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Pumping the brakes on Ian Mahinmi’s turnaround

Mahinmi has been a revelation so far this preseason, but it’s still too early to tell if this will last.

Miami Heat v Washington Wizards Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images

This offseason, Wizards center Ian Mahinmi did what a lot of aging big men have done in recent years: he lost weight. This is a smart move that younger bigs would be wise to emulate because it increases quickness and takes stress off the body. Through the first three preseason games, Mahinmi has started and looked impressive enough that enough fans have begun to ask the question posed by Albert Lee: Could he be the Wizards’ starting center after all?

The answer: a resounding yes, if a sequence of improbable possibilities come to pass. Like, IF Mahinmi continues playing as he has in the preseason. IF Mahinmi can somehow remain healthy. IF Dwight Howard somehow becomes willing to accept a reserve role.

The most improbable of these is that Mahinmi will maintain the level of performance he’s shown in preseason. Here’s his Player Production Average for each of the games:

  • 244
  • 212
  • 79
  • Overall: 178

In PPA, a 244 for the season would indicate an MVP-level performer. A 212 is typically an All-NBA level player. A 178 would be an All-Star, most of the time. (In PPA, average is 100, higher is better, and replacement level is 45.)

Now consider that Mahinmi is entering his age-32 season, that his career-best season was a PPA 148, and that the peak season is the only one of his career that rated above average. His career average is 76; his Washington PPA: 59. It’s tough to find examples of players who were below average for a decade and abruptly improved at 32 years old.

For comparison, the least productive seasons of Dwight Howard’s career were about the same level as Mahinmi’s peak.

During his Wizards career, Mahinmi has shown this kind of performance pattern. He’ll play two or three good games—just enough for fans to think he’s turned a corner—and then backslide to sub-replacement level performance.

On top of the sub-par career numbers and historical data, it’s important to keep in mind the preseason is Small Sample Size Theater, but even less meaningful. What happens in a small sample is prone to significant variation from the true performance level. Preseason numbers get an even bigger discount because no one has game planned or scouted, and the games are not played at regular season intensity. In other words, Mahinmi’s performance might just be a fluke.

This is not to say that Mahinmi becoming an average or better center is impossible. Wildly improbable things happen all the time, and Mahinmi did make a similar leap for a single season three years ago. If Howard’s sore butt lingers, it could make sense for Scott Brooks to start Mahinmi while giving the bulk of the center minutes to Markieff Morris.

But realistically, Mahinmi is going to be a spot warmer until Howard gets back in the lineup, and this is as it should be: Howard is better. The best-case dream for the Wizards is that Mahinmi somehow manages 12 minutes per night of approximately career average performance (PPA 76). If he does that, he’ll be a useful reserve and valued contributor.

Noting that Mahinmi is having a good preseason, and even getting hopeful, is fine, but given his history and the funny money quality of exhibition basketball, it’s a good idea to pump the brakes on the fantasy that he’s turned a corner and will somehow be good.