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The Wizards need an infusion of talent

Washington Wizards v Sacramento Kings
Wizards guard Spencer Dinwiddie.
Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

The fundamental problem with the Washington Wizards this season is a lack of talent on the roster. More simply: the players aren’t good enough.

This is less of an indictment of the players than it may seem at first. The players are as good as they are. The coaches can be competent and help them improve, but most players don’t markedly change form over the course of a season.

Players not being good enough to win in the NBA is ultimately the responsibility of the people choosing those players. Of course, the decision-makers are constrained by the player acquisition assets available to them, and by the resources provided by the team’s ownership group.

In other words, insufficient player talent on the roster is caused by management.

I know there’s been much talk about the Wizards being “deep.” As is often the case with narratives being pushed, this one was off the mark. The team was “deep” in the sense that it had several players well established as mediocre (or worse) at most positions.

Meanwhile, the team lacked a high-end producer. That includes Bradley Beal, who has been very good but well short of the game’s elite. His performance last season arguably merited third team All-NBA. Reasonable minds could have voted him into the sixth spot for guards or had him as low as 10th. Very good, but not a franchise building block.

This is important because one of the chief jobs of an NBA front office is a ruthless process to assess the relative merits of players. Designating Beal as The Franchise Guy, showering him with money and marketing doesn’t make him an actual franchise guy.

To be clear, this isn’t a criticism of Beal. He’s very good, he’s worked hard to improve, and he’s probably come as close as anyone in a Wizards uniform to reaching his potential as a player. The team’s decision to build around him as a cornerstone pushes him into a role beyond his capabilities and pushes everyone else on the roster up a slot or two as well.

When I went through the roster in my preseason forecast, I was struck by the number of averageish players 26 and older. Guys like Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Montrezl Harrell, and Spencer Dinwiddie all had established performance levels, none (except Harrell) had ever produced at a level much better than average, and none were at an age where significant improvement was likely.

They’re all valuable in their own ways, but none of them are second or even third guys on a quality team. For a few weeks, Dinwiddie and Harrell were terrific. Each has regressed. In Harrell’s case, it’s been a feathering down of production. In Dinwiddie’s, it’s been like a bowling ball going off a cliff.

The team’s acquisition of Dinwiddie to be one of their key players was another of those odd player assessment decisions. Now in his 8th year, Dinwiddie has had just two seasons that rated average or better in my analysis. His first experience as a full-time starter is this season. He’d previously started more than half his games in just two seasons.

And he’s 28 years old. And coming off a knee injury that sidelined him for almost all of last season.

While a regression from his play over the first few weeks was always likely, the knee appears to be a significant factor in his precipitous drop. Keeping his playing time at 30 minutes per game and sitting him in the second game of back-to-backs makes it clear they’re managing his health.

At his best in Brooklyn, Dinwiddie drove frequently. Even when playing well in Washington, his drives were down by a third. Over his past 15 games, he’s been driving even less — attacking about half as often as he did in his better seasons.

Even though his backups, Raul Neto and Aaron Holiday, have been little better than replacement level this season, the Wizards may need to sit Dinwiddie until he’s healthy enough to play, or make a move to bring in additional backcourt help.

Tommy Sheppard often says that the players will tell coaches and decision-makers what they need to do. The team’s performance is shouting at them to make some roster moves. This isn’t a matter of shuffling the rotation. The returns of Rui Hachimura and Thomas Bryant aren’t going to change the team’s trajectory.

Hachimura is yet another averageish PF. Bryant is an effective offensive player, who would take minutes from Daniel Gafford and Montrezl Harrell, who have been the team’s two most productive players.

They need a SF. They need backcourt help. They could use a PF who’s better than meh.

The key indicators of team strength are bad — much worse than their 15-15 record. They’re 25th in strength of schedule adjusted scoring margin. Only the New Orleans Pelicans, Houston Rockets, Detroit Pistons, Oklahoma City Thunder, and Orlando Magic are worse.

They’re 23rd in offensive rating (points scored per 100 possessions), and 21st on defense. Accounting for the quality of competition, they’re 1.6 points per 100 possessions worse than average on offense and 1.0 points worse on defense.

Washington Wizards average offensive rating, defensive rating and pace after each game. Blue line is offensive rating, red line is defensive rating, gray line is pace.
Kevin Broom

After beating the Magic back on November 13, my prediction machine thought they resembled a 50-51 win team. After their beating by the Phoenix Suns, the machine has them at 36 wins.

The rest of December doesn’t get much easier. Here’s what my prediction machine has as their chances of winning through the end of the year, as well as what it would mean for their record:

  • at Utah Jazz — 13% (15-16)
  • at Brooklyn Nets — 27% (15-17)
  • at New York Knicks — 39% (15-18)
  • Philadelphia 76ers — 51% (16-18)
  • at Miami Heat — 25% (16-19)
  • Cleveland Cavaliers — 32% (16-20)

Player Production Average

Player Production Average (PPA) metric credits players for things they do that help a team win (scoring, rebounding, playmaking, 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 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.

Washington Wizards PPA through December 16

PLAYER GMS MPG PREV PPA
PLAYER GMS MPG PREV PPA
Daniel Gafford 27 21.2 151 149
Montrezl Harrell 30 26.0 152 137
Bradley Beal 27 35.9 108 103
Spencer Dinwiddie 25 29.5 120 100
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope 30 29.0 117 99
Kyle Kuzma 28 32.6 93 91
Deni Avdija 30 21.4 74 80
Corey Kispert 26 13.1 60 58
Aaron Holiday 29 16.5 46 56
Raul Neto 29 19.9 54 50
Dāvis Bertāns 20 16.3 -4 26
Non-Rotation
Isaiah Todd 5 2.8 135 193
Anthony Gill 12 5.3 167 142
Joel Ayayi 5 2.6 83 82
Cassius Winston 2 3.5 -108 -42

This is not a roster that goes 10-11 deep, as some have claimed. In terms of being a solid contributor, they go 7 deep. The cutoff point is Deni Avdija.

Their two solidly above average producers, Gafford and Harrell, play the same position.

Dinwiddie’s 100 PPA (exactly average) reflects a catastrophic drop in production. After 15 games, his PPA was 155. At 20 games, it was 141. At 25 — 120.

Beal, the designated franchise player, has been hovering around average.

Since the last PPA update, the only rotation players to improve their scores were Avidja (74 to 80), Holiday (46 to 56), and Davis Bertans (-4 to 26).