Ted Leonsis

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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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.

Upon Further Review: Grunfeld Still Not Good At His Job

grunfeld

I’m willing to admit when I’m wrong. Especially when there’s evidence to offer correction. Last week, Mike Wise sought to convince readers not just that Washington Wizards president would receive a contract extension after the season, but that he deserves one.

I didn’t find Wise’s argument convincing, but your mileage may vary. Today, Scott Cacciola, writing for the New York Times (where Wise wrote for 10 years), has a piece that echoes much of what Wise wrote. My first thoughts were along the same lines as my response to Wise. But, this is two articles in two weeks, and the Wizards are better this season, and Ted Leonsis seems pretty happy with Grunfeld, and Leonsis is a smart guy who’s made a few bucketfuls of money…

So, maybe I’m just being hard-headed. Maybe Grunfeld has been doing a just spiffy job and I’ve…missed it. Perhaps I’ve permitted bias to creep into my thinking and I’ve been unfair in my analysis of the Wizards and of Grunfeld’s work. So, using Cacciola’s article as a launch point, I’m going to take as objective a look as I can at the claims he makes in support of Grunfeld.

First up:

After so much futility, after so much losing and after so much false hope, the Wizards have finally reinvented themselves as a relevant team — thriving, even, with an energetic nucleus that features Beal and John Wall, 23, a first-time All-Star whose ability to run the court is virtually unmatched in the N.B.A.

The Wizards were 33-31 after Wednesday’s loss to the Charlotte Bobcats, in solid position for a playoff berth.

The first difficulty in analyzing this passage is the use of glittery words that don’t have real meaning. “Relevant team” means what? There’s little doubt the Wizards will make the playoffs this season, but does anyone think they have a shot against either the Heat or the Pacers? Does anyone believe the Wizards would currently be sitting sixth in the West? They’re reasonably fun to watch, and it’ll be great to see them back in the postseason. But, relevant? Depends on what folks want it to mean, I guess.

Cacciola identifies the “energetic nucleus” as being Bradley Beal and John Wall, which is something Wise did as well. To me, “nucleus” would suggest players who are currently the primary causes for the team winning. Wall fits that description, even if his production still falls well short of league elite status.

But Beal? Maybe next year he’ll reach “nucleus” status. Perhaps the year after. This season, he’s fourth in total production (using the Player Production Average metric I developed), but the clear “nucleus” of the team this season is comprised of Wall, Trevor Ariza and Marcin Gortat.

Perhaps Cacciola means that Beal and Wall will be the nucleus in the future, but that’s not what he wrote. The word “thriving” indicates something ongoing — something happening in the here and now.

Cacciola writes:

Patience is not a word frequently used in professional sports. Fans are impatient. Owners are impatient. Yet the quest to win now, and win by any means necessary, often turns out to be an ill-conceived approach, one that strips the team of long-term stability.

This is kind of a logic trap because it asserts a problem and a conclusion without offering supporting evidence. People are impatient. Impatience is bad because it strips the team of long-term stability. Cacciola offers up the Knicks as an example, but there are some problems. First, an anecdote isn’t evidence. Second, even if he’d cited two or three examples, the plural of “anecdote” isn’t “evidence.” And third, he hasn’t shown that the Knicks’ problem is impatience. I’d argue it’s been incompetence.

Cacciola seems to share Leonsis’s belief in The Continuity Theorem.  The logic of the Theorem is this: hire a team (management, coaches, players), keep them together, give them time, and…voila…winner. The foundation of the Continuity Theorem is that continuity causes success. I think it’s wrong, though. Or, at least that it’s stated the wrong way around. That is to say: continuity doesn’t cause success, but rather success causes continuity.

Let’s try a thought experiment. Imagine assembling a team of say Eric Maynor, Nick Young, Chris Singleton, Jan Vesely, Kevin Seraphin, Garrett Temple, Jordan Crawford, Cartier Martin, Trevor Booker, and Jason Collins. Let’s say that squad is coached by Randy Wittman. How long should we keep this group together to produce a winner? How long until it makes the playoffs? Wins a series? Reaches the Finals?

The reason good teams have continuity is that they’re good. When a team has good players, it doesn’t want to make major personnel changes except for age, injury and expense. When a team has bad players, there must be turnover because the way to improve is to replace bad players with good ones. Now, if you have young players you believe in — AND they work hard — those players can transform themselves into good players. That’s the hope with Beal, Wall and Otto Porter. But, they don’t get better because they’ve been kept together, they get better because they work hard and smart and they mature.

So, back to the Wizards and Grunfeld and this notion of the team being patient so as not to strip itself of “long-term stability.” Grunfeld has been in his position since the 2003-04 season. During that span, the Wizards have the league’s third worst winning percentage. They’re 13 games behind Sacramento for fourth worst. Washington’s best team (so far) in the Grunfeld era: 45-37 — tied for 123rd “best.”

It’s been 17 seasons since the Spurs had a season that bad.

I think it’s fair to say that Wizards fans have been patient.

More from Cacciola:

Grunfeld, 58, declined to discuss his tenure with the Knicks, preferring instead to talk about the Wizards, whom he joined in 2003. The Wizards made four straight playoff appearances starting in 2004-5, but then came the lean seasons — 19 wins in 2008-9, for example — as the team coped with injuries, off-the-court problems and an ownership change. Still, Grunfeld survived when many others would have been fired.

All fair points. The Wizards have had injuries (especially the ones that effectively ended the career of Gilbert Arenas), off-court “issues” and a change in ownership. The off-court issues were at least in part of management’s making. They picked guys known to lack maturity (Nick Young, Javale McGee, Andray Blatche, Jordan Crawford, Javaris Crittenton, Arenas), and then contributed to a lax atmosphere that a former assistant coach described as “Romper Room.”

As for the ownership “change,” I’m not convinced it’s a major factor in Grunfeld’s execution of his responsibilities. Former owner Abe Pollin gave Grunfeld a “win now” instruction. He didn’t instruct Grunfeld to trade the fifth pick in the draft for Mike Miller and Randy Foye, and then let both walk as free agents. Pollin didn’t tell Grunfeld which players to draft or which free agents to pursue. He told Grunfeld to win. It was up to Grunfeld to figure out how to do it. What happened? Over a season and a half, they went 36-96 before saying “uncle” and trading away high-priced veterans.

But hey, stability is good, right?

Writes Cacciola:

Ted Leonsis, who became the majority owner in June 2010, told Grunfeld to rebuild the team through the draft, a goal that Leonsis knew would take time to achieve. Time is not an especially valued commodity in professional sports, but Leonsis was committed to using some.

“From Day 1, he said, ‘This is what we’re going to do, and it’s going to be painful at first,’ ” Grunfeld recalled. “ ‘But we’ll see the results as we move forward.’ And I think we’re starting to see it now. It’s still a process. We still have things we want to accomplish. But we feel like we have a very solid core.”

The process, as Grunfeld described it, started with Wall, a high-energy point guard who was the top overall pick in the 2010 draft. While Wall would be the team’s centerpiece, Grunfeld said he knew he needed to surround him with perimeter scorers who could space the floor.

With that in mind, Grunfeld went through free agency to sign Martell Webster, a dependable 3-point shooter. Grunfeld also acquired center Nene in a three-way trade that sent Nick Young to the Los Angeles Clippers and JaVale McGee to the Denver Nuggets. Four months later, the Wizards drafted Beal.

This is a curious mix of building on the unsupported Continuity Theorem, and selective omission of relevant information. Notice that there’s a key date missing — an entire year, in fact. That year: 2011, also known as a time when Washington was building through the draft and Grunfeld chose Jan Vesely, Chris Singleton and Shelvin Mack.

As many have written countless times, after careful evaluation, analysis and thought, Grunfeld picked Vesely ahead of Kawhi Leonard and Kenneth Faried, chose Singleton over Faried; and then plucked Mack before Chandler Parsons and Isaiah Thomas. That’s not retroactive 20/20 hindsight stuff — there was an array of fans using publicly available information who said the Wizards were making mistakes at the time.

What’s happened? Last season, Vesely was the league’s least productive PF. This season he’s better than that, but still not much above replacement level. And he’s in Denver, dealt there as part of the deal to bring in a 37-year old backup PG. Last season, Singleton was one of the NBA’s five least productive PFs. This year, he’s right at replacement level. Mack wasn’t anything outstanding, but a) was the most productive player the Wizards selected in 2011; and b) was showing some signs that he could become an acceptable (and cheap) backup PG. So, of course the Wizards cut him twice to keep less productive players.

A previous draft analysis I did using PER suggested that Grunfeld was roughly average as a drafter. I’m planning a more extensive analysis later this year using PPA (which does a better job than PER of determining who wins and who loses in the NBA) — if I can find the time between responding to “All Hail Grunfeld!” articles.

More from Cacciola:

Today, the only players who remain from the team’s 23-win season in 2010-11 are Wall, Trevor Booker and Kevin Seraphin, who are all young and productive and understand their roles.

This one is a puzzler. Wall and Booker can both be described as “young and productive,” but “productive” doesn’t work with Seraphin. Last season, Seraphin was the league’s least productive center. This year, he’s not quite as bad, but he’s still below replacement level. His strength is supposed to be scoring, but he’s had exactly one season with even average efficiency. He’s sort of a poor man’s Eddy Curry — the ball goes in the basket at a decent rate when he manages to shoot, but he’s a terrible passer and a turnover machine. He can be doubled with impunity because he’s more than twice as likely to turn it over than to assist a teammate. And he rebounds like a small forward.

Cacciola finishes up with this:

Grunfeld said he would continue to take a measured approach. He cited the slow upward arc of the Oklahoma City Thunder, who struggled to make much noise in Kevin Durant’s first few seasons in the league.

Durant developed, and the Thunder picked up important pieces to supplement his skills. There was never any panic, only patience.

“It doesn’t happen overnight,” Grunfeld said.

If I was in Grunfeld’s position, I don’t think I’d invite comparisons to what Oklahoma City has done, but…

Wall was the obvious pick at number one in 2010 just as Durant was the obvious pick at two (since Portland had already selected Greg Oden). Neither pick is indicative of basketball acumen — nearly anyone would have made the same choices.

But, I’m puzzled by this assertion about the Thunder’s “…slow upward arc.” Here’s a quick comparison of the first four seasons of Durant and Wall (and their teams):

SEASON DURANT PPA OKC WINS WALL PPA WAS WINS
1 88 20 93 23
2 146 23 110 23*
3 201 50 139 29
4 172 55 144 42**
Avg. 154 37 119 29

* — That was the year of the NBA’s labor dispute, which shortened the season. The Wizards won 20 games that season, but I’ve extrapolated to an 82-game season.

** — So far this season the Wizards have 33 wins. Their current winning percentage multiplied by 82 games comes to 42. Their scoring differential is that of a 42-43 win team.

What I see in the table is that Wall was a tad better than Durant as a rookie, but that Durant improved much faster. Perhaps not coincidentally, Oklahoma City’s wins went up faster well. The first two seasons were similarly terrible for both teams, but then the Thunder jumped to 50 wins in Durant’s third season while the Wizards managed just 29 in Wall’s.

Of course, Wall was injured for a significant chunk of his third season, but with him they were a game under .500. I won’t argue if folks prefer to claim 40-42 wins for that third season. The basic point still stands — namely, that OKC’s arc wasn’t “slow.” It was horizontal for two seasons and then turned sharply up. From Durant’s second season to his third, they more than doubled their win total. The Wizards’ arc has been slow, however.

Since the Wizards were attempting to emulate the Thunder’s approach (building through the draft), it’s worth comparing what the teams did with their picks. In the three drafts following Durant’s, OKC added Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka in 2008, and James Harden in 2009. Their 2010 draft was a bust — they traded multiple first rounders and got essentially nothing in return.

In the years following the selection of Wall, Seraphin and Booker, Grunfeld picked Vesely and Singleton in 2011, Beal in 2012, and Porter in 2013. Washington’s 2011 draft class will never be what the 2008 draft was for OKC. Beal’s first two seasons are a flatter version of Harden’s. The Wizards youngster had a rookie PPA of 92 and he’s currently at 94 in year two. Harden’s rookie season of 73 grew into a 101 (league average is 100) in his second year and jumped to 142 in his third. It’s way premature to make a call on Porter. The early returns don’t look favorable.

That’s seven first round picks for the Wizards since 2010. Wall is good. Booker is solid. Beal will probably be well above average. Let’s give Porter an incomplete. What I see is a clear reason why the team has shifted from building through the draft to making trades for established veterans: the failed 2011 draft. It seems odd to tout the team’s young “core” while ignoring that they’ve been forced to trade for starters and construct a geriatric bench because they’ve drafted so badly.

And, Cacciola omitted another piece of relevant information when assessing Grunfeld’s performance: the egregious free agent signing of Eric Maynor, who was given the full biannual exception and a player option on a second season despite four seasons of sub-par play in the NBA. Maynor, of course, was so bad in Washington that he had to be traded (along with Vesely AND a future second round pick) for the 37-year old Andre Miller.

So, after careful reivew, I remain unpersuaded that Grunfeld has done a good job running the Washington Wizards. Maybe next week someone from the New York Post can try to convince me.

Four Words You Thought I’d Never Write About Mike Wise

Rescue crews battle against the fumes from Mike Wise's latest column.

Rescue crews battle against the fumes from Mike Wise’s latest column.

If the Washington Post’s Mike Wise is trolling Wizards fans with his latest epistle in praise of Ernie Grunfeld…kudos to him. If he really believes what he wrote…holy crap.

Now for the payoff to that Upworthy headline: Mike Wise is right. Well, his basic conclusion that Grunfeld will keep his job is correct. But just about everything else he wrote? Ill-informed, error-riddled, poorly reasoned garbage.

Now that Wise is allegedly finished expressing his thoughts, bear with me as I retort.

Wise leads off with this:

Among the barbershop banter going around Verizon Center’s media room Wednesday night was the topic of which Washington Wizards small forward had to go in the offseason to avert a talent-and-minutes logjam: Trevor Ariza, Martell Webster or Otto Porter Jr.?

By the time arguments were made on each player’s behalf (given his age and upside, everyone agreed moving Porter after his rookie year would be downright foolish), it dawned on the half-dozen or so of us: We were talking about players who might have to leave Washington because of too much depth at their position. No one could remember such a discussion about a Wizards roster this decade.

This was when I realized Ernie Grunfeld had definitely saved his job.

Several things are downright amazing in these four sentences. Face palm “amazing,” not “John Wall just threw down a breakaway 360 windmill” amazing.

First, mediaites are just now talking about the Wizards having a lot of guys at small forward? Second, this is somehow a good thing? And third: it took Wise until March 5 to “realize” Grunfeld’s job was saved?

Yeah, the Wizards do have a theoretical logjam at SF. People paying attention to the Wizards recognized a potential logjam at that spot before last year’s draft. That’s before the team selected Otto Porter — which was as predictable as…well…Wise writing an inane column for the Washington Post.

That potential logjam — recognized before last year’s draft — called into question the Wizards’ entire offseason strategy. Picking Porter to play SF was a fine move, especially if you’re a “best player available” proponent (as I am). Trading two second round picks for one and selecting SG/SF Glen Rice Jr. was another perfectly acceptable move. Keeping Trevor Ariza for the final year of his contract (instead of trading him) was also a fine move, as was re-signing Martell Webster.

What was decidedly NOT sensible was doing all four in the same offseason. And, a number of smart observers who pay attention and give actual thought to how to construct a good NBA team have been saying so since June 2013.

Grunfeld’s choice to invest so many resources at one position left the Wizards lacking depth up front, which was yet another thing that concerned fans who were paying attention. Washington was counting on two 30+ year old bigs, and 30+ year old athletes predictably do two things: get hurt and get worse.

What happened? Thirty-one year old Emeka Okafor got hurt before the season started, which meant that the Wizards NEEDED to acquire a replacement if they hoped to salvage their season. We’ll get into that in more detail very soon.

Meanwhile, 31-year old Nenê hit the 30+ exacta by both declining AND getting hurt.

More from Wise:

On a playoff-or-bust edict from his owner since training camp, out of injury alibis and facing the prospect of no postseason for a sixth straight spring, the oft-slammed team president launched a deep three-pointer in late October.

Grunfeld acquired a journeyman center from Phoenix and some loose change for an injured Emeka Okafor and a protected first-round draft pick.

That player, Marcin Gortat, has started 60 of 61 games this season.

Gortat has double figures in points and rebounds in 24 of those games.

He has bailed out his team down low, especially now that his bookend 6-foot-11 big man, Nene, is out for at least another month because of a sprained knee ligament. When Nene is healthy, the two play off each other brilliantly; the more Gortat bangs inside on offense, the more Nene can do his ballet outside the key.

That first paragraph is pure sophistry. Trading for Gortat wasn’t a “deep three,” it was a layup, a sure thing. Ditto for the trade to obtain Okafor and Ariza. Wise is suggesting that Grunfeld was taking a chance to get the team back in the playoffs. A competent GM would have addressed the team’s glaring need for frontcourt depth during the offseason instead of burning all of his assets on small forwards and a backup point guard who had been demonstrably terrible for four seasons.

The trade for Gortat isn’t evidence of Grunfeld’s executive acumen, but prime evidence of his incompetence. When the team’s starting center was out of commission, they couldn’t turn to their bench and have even a reasonable hope that the next man up could do an adequate job. Nope, they had to burn a future asset — likely to be in one of the deepest, most talented drafts of the past decade — to achieve the very modest short-term goals for this season.

Next, Wise seems surprised at the level of Gortat’s play this season. While “journeyman” is a fair descriptor, Gortat is doing exactly what should have been expected. Regular readers may recall that before the season, I projected Gortat’s Player Production Average (an overall production measure I developed) this season would be 146. Gortat’s PPA as of my most recent update: 141.

More Wise:

Okafor, still rehabbing, has yet to play a game.

“With March and Nene, we can match up with anybody inside,” Grunfeld said at halftime of a victory over the Jazz on Wednesday night as he leaned against a wall in the club suite where he watches games.

“It was big at that time we made the trade because we knew Emeka was hurt. To bring in a big guy who plays both offense and defense and has a very positive attitude, we were very happy.”

Ernie won’t talk about his future, pleading that I write about something else. Ted Leonsis won’t talk about Ernie’s future, just as he won’t talk about George McPhee’s future with the Capitals. All Monumental Sports business apparently will be handled this summer.

But while McPhee may need a Stanley Cup playoff run of at least two or more rounds to warrant an extension, the signs of Grunfeld being re-signed are growing daily.

ESPN has calculated the odds of Washington returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2008 as 100 percent (since Golden State and Portland don’t yet have that designation, it apparently does help to play in the Eastern Conference).

I’ve already addressed the content of the Grunfeld quotes. What he says is accurate enough, if looked at in a vacuum. The trade for Gortat (which cost the team a future first round pick) wouldn’t have been necessary if they’d done a reasonable job of adding depth in the offseason. Or, if they’d used the cap space they traded for Okafor and Ariza to get younger players that could be just as productive and have the prospect of improving.

It was nice to see Wise at least acknowledge the benefits of playing in the weak sister Eastern Conference. To add some teeth to the aside, keep in mind that Washington’s record (compiled against the league’s 8th easiest schedule) would rank 10th in the Western Conference. At 32-29, they’d be four games out of 8th place.

Realistically, Washington’s record would be worse in the tougher conference. In my analysis, they’d fall 11th. In the East, they’re fourth or fifth.

More from Wise:

I’ll admit it: I thought Ernie was finally toast. Though I’ve consistently defended him on essentially the same grounds Leonsis has used — Grunfeld is executing the gradual rebuilding plan his employer instructed him to — I wasn’t sure he could recover from re-signing Gilbert Arenas and Andray Blatche to a combined $146 million in 2008 and 2010.

But the recycling king did it, turning Arenas into Rashard Lewis, then into Okafor and Ariza (a trade widely criticized as the Wizards taking on two aging role players for too many guaranteed years and millions) and finally Okafor into Gortat.

The first paragraph from this excerpt is absurdity. The Wizards talked about doing a gradual rebuild, but when presented with resources to acquire young, productive players with a future, they instead traded for older players who could speedwalk them back to mediocrity.

The Arenas for Lewis trade was a solid move. Trading the cap space for older players was shortcutting the rebuild.

Note that last line: “…and finally Okafor into Gortat.” No, it was Okafor AND a first round pick for Gortat. Here’s the total price: maximum cap space, a future first round pick and a future second round pick for Ariza and Gortat. And, if the Wizards want them back, it’ll cost them max cap space again.

More Wise:

This is a very good core group, with its two best players 20 and 23 years old, respectively. The Wizards have put themselves in position salary-cap wise to spend in free agency the next two seasons.

Everything here is wrong. The core group is not “very good,” it’s average. Its best players are 28 and 23 (Ariza and Wall). The Wizards have NOT put themselves in a good position to spend in free agency. The last point is one I addressed last November.

To summarize: the Wizards won’t be in position to ADD to their team via free agency. If they’re to have significant cap room to sign a “name brand” free agent, they’ll have to let Gortat, Ariza and Booker depart. If those guys leave, Washington will need to REPLACE them. If they re-sign Gortat and/or Ariza and/or Booker, they won’t have cap space to pursue a significant free agent.

Now, the team could re-sign Gortat and Ariza (and maybe Booker too), and then go shopping in free agency using the MLE. Then they’d be adding. But, they’d also then be tied to two 30+ year old big men (Gortat and Nenê), who would more likely be declining as Wall, Beal and (maybe) Porter are approaching their potential.

More Wise:

As time has gone on, the bigger picture of Grunfeld’s vision is beginning to emerge. Taking on Nene’s $65 million deal or the remaining $15 million of Ariza’s deal appeared risky, if not foolish, in 2012. But without those pieces and Gortat surrounding John Wall and Bradley Beal, the Wizards aren’t three games over .500 for the first time since the Arenas era and less than two months from possibly their first playoff series win since 2005.

Vision? There’s no vision here. The team is the assemblage of a man trying to save his job. There’s little apparent thought given to a long-term goal like building a championship contender.

The stuff about Ariza, Nenê and Gortat supposes that those were the only moves available. What’s more, getting these players (instead of younger guys who might grow with Wall and Beal) is indictment of Grunfeld’s alleged vision. Gortat and Ariza must be re-signed — re-acquired at the cost of a second helping of maximum cap space. And, as some (including myself) predicted, Nenê is in the expensive, injured, decline portion of his career.

And this is before even getting to the bungling that made trading for veterans a consideration in the first place. When Washington dealt for these guys, younger players — all of whom were selected by Grunfeld — were setting new standards for ineptitude.

Wise writes:

With Joe Dumars reportedly on his way out in Detroit, Grunfeld would have the fifth-longest tenure among NBA GMs behind Miami’s Pat Riley, the Lakers’ Mitch Kupchak, San Antonio’s R.C. Buford and Boston’s Danny Ainge.

Yes, Grunfeld’s the only one on that list without an NBA title. He’s also the only one who was expressly told to do it on the cheap for a few years.

More sleight-of-hand sophistry. Note the use of “…an NBA title,” as if Grunfeld’s team was oh-so-close, but just fell short. So, let’s compare the records of the longest-tenured GMs:

NBA RANK TEAM GM W L W-L%
1 SAS Buford 611 254 .706
3 LAL Kupchak 520 346 .600
4 MIA Riley 515 348 .597
8 BOS Ainge 472 392 .546
11 DET Dumars 458 407 .529
28 WAS Grunfeld 345 520 .399

Perhaps you’ll notice what I did — during the time Grunfeld has been in charge of the Wizards, they’ve had the league’s third WORST winning percentage. In that same timespan, those who have been in place longer have run three of the league’s most successful franchise. And the fourth guy — the one reportedly close to being fired — guided a franchise that was one of the NBA’s best for a seven-year span, and which won a championship.

What’s remarkable to consider is that 22 other NBA franchises were better than the Wizards teams Grunfeld assembled…and replaced their GM.

Wise blathers:

He doesn’t get a pass for drafting Jan Vesely at No. 6 or Oleksiy Pecherov at No. 18. He’s also not the only NBA executive who didn’t take Stephen Curry before No. 7 or DeJuan Blair before No. 37 in 2009.

But, apparently in Wise’s book, Grunfeld does get a pass for picking Chris Singleton ahead of Kenneth Faried, for signing Eric Maynor, or for trading the 5th pick for Mike Miller and Randy Foye.

Wise bleets:

Here’s hoping those in the Why-Isn’t-Grunfeld-Gone? mob can lower their pitchforks and finally notice the team in front of them.

Last month in Sochi, Russia, I ran into a former acquaintance of mine and Grunfeld’s who, within minutes, wanted to know, “How does Ernie still have a job?” I’ve heard this often the past few years, often from people looking for work themselves.

Now that the Wall era is within weeks of its first postseason, the answer is easy: Ernie Grunfeld and his closest advisers were given just the right amount of time they needed to fix what was broke.

For this year, the team is enjoyable to watch. But, those who pay attention to the team know that scaling Mt. Mediocrity this season (and really, it was supposed to be scaled last season, but…you know…that injury to Wall and (this may sound familiar) lack of depth) comes at the expense of the team’s future.

They spent their cap space on older players. To keep those older players, they’re going to have to spend even more cap space.

Because one of those older players got hurt (and they hadn’t obtained a solid reserve big man despite a glaring need for depth), they had to spend a future first round pick (probably in a deep draft) to get another older player.

Because they flunked player evaluation, they had to spend their biannual exception, a previous (failed) first round pick, AND a future 2nd round pick to get an “on his last legs” backup PG.

This kind of twaddle from Wise is what I expected from casual fans when the Wizards punted on the rebuild and instead went all-in for mediocrity. What the team did was cynical in my view — they created an illusion of improvement, not by doing a genuine rebuild with younger players who have a future, but by spending resources on established players on short contracts.

It’s not about lowering pitchforks or wanting Grunfeld gone. When I’ve met Grunfeld, I liked him. In fact, I’ve liked and respected all the front office guys I’ve had a chance to meet. But they haven’t done a good job over the past decade, and there’s little reason to think they’ll abruptly improve in the future.

Wizards Trade for Backcourt Upgrade

NBA: Playoffs-Denver Nuggets at Golden State Warriors

The Wizards made a deal at the trade deadline, swapping Eric Maynor, Jan Vesely and a second round pick in 2015 in a three-team trade that landed 37-year old Nuggets PG Andre Miller. The trade provides Washington with a much-needed reserve guard, and costs the team little in the long-term.

For their stated goal of making the playoffs, this is a good trade. Miller has declined some in his NBA dotage, but is still productive in his 15th season. Regular readers are likely familiar with my Player Production Average metric (PPA), which credits players for things that contribute to wins, debits them for things that don’t — each in proper proportion. PPA is pace-neutral, accounts for defense and includes a “degree of difficulty” factor. In PPA, 100 = average and higher is better.

Miller’s PPA this season: 94. Last season it was a 96. The previous season: 84. This is a significant dropoff from the 140-range PPAs he posted in his early 30s, but it’s still more than adequate for a third guard. For comparison, Temple’s PPA this season: 20. Maynor’s: 8.

Acquiring Miller doesn’t affect Washington’s cap situation going forward. Vesely’s contract is up at the end of the season. Maynor had another year at $2.1 million, but only $2 million of Miller’s salary for next season is guaranteed. If the Wizards decide to bring him back, it would be the equivalent of signing a free agent PG for $2.525 million. The money they owed Maynor is a sunk cost they would have had to pay regardless.

And yet, I’m ambivalent about the trade. First, I don’t like giving up that second round pick. Some object based on the likelihood of it being a high second rounder. I really don’t care where it falls. In my analysis, second round picks are grossly undervalued by many teams, including the Wizards. They’re opportunities to take chances on guys with ability, but with a “wart” or two. They’re opportunities to obtain inexpensive talent to fill roles — or perhaps more. If it was me, I’d want lots of second round picks to have more shots at finding the next Gilbert Arenas or Carlos Boozer or Chase Budinger or Isaiah Thomas or Marc Gasol or Marcin Gortat or Nikola Pekovic or DeJuan Blair or DeAndre Jordan or Ersan Ilyasvoa or Amir Johnson or etc., etc., etc.

Remember, second rounders typically sign non-guaranteed contracts — if they get a contract at all. They can be sent to the D-League, seasoned overseas, or simply straight out released if they don’t work. Low-risk investment with the possibility of a significant reward. Even if only half your second rounders turn into rotation players, they’re still providing valuable production at bargain price. But I digress.

The second reason I’m ambivalent is that it highlights a long series of mistakes and mismanagement by Ernie Grunfeld and the Wizards front office. It’s nice they could acquire Miller, but they shipped out Maynor — the free agent prize, who just six months ago was supposed to be their upgrade at backup PG. Now they’re paying a second round pick to dump him. Vesely, of course, was the sixth overall pick in the draft (chosen ahead of Kawhi Leonard and Kenneth Faried), who has totaled almost as many turnovers plus fouls as he did rebounds or points.

Over the past few seasons, the Wizards have managed to turn near-max cap space, future 1st and 2nd round picks, a 6th overall pick, and a BAE into Gortat, Ariza and Miller. All of whom have expiring contracts.

And third, I look back with some frustration on the ones that got away. In particular, I think of Shelvin Mack — a guy the Wizards cut twice to keep less productive players — who’s having a solid year in Atlanta.

But, Miller does improve the team’s bench. He should give Randy Wittman lineup options at the end of games, and his success sharing the backcourt with Ty Lawson in Denver bodes well for a partnership with Wall in DC. He’s an experience, efficient pro, who will help the Wizards make the playoffs, even if they still figure to be a first-round out. In that sense, the trade is fine. But it’s a shame the deal was even necessary.

Should the Wizards Fire Randy Wittman?

USP NBA: WASHINGTON WIZARDS AT DETROIT PISTONS S BKN USA MI

I was all set to write a piece arguing that it would be pointless to fire Randy Wittman. Yeah, he’s not a good coach, but in my view the team is performing about as I expected. The Wizards are neither good nor bad. They’re mediocre. Or, looked at another way, the Wizards are BOTH good and bad. Which is merely another way of saying the same thing: this is an average team.

They are what their talent says they are. I don’t believe that any coach could come in and transmogrify this roster into a…well…what exactly? a contender for the third seed? Blech.

What would “fix” the Wizards? Fewer two-point jumpers? More screen/roll with John Wall and Marcin Gortat? Better defined roles? A rotation that somehow includes developmental minutes for Otto Porter? A more solid defensive scheme? More consistent effort? Sure, any or all.

Some of that could be influenced by the coach, some not. My position has been that Wittman is a problem, not The Problem. And, “The Problem” is that the team doesn’t have enough talent, which is a result of a series of bad decisions by the front office. My thinking has been this: Don’t let Ernie Grunfeld off the hook. Make him live with the success or failure of the team he assembled — players AND coaches.

Except, let’s look at reality. Owner Ted Leonsis set the franchise goal for the season: Make the playoffs. In very large part because of a historically weak Eastern Conference, the Wizards will almost certainly accomplish that goal. While they’d be roughly the 11th best team in the West, they’re 5th or 6th best in the East. It would take a catastrophic collapse over their final 29 games to miss the postseason.

Assuming Leonsis is a man of his word, Grunfeld will be retained in the offseason. It’s difficult to envision a scenario in which Washington makes the playoffs and Leonsis doesn’t bring back Grunfeld and The Coach.

I use “The Coach” intentionally, because the question for Wizards fans is whether you want to root for a team that’s stuck with Grunfeld and Wittman or a team that’s stuck with Grunfeld and Someone Else. My feeling is that Someone Else — whether it’s an interim coach who’s replaced by a “permanent” hire after the season or whether it’s an interim coach who “succeeds” and keeps the job — will be a better long-term option for the Wizards than Wittman.

So, even though Wittman has been saddled with a roster that doesn’t include a single player that ranks among the league’s 40 most productive players (Trevor Ariza is the highest rated Wizards player at 44), count me among the fans who’d like to see a new coach. Now.

Moving on to the update…  The table below presents results from my Player Production Average (PPA) metric. PPA credits players for things that contribute to winning and debits them for things that don’t — each in proper proportion. PPA is pace adjusted, accounts for defense and includes a degree of difficulty factor. In PPA, 100 = average, higher is better and 45 = replacement level.

PLAYER GMS MPG LW PPA
Trevor Ariza 48 35.8 152 148
John Wall 53 37.1 149 140
Marcin Gortat 53 32.4 139 139
Trevor Booker 43 20.2 125 118
Nene Hilario 46 30.3 103 103
Martell Webster 51 29.1 94 91
Bradley Beal 44 33.2 86 90
Jan Vesely 32 14.7 72 69
Chris Singleton 14 10.6 60 60
Kevin Seraphin 40 11.8 32 44
Glen Rice 11 9.9 21 21
Garrett Temple 51 11.5 13 20
Eric Maynor 23 9.3 8 8
Al Harrington 7 18.6 6 6
Otto Porter 23 9.3 4 -4

When looking at these numbers, keep in mind that PPA scores in the 140-150 range (like Ariza and Wall) are nowhere near elite levels of production. A typical MVP-quality season would have a PPA of 230 or better. This season’s MVP is likely to be Kevin Durant with a PPA of 261 (so far). Last season, Lebr0n James posted the best PPA in my database with a 284.

Wall had a feel-good All-Star weekend winning the dunk contest and playing well in the game. But, if he played in the West, he wouldn’t have been part of the All-Star discussion. He continues to have All-World potential, but his actual production is good — not great.

Biggest improvers in this update were Kevin Seraphin and Garrett Temple. Seraphin is now at replacement level. Temple continues to be among the league’s weakest PGs, but is at least a little less bad than he’d been.

Wall’s performance slumped leading into the All-Star break. Perhaps he was distracted by the coming festivities? Nenê’s production continues to hover around league average. Martell Webster’s play declined for a sixth consecutive update.

Why Ernie Grunfeld Hasn’t Been Fired

grunfeld & leonsis

Easter Island. Stonehenge. The continued employment of Ernie Grunfeld. These are a few of the mysteries that have baffled researchers through the years.

That Grunfeld has been able to remain at the Wizards helm despite the team compiling the league’s third worst winning percentage during his tenure — well, that’s been a real puzzler. But, you won’t need to trouble your thoughts any longer: I have solved the riddle. Through careful application of logic, reason, Basketball Reference and Microsoft Excel, I have compiled definitive proof showing why team owner Ted Leonsis has kept Grunfeld on the job.

The reason is shocking in its simplicity, and it shows how misguided and unreasonable you Leonsis/Grunfeld detractors have been.

Shame on you.

The problem has been application of the wrong measuring stick. Critics have been comparing Grunfeld to the rest of the NBA, which is silly when you think about it. (And, I’m sure if we all give it some thought, we might come up with a reason (just one) why it’s silly.)

The proper comparison for a guy taking over the Washington Wizards is…(wait for it)…other Wizards GMs. I’ll pause a moment for you to slap yourself in the forehead and say, “Oh my gosh, I’ve been SO stupid.”

Since 1973-74, the Washington Wizards/Bullets have had five GMs (top executives): Bob Ferry, John Nash, Wes Unseld, Michael Jordan and Grunfeld. Take a look at the table below, and you’ll see that the Grunfeld-built Wizards have compiled a .395 winning percentage — third best for a Wizards/Bullets in the past 31 years.

TOP EXECUTIVE YEARS W% LEAGUE RANK TEAMS
Ernie Grunfeld 03-04 to present 0.395 28 30
Michael Jordan 00-01 to 02-03 0.378 24 29
Wes Unseld 96-97 to 99-00 0.449 19 29
John Nash 90-91 to 95-96 0.327 25 29
Bob Ferry 73-74 to 89-90 0.523 8 27

And this season’s team is above average for a Washington team — hovering near the lofty heights of a .500 record.

Ernie Grunfeld — one of the three best Wizards/Bullets general managers in the past three decades. You don’t just go out and fire a top three GM.

We all owe Grunfeld and Leonsis a BIG apology.