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Check Up: Wizards’ delusions meet reality in December’s losing stretch

It wasn’t long ago when the Washington Wizards had a winning record. Looks like everything has fallen back to earth, so let’s look at the numbers again.

NBA: Washington Wizards at Miami Heat
Viewing Kyle Kuzma as a franchise cornerstone is a prime example of the Washington Wizards’ delusional thinking.
Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

When I last did one of these, the Washington Wizards were 10-9, and I wondered if the team’s defense was cause for hope. In the 10 games since, the Wizards collapsed on defense and managed just one win, which came against a Minnesota Timberwolves team that can’t figure out how to play together.

Here’s where the Wizards stand in measures of team strength in the last update and where they stand now:

  • Strength of schedule adjusted scoring margin: 19th/25th
  • Offensive rating (points scored per 100 possessions:) 26th/22nd
  • Defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions): 7th/23rd

Here’s where they stood/stand in the four factors that determine winning and losing:

Four Factors Offense

  • Shooting: 20th/14th
  • Turnovers: 13th/8th
  • Offensive rebounding: 22nd/22nd
  • Drawing fouls: 26th/22nd

Four Factors Defense

  • Shooting: 2nd/13th
  • Turnovers: 30th/28th
  • Defensive rebounding: 6th/6th
  • Fouling: 6th/8th

To sum up: over the past 10 games, their modest improvement on offense has been more than offset by the total collapse in their ability to make the other team miss.

While there’s been much talk of the team being beset with injuries, the reality is that the players missing time aren’t the solution to what’s causing the team to lose. For example, Bradley Beal is the team’s highest paid and most productive player. While he catches a raft of criticism online, he’s having a very good season.

But, the Wizards offense has been been fine with Beal out of the lineup. Their problem has been defense, and Beal solves nothing for them on that end of the floor. Neither does Rui Hachimura.

Sure, Delon Wright will help defensively, but he’s missed all but four games, and the team had the seventh ranked defense 10 games ago, mostly without him.

If you want to argue that Kristaps Porzingis missing the Denver Nuggets game was a big deal and significantly damaged Washington’s defensive ranking numbers, keep in mind three things:

  1. That’s one game out of 29 so far.
  2. It was only the team’s fourth worst defensive rating of the season, and Porzingis was in the lineup for the three that were even worse.
  3. The Wizards defense has been worse this season with Porzingis on the floor.

The Wizards entered this season with the team’s decision-makers apparently in the thrall of a some delusional thinking. Chief among these was the belief that Beal is a franchise player. I’ve written/talked/tweeted/texted/memed about this a number of times for several years now.

I’ve wondered whether Ted Leonsis, Tommy Sheppard et al. truly believed Beal was an elite performer, or if it was promotion in nature to get fans excited or disinformation to drive up Beal’s trade value. Giving Beal the absolute maximum salary, PLUS a trade kicker, PLUS a no-trade clause would seem to suggest they believe their own propaganda. Or, more clearly, to them it’s not propaganda.

Another whopper is the inclusion of Kyle Kuzma in their latest Big Three twaddle. At first, I thought this was just some marketing stuff. Then Shams Charania reported that the Wizards view Kuzma as a franchise “cornerstone.”

The notion is so ridiculous that I thought it had to be part of a campaign to increase trade value. So, I riffled through my contacts and communicated with some old friends who assured me that the front office really is that serious about Kuzma.

Which is delusional.

Look, I like Kuzma. He’s a good guy and apparently a good teammate. He’s big, mobile and skilled. When he’s going well, he looks elite. But he’s also kind of an optical illusion. As I’ve written many times, tools like size, skills and athleticism are valuable when they’re connected to on-court production.

For all his tools, Kuzma’s offensive efficiency is nearly eight points per 100 possessions below league average. His career high 21.4 points per game comes from two things: he’s playing a career high 35.0 minutes per game, and he’s posting career highs in field goal attempts and overall usage.

Looked at on a per possession basis, Kuzma’s performance looks eerily similar to his career numbers, except he’s taking more shots, producing more assists, and committing more turnovers.

As I’ve been writing for the past two seasons, one of the problems with Kuzma is that his efficiency is inelastic. Most players are more efficient when they use fewer possessions and less efficient when they use more. Kuzma’s one of the exceptions, though. He’s about the same level of inefficient at higher or lower usage, and whether he’s on the floor with scrubs or out there with LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

The Official Narrative on Kuzma is that he’s significantly improved since coming to Washington and has become good to very good. I think both parts of that narrative are false. His improvement has been modest and has gone from a range of a little below average to average up to a range of average to a little above average. With wild swings from game to game, of course.

If you watched the right sample of games, you could reasonably conclude that Kuzma is great. If you watched a different sample, you could reasonably wonder why he was in the lineup at all.

What’s baffling to me is how professional basketball executives and coaches, who presumably watch every Wizards game and many other NBA games, could persuade themselves that Kuzma is a franchise “cornerstone.”

Before I get to the full Wizards PPA update below, here’s a look at the top-rated producers by position and where the top Wizard ranks (minimum 250 minutes played). In PPA, 100 is average and higher is better:

Point Guard

  1. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors — 257
  2. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks — 241
  3. Tyrese Haliburton, Indiana Pacers — 233
  4. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City Thunder — 208
  5. James Harden, Philadelphia 76ers — 197

19. Monte Morris, Washington Wizards — 131

Shooting Guard

  1. Donovan Mitchell, Cleveland Cavaliers — 218
  2. Desmond Bane, Memphis Grizzlies — 185
  3. Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns — 168
  4. Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards — 166
  5. Tyler Herro, Miami Heat — 160

Small Forward

  1. Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat — 237
  2. Lauri Markkanen, Utah Jazz — 193
  3. Andrew Wiggins, Golden State Warriors — 169
  4. Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics — 164
  5. Bol Bol, Orlando Magic — 163

48. Deni Avdija, Washington Wizards — 70

Power Forward

  1. Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans — 218
  2. Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets — 212
  3. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics — 197
  4. Aaron Gordon, Denver Nuggets — 194
  5. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks — 193

29. Kyle Kuzma, Washington Wizards — 103


  1. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets — 234
  2. Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers — 227
  3. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers — 189
  4. Clint Capela, Atlanta Hawks — 177
  5. Jaren Jackson Jr., Memphis Grizzlies — 171

15. Kristaps Porzingis, Washington Wizards — 142

Between Jackson and Porzingis, the center list includes: Domantas Sabonis, Mitchell Robinson, Deandre Ayton, Jakob Poeltl, Nic Claxton, Rudy Gobert, Pascal Siakam, Jarrett Allen and Myles Turner.

If I was doing one of those hypothetical “start a team for a single season” drafts, Porzingis would be 11th on my center list.

Player Production Average

Below is a look at individual performances using my Player Production Average metric. PPA 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). PPA is pace neutral, accounts for defense, and includes a “degree of difficulty” factor. 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.

Washington Wizards PPA through 29 games

Bradley Beal SG 18 35.1 167 166
Kristaps Porzingis C 27 32.5 133 142
Monte Morris PG 27 27.9 122 131
Jordan Goodwin PG 22 22.4 130 124
Kyle Kuzma PF 28 35.0 107 103
Corey Kispert SG 21 28.6 130 100
Daniel Gafford C 29 14.2 79 100
Deni Avdija SF 29 25.5 60 70
Rui Hachimura PF 16 23.5 67 66
Anthony Gill PF 25 11.3 72 57
Will Barton SG 27 22.9 53 57
Taj Gibson C 17 7.2 61 34
Jordan Schakel SG 2 3.0 189 180
Delon Wright PG 4 22.8 141 141
Devon Dotson PG 5 10.0 15
Isaiah Todd PF 4 3.3 -28 -45
Johnny Davis SG 8 5.6 -49 -59
Vernon Carey Jr. C 3 1.7 -98 -241