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Benchmarks and indicators from the Wizards hot start

Washington Wizards v Boston Celtics
Stellar play from Washington Wizards guard Spencer Dinwiddie has the team off to their best start in seven seasons.
Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

The Wizards are 4-1 and off to their best start in seven seasons. Important note: every statistical data point should be viewed with a skeptical eye. The sample sizes are tiny and can fluctuate wildly as teams play more games. What we’re looking for now are indications and benchmarks — indications of what the team will be, and benchmarks for where are they now to get a read on how things change going forward.

Here’s a quick overview of where they rank in key measures of team strength (in parentheses are last year’s ranks):

  • Strength of schedule adjust scoring margin: 6th
  • Offensive rating (points scored per 100 possessions): 10th
  • Defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions): 13th
  • Pace: 17th

Through five games, the Wizards offense has been middle of the pack in shooting, but they’ve done a good job minimizing turnovers and getting to the free throw line. On the defensive end, they appear to be focused on the area that matters most — they’re 9th best in opponent effective field goal percentage, up from 16th last season.

They’re forcing fewer turnovers, but their defensive rebounding has been better so far — 8th best defensive rebounding percentage vs. 15th last season. They’re also fouling a bit more.

Taken together, these numbers indicate a team focused on maintaining good defensive position, challenging shots, and crashing the boards to end possessions. That’s actually more than a little similar to how the team defended last season.

This year, they’re allowing the fourth fewest at-rim attempts — last season, they were number one. This year, they’re allowing the second fewest three-point attempts — last season they allowed the 6th fewest.

The change from last season to this one is something that shows on film — this year’s team isn’t scrambling as much. They miss rotations and don’t always execute the scheme properly, but there’s a sense when watching that the players know the principles and their assignments. There’s less ball chasing and far fewer switches.

In the spirit of looking for indicators, I meandered over to Stathead.com to take a look at teams that started the year 4-1. The question on my mind was whether a hot start has much meaning. Some observations and findings:

  • The range of final records for teams that started 4-1 is wide. On the high end, there’s the 2016-17 Golden State Warriors, which finished 67-15 (a winning percentage akin to going 4-1 over every five-game stretch) and won the championship. On the other end, there’s the 2020-21 Orlando Magic that finished the year 21-51, or the 2017-18 Memphis Grizzlies that finished 22-60.
  • Of the 56 teams that started a season 4-1, 41 made the playoffs.
  • Playoffs teams were likely to win in the first round — a first-round series winning percentage of 63.4%.
  • Five eventual champions started a season 4-1 — the 2016-17 Warriors, 2012-13 Miami Heat, 2013-14 San Antonio Spurs, 2019-20 Los Angeles Lakers, and 2015-16 Cleveland Cavaliers. Interesting that three of those teams included Lebron James.
  • The average 82-game record for teams that started 4-1 was 49-33. Their collective strength of schedule adjusted scoring margin was 2.73.

The last Wizards team to start 4-1 was in 2014-15. That squad finished 46-36 and had the lowest adjusted scoring margin among teams from this group that made the playoffs. They swept the Toronto Raptors in the first round, and lost to the Atlanta Hawks in round two after John Wall broke a bone in his hand.

As indicators go, this isn’t a bad one. The Wizards aren’t likely to go on winning 80% of their games, but teams that start 4-1 tend to be pretty good.

Player Production Average

Player Production Average (PPA) metric credits players for things they do that help a team win (scoring, rebounding, play-making, defending) and dings them for things that hurt (missed shots, turnovers, bad defense, fouls), each in proper proportion to how much it contributes to winning or losing.

PPA is pace neutral, accounts for defense, and includes a “degree of difficulty” factor that rewards guys for playing more difficult minutes. There’s also an accounting for role/position. In PPA, 100 is average, higher is better, and replacement level is 45. It usually takes a score of 225 or higher to be part of the MVP conversation.

The PPA score is not saying one player is “better” than another in terms of skill, ability, athleticism, or replaceability (if the players hypothetically switched teams or were placed on a hypothetical average team). Rather, PPA shows production so far this season in terms of doing things that help teams win NBA games.

Wizards PPA through games played Oct. 28

PLAYER POS GMS MPG PPA
PLAYER POS GMS MPG PPA
Isaiah Todd F 1 5.0 263
Spencer Dinwiddie G 4 29.0 225
Montrezl Harrell C 5 30.8 169
Daniel Gafford C 4 17.5 165
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope F 5 29.6 128
Kyle Kuzma F 5 34.6 114
Raul Neto G 4 23.0 109
Corey Kispert G/F 4 9.0 75
Deni Avdija F 5 19.2 55
Dāvis Bertāns F 5 18.8 38
Bradley Beal G 4 34.8 33
Aaron Holiday G 5 19.8 27
Joel Ayayi G 1 4.0 0

A few more thoughts/observations:

  • Remember, early season numbers are useful for benchmarking against future change and trying to discern early indicators.
  • Bradley Beal has been terrible so far this season. Offensive rating of 85 with a usage rate of 33.8%. That’s likely to change significantly in the coming weeks.
  • Spencer Dinwiddie has never played anywhere close to this well over a full season. Among players with at least 100 minutes, Dinwiddie currently ranks 6th in my adaptation of Ben Taylor’s creation metric. It’s an assists-plus kind of metric built on Ben’s tracking and numbers crunching. The five ahead of Dinwiddie: Ja Morant, Trae Young, Nikola Jokic, Giannis Antetokounmpo and LaMelo Ball. Next on the list: Stephen Curry.
  • The Wizards are doing fine in the middle — both Montrezl Harrell and Daniel Gafford have been excellent.
  • Deni Avdija rates just a little above replacement level so far this season. He’s about average in the defense part of my PPA metric.

The Wizards production so far this season converts to 48.0 wins over 82 games. That’s assuming they continue to play as they have so far, which they likely won’t. Dinwiddie and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope are likely to be less productive in future games. Beal and Davis Bertans will likely be more productive.

My guess is that both Harrell and Gafford will be less productive in future games, though I expect both to be above average.

I think Kyle Kuzma’s overall production will probably remain in about the same average-to-slightly-above-average range, though I think his method of production will change. Specifically, I think his offensive efficiency will improve and his rebounding and defensive impact will drop a bit.