John Wall’s 2017-18 was an injury-riddled slog, and his worst season since 2011-12 -- his second year in the league. Persistent knee pain diminished his production, and required surgery that caused him to miss 41 games.
It could be that Wall’s year was nothing more than an injury-driven aberration. It could be that his bad shooting and poor shot selection were products of pain and that a healthy Wall will return to something closer to his peak next season. In fact, that’s what’s likely to happen. For next season. And maybe the year after.
But, what if injuries and declining performance are normal for players like Wall at this point in their careers? What if his best basketball is in the rearview mirror? And what if the Wizards’ window for winning big with Wall is already slamming shut?
Last summer, the Wizards committed their foreseeable future to the fortunes of their point guard. The four-year extension begins after next season, and will keep Wall in town through at least 2023. Over the next five seasons, the team will pay him $188.5 million.
The size of this extension would cause heartburn for a competent NBA front office, even if it believed Wall would perform as he did in the 2016-17 season. That year, Wall posted a PPA of 165, the best mark of his career, and earned third team All-NBA honors. Performance at that level would be valuable, albeit not at 35 percent of the salary cap.
PPA is short for Player Production Average, which is my overall player rating metric. PPA is pace neutral, accounts for defense, and includes a degree of difficulty factor based on the level of competition a player faces when he’s on the floor. In PPA, average is 100, higher is better, and replacement level is 45.
But, the likelihood of Wall reaching his 2016-17 level of play -- much less sustaining it into his thirties -- is minimal. Analysis of the career patterns of players most like Wall suggest that he’s already peaked, and he’s unlikely to provide high-level production for the duration of his contract extension.
While predicting the future always has pitfalls, that’s exactly what NBA front offices are charged with doing. Franchises that are best at making those predictions win more games and championships. Less accurate franchises are the Wizards.
A list of similar players can vary a bit depending on methodology. My statistical doppelganger machine, which searches the historical record for similar production at similar age (across 14 statistical categories), identifies Baron Davis, Deron Williams, Isiah Thomas, and Stephon Marbury as being closest to Wall.
FiveThirtyEight’s CARMELO system (which doesn’t include the 2017-18 season yet) adds Dwyane Wade, Steve Francis, Kevin Johnson, Devin Harris, Jason Kidd, and Kenny Anderson.
Wade, Kidd, Johnson and Harris don’t make sense as comps for Wall -- the first three because they were significantly more productive during their prime years; the last because he was significantly less productive. Johnson, for example, had five seasons that rated better than Wall’s career best season so far. Wade had seven, Kidd 12.
That leaves Anderson and Francis as possible comparables. My doppelganger machine rates Anderson as similar, but a bit further down the list. Francis doesn’t rate as similar using my approach because the shape of his career was unique. His best season was a PPA 172 at age 23, which was his second year in the league. But, his production dropped fast, and his last above average season was at age 27. He was out of the league at 30.
For this analysis, I’m adding Anderson and Francis to the list. Among this six-player group, all had their best season by age 27. Marbury (ninth season) and Davis (eighth) had the latest peaks in both age and years of experience. Davis had the best tail of his career with two seasons that rated better than average at ages 30 and 31. However, he managed just 58 games at 31, and finished his career with a replacement level season at 32.
Marbury followed up his best season (PPA 164 at 27) with two average seasons, and two bad ones. At 32, he was playing in China.
Altogether, this group played 17 seasons at age 30 or older. Just five of the 17 rated better than average. Anderson was the only player to stay in the league past 32 -- he managed PPAs 66 and 48 in his final two seasons.
Davis, Williams and Thomas all played their final seasons at age 32. All three rated solidly below average that season. Davis and Williams managed borderline All-Star seasons at age 28, but never performed that well again.
Overall, this group’s average peak was at age 25, and it came in their sixth season. Next season, Wall will be 28 years old, and it’ll be his ninth season. The best season of his career (so far) was his seventh, at age 26.
When looking at this group of players, there’s a factor beyond declining production that must be weighed: availability. This is not about Wall personally -- he’s been healthy for the most part. But, it’s a fact of athletic life that older players do two things reliably: get injured and get worse.
This is largely true of the players most comparable to Wall. Over the next five seasons, Wall will be ages 28-32. Isiah Thomas set the standard for durability among this group, playing in 84 percent of his team’s games. He missed significant chunks at age 29, and then in his final year, but played a full schedule the other three years.
Next up was Deron Williams, who played 78 games at 28, and then 64-68 games until he finished up at age 32.
Baron Davis played all 82 at 28, and 75 at 30, but missed 17 games in his age 29 season, and limped away with 58 and 36 games in his last two years.
Kenny Anderson was all over the place, mixing injury-riddled years with healthy ones. Over his last five seasons, he averaged just 57 games ranging from 33 at age 30 to the full 82 at 29.
Steve Francis and Stephon Marbury didn’t make it to 32 -- Francis was finished at 30, and Marbury at 31. Toss those two out, and the remaining four averaged 64 games per season between 28 and 32 years old. As a group, they averaged 90 missed games per player over those five seasons. That’s a full season, plus.
It’s possible that Wall could be healthier than this group through a combination of good luck, medical advancements, and improved training and nutrition.
In other words, the Wizards should anticipate a decline both in Wall’s performance, and in his availability over the next five seasons.
Adding Kidd, Wade and Johnson to the picture doesn’t change much, unfortunately. Wade had a borderline All-NBA season at 31, and played at All-Star level at 32, but the out years of his career have been characterized by frequent injuries and a PPA in the 120s. Decent, but nowhere close to the level the Wizards will need if they expect to compete in an improving East.
Johnson had an All-NBA level season (PPA 191) at 30, but his production and health plummeted, and his career ended with a six-game season at 33 (after missing his entire age 32 season with an injury).
Kidd is an outlier, and the best case scenario for Wall. He played at an All-NBA level to age 33, and maintained All-Star quality until 36. Their games are at least somewhat similar. Both are superb passers who struggled with their shot selection and shooting accuracy. Kidd separated from Wall with elite rebounding and defense, and by committing about 20 percent fewer turnovers. Kidd’s career peak was a PPA 208 at age 25, which he nearly matched at 29.
Obviously, there’s nothing written in stone when it comes to predicting Wall’s future. It’s possible he could bounce back to the third-team All-NBA level of 2016-17. It’s possible he could be a Kidd-like physical freak who maintains high-level production into his mid-30s.
That’s not the most likely scenario, however. What’s most likely is that Wall has already played the best basketball of his career, and that what the Wizards will get for the $188.5 million they’ll pay him the next five seasons is decent production the next couple seasons followed by a precipitous decline when he hits his thirties.
So, put yourself into the Wizards front office. Ted Leonsis has finally come to his senses and replaced Ernie Grunfeld with you. The team’s analytics nerd has stumbled into your office with this information. What would you do? Do you trade Wall immediately before his extension kicks in? Do you hope for the best and ride or die with the franchise’s best-ever point guard? Do you bring in the best medical and training personnel on the planet? Do you devote resources into acquiring a dynamic backup PG for when Wall is sidelined? Do you alter the team’s style to make Wall’s minutes easier? Do you ask Wall to tweak how he plays?
What would you do?