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It’s time for the Wizards to start their best center again

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NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Washington Wizards Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

The good news story of the torturous Washington Wizards season has been the emergence of 21-year old big man Thomas Bryant. Plucked from the offseason waiver wire, Bryant was thrust into the starting lineup by Dwight Howard’s back injury and Ian Mahinmi’s performance. Improbably, the youngster thrived in his first significant NBA minutes.

This being the Wizards, head coach rewarded Bryant’s performance by replacing him in the starting lineup by Bobby Portis, a lesser player.

As with any 21-year old, Bryant is far from a perfect player. He’s a subpar defender with poor footwork. He needs to get physically stronger. He needs to gain experience. These are fairly normal flaws for someone as young and inexperienced as Bryant.

But, even with those flaws, Bryant has been productive. He makes his shots, avoids turnovers, rebounds decently (he’s among the team leaders in box out percentage), sets good screens (tops among rotation players in screen assists per 48 minutes), and has done that mostly against starters. His effort and enthusiasm bode well for his capacity to improve. What a player like Bryant needs most: good coaching and playing time.

Pointing out that Bryant is the better player is no insult to Portis. Their production is similar across an array of statistical categories (see below). Even their biggest weakness (defense) is similar. So then why is Bryant better? Because the primary differences between the two are that Portis misses more shots and commits more turnovers.

The table below lists the per 100 team possession stats for Bryant and Portis this season with the Wizards, and Portis’ numbers from last season (since his sample in Washington is so small). Included in this table is per 100 team possessions stats for Bryant and Portis this season with the Wizards, and Portis’ full-season numbers from 2017-18 with the Bulls, since the sample with Washington was so small. Keep in mind last season was also Portis’ most productive season to date.

Thomas Bryant vs. Bobby Portis

Stat Bryant 18-19 Portis Wiz 18-19 Portis 17-18
Stat Bryant 18-19 Portis Wiz 18-19 Portis 17-18
Games 53 9 73
MPG 19.2 27.4 22.5
USG% 17.4% 22.7% 25.8%
ORTG 134 107 109
eFG% 66.0% 54.3% 52.0%
2PT% 68.1% 49.4% 51.4%
3PT% 37.3% 43.2% 35.9%
FT% 80.0% 70.6% 76.9%
FGA 15.7 22.1 24.1
2FA 13 15.1 17.5
3FA 2.7 7.1 6.6
FTA 4.2 3.2 4.6
ORB 3.5 3.6 4.7
DRB 10.9 11.6 10.1
REB 14.4 15.3 14.8
AST 3 2.3 3.7
STL 0.9 1.9 1.5
BLK 2.1 0.4 0.7
TOV 1.9 2.9 3.1
PF 3.9 6.5 3.9
PTS 24.1 26.3 28.7
ZIP 6.8 12.3 13.5
Data through 3/5/2019. Stats per 100 possessions unless otherwise indicated.

The “zip” category summarizes why Bryant is the better option. Zip is short for “zero-point possessions,” which are missed shots that aren’t rebounded by the offense and turnovers. What this shows is that Portis generates approximately twice as many zero-point possessions as Bryant. This has a direct effect on a team’s ability to win.

Let’s look closer at shooting for a moment. After accounting for the effect of the three-point shot, in 2017-18 Portis had 2.2 made FGs per 100 team possessions more than Bryant has produced so far this season. To get those extra makes, Portis had an additional 8.4 field goal attempts. That’s 26.1 percent shooting on those extra attempts.

It’s possible for a player to be less efficient on offense and still be better and more productive overall, but to make up this kind of efficiency deficit, Portis would have to be significantly better on defense and he simply is not.

The nonsensical benching of Bryant fits a pattern that includes a lack of playing time for first round pick Troy Brown, who currently ranks 61st among rookies in minutes per game. This is a function in with of the organization’s incoherent strategy. Lacking meaningful goals, coaches fall back on crutches like playing veterans in an effort to retain their job.

The Wizards are ten games under .500 and three games out of the playoffs in the sad-sack Eastern Conference. It’s past time for them to invest playing time in the promising young players on the roster, and start rewarding their achievements with an eye toward the future. This would mean fewer minutes for older players like Trevor Ariza, Jeff Green, and Wesley Johnson, as well as team leader Bradley Beal, and more time for Bryant, Brown, Portis, Sam Dekker, Devin Robinson, and even Jabari Parker.

It’s time for the Wizards to finally, for once, do something that makes sense.