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Wizards struggling as the season wears on

Washington Wizards v Indiana Pacers
Montrezl Harrell is the Washington Wizards’ most productive player so far this season.
Photo by Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images

After a hot start, the Wizards are entering a challenging stretch of schedule with a roster-wide decline in performance. The NBA season is a long and pitiless marathon, and over its 82 games, teams reveal bit by bit what they are.

For the Wizards, gone are the lofty fantasies of sustainably elite defense and good-enough offense. What’s left is the reality of a flawed an unbalanced roster filled with average (and worse) players.

Despite the years-long marketing blitz to promote Bradley Beal as among the game’s elite players and building blocks, the Wizards lacked — and continue to lack — a true franchise player. This is not really a criticism of Beal. Notwithstanding his middling play this season, he’s been very good. But there’s a difference between very good and great, and it’s one the Wizards don’t seem to have acknowledged.

While much has been made of the team’s improved depth, courtesy of trading Russell Westbrook for Montrezl Harrell, Kyle Kuzma and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, the truth is they have a collection of mid-level performers, and they’re asking players to fill roles a bit beyond their ideal spot in a rotation.

More specifically, the team lacks a SF and a PG. Caldwell-Pope is performing decently as the starting small forward, but he’s really a SG. He’d be best coming off the bench for 24-26 minutes per game split between SF and SG. That’d be better for the Wizards too, because the team’s backcourt reserves are diminutive.

Spencer Dinwiddie, Raul Neto and Aaron Holiday are all listed as PGs, but Neto and Holiday are really undersized SGs, and Dinwiddie is more of a scoring combo guard than playmaking PG. With Dinwiddie disappearing for long stretches, and Neto and Holiday both more suited to reserve roles, the Wizards are missing production at PG.

They’re also missing it at SG, where Beal’s play continues to be average.

The theory of this roster was that Beal and Dinwiddie would provide major production. Dinwiddie appears to be hampered by an incomplete recovery from last year’s ACL injury — he’s playing just 30 minutes per game and sitting the second night of back-to-backs. Beal may be suffering from after-effects of the summer’s COVID infection. Both players seem to be struggling with the change in officiating.

Back to SF for a moment — I can hear Deni Avdija supporters railing against my “they don’t have any SFs” pronouncement — no, I don’t think Avdija’s best position is SF. He’s been good on defense — as much as Beal and Dinwiddie have been hurt by the change in officiating, Avdija’s been helped — but he’s not a good shooter, and he hasn’t consistently exhibited the ball handling or playmaking skills needed for a wing. I think his best position (barring significant improvement in shooting and a radical increase in aggressiveness on offense) is likely PF.

In my eyes, the team has Kuzma, Avdija, Hachimura and Bertans at PF. At best, they’re all basically average (or worse).

Their strength is at center, though Daniel Gafford and Montrezl Harrell have similar strengths and weaknesses on the offensive end. They’re both energetic and high-effort rim-runners with little ability to score away from the rim.

Gafford figures to be the better defender of the two, though the team has been worse defensively with him on the court so far this season. His prodigious shot-blocking (4.6 blocks per 100 team possessions — second in the league to the 4.9 from Indiana Pacers center Myles Turner) — is counterbalanced by his rampant fouling (6.4 per 100 possessions).

In theory, the Wizards’ backcourt led by Beal and Dinwiddie should be good enough to compete. Ideally, team president and general manager Tommy Sheppard would trade from the surplus at PF (and the pending surplus at center when Thomas Bryant returns) to acquire a starter at SF. That would let them slot Caldwell-Pope into his ideal role, and they could cobble together adequate backup PG play from Neto and Holiday.

At this point, the Wizards have largely reverted to preseason expectations. Accounting for the quality of their competition, they’ve been 1.2 points per 100 possessions worse than league average on offense and exactly average on defense. Crunching the numbers so far this season, and factoring in the schedule, my prediction machine forecasts the team to finish with 39 wins. That could change, especially if head coach Wes Unseld Jr. can figure out how to get Beal’s performance back to All-Star level.

Sobering thought: With improved play throughout the Eastern Conference, 39 wins might not be enough to make the play-in tournament.

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.

Wizards PPA through games played Dec 7

Montrezl Harrell 25 26.6 165 152
Daniel Gafford 22 20.9 159 151
Spencer Dinwiddie 21 29.7 141 120
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope 25 29.0 115 117
Bradley Beal 22 35.7 111 108
Kyle Kuzma 25 32.6 93 93
Deni Avdija 25 21.3 79 74
Corey Kispert 23 12.1 20 60
Raul Neto 24 19.6 46 54
Aaron Holiday 24 17.5 27 46
Dāvis Bertāns 15 15.5 -8 -4
Anthony Gill 9 4.8 138 167
Isaiah Todd 4 2.8 250 135
Joel Ayayi 4 2.5 118 83
Cassius Winston 1 4.0 -108

Harrell currently is the team’s top producer. To illustrate the team’s lack of elite performers, Harrell ranks 24th among the league’s top PPA producers on each team. Only the top producers from the New Orleans Pelicans, New York Knicks, Toronto Raptors, Houston Rockets, Oklahoma City Thunder and Detroit Pistons rank lower.

Eleven teams have at least two players with a PPA higher than Harrell’s 152. The Golden State Warriors have four, and the Atlanta Hawks, Milwaukee Bucks and Utah Jazz each have three.

‘Nuff said.