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2021-22 Forecast: Wizards reset the roster to remain in playoffs picture

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Wizards Chess

Three years ago, Ted Leonsis began making changes. He parted ways with Ernie Grunfeld and tasked Tommy Sheppard with managing the team. Sheppard cleared the board by dumping veterans and using the team’s meager cache of player acquisition resources to onboard youngsters with potential while they waited for John Wall to rehab his torn Achilles.

With Wall expected to return, Sheppard and Leonsis shifted to a “win now” plan, which took a hard left when they sent Wall and a first-round pick to the Houston Rockets for Russell Westbrook. As fun and frantic as the Westbrook gambit was, the team wasn’t good enough to compete for anything meaningful.

Their “win now” strategy veered again when they accommodated Westbrook’s trade request and dealt him to the Los Angeles Lakers for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell, and a first-round pick. They used available space under the luxury tax to acquire Spencer Dinwiddie as a new backcourt running buddy for Bradley Beal.

That ticking sound that keeps getting louder? The deadline for convincing the team’s cornerstone to stay in Washington.

So what are the goals for this season? Keep Beal. Make the playoffs. Win. How? By surrounding him with a theoretically deep ensemble of competent professional players.

The Wizards replaced high-end production potential with solid performers at multiple positions. They also have young players who could make significant leaps in production — Daniel Gafford, Rui Hachimura, and Deni Avdija.

They have some wildcards with Thomas Bryant (returning from a torn anterior cruciate ligament) and Corey Kispert (a rookie who probably won’t play a lot this season). Dinwiddie probably has one foot in this category as well — he looked healthy in the preseason, but he did miss virtually all of last season with a partially torn ACL.

And they have a new coach in Wes Unseld Jr., who as an assistant was renowned for his meticulous preparation. Will the sacrifice-Westbrook-and-surround-Beal-with-depth gambit pay off? It could — just know that winning and making the playoffs will likely require a step forward from one or more of those youngsters or wildcards.

That up-stepping is necessary because Kevin’s numbers-heavy analysis of the roster indicates that veterans in the rotation have established their performance levels and are unlikely to make significant jumps — up or down. While his approach suggests a few could peak higher than they have to this point in their career, that same approach found that players most like them tended to peak at younger ages.

For example, based on his comps, Beal’s theoretical peak is a 180 PPA (his best season so far is 160). But, players most like him had an average peak age of 26.4. Dinwiddie’s theoretical peak is PPA 129 (his best season so far rated a 117), but the average peak of his comps was 26.1. Both are 28.

Here’s each player, their age this season, their projected peak, and the average peak age of their comps:

  • Bradley Beal — 28 — 180 — 26.4
  • Spencer Dinwiddie — 28 — 129 — 26.1
  • Kentavious Caldwell-Pope — 28 — 110 — 27.5
  • Kyle Kuzma — 26 — 111 — 24.4
  • Montrezl Harrell — 28 — 159 — 24.7
  • Davis Bertans — 29 — 89 — 27.8
  • Rui Hachimura — 23 — 107 — 24.3
  • Deni Avdija — 21 — 64 — 22.2
  • Daniel Gafford — 23 — 161 — 26.5
  • Raul Neto — 29 — 115 — 27.5
  • Aaron Holiday — 25 — 79 — 25.3
  • Thomas Bryant — 24 — 155 — 24.1

2021-22 Forecasts

The forecasts use Kevin’s 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.

Ron follows with his thoughts on each player and the team as a whole.

Last season, Kevin ran four different forecast approaches: one using his Statistical Doppelgänger Machine (DOPP), another using a predicted PPA based on an age-adjusted career curve (dubbed MILK in honor of sports economist David Berri), a simple weighted three-year average PPA (SIMP) and another that applies an aging adjustment to that weighted three-year average (SAGE).

The final prediction missed by one game (33 wins predicted vs. 34 actual wins) and one spot in the standings (9th place predicted; they finished 8th). Individual player forecasts were hit and miss, but the approach pegged overall team quality.

Probably the toughest part of any forecast is projecting playing time. It’s impossible to predict injuries, and this year COVID-19 increases risk of players missing games. Kevin used Five Thirty Eight’s forecasted minutes with adjustments based on team-specific knowledge.

Key:

  • Last PPA = PPA last season
  • DOPP PPA = forecasted PPA using the Doppelgänger approach
  • MILK PPA = forecasted PPA using last season’s PPA and an age adjustment
  • SIMP = forecasted PPA using a “simple” weighted three-year average PPA
  • SAGE = forecasted PPA using a “simple” weighted three-year average and an age adjustment
  • BLEND = forecasted PPA using an average of the four approaches above

The *** represents Kevin’s best guess of which forecast is most probable for each individual.

Bradley Beal

Two seasons ago, Beal posted his career-high PPA (160) when he added playmaking to his scoring. Last season, he shared the ball with Westbrook and his playmaking dropped, as did his PPA (slightly). At 28, he’s likely in the “plateau” stage of his career, which is fine — he’s very good and deserved the third-team All-NBA honor last season. He’s likely to remain in the mix for All-NBA and a scoring title.

  • Last PPA: 153
  • DOPP PPA: 143
  • MILK PPA: 150
  • SIMP PPA: 155
  • SAGE: 151
  • BLEND: 150***

Ron’s Take: This past season may have been Beal’s last (and best) chance to pace the Association in scoring. Early season thinking is that Brad no longer has to drop 30 just to keep it close. To be sure, he can—easily! He’s aged and matured as a scorer, which means that his outpouring of buckets will be even more palatable for us basketball viewers. And since the team no longer needs him to do everything on the offensive end, I expect his trey-ball and efficiency to improve. Expect him to repeat as an All-NBA honoree.

Spencer Dinwiddie

In preseason, Dinwiddie looked mostly recovered from the torn knee ligament that kept him on the sidelines last season. At 28, he’s also likely in the plateau stage of his career, though at a level significantly lower than Beal (or Westbrook, who he replaces in the lineup). His career-best PPA was 117 back in 2017-18. His PPA in the 3,972 minutes he’s played since is 97.

  • Last PPA: 109 (last full season before the injury)
  • DOPP PPA: 107
  • MILK PPA: 107
  • SIMP PPA: 103
  • SAGE: 101
  • BLEND: 104***

Ron’s Take: Preseason was my first chance to closely watch Dinwiddie. He seems healthy, and his IQ and playmaking seem legit. No doubt he’s uber-talented. I recall hearing chatter that he should have been an All-Star in 2019. I don’t think he quite gets there this season; the East is too star-studded and opposing coaches are haters. My only fear is that no matter how well he plays this season, Dinwiddie and Westbrook will be compared and contrasted like the final two photo options for a social media post. I hope that I’m wrong but if last night’s chatter is any indication...

Daniel Gafford

Gafford is one of those young wildcards who could mean the difference between squeaking into the play-in or getting as high as 6th of 7th in the standings. He’s long and athletic and a thrilling finisher at the rim. He’s capable of being a defensive presence, though he’s still learning and will have to cut down on mistakes and fouling. His conditioning looked improved in preseason action. His performance didn’t make as much a jump in Washington as many seem to think, but that’s actually a good thing — he was figuring out his role in the NBA and got a little better at it with the Wizards. One open question is how he’ll do without Westbrook feeding him. The Wizards made a nice move signing him to a three-year contract that begins in the 2023-24 season. They have him locked up for five more seasons at a total of $43.9 million. That’s likely to be an excellent value for a productive center who just turned 23.

  • Last PPA: 119
  • DOPP PPA: 125***
  • MILK PPA: 137
  • SIMP PPA: 104
  • SAGE: 122
  • BLEND: 122

Ron’s Take: Gafford is exciting, man. I just wish he was a bit stronger because then there would be no doubt he could man the post as the starting center. So what I’m looking forward to from him is adding weight, minutes, points, and blocks. Managed correctly, the springy center can produce double-doubles, pace the league in blocks, and dunk on whoever. YOU’RE ON NOTICE, JOEL EMBIID.

(On another note, during the final preseason game against the Knicks, the Bullets Forever handle tweeted out something to the extent that, at only 23, Gafford has a visible bald spot. What if his bald spot is the key to unlocking him! Taking examples from my gym as a rule, the brothers who suffer from alopecia tend to become brolic. Maybe there’s a link between alopecia and bulking up.)

Rui Hachimura

The narrative on Hachimura last season was that he improved. That didn’t show up in the numbers. Overall, he seemed like basically the same guy but not quite as good. One exception: his on-ball defense got better over the course of the season (though his help defense remained atrocious). He was more productive in the playoffs than he was in the regular season, though his postseason performance graded out to average. Entering his third season, he needs to make authentic improvement to cement a significant role in the team’s future.

  • Last PPA: 75
  • DOPP PPA: 91***
  • MILK PPA: 80
  • SIMP PPA: 82
  • SAGE: 94
  • BLEND: 87

Ron’s take: Whatever the numbers, count me with the group who believes Rui improved this past season. What’s more impressive (to me) is that he average just under 14 points per game while being an afterthought on the offensive end. I pray that Dinwiddie recognizes what Rui can be and helps him get there by (force) feeding him the ball.

Kyle Kuzma

Entering his fifth season, Kuzma is established as a basically average forward overall, albeit with subpar offensive efficiency. While he probably won’t make a significant leap at this point in his career, the potential is there as he theoretically could take on a bigger role without Lebron James and Anthony Davis. On the other hand, he had that situation for much of last season and his performance was average.

  • Last PPA: 98
  • DOPP PPA: 89***
  • MILK PPA: 99
  • SIMP PPA: 86
  • SAGE: 87
  • BLEND: 90

Ron’s take: I’m looking forward to the Wizards verifying Kuz’s contention that he can do more. I believe it. Be it starting or coming from the bench, Kuz presents a matchup problem/x-factor. And he’s an improved defender, having learned from LeBron and AD. I hope that we use this 6-10 weapon correctly.

Davis Bertans

After signing that five-year, $80 million contract, Bertans arrived to training camp out of shape. He performed poorly — worst season of his career — and got hurt. And he still shot just a bit under 40% on a high volume of threes (many contested and from extreme range). While there isn’t much else to his game, the elite shooting provides value. He’s a good bet to improve from last season, though his overall production will probably remain below average.

  • Last PPA: 73
  • DOPP PPA: 61
  • MILK PPA: 68
  • SIMP PPA: 85***
  • SAGE: 80
  • BLEND: 74

Ron’s Take: Ehh.

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope

Solid player whose best season (PPA 110) was four years ago. He’s miscast as a starting SF, but the Wizards may need him there because they continue to lack an NBA-quality performer at that spot. I suspect that Unseld and the coaching staff recognize he’ll have more value as a SG/SF super-sub (and potential Sixth Man of the Year candidate) and will use Kuzma in a starting role.

  • Last PPA: 95
  • DOPP PPA: 84
  • MILK PPA: 93
  • SIMP PPA: 90
  • SAGE: 88
  • BLEND: 89***

Ron’s Take: Prior to the trade, I was unaware that Brad and KCP are close friends. During Media Day, he mentioned he has the playmaking toolset in his bag, and I’m looking forward to seeing if it’s true. Regardless, he’s an upgrade over what we had this past season. Plus, he gets first crack at guarding the opposing team’s best player. Best buds indeed.

Deni Avdija

While the numbers aren’t pleasant, and Avdija looked about the same in preseason as he did last season, he’s way too young to write off. He has potential and seems to think the game well. He also needs to get stronger and improve ball handling, shooting and defensive technique and awareness. Young players often improve, but not always and not in a linear way. About 40% of Avdija’s closest comps didn’t make significant improvements and were out of the league after 3-4 seasons.

  • Last PPA: 48
  • DOPP PPA: 48
  • MILK PPA: 70
  • SIMP PPA: 48
  • SAGE: 70
  • BLEND: 59**

Ron’s Take: Deni has the tools. The only thing missing thus far has been opportunity. And lack of opportunity stifles confidence. So what I’m looking forward to is whether Unseld can instill some confidence in Deni by putting him in position to succeed.

Raul Neto

Last season was the best of Neto’s career, and the Wizards did well to bring him back at the league minimum. At 29 years old, he’s not likely to get any better, but he should be able to remain at a solid contributor level.

  • Last PPA: 93
  • DOPP PPA: 91
  • MILK PPA: 87
  • SIMP PPA: 84
  • SAGE: 79***
  • BLEND: 85

Ron’s Take: If there was an award for Most Plucky Player, Raul (nothing but) Neto would easily win. He’s the embodiment of grit — or as the Brazilians call it, coragem e força. Even so, I’m hoping not to see much of him this season. Aaron Holiday is younger, faster, and a bit better. Outside of the rare game where we need a spark from someone other than Aaron or Montrezl — or against Denver when he gets to face off his Argentine rival, Facundo Campazzo — the Wizards have better options than Neto.

Montrezl Harrell

Harrell is a good regular season player who’s been sidelined by opponents targeting his poor defense. That’s not a big issue for the Wizards, whose first concern is making the postseason. He seems a prime candidate to be traded when Bryant gets back on the floor.

  • Last PPA: 123
  • DOPP PPA: 116
  • MILK PPA: 121
  • SIMP PPA: 123
  • SAGE: 120
  • BLEND: 120**

Ron’s Take: I like Harrell. His face has the sheen of grit smudged all over it. To use a more cultural reference, he’s a DAWG. I’m looking forward to seeing him play the role of team enforcer as well as providing instant energy off the bench.

Aaron Holiday

It’s not clear to me why the Wizards moved down in the draft to acquire Holiday, who’s been a subpar reserve in his first three seasons. He’ll likely vie with Neto and maybe Kispert for backcourt minutes. The Wizards will need him to perform more like the 79 PPA guy from two seasons ago than the replacement level player from last season.

  • Last PPA: 41
  • DOPP PPA: 61***
  • MILK PPA: 42
  • SIMP PPA: 53
  • SAGE: 55
  • BLEND: 53

Ron’s Take: I enjoyed what I saw from Aaron during the pre-season. Like his older brother, he can guard 94 feet, make a timely three, and get to the cup. To that end, I would love it if he received the lion’s share of backup PG minutes. I know the numbers suggest he’s below average, but I blame that on him sharing a backcourt with T.J. McConnell.

Thomas Bryant

When healthy, Bryant was a special offensive weapon — elite finisher at the rim with accurate shooting from distance, terrific reads in pick-and-roll sets, good screener. He was also a subpar defender with leaden feet. He probably won’t be back until at least December as he continues rehabbing the torn knee ligament. If he makes a full recovery, the Wizards could trade him or Harrell at the deadline.

  • Last PPA: 139 (last full season pre-injury)
  • DOPP PPA: 136
  • MILK PPA: 148
  • SIMP PPA: 134
  • SAGE: 144
  • BLEND: 134***

Ron’s take: I hope Bryant comes back healthy and performs well...because I hope he and the Latvian Laser/Baltic Bust are dealt for decent compensation.

This group figures to consume the vast majority of the team’s minutes this season. Kispert could crack the rotation, potentially as a backup for Beal. Kevin forecasts him at a PPA of around 70 in his rookie year, which suggests the team would be better off playing KCP as a reserve G/F and Neto or Holiday as the primary backup guard.

Kevin’s Prediction

Vegas has the Wizards over/under on wins set at 33.5, which I think will end up on the low side unless they suffer a rash of injuries.

The Wizards want a return to the playoffs, and my analysis indicates that’s a realistic goal. Sure, they could fall apart and stumble to 33 wins, but it looks to me like 38-40 wins is more likely. That could get them as high as 8th, though I think 9th is where they’ll land.

In the East, they’re still behind the Brooklyn Nets, Milwaukee Bucks, Boston Celtics, Miami Heat, Atlanta Hawks, and New York Knicks. I think they’re also behind the Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers, which indicates they’ll duke it out for 9th and 10th with the Charlotte Hornets and maybe the Toronto Raptors.

Here are forecasted wins using each of the approaches I described above:

  • DOPP: 38.8
  • MILK: 40.6
  • SIMP PPA: 38.9
  • SAGE: 40.0

Using the best-case forecast for each player gets the team to 42.4 wins. Using the worst-case forecast predicts 37.2.

The blend says 39.6 wins.

With luck and a player or two significantly improving, they could get as high as 44 wins. With injuries or regression, they could get as low as 35.

Kevin’s Final Prediction: 39-43, which will land them 9th and give them at least one play-in game.

Ron’s Final Prediction: 42-40, and a 7/8 rematch against Boston in the play-in. But this time the game will be in DC.

Make your prediction in the comments!