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2023-24 Forecast: Wizards will kickstart rebuild with a top three pick

What the numbers say about Washington’s prospects this season

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Charlotte Hornets v Washington Wizards
Wizards forward Kyle Kuzma
Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images

Team owner Ted Leonsis and his brain trust finally listened to what the Washington Wizards roster had been screaming at them for several seasons and triggered the team’s first serious rebuild since at least 2010.

The most consequential move was a redo of the team’s front office, which included cutting ties with Tommy Sheppard and replacing him with Michael Winger, Travis Schlenk, and Will Dawkins. At previous stops, the new executives helped build successful NBA franchises, and they’ve expressed the intent to build a sustainable winner in Washington.

Winger, Schlenk and Dawkins didn’t waste time. In their first few weeks on the job, they traded franchise icon Bradley Beal to the Phoenix Suns for a package of assets that included Chris Paul, Landry Shamet and a bundle of second round picks and first round pick swaps. They rerouted Paul to the Golden State Warriors for Jordan Poole, Patrick Baldwin Jr., Ryan Rollins and a conditional future first round pick.

In a three-team trade with the Boston Celtics and Memphis Grizzlies, they dealt big man Kristaps Porzingis to the Boston Celtics for Tyus Jones, Danilo Gallinari, and Mike Muscala. They got Julian Phillips in the deal and traded him on draft night for a pair of future second round picks.

After acquiring Jones, the Wizards sent Monte Morris to the Detroit Pistons for a future second round pick.

On draft night, they traded up a spot to select French teen Bilal Coulibaly. In round two, they made a bunch more trades and selected Serbian-Swedish center Tristan Vukcevic, who will play overseas for at least another season.

In free agency, they re-signed forward Kyle Kuzma to a four-year contract with $90 million guaranteed and another $12 million in potential incentive earnings. The deal includes declining salaries and a 15% trade bonus.

Other departing players who were on the roster at the end of last season include Jordan Goodwin, Isaiah Todd, Kendrick Nunn, and Quenton Jackson. Of these, Goodwin is the only real loss — he played well in his first opportunity to get extended NBA minutes.

Head coach Wes Unseld Jr. returns for a third season with a revamped coaching staff the team says will emphasize player development.

While the Wizards weren’t much good last season, the roster is significantly worse. Porzingis was their most productive player, and they swapped him for Jones, who’s basically been a Monte Morris clone throughout his career.

Beal’s availability has been a problem and his contract was a disaster before he signed it. On the court, he was good though considerably short of the elite status conveyed by his bloated salary, trade kicker, and no-trade clause. Poole hasn’t been as good as Beal was, though he’s been healthier and could improve to Beal’s level.

Trading Beal was still the right move, even if it came two or three seasons later than it should have. That’s on Leonsis, Grunfeld and Sheppard — the new guys are cleaning up a mess they didn’t make.

As the season begins, the roster is stocked with a few veterans that might be of interest as role players on contending teams, so-so older players who bring maturity and professionalism, young guys who could make a leap but seem more likely not to, and Coulibaly, who could become a star in a few years...if he does the work.

I use the words “as the season begins” intentionally, because it’s unlikely they’ll finish the season with this same group. The veteran role players will almost certainly be traded, as well as some of the younger guys. For the Wizards, this season is primarily about three things:

  1. Helping Coulibaly develop into a star.
  2. Acquiring assets to acquire future players.
  3. Determining whether any of the younger players still on the roster are likely to be part of a winning team 3-4 years down the road.

In other words, this season, success won’t be measured in wins and losses, and they have no silly goals like “contending for the playoffs.”

2023-24 Player Forecasts

These 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, role 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).

I estimated minutes by using a weighted average of each player’s minutes in recent seasons, as well as my best guess at each player’s role in the team’s rotation this season.

Key

  • 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.

Kyle Kuzma

Sacramento Kings v Washington Wizards Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images

The prevailing narrative on Kuzma was that last season was a breakout year for him. Regular readers know that I think the prevailing narrative was wrong. He was better two seasons ago (his first in Washington), and even that was about average. He’s big, mobile, plays hard most of the time, and seems to have every skill a team could want. It’s just that it doesn’t really translate into winning basketball.

His efficiency has been solidly worse than average throughout his career. Last season was the worst efficiency of his career (-11.8 points per 100 possessions worse than average). Given his year-to-year consistency and the fact that he’s entering his age 28 season, there’s little reason to think he has a production leap in his future. Based on his statistical doppelgängers, I have Kuzma’s projected peak PPA at 130. Unfortunately, those comps peaked in a tight grouping at 26 or 27 years old. Most likely, Kuzma hit his high-water PPA of 108 two years ago.

  • Last PPA: 95
  • DOPP PPA: 107
  • MILK PPA: 93
  • SIMP PPA: 99
  • SAGE: 97
  • BLEND: 99***

Jordan Poole

The preseason delivered the full Jordan Poole Experience. He played poorly against the Charlotte Hornets and Toronto Raptors, and was fantastic against the New York Knicks. The notion that he was held back in some way by playing his first four seasons with the Golden State Warriors is downright laughable. He’s been a significant part of their rotation (30 minutes per game each of the last two seasons), and his offensive usage was 26.0% two seasons ago and 29.2% last season.

Two seasons ago, his overall performance cracked average (PPA 123), but he regressed last season to a below average 84. That could be related to teammate Draymond Green punching him during training camp. It could also simply be that he was trying to do too much, he exhibited poor shot selection, and his efficiency suffered.

Washington Wizards v Toronto Raptors Photo by Vaughn Ridley/NBAE via Getty Images

Worth note: his efficiency declined significantly in Golden State when he wasn’t on the floor with Stephen Curry. That his shooting dropped and turnovers spiked when he was sans Curry or carrying a bigger offensive load doesn’t bode well for Poole as an engine of high-level team offense. Still, he’ll have the opportunity in Washington to reveal the full scope of his game and become a franchise leader.

In that role, he’ll have some incredible scoring nights and some cataclysmic duds. On balance, I expect high usage, below average efficiency, and a trade — possibly before the 2024 deadline.

  • Last PPA: 84
  • DOPP PPA: 92
  • MILK PPA: 90
  • SIMP PPA: 96
  • SAGE: 103***
  • BLEND: 95

Tyus Jones

Washington Wizards v New York Knicks Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

The Wizards gave up Porzingis to get Jones, which is something of a vote of confidence in him. While I think he’s a good player, I’m dubious that he’s more than that. When I looked at his stat doppelgängers, five of his top 10 were seasons by Monte Morris. The similarities run deeper (something I’ve written and podcasted about several times over the summer). He was more productive in a starting role with Memphis when Ja Morant was out, though with much more talented teammates than he’ll have in Washington. Expect a solid player and good decision-maker who avoids turnovers. Kinda like Monte Morris.

  • Last PPA: 126
  • DOPP PPA: 130***
  • MILK PPA: 125
  • SIMP PPA: 131
  • SAGE: 130
  • BLEND: 129

Bilal Coulibaly

I haven’t been this hopeful for a Wizards rookie since they drafted John Wall. Coulibaly ranked fifth overall in my stat-based pre-draft analysis, and the Wizards thought enough of him to trade up a spot so they could select him.

Washington Wizards v Toronto Raptors Photo by Cole Burston/Getty Images

Summer league and preseason were a mixed bag. Defensively, he’s very good — terrific awareness, elite athleticism and length, active and accurate hands that poke balls loose and produce steals, blocks and deflections. As would be expected for a 19-year old, he’ll need to get stronger and learn how to defend in the post.

On offense, he’s made some plays that looked good, but his usage has been extremely low, and he’s looked tentative and even passive at times. If he’s going to be a star — which the franchise needs him to do — he has to be a major contributor on both ends of the floor. The defensive floor is high. As for the offense, there’s no better time to get tons of reps than in a season without expectations to win.

While I’ve written and talked about him playing 3,000 minutes this season, he’s more likely to get less than half that number. Players picked around his draft slot (seventh overall) in recent years have averaged fewer than 1,500 minutes as rookies.

  • Projected PPA: 66

Daniel Gafford

Good player who claimed a starting role last season. This year, the roster is bereft of options so he’s the starter by default.

Washington Wizards v Toronto Raptors Photo by Cole Burston/Getty Images

Gafford is an outstanding run and jump athlete who needs to improve stamina, functional strength, and balance. For a 6-10 guy with long arms and spring-loaded legs, he’s had minimal defensive impact — in his two-plus seasons in Washington, the team has been a bit worse defensively when he’s in the game. That was true even in the season they acquired him, and The Narrative credited him with transforming the team’s defense.

Strengths: lob threat and elite finisher at-rim, good shot blocker, plays hard. Weaknesses: gets muscled, gets winded, and gets knocked off his feet too often. Opponents get a high number of offensive rebounds when he’s in the game.

  • Last PPA: 130
  • DOPP PPA: 139
  • MILK PPA: 137
  • SIMP PPA: 133***
  • SAGE: 137
  • BLEND: 136

Corey Kispert

Washington Wizards v New York Knicks Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Great shooter who’s getting pushed by coaches to increase his volume. Launching more threes and being alert for back-cut opportunities are critical elements for him because he’s been ineffective attacking closeouts, and he hasn’t contributed with chores like rebounding, playmaking or defense. He can add significantly to his value by becoming average on defense, and in preseason games he appeared to have made some progress in that area. Still, he continues to look like a classic three-point shooting specialist in a league that’s evolving toward versatility and a more complete game. Even so, he’ll have value if he’s shooting 40% from three on high volume. My guess: his greatest contribution to the Wizards will be as part of a trade.

  • Last PPA: 95
  • DOPP PPA: 91
  • MILK PPA: 101***
  • SIMP PPA: 95
  • SAGE: 101
  • BLEND: 97

Deni Avdija

Washington Wizards v Toronto Raptors Photo by Vaughn Ridley/NBAE via Getty Images

Newly signed to a four-year, $55 million contract extension, Avdija has an opportunity to cement a spot in the Wizards’ rotation for the next decade. This is a contract that’s right around what the MLE will be next season. My salary formula estimates he was worth 6.4% to 6.9% of the luxury tax threshold, and that’s right around what he’ll get once the extension kicks in.

If he doesn’t modestly improve from last season (to a mid-80s PPA), he’ll get squeezed further down the rotation and perhaps become overpriced for his role. With a small uptick in production, he’ll be fairly paid. If he surges significantly, he could be a bargain at this price. No matter what, this is a highly tradeable contract, even if he doesn’t progress.

Here’s what I wrote about him in last year’s forecast:

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.

All that still applies, though his defensive impact sagged last season.

  • Last PPA: 76
  • DOPP PPA: 88***
  • MILK PPA: 88
  • SIMP PPA: 71
  • SAGE: 82
  • BLEND: 82

Delon Wright

Washington Wizards v New York Knicks Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

When he finally got healthy enough to stay on the floor, Wright quickly became a fan favorite with his ball-hawking defense and efficient offense. He’s exactly the sort of player a contending team will value, and at age 31 with an expiring contract, he’s almost certain to be traded during the season.

  • Last PPA: 139
  • DOPP PPA: 134
  • MILK PPA: 125***
  • SIMP PPA: 131
  • SAGE: 118
  • BLEND: 127

Danilo Gallinari

Charlotte Hornets v Washington Wizards Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images

The 35-year old Italian has had a very good NBA career, but his best days are well behind him. He missed all of last season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, and his mobility — which was glacial when last seen with the Atlanta Hawks — has become akin to a statue. That said, he’s savvy, and he can shoot. The Wizards might be able to get a second round pick for him at the deadline. If not, he can play out the string in DC.

  • Last PPA: 97
  • DOPP PPA: 88
  • MILK PPA: 73***
  • SIMP PPA: 105
  • SAGE: 79
  • BLEND: 86

Mike Muscala

Washington Wizards v New York Knicks Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Stretch big who can really shoot. His greatest value is as a savvy veteran who can share his knowledge and experience, and as a world-class person who’s been beloved by teammates at every NBA stop. He’s another veteran who could be traded to a contending team looking for a professional backup big who can shoot.

  • Last PPA: 71
  • DOPP PPA: 67
  • MILK PPA: 62
  • SIMP PPA: 79
  • SAGE: 70***
  • BLEND: 70

The next two start the season with injuries (Johnny Davis has a sprained elbow; Landry Shamet a broken toe), though I didn’t view either as having much role in the rotation in the first few weeks of the season. I think Shamet will get some minutes before Davis does so they can trade him.

Johnny Davis

Charlotte Hornets v Washington Wizards Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images

As last year’s lottery pick, Davis was overwhelmed from the start. Before suffering an elbow sprain, he appeared just whelmed in preseason action. The offense — especially the shooting — is a construction project. The defense and rebounding is solid. I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets some stints with Washington’s G League team and joins the rotation after they’ve traded off some veterans.

The good news: my system forecasts Davis will improve significantly from last season. The bad news: the prediction is that he’ll still be well below average. Still, it’s progress.

  • Last PPA: 15
  • DOPP PPA: 56

Landry Shamet

2023-24 Washington Wizards Media Day Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images

Good shooter without much else to his game. The same points I made in the Kispert section apply here — Shamet’s a specialist in a league evolving towards versatility. The specific archetype still has some value, and I anticipate Shamet being traded.

  • Last PPA: 72
  • DOPP PPA: 82

The rest of the roster goes into a pool of replacement level minutes that every team has each season.

2023-24 Prediction

The Wizards are out of the “contend for the play-in” business for at least this season, and they’re going to do a lot of losing this season. The Eastern Conference teams that finished behind them last year — Orlando Magic, Charlotte Hornets, and Detroit Pistons — have improved their rosters, as did Western Conference bottom-dwellers (Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs).

Washington will be in the running for the NBA’s worst record this season, and bottom three seems probable.

Here are their forecasted wins using each of the approaches I described above:

  • DOPP: 24.5
  • MILK: 23.6
  • SIMP PPA: 24.3
  • SAGE: 24.3

The BLEND approach has them at 24.1 wins.

If everyone hits their best case production level, the forecast tallies to 29.6 wins. Worst case for each player: 20.1 wins.

If everyone matches their previous peak production level, it’s 32.5 wins.

Just for kicks, I ran a HERO forecast using each player’s projected peak PPA or their actual peak PPA (whichever was higher). Essentially, this is absolute best case for every player on the roster. That got them to 36.5 wins.

My prediction: they’re going to lose a ton of games, trade veterans for young players and future picks, and wind up with a top three pick in the 2024 draft.

Final Prediction: 24-58, 15th in East.