The slogan for the 2018-19 Washington Wizards: Welcome to Uncertainty. If everything goes right for the team, they could crack 50 wins and make a deep playoff run. If things go badly, they could hover around .500 and squeak into the postseason. At issue for the team is whether key players can stay healthy, whether a locker room described as “fragile” can develop cohesiveness and mental toughness, whether some of the older players can defy their historical career arcs, and whether anyone can make The Leap.
With LeBron James in the Western Conference, the East’s path to the Finals is wider than it has been in nearly a decade. Washington could be in the mix, depending on how those “issues” resolve themselves throughout a long season. While there’s reason for hope, most likely the Wizards will remain a notch below Boston, Toronto, Philadelphia and Milwaukee.
The Wizards hit the summer intent on trading center Marcin Gortat and upgrading the bench. They managed the trade part, sending Gortat to the Clippers for guard Austin Rivers. To round out the bench, they signed journeyman forward Jeff Green as a major frontcourt reserve. These additions, along with the return of Tomas Satoransky, Kelly Oubre, and Ian Mahinmi might modestly improve the bench unit.
With a hole at center, they signed Dwight Howard, an athletic superhero who’s an even iffier locker room presence than Gortat was. Howard spent training camp and the preseason on the sideline with a strained back.
The team claimed big man Thomas Bryant from waivers, and drafted 18-year old Troy Brown in the first round. Neither player figures to play a significant role with the team this season.
Scott Brooks and the coaching staff came to training camp pushing players to trade two-point jumpers for threes. The players responded with the league’s sixth highest preseason three-point attempt rate (they were 24th last year). Their accuracy was terrible (second worst in the preseason), but the Wizards have established themselves the past few seasons as a good shooting team. That percentage will likely return to normal in the regular season.
The below projections are based on 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.
The projection system runs each player through my Statistical Doppelganger Machine, which uses an array of statistical categories to find players with similar production at a similar age. Then it looks at what those players went on to do, runs it through a fancy-schmancy algorithm and voila—predicts what the Wizards roster will do this season (DOPP). Those predictions aggregate into a projection of the team’s record.
For the heck of it, I’ll also include a predicted PPA based on an age-adjusted career curve. I call that approach MILK, which I took from sports economist David Berri, who once wrote that NBA players age like milk.
No player on the team has as much uncertainty in his forecast as Wall. At 28 years old, he’s no longer young, and players like him in the historical record haven’t aged well. Wall’s meh 2017-18 could be dismissed as an injury-plagued down year, or it could be a sign of things to come. For the players most like Wall through history, playing a full schedule became increasingly difficult past age 27. Brooks and the coaching staff would be wise to find ways to ease the regular-season burden on Wall to keep him healthy and preserve him for the playoffs.
Wall’s projected PPA depends a lot on assumptions about his health. My forecast model projects his PPA at 132, but that’s based on last season, which was heavily affected by his knee problems. If I ignore last season and plug in the 2016-17 PPA, the model suggests he could go as high as 169 (Wall’s best season so far is a 165). An approach that uses a multi-year performance measure forecasts something in the middle. These same issues arise using the MILK model. Using last year’s performance, MILK predicts a PPA of 125. In my forecast of the team’s record, I used the multi-year performance measure.
LAST PPA: 128
DOPP PPA: 150
MILK PPA: 146
Beal is among the game’s more productive shooting guards, but backcourt production is dominated by point guards. Last season, Beal was an All-Star for the first time, but his overall performance was a step down from the previous campaign. At just 25 years old, he should be entering his prime. Of concern: his career is starting to look more like Jason Richardson than Ray Allen. Players most similar to Beal were as likely to decline as they were to improve at a similar point in their careers. The model predicts Beal’s career peak at around 160, which is quite good. This year’s forecast isn’t that optimistic, however.
LAST PPA: 135
DOPP PPA: 131
MILK PPA: 139
Among fans, Porter is the most divisive player on the team—I got into an embarrassing Twitter slap fight with a friend this summer, and we both think he’s valuable! Some fans are quick to point out perceived limitations in Porter’s game, which he seems to refute with outstanding production. While some believe Porter’s extreme offensive efficiency is a product of low usage and being teamed with Wall, data shows that Porter’s usage climbs to normal levels and his efficiency remains high when Wall is off the floor. Hopefully, the Wizards coaching staff can figure out why Porter’s usage drops so much when Wall is on the floor, and find a way to change it. Given Wall’s playmaking skills and Porter’s ability to put the ball in the hoop, there ought to be a way to wring more production from the duo. It’s clear that’s what the the Wizards want.
“I can’t make it any greener for him,” Brooks said of Porter during training camp. “It’s green, shoot. Shoot the ball every time you get an open shot. Do not hesitate.”
LAST PPA: 175
DOPP PPA: 178
MILK PPA: 180
Morris has been part of the team’s best lineup, albeit not a key driver of its success. He brings an aura of toughness, though that doesn’t always show with consistent effort and attention to detail. Morris isn’t bad, but he’s not good either. In the final year of his contract, Morris needs to show why he should stick around beyond 2019.
With Howard commanding attention inside, and teamed with a great passer and elite shooters, Morris should feast on open looks from three-point range and have the opportunity to have a career year. Unfortunately, players like him were more likely to decline at age 29 than to maintain or get better.
LAST PPA: 92
DOPP PPA: 80
MILK PPA: 86
Howard arrives in Washington with a tattered reputation. Despite outlandish athleticism and still good production, Howard’s teams keep deciding they’re better off without him. Houston let him depart via free agency after he couldn’t get along with the affable James Harden. Atlanta was excited to give him a lucrative three-year contract, and then traded him to Charlotte for nothing after a single season. The Hornets followed suit, and sent him to Brooklyn, which promptly waived him. Some of Howard’s historical comps maintained elite production into their late 30s, but the career trajectory is sloping down. Howard’s issues don’t involve physical ability, but whether he’ll commit to playing a role the team needs (defense, rebounding, rim running, pick and roll) and being a good teammate.
LAST PPA: 149
DOPP PPA: 137
MILK PPA: 94
When Rivers entered the NBA draft, my stat-driven system had him in the “do not draft” category -- not even in the second round. He went 10th overall to New Orleans where his performance was an abject disaster. Players who started like Rivers generally were out of the league after their rookie contracts, but players like Rivers didn’t have a dad running an NBA franchise. While nepotism gave him playing time and unwarranted playing time, Rivers’ hard work made him into a legitimate player. He was still solidly below average last season (the best of his career), but at least serviceable. He’s not going to be as much of an upgrade to Washington’s bench as fans hope, but he won’t be a step back either. Rivers is in a contract year.
LAST PPA: 78
DOPP PPA: 77
MILK PPA: 79
The fourth year wing’s reputation sped well past his production last season. He’s a tantalizing mix of superior athleticism, commendable effort, and iffy performance. Still a couple months from his 23rd birthday, Oubre is probably the team’s best candidate to take a major step forward. In a contract year, it would be in Oubre’s best interest to make The Leap, and it would be great for the Wizards too. Unfortunately, while Oubre’s comps tended to improve, The Leap seems to be further into the future.
LAST PPA: 62
DOPP PPA: 70
MILK PPA: 71
Last season, Satoransky found his niche as a low-usage do-everything utility guard. His steady performance helped the Wizards salvage a postseason berth when Wall missed half the year for knee surgery. The biggest question is whether the trade for Rivers will eat into Satoransky’s playing time enough to keep him from duplicating last season’s performance. The team would likely be better off with Satoransky playing more than Rivers, although I expect the opposite. Like Oubre and Rivers, Satoransky is in a contract year.
LAST PPA: 122
DOPP PPA: 126
MILK PPA: 121
Green getting a deal in Washington seemed inevitable, and his time has finally come. He’s been around average most seasons of his career, though a little further below that level in recent years. After a catastrophically bad season two years ago, he salvaged his career with a solid performance in Cleveland. At 32 years old, Green isn’t suddenly going to become good, but he can help the Wizards by focusing on defending and taking open shots. Players at Green’s age typically are entering the steep decline portion of their careers, but his comps from the doppelganger machine suggest he has another solid year in the tank.
LAST PPA: 84
DOPP PPA: 81
MILK PPA: 53
Mahinmi’s time in Washington has been predictably disappointing—at 32 years old, he’s managed one above average season in his career. He’s at least put himself in position to be a contributor this season by losing 20 pounds and increasing his mobility. And, there were encouraging signs in the preseason. But, it’s tough to ignore a decade of subpar play or his doppelganger comps. The Wizards should count themselves fortunate if they can get 10-12 minutes per game of above-replacement level production from him.
LAST PPA: 49
DOPP PPA: 47
MILK PPA: 31
The rookie doesn’t figure specifically into team’s projected record. Players picked in the middle of the first round produce in wildly divergent ways. There are players like Kawhi Leonard, who was terrific right from the start (rookie PPA: 160), and guys who needed longer runways like Giannis Antetokounmpo (rookie PPA: 59). And, of course there are players like Oubre, who was terrible as a rookie (PPA: 22). Just past his 19th birthday, it’s unlikely Brown will play significant minutes or be a contributor this season. The hope is that he plays well when given the opportunity, and works hard to earn a role in the future.
This year’s Wizards are in very much the same place they’ve been the past few seasons—a step below the top teams in the East. The MILK model would have Washington winning 42-44 games, which would likely get them into the playoffs with the seventh or eighth seed.
More in depth analysis suggests there’s reason for more optimism. My prediction is that a bounceback season from Wall and modest upgrades and improvement to the bench will push the Wizards to the fourth or fifth seed, and into the second round of the playoffs. If everything goes right, the team might crack 50 wins for the first time since 1979, but that’s more likely going to have to wait a little longer.
Final Prediction: 46-36, fifth seed in the East, ousted in the second round of the playoffs.