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Are the Wizards actually good?

Milwaukee Bucks v Washington Wizards
Wizards center Daniel Gafford.
Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images

Ten games into the 2021-22 season, the Washington Wizards are 7-3 and sitting 4th in the Eastern Conference. If fans are feeling lightheaded, it may be caused by the rarified air.

Here’s the complete list of times the Wizards/Bullets/Zephyrs/Packers started a season 7-3 or better:

  • 1974-75 — 8-2
  • 1968-69 — 7-3
  • 2014-15 — 7-3

That’s it. That’s the list.

That 1974-75 team was probably the best in franchise history. It was led by Wes Unseld, Elvin Hayes and Phil Chenier, and coached by K.C. Jones. The team went 60-22, won the Central Division and reached the NBA Finals, where they lost to Rick Barry and the Golden State Warriors.

The 1968-69 team featured Wes Unseld, who won NBA MVP and Rookie of the Year that season. They went from 36 wins the previous season to 57-25 and won the Eastern Division before getting swept in the first round by the New York Knicks — led by Willis Reed and Walt Frazier, and coached by Red Holzman.

Most fans likely have fond memories of the 2014-15 team. Coached by Randy Wittman, the team included John Wall, Bradley Beal, Marcin Gortat and Paul Pierce. They went 46-36 in the regular season, swept the Toronto Raptors, and may have gone further if Wall hadn’t broken a bone in his hand.

Here’s where the Wizards currently stand in a few key areas:

  • 5th best strength of scheduled adjusted scoring margin
  • Offensive rating (points scored per 100 possessions): 13th
  • Defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions): 8th
  • Defensive effective field goal percentage: 1st

Based on the strength of their competition thus far, I estimate Washington’s offense has been about 0.3 points per 100 possessions better than average, and that their defense has been 3.5 points per 100 possessions better than average.

Being first in defensive efg is huge. The key to good defense in the NBA is lowering opponent shooting efficiency. Reaching the top of the league in this area is fueled by outstanding defense the past couple games, which included contesting more shots.

The Wizards are doing a lot right defensively. They’re allowing the fewest at-rim field goal attempts AND three-point range. Teams that limit at-rim attempts typically allow a high number of threes. Washington is limiting attempts from both areas.

Preventing shots in the areas NBA teams prefer means Wizards opponents are taking two-point jumpers and other low-efficiency shots. Washington is forcing the most attempts from 3-10 feet. This is ideal — the 3-10 foot range is typically among the least efficient in the NBA. Over the first few games, opponents were shooting a high percentage on these attempts, but the conversion rate has dropped over the 3-4 games.

Washington is forcing opponents to take loads of midrange jumpers — from 10 feet out to the three-point line. For Wizards opponents so far this season, 48.3% of their field goal attempts have been two point attempts from outside the restricted area. Second in this category: the Utah Jazz at 43.1%.

It’s good that Washington is limiting at-rim attempts because they’re not particularly effective at lowering opponent shooting percentages in that area. At 68.2%, the Wizards have been a little worse than average (67.2%) in defending at-rim attempts. Their ability to prevent these attempts, while also chasing opponents off the three-point line is a good foundation of a strong defense.

Don’t go betting the mortgage on the Wizards — at least not yet. It’s still a bit early to know if they’re actually good or if this is some early season luck. But their approach is sound and optimism is warranted at this point.

My prediction machine has them over 50 wins for the season. I think The Machine may be experiencing some irrational exuberance because of the small sample size and the heavy weight of the stomping they gave the Memphis Grizzlies. A PPA-based forecast suggests 46 wins is about right — if they continue to play this way.

There’s enough weird and unexpected stuff happening around the league that upheaval over the next 10-20 games seems probable. That doesn’t mean the Wizards are going to start losing, though. So far, they’re 11th in strength of schedule, and what lies ahead is likely to be easier. The prediction machine has them favored in 8 of their next 10 games. And Beal is still rounding into form after his habitual slow start.

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 November 7

PLAYER GMS MPG PREV PPA
PLAYER GMS MPG PREV PPA
Daniel Gafford 8 18.8 165 183
Spencer Dinwiddie 9 29.3 225 164
Montrezl Harrell 10 30.0 169 146
Bradley Beal 9 35.9 33 112
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope 10 30.5 128 99
Kyle Kuzma 10 33.1 114 93
Raul Neto 9 22.2 109 91
Deni Avdija 10 21.9 55 73
Corey Kispert 9 10.6 75 65
Aaron Holiday 10 16.2 27 55
Dāvis Bertāns 7 16.9 38 21
Non-Rotation
Isaiah Todd 1 5.0 263 264
Joel Ayayi 1 4.0 0 0