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Forecasting the 2019-20 Washington Wizards

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The new front office is seeking to reload around younger players and a high 2020 draft pick

NBA: Preseason-Washington Wizards at Philadelphia 76ers
Wizards primed for a season of development.
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
NBA: Preseason-Washington Wizards at Philadelphia 76ers
Bradley Beal has become the Wizards leader and is primed to help lead the young roster into the future.
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

A year ago, the Wizards entered the season with the sincere belief they would win 50 games and make a deep run in the Eastern Conference playoffs. As the new season tips off tomorrow, matching the 50 losses they posted in 2018-19 might be considered success.

The 2019-20 season will be one of transition for the Wizards. They have 11 new players and chances are high they’ll continue to churn the roster throughout the season and into the summer of 2020. The incessant clatter about continuity is gone, and should remain so until the team starts winning. (I’ve argued in other spaces that continuity is an outcome, not a strategy. Good teams have continuity because they win. Bad teams make changes to get good players so they can starting winning. I digress.)

The Offseason

Departures from last season’s squad:

  • Tomas Satoransky — traded to the Bulls
  • Jeff Green — signed with the Jazz
  • Trevor Ariza — signed with the Kings
  • Bobby Portis — signed with the Knicks
  • Jabari Parker — signed with the Hawks
  • Sam Dekker — free agent
  • Devin Robinson — released

Arriving:

  • Rui Hachimura
  • Admiral Schofield
  • Justin Robinson
  • Garrison Mathews
  • Davis Bertans
  • Ish Smith
  • C.J. Miles
  • Isaiah Thomas
  • Moe Wagner
  • Isaac Bonga
  • Chris Chiozza

New GM Tommy Sheppard’s offseason strategy was apparent: make low-cost bets on young players with potential, seed the roster with high-character veterans to help establish a professional culture, and collect future player acquisition assets. If they reboot the that culture and net two or three future rotation players from this group, the 2019 offseason can be considered a success.

2019-20 Forecasts

My forecasts make use of my Player Production Average (PPA) metric. PPA is an all-around rating tool that credits players for things they do that help a team win, and debits for things that don’t — each in proportion to what causes NBA teams to win and lose. PPA is pace neutral and includes accounting for defense and 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.

The forecast system puts 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 will do this season (DOPP). Those predictions aggregate into a forecast of the team’s record.

I’m also including 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.

For rookies, the forecast is based on a combination of draft position and similar players from my draft analysis.

Bradley Beal

Last season, Beal stepped into the void created by John Wall’s absence and became the team’s true leader. His on-court performance was stellar and nearly landed him All-NBA honors. Beal’s comps are a collection of All-Stars and better and include names like: Ray Allen, Paul George, Damian Lillard, and Danny Granger. Lillard showing up is fascinating because of how his production ramped up in the seasons following the comp, and because of Lillard’s leadership skills. Players like Beal peaked at 25-26 years old on average. Beal is entering his age 26 season.

Last PPA: 147

DOPP PPA: 142

MILK PPA: 148

Thomas Bryant

NBA: Preseason-New York Knicks at Washington Wizards
Will Thomas Bryant’s training camp focus on defense pay off for the Wizards during the season?
Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Plucked from the Lakers’ scrap heap in 2018, Bryant rode enthusiasm, effort and a freakish ability to convert around the rim to a starting role and a lucrative new contract. His combination of youth, production, and manner of production is fairly unique, and it shows in his stat comps. No one was a close match, and those that were closest were...eclectic, ranging from limited inside guys like J.J. Hickson and Larry Nance, to more multidimensional players like Nikola Jokic and Shawn Marion. This makes some sense given Bryant’s youth. His career could take a lot of directions. The analysis suggests his floor is high. All his comps were at least solid NBA players.

Last PPA: 177

DOPP PPA: 175

MILK PPA: 230

Rui Hachimura

The Wizards’ top draft pick drew strong criticism from many draft analysts whose work indicated he has a low likelihood of NBA success. My own stat-based draft analysis had him ranked about where they picked him, and suggests he should become a solid rotation player. That probably won’t be this season, however. Rookies struggle. Rookies picked where Hachimura was selected, and collegiate players like Hachimura also struggled — at first. The team’s barren roster — further depleted by injuries — should provide Hachimura with ample playing time, but fans (and the team) would be wise to temper their expectations.

Forecasted PPA: 51

Troy Brown Jr.

Buried on the Wizards bench for much of 2018-19, Brown should claim a starting role when healthy. Players like Brown tended to improve significantly in their second season. They also tended to peak fairly young (23-24) and generally at a level slightly better than league average. Fitting for a player as young and skilled as Brown, his comps range from SFs to scoring PGs. The biggest thing he can do to boost his value: improve his shooting.

Last PPA: 61

DOPP PPA: 90

MILK PPA: 105

Ish Smith

The Wizards have a long tradition of splurging on sub-par backup PGs, and Smith is the perfect candidate to keep it going. He’s fast and he’s a good guy, but he’s small, can’t shoot and is (at best) a meh defender. And he’s 31. The team hopes he can provide a reasonable stand-in for John Wall’s style, and it could work since Smith is solid in transition and is a skilled passer. Still, the Wizards shouldn’t stop shopping for PGs.

Last PPA: 51

DOPP PPA: 45

MILK PPA: 41

Davis Bertans

Obtained from the Spurs for effectively nothing, Bertans was a low-usage three-point gunner in San Antonio. That profiled largely held in preseason action with Washington, but Bertans’ long-range accuracy is a valuable skill and the rest of his game is enough to keep him on the floor. In the preseason, Bertans launched 14 three-point attempts per 100 team possessions. Last season, among players with at least 1,000 total minutes, only James Harden, Stephen Curry and Gerald Green were that prolific. The biggest question: Is Bertans more valuable to the Wizards on the floor or as part of an in-season trade?

Last PPA: 88

DOPP PPA: 83

MILK PPA: 87

C.J. Miles

Miles was acquired more for his personality than his game. His career peak was above average, but a) that was the only above average season of his career, b) that was six years ago, and c) he was well-below average the past couple seasons. He’s the forwards version of Ian Mahinmi. If the Wizards can trade him for anything of value, they should do it.

Last PPA: 36

DOPP PPA: 36

MILK PPA: 23

Isaiah Thomas

The backcourt Mahinmi/Miles. The reclamation project is worth a try — it was just 2016-17 when Thomas was All-NBA and MVP candidate. But he’s struggled to return from serious injuries, and it’s unlikely he’ll be able to regain anything resembling his old form. One ominous sign: last season in Denver, he was healthy and the Nuggets wanted him to provide some scoring punch for their bench unit. They gave up after just 12 games because Thomas was just that bad. This is a low-risk gamble for the Wizards because he’s another high-character veteran and they won’t be part of the playoffs chase. If he shows flashes of 2017, the Wizards may be able to trade him to a contender.

Last PPA: -8

DOPP PPA: 37

MILK PPA: 0

Isaac Bonga

Bonga is young, long and athletic, and if he has an NBA-level skill, I have yet to identify it. Maybe he’s a guard...except his ball-handling and passing are iffy and he can’t shoot. Maybe he’s a forward, except he’s not strong (at least not yet) and he can’t shoot. Coming up with comps was challenging because most players who had seasons like Bonga’s rookie year didn’t get another one. Yikes. The remainder were a stroll down memory lane of scrubs. The average peak of Bonga’s closest comps was below replacement level, but a couple became rotation-worthy guards. Getting there would be an achievement for Bonga, but the Wizards can give him a season or two.

Last PPA: 17

DOPP PPA: 24

MILK PPA: 29

Jordan McRae

McRae can score, and he needs to because there isn’t much else to his game. His comps are mostly fourth and fifth guards, some of whom peaked a bit above average (albeit at 25-26 years old — McRae is 28). He’s a strong candidate to be a fan favorite on a bad team, perhaps a slender version of Ledell Eackles, because he’s likely to have some big scoring nights off the bench.

Last PPA: 66

DOPP PPA: 56

MILK PPA: 65

Moritz Wagner

Obtained when Sheppard wormed the Wizards into the Anthony Davis trade, Wagner is a worthy gamble. He’s aggressive and plays hard, which can cut both ways. The effort is commendable, but not when it draws him out of position and leads to turnovers, bad shots and excessive fouling. Wagner’s comps are mostly SFs and SGs because of his anemic rebounding. The only center-leaning comp in his top 10 is Oleksiy Pecherov. Still, most of his comps became NBA contributors so there’s hope. If Wagner can figure out a role and become more disciplined in his approach to the game, he could become a valuable reserve in time.

Last PPA: 30

DOPP PPA: 47

MILK PPA: 39

The Rest

Neither Admiral Schofield nor Justin Robinson had promising draft or similarity comps. Robinson had more pros in his comp list — backup guards like Fred VanVleet, Shabazz Napier and Jerian Grant. Schofield’s list was mostly NBA washouts. Both figure to post rookie PPAs in the 20s.

John Wall doesn’t figure into the forecast because he’s unlikely to play significant minutes, but I ran the system on him anyway. His projected from the doppelganger system: 110. From the MILK system: 106. Neither approach accounts for Wall’s extended absences due to injury or for suffering an Achilles injury. If you’re interested, I wrote about that during the offseason.

The Record

Most expect the Wizards to be bad, and my analysis agrees. The team is attempting to reload with a young, try-hard culture, and those kinds of teams are often fun to watch.

The record is largely irrelevant. The Wizards will miss the playoffs and are likely to be in the race to be among the three teams with highest odds of drawing the top pick. Success this season will be in the development of Bryant and Hachimura into solid starters, the emergence of another youngster or two into bona fide rotation guys, and the front office being able to trade “spare parts” for future assets.

Final Prediction: 29-53, fifth worst record in the league, 10.5% chance of landing the top pick in the 2020 draft.