Tommy Sheppard and the Washington Wizards ticked off the major items on their offseason to-do list. Chief among them was getting Bradley Beal, who they’ve decided is their Official Franchise Player, to sign a long-term extension. All it took was $250 million, a no-trade clause, and a 15% trade kicker — quite literally everything they could offer.
They made a good trade with the Denver Nuggets, swapping one solid professional wing (Kentavious Caldwell-Pope) for another solid professional wing (Will Barton) and a solid professional guard (Monte Morris). Barton and Morris are likely to at least begin the season as starters.
In free agency, they signed Delon Wright, a solid professional who can fill either guard spot, and might supplant Morris as the starter next to Beal by midseason. Wright is a relative rarity for a Wizards guard in recent years: he’s big (6-5) and defends at a high level.
Their deadline deal sending Spencer Dinwiddie and Davis Bertans to the Dallas Mavericks for Kristaps Porzingis gives the team higher-end production, if he’s able to stay healthy enough to play 65-70 games. And they have some depth in the form of solid professional players who can fill out a rotation.
In a vacuum, it was a solid offseason. And yes, I’m overusing “solid.” The roster is better than it was at the start of 2021-22. The combination of Porzingis, Morris, Barton and Wright is better than that of departed players like Dinwiddie, Bertans, Raul Neto and Thomas Bryant.
As we discussed in our forecasting episode of the #SoWizards podcast with guest analyst Mark Schindler joining me and regular cohost Ron Oakes-Cunningham, if this was the roster last season, we’d all predict more wins. But Washington’s offseason didn’t happen in that proverbial vacuum, and other Eastern Conference teams improved at least as much, or more.
The Wizards’ modest upgrades might have been a great offseason for an established contender retooling with fresh role players. But Washington has had four consecutive losing seasons. Their “win now” goals, and the decision to build around Beal, don’t make a lot of sense to me, but this is the strategy Sheppard and Ted Leonsis have chosen.
The rotation is staffed primarily with veterans. The good thing about established players is we know what they’re likely to do. The bad thing about established players is we know what they’re likely to do. Meaning, the Wizards aren’t likely to get big production leaps from Beal, Porzingis, Kuzma, Morris, Barton or Wright.
To inject more variability into potential outcomes, they need one or more of the youngsters to significantly improve. Unfortunately, Corey Kispert and Deni Avdija are starting the season with injuries, and first round pick Johnny Davis is overwhelmed. That leaves Daniel Gafford and Rui Hachimura as possible “leapers.”
What are the chances the Wizards will succeed (however they choose to measure success)? I’ll answer that question in my prediction section, below.
For now, let’s dive into the individual player forecasts.
The forecasts use my 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 how individual players contribute to NBA wins and losses. 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.
Below are results from four different forecast approaches: one using my 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 toughest part of any forecast is projecting playing time. Injuries and illnesses happen, as do abrupt changes in form. I used Five Thirty Eight’s forecasted minutes with adjustments based on team-specific knowledge.
- 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 my best guess of which forecast is most probable for each individual.
Last season was a disaster for Beal. He shot 30% on threes and was far from his All-NBA(ish) form of the previous couple years. And that was before he tore a ligament in his left wrist, which required season-ending surgery. Despite the precipitous drop in performance, and a surgery success rate of only 75-80% on the ligament Beal injured, Washington bet big on Beal with the new contract. My analysis shows Beal as well short of the game’s elite producers, even at his peak to this point in his career. At 29 years old, it’s unlikely he’ll have another surge in production. That said, there are some things the team could try to boost his efficiency such as limiting step-back and off-the-dribble threes and using him in more off-ball actions.
- Last PPA: 115
- DOPP PPA: 122
- MILK PPA: 108
- SIMP PPA: 135***
- SAGE: 127
- BLEND: 123
The Unicorn is a terrific player when he’s healthy enough to be in the lineup. Unfortunately, he’s missed about a third of his team’s games the past three seasons, which works out to about 55 games. For the Wizards to have a chance of cracking the playoffs, they’ll need him productive and healthy enough for 70ish games. Turning an ankle in the team’s third preseason game didn’t exactly inspire confidence.
- Last PPA: 172
- DOPP PPA: 171
- MILK PPA: 170
- SIMP PPA: 156
- SAGE: 155
- BLEND: 163***
Last season was the best of Kuzma’s career to this point, and it rated only a little better than average in my analysis. His production had wild swings, but his overall offensive efficiency was about 9 points per 100 possessions below league average. The inefficiency doesn’t appear to be caused by higher usage or bad teammates — he’s been similarly inefficient at lower usage and with better teammates.
- Last PPA: 108
- DOPP PPA: 102
- MILK PPA: 107
- SIMP PPA: 97***
- SAGE: 96
- BLEND: 100
Despite bad shooting in the preseason, Morris will begin the season as a starting guard with Beal. It wouldn’t surprise me if he ends the season coming off the bench. He’ll get a chance to show what he can do without the gravity of two-time MVP and offensive genius Nikola Jokic. His skill in pick-and-roll actions could allow the team to run more sets that have Beal off-ball.
- Last PPA: 141
- DOPP PPA: 138
- MILK PPA: 138
- SIMP PPA: 122
- SAGE: 121***
- BLEND: 130
Barton is long established as a decent veteran wing. The questions on him: How will he perform without Jokic? Can he sustain his performance level at age 32? Will he fit personal goals — like a new contract — into the team context?
- Last PPA: 115
- DOPP PPA: 105
- MILK PPA: 72
- SIMP PPA: 112
- SAGE: 70
- BLEND: 90***
A steady veteran guard who defends well and makes few mistakes. His production and style of play reminds me a little of former Bullets guard Darrell Walker (which is a compliment), and he’s already becoming a fan favorite.
- Last PPA: 116
- DOPP PPA: 117
- MILK PPA: 102
- SIMP PPA: 120
- SAGE: 105
- BLEND: 117***
Entering his fourth season, Hachimura has hovered around almost average so far in his career. Fans loved his preseason performance, and while there were some things I liked, I’m more dubious that he’s made significant progress. His value is almost exclusively in the ability to score — his defense, playmaking and rebounding has been subpar. Those deficiencies aren’t necessarily dealbreakers, but the scoring needs to come at plus efficiency and volume to produce real value. He’s topped out at about average efficiency and volume so far. He’s the best chance the Wizards have of a youngster making a big leap and changing their fortunes this season.
- Last PPA: 97
- DOPP PPA: 95
- MILK PPA: 103
- SIMP PPA: 89
- SAGE: 95
- BLEND: 96***
Avdija would have been my pick for “most likely to make a leap,” except that he missed much of training camp and all four exhibition games with a groin injury sustained while playing for his national team this summer. He’s a good defender and a suspect shooter with iffy left-hand ballhandling. To unlock what seems to be good passing vision, he needs to become a quality three-point shooter or develop the ability to drive with either hand. Doing both would be ideal.
- Last PPA: 69
- DOPP PPA: 122
- MILK PPA: 90
- SIMP PPA: 69
- SAGE: 100
- BLEND: 76***
Kispert started at guard when Beal got hurt last season, and he was okay. He had a chance to secure the role of Beal’s backup this season, but he sprained an ankle and will be sidelined for a few more weeks. He was drafted as a capital S Shooter, and he’ll need to significantly improve his three-point accuracy to meet those expectations.
- Last PPA: 87
- DOPP PPA: 90
- MILK PPA: 100
- SIMP PPA: 87
- SAGE: 100
- BLEND: 94***
Gafford is long and bouncy, and he plays with evident effort. His conditioning has limited playing time in his NBA career thus far, and he seemed to tire during extended shifts in the preseason. His strengths are rim-running and rolling to the basket to catch lobs and dunk them. His subpar screens can limit the effectiveness and pick-and-roll actions. The spectacular blocks have led to Gafford getting majorly overrated on the defensive end, where he’s often out of position and easily pushed around. He also fouls too much.
- Last PPA: 139
- DOPP PPA: 138
- MILK PPA: 148
- SIMP PPA: 122***
- SAGE: 130
- BLEND: 134
That’s the 10-man rotation the Wizards expect to use this season. My system for forecasting rookies has Davis around replacement level this season. He doesn’t figure specifically into the wins forecast — every season, each team has a pool of replacement level minutes when injuries, blowouts, etc. force them to play scrubs. Davis is lumped into that category for the team forecast.
The Wizards are in “win now” mode, which given the relative strength of their Eastern Conference rivals, means they’re battling for a spot in the play-in tournament. In my analysis, the following teams will be better this season and finish ahead of Washington in the standings: Boston Celtics, Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers, Brooklyn Nets, Miami Heat, Toronto Raptors, Cleveland Cavaliers, Atlanta Hawks.
That’s eight teams. While it’s closer, I also expect the New York Knicks and Chicago Bulls to win more games. Some forecasters also have the Charlotte Hornets and even the Indiana Pacers ahead of Washington, but that seems improbable. Charlotte won’t have Miles Bridges this season, and Indiana appears to be all-in for a high pick in what’s expected to be a historically great draft.
Here are forecasted wins using each of the approaches I described above:
- DOPP: 36.1
- MILK: 35.7
- SIMP PPA: 34.4
- SAGE: 34.6
The best-case forecast for each player gets the team to 38.4 wins. The worst-case forecast predicts 32.1.
The blend says 35.3 wins.
If everyone hits their best-case forecast, and Beal returns to his peak performance (160 PPA), they could hit 39 wins.
With good luck, significant leaps from one or more young players, and superb health, I think their ceiling is 43 wins. In a realistic worst-case scenario, fewer than 30 wins is possible.
My prediction for the season is they’ll battle the Knicks and Bulls for 9th or 10th but ultimately come up short.
Final Prediction: 35-47 and 11th place in the East.
For more on what’s in store for the Wizards in 2022-23, check out the #SoWizards podcast. Listen here, below, or wherever you get your podcasts.