROAD WINNER ODDS
1 vs 8 GSW NOP GSW 92%
2 vs 7 HOU DAL HOU 58%
3 vs 6 LAC SAS LAC 57%
4 vs 5 POR MEM POR 61%
2nd RND HOME ROAD WINNER ODDS
1 vs 4 GSW POR GSW 83%
2 vs 3 HOU LAC LAC 65%
WCF HOME ROAD WINNER ODDS
1 vs 3 GSW LAC GSW 73%
FINALS HOME ROAD WINNER ODDS
1 vs 1 GSW ATL GSW 98%

Wizards Update: About to Be Tested

At 21-8, the Wizards are off to the second best start in franchise history. Check out the very bottom of the table in that link and note that Washington had its worst start in franchise history just two seasons ago. The front office’s strategic shift to proven veterans combined with a historically weak Eastern Conference to bring about an abrupt about-face in the team’s record.

While the Wizards have enjoyed the league’s easiest schedule so far, things are about to change. To this point in the season, Washington’s opponents have been 1.32 points per game worse than average. Over the next 19 games, their competition will be about a point per game better than average.

To say it another way, Washington’s average opponent so far this season has been the equivalent of a 37-win team — a lottery squad in either conference most years. Over the next quarter of the season, their opponents will be the quality of a 44-win team — a near-lock for the playoffs in either conference.

The next five games will likely be the toughest stretch of the regular season. Over the next week, Washington has road games against Houston, Dallas, Oklahoma City, San Antonio and New Orleans — and the schedule includes two sets of back-to-back contests.

The Wizards will be underdogs in all five games, and their average competition this week will be equivalent to a 50-win squad. It won’t be easy.

I ran the numbers in my “who’s gonna win?” machine. The machine projects Washington to go 9-10 over the next month, including a five-game skid starting tonight. This will likely test the faith of Wizards fans, but I think reality for Washington is that they’re a solid team in a weak conference.

Based on how teams have performed to this point in the season, The Machine predicts Washington will go 33-20 over their remaining games to finish the year 54-28. This would be tied with the 1978-79 Bullets for the third best mark in franchise history. Fans my age might recall that the 78-79 team went to the NBA Finals where they lost to Seattle. I suspect fans of any age would be ecstatic if this year’s team reached the Finals and got thumped by a top-shelf Western Conference opponent.

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.

PLAYER GMS MPG 10-Nov 18-Nov 24-Nov 3-Dec 8-Dec 17-Dec 23-Dec PPA
Marcin Gortat 29 29.7 181 186 170 175 179 178 178 173
John Wall 29 35.8 185 180 180 168 167 175 171 171
Paul Pierce 28 27.0 140 138 165 134 134 154 142 143
Rasual Butler 25 22.8 60 131 116 128 155 140 134 123
Kris Humphries 28 21.9 46 87 90 82 109 100 88 109
Bradley Beal 20 33.0 122 63 69 94 90 98
Nene Hilario 22 24.2 108 102 68 67 83 94 96 97
Andre Miller 29 12.4 72 69 92 103 102 101 89 85
Otto Porter 28 19.0 97 106 101 95 84 81 84 82
Garrett Temple 25 14.4 121 112 96 100 98 91 90 75
Drew Gooden 18 13.3 42 40 59 78 64 47 47 44
Kevin Seraphin 28 15.3 38 13 17 12 28 34 45 36
DeJuan Blair 9 4.6 -41 -40 -40 -74 -56 -47 -46 -34
Glen Rice 5 8.6 -120 -117 -117 -117 -114 -113 -111 -111

Plenty of stability in this update as several players seem to have established their performance levels.

Humphries went back into “above average” territory with two outstanding games off the bench this week.

Butler’s production seems to be coming back to earth after preposterously torrid shooting for the first 20 games of the season. Hopefully, whatever’s lost from his return to norms will be offset by improvement from Beal.

After improving his PPA in three consecutive updates, Seraphin spent the past week Seraphining. Over his past three games, Seraphin played 40 minutes. During those minutes on the floor, he scored 20 points (yay points!) while getting three rebounds, one assist, no steals or blocks, but four turnovers and seven fouls.

He did shoot 10-20 over those three games, but he got to the free throw line just once (he missed). His 50% shooting isn’t bad — league average efg is .499. But, add in the turnovers, the lack of offensive rebounds and the inability to get to the free throw line, and his offensive rating (points produced per individual possession x 100) was just 81 — 25 points below league average, and nearly 27 points below the Wizards’ average over the past three games.

With the schedule getting tougher, it’s time for the Seraphin experiment to end.

Projection: Wizards Will Win 45 and Return to the Playoffs

Improvement from the Washington Wizards youngsters, and an infusion of frontcourt depth will be offset by missed time due to injuries and declines from the team’s older players to keep the team in the middle of the NBA pack for another year. However, the team could be a dangerous playoffs matchup if they’re able to enter the postseason healthy.

Below, I’m offering up projections done a couple different ways. The first is built on the similarity scores I’ve posted after the past week. This approach finds players in NBA history with similar production at a similar age, and then looks at what they did in subsequent seasons. Those findings are then applied to the Wizards roster and combined with a playing time estimate for each player.

For this estimate (and the other one, which I’ll get to later in this post), I’ve used my overall metric Player Production Average (PPA), which is calibrated to explain individual player contributions to winning and losing. 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 court. In PPA, 100 = average, higher is better, and 45 = replacement level.

Statistical Doppelganger Projection

POS PLAYER MIN LAST SEASON PPA PROJECTED PPA PROJECTED kWins
PG John Wall 2812 139 156 9.0
C Marcin Gortat 2464 154 132 6.7
SG Bradley Beal 2325 96 112 6.1
SF Paul Pierce 1800 139 108 4.0
SF Otto Porter 1800 15 85 3.2
PF Kris Humprhies 1608 132 133 4.4
F/C DeJuan Blair 1450 97 97 2.9
PF Nenê 1430 102 90 2.7
PG Andre Miller 1165 86 65 1.6
G/F Glen Rice Jr. 1029 20 78 1.2
F/C Drew Gooden 1002 106 100 2.1
G/F Martell Webster 1000 77 74 1.5
POS TEAM 19885 107 110 45.4

MIN = projected TOTAL minutes for the upcoming season

Projected kWins = how many wins that player will contribute based on his projected PPA and projected total minutes.

Over the past few seasons, the Wizards’ front office has converted the team from being one of the league’s youngest to being one of the league’s oldest. Gortat, Nenê, Pierce, Gooden and Miller all figure to play prominent roles this season, and all are past 30. Well past 30 for Pierce and Miller.

Projections for Porter and Rice were difficult because they played so little last season. For both, I elected to throw out their rookie numbers and rely instead on projections based on the rookie seasons of the players they were most like from college. Using the rookie numbers would lower Porter’s projected PPA to 66 and Rice’s to 30. That would drop Washington’s projected win total 43.8.

Note that I didn’t include Kevin Seraphin, Garrett Temple or Rasual Butler in the above table. They’ll get some minutes along the way, but — barring several catastrophic injuries — none should see enough court time to have a major effect on the team’s fortunes. For those interested, this is what I project for the end-of-the-bench trio:

  • Garrett Temple: 33
  • Kevin Seraphin: 49
  • Rasual Butler: 55

I can hear the cockeyed optimists already: “Why do you just assume the old guys will get worse? What if they maintain for a year?” Quick answer (and one I’ve given before): athletes past 30 tend to two things — get hurt and get worse.

But, let’s say the “Ancients” are able to do this season what they did last year. In that event, Washington’s projected win total would climb to 48.5. Which would be hella fun.

On the other hand, there are scenarios where there are more injuries than expected, younger players don’t make anticipated improvements and/or older players decline more steeply. That gives a potential “bottom” of 40.7 wins.

Simple Rating System Projection

POS PLAYER MIN LAST SEASON PPA SRS PROJECTED PPA PROJECTED kWins
PG John Wall 2812 139 143 8.3
C Marcin Gortat 2464 154 144 7.3
SG Bradley Beal 2325 96 111 5.3
SF Paul Pierce 1800 139 117 4.3
SF Otto Porter 1800 15 63 2.3
PF Kris Humphries 1608 132 133 4.4
F/C DeJuan Blair 1450 97 135 4.0
PF Nene Hilario 1430 102 102 3.0
PG Andre Miller 1165 86 108 2.6
G/F Glen Rice 1029 20 82 1.7
F/C Drew Gooden 1002 106 118 2.4
G/F Martell Webster 1000 77 102 2.1
G/F Rasual Butler 0 63 81 0.0
C Kevin Seraphin 0 35 53 0.0
G Garrett Temple 0 24 54 0.0
POS TEAM 19885 107 117 47.9

The guys over at Basketball-Reference have up Simple Rating System projected stats for everyone who played in the NBA last season. Go here for an explanation. They don’t estimate minutes, which I can understand because it’s frigging hard to do.

The SRS approach is more optimistic than the one I used — at least at the bottom line. SRS generally predicts less of a decline for older players, but also not as much improvement from the younger ones. The SRS approach would suggest the Wizards will win 48 games this season — with a low end prediction of 43 and a high of 52.

Here’s a table comparing results from the two approaches:

POS PLAYER DOPP PPA SRS PPA DOPP kWINS SRS kWINS
PG John Wall 156 143 9.0 8.3
C Marcin Gortat 132 144 6.7 7.3
SG Bradley Beal 112 111 6.1 5.3
SF Paul Pierce 108 117 4.0 4.3
SF Otto Porter 85 63 3.2 2.3
PF Kris Humprhies 133 133 4.4 4.4
F/C DeJuan Blair 97 135 2.9 4.0
PF Nenê 90 102 2.7 3.0
PG Andre Miller 65 108 1.6 2.6
G/F Glen Rice Jr. 78 82 1.2 1.7
F/C Drew Gooden 100 118 2.1 2.4
G/F Martell Webster 74 102 1.5 2.1
G/F Rasual Butler 55 81 0.0 0.0
C Kevin Seraphin 49 53 0.0 0.0
G Garrett Temple 33 54 0.0 0.0

DOPP PPA = projected PPA using the Statistical Doppelganger approach

SRS PPA = projected PPA using the Simple Rating System numbers published by Basketball-Reference

DOPP kWINS = projected individual wins contributed using the Statistical Doppelganger approach

SRS kWINS = projected individual wins contributed using the Simple Rating System numbers published by Basketball-Reference

Final Word

In the end, I’m using my own projection system. Last year, I projected the Wizards would win 43 — they won 44, albeit not exactly in ways that I expected. I’ve refined my projection system (I hope), although I’m hoping the team outperforms my prediction by a wide margin.

While still lacking an elite producer, the Wizards could be a tough out in the playoffs when rotations shorten and there’s more rest between games (especially in the first round). If they can get there healthy, of course.

I’m projecting the Wizards will win between 41 and 48 games this season. Final projection: 45 wins and the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.