One of the feel-good narratives of the 2021-22 Washington Wizards season is the performance of fifth-year forward Kyle Kuzma. Barring a marked reversal in performance, this will be Kuzma’s best season of his career, so far and his best sustained stretch of production.
The Kuzma “breakout” story is driven by his play over the past two months. Over a 31-game stretch, he’s averaged 21.5 points, 9.6 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game. These are impressive numbers — just six players have posted a comparable combination of stats (20+ points, 9.0+ rebounds, 3.5+ assists per game) over the full season so far:
- Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
- Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
- Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
- Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
- Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves
- Julius Randle, New York Knicks
Heady company. Next season, Kuzma should be an MVP candidate, right? Well, not so fast. In several ways, his performance — even over this 31-game stretch — has been a bit less than meets the eye.
Let’s start with efficiency, and let’s start with what’s good. His overall offensive efficiency has jumped 8 points per 100 possessions over his last 31 games. During the stretch, his offensive rating (individual points produced per 100 individual possessions) has been 107. That would be the best mark of his career over a full season. That improvement is significant and valuable.
What’s not good? League average efficiency during the same timeframe has been 113.5 points per 100 possessions. Washington’s average: 113.9. In other words, his relative efficiency lags by more than 6 points per 100 possessions.
That difference isn’t catastrophic, but a 27-28% usage rate paired with -6.5 relative efficiency is less than ideal, especially for someone who isn’t a high-quality defender. During this stretch, Wizards defense has been about the same whether Kuzma is on or off the floor, which is to say, very bad.
The lack of impact shows in the team-level data, as well. Since December 23 (when Kuzma’s improved play began), the Wizards have an overall net rating of -2.4, according to NBA.com. With Kuzma on the floor, it’s -3.1.
Zooming out to the team’s roster strategy for next season, it’s questionable whether Kuzma can maintain this kind of production. The impressive-looking counting stats are driven by higher usage and more playing time. But there’s no evidence to support the notion that his negative relative efficiency is driven by the higher usage.
Through his first four-and-a-half seasons, Kuzma posted similar negative relative efficiency numbers despite lower usage rates. For most players, there’s a tradeoff between usage and efficiency — higher usage typically leads to lower efficiency, and vice versa. That has not been the case with Kuzma throughout his career.
That could change, of course. It could be that something clicked for him 31 games ago, and the game will just get easier for him when Beal and Porzingis are in the lineup. With those two back, Kuzma’s usage is likely to drop back into the low 20s. That could mean an uptick in efficiency, but it bears repeating — that has not been Kuzma’s history.
Still, while I’m definitely skeptical that what Kuzma has done the past 31 games is The Real Kuzma, let’s acknowledge that what he’s been doing is good. His PPA over those 31 games is 142. That’s not All-Star level or elite production, but it’s the quality of an above-average starter.
If he plays at that 140-150ish PPA level, and he’s the team’s third most productive player next season (behind Beal and Porzingis, presumably), the Wizards would likely be decent. Not “title contending” decent, but possibly good enough to stay out of the play-in games.
One other note of caution is pictured in the graph below — his 2021-22 performance ekg.
Red = season average PPA after each game
Blue = 10-game rolling average PPA
Gray = 5-game rolling average PPA
Yellow = 20-game rolling average PPA
What the ekg shows is that while his overall performance has improved, his production has swung wildly during the “good stretch.” Over the past 31 games, 13 (42%) have rated below the PPA average (100). Seven have rated below replacement level.
On other hand, 13 of his last 31 have rated 200 or better, which would put him among the game’s elite...if he could do it over a full season.
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 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 63 games
|Non-Rotation/No Longer with Team|
|Vernon Carey Jr.||1||1.0||0|
What’s ahead for the next few games could be difficult for the Wizards. Five of their next six are on the road, and my prediction machine has them as underdogs in all six. Here are my current estimates for their chances of winning:
- March 9 — at Los Angeles Clippers 37%
- March 11 — at Los Angeles Lakers 42%
- March 12 — at Portland Trail Blazers 42%
- March 14 — at Golden State Warriors 20%
- March 16 — Denver Nuggets 42%
- March 18 — at New York Knicks 40%
I currently have them with 50/50 odds at home against the Lakers on March 19. The next time they’re a solid favorite: March 21 at the Houston Rockets.
I doubt the Wizards go on a 6-7 game losing streak. I’d be surprised if they win more than two.