The Washington Wizards’ new executive group has an array of questions ahead of them as they seek to remake one of the most futile franchises of the past four decades into a title contender.
Gone are the days of “contending for the playoffs” or the play-in. Michael Winger, Travis Schlenk and Will Dawkins were part of winning teams, and they want to build that in Washington. Ted Leonsis, managing partner of Monumental Sports & Entertainment, which owns the Wizards, indicated in interviews that he recognizes the failure to give fans a root-worthy team, and pledged the resources necessary to run a successful team.
While some of Leonsis’ comments in interviews were a little cringey, it shouldn’t matter much — if he meant what he said. To me, the key takeaway was that Leonsis and the new executives each said he’d empowered them to run Monumental’s basketball business. All three have been integral parts of well-run, successful franchises, and their record suggests they’re up to the job.
As befits a team that’s pursued a strategy of building the franchise around a non-franchise player, they have immediate decisions on their to-do lists. Chief among them is what do with forward Kyle Kuzma.
The popular Kuzma narrative is that he has improved significantly since arriving in Washington and that he had a breakout season in 2022-23. Support for this narrative usually comes from the per game stats — 21.2 points, 7.2 rebounds, 3.7 assists. The points and assists were career bests on a per game basis.
He also was a reasonably effective defender when sufficiently motivated (there were also games he took off on that end), and he seemed to provide some leadership and mentoring to youngers players. Departed GM Tommy Sheppard called him a franchise cornerstone.
Regular readers know I mostly disagree with the popular narrative. While I think Kuzma is a useful player in the right role, I don’t think the Wizards have that role to offer. I do not share the belief that last season was a marked departure from his previous form, and I don’t think he made a leap to a different level of performance. I think that’s borne out both by watching and in the numbers.
The problem, as I’ve written before, is efficiency. Last season, Kuzma’s offensive rating (points produced per 100 possessions used) was 102 — 12.5 points per 100 possessions below league average. At 27.0% usage (tied with Kristaps Porzingis for the team’s second highest usage rate), Kuzma’s inefficiency cost the team an estimated 155 points. For the full season, they were outscored by 99 points.
And, a connected problem is that while last season was Kuzma’s worst in terms of efficiency relative to average, he’s always been inefficient in the NBA. This season’s terrible efficiency isn’t a case of him falling off because he didn’t have elite teammates — though it’s true that he didn’t — he was inefficient even when playing with the likes of Lebron James and Anthony Davis.
The reason he had genuine value to a winning team — to the point of contributing to a championship — is that he could be used as an initiator against bench units instead of being asked to carry the load as a primary offensive engine. Kuzma’s brand of shot taking was useful in a sixth man role or as a third or fourth option after high-efficiency producers. In a high-load, high-minute “starring” role, it was costly.
There are two main defenses I’ve heard regarding Kuzma’s poor efficiency — 1. he was forced to take difficult shots because his teammates were so bad, and 2. he was tasked with taking the grenade shots — when the shot clock is running out.
There’s a measure of truth to the first one — Kuzma did take difficult shots. NBA University (a good follow if you’re on Twitter) posted data showing Kuzma’s three-point shot quality was in the seventh percentile. Opinions may vary, but I don’t think that’s a badge of honor. There’s no prize for missing tough shots.
Well, not at the team level at least. On an individual level, it’s likely to make Kuzma another $100 million over the next four years.
We can debate causation, but that seventh percentile stats is evidence of poor shot selection. I don’t buy the belief that bad teammates forced him to take bad shots. Among the players in the team’s rotation, only Deni Avdija shot worse from the floor than Kuzma.
I agree that most of Kuzma’s teammates this season were relatively dependent on the offensive end, meaning they needed to play in the space created by a teammate’s gravity or they needed to work with a teammate to get a shot. Where I part ways is at the conclusion: therefore Kuzma was forced to take bad shots.
Other players with skills similar to Kuzma’s routinely help teammates score rather than taking bad shots themselves. Or they use their abilities to generate easy shots for themselves rather than settling for difficult and well-defended looks. The “secret” of high-quality offensive engines is their ability to manufacture easy shots they can convert at a high rate. Hard shots are a last resort.
In theory, Kuzma seems like he should be capable of creating good shots for himself and his teammates. He’s 6-9 with good basketball skills. Productive creation would help his team score efficiently and win more games. But he hasn’t actually done it on any consistent basis to this point in his career, and it seems unlikely that he’ll be persuaded to play significantly differently at age 28.
The “hand grenade” theory is interesting. Using data from 82games.com, I found that Kuzma led the team with 137 “grenade” attempts (shots taken with four seconds or fewer left on the shot clock).
Here are the team’s main players sorted by total grenade attempts this season:
- Kyle Kuzma, 137
- Kristaps Porzingis, 122
- Bradley Beal, 114
- Deni Avdija, 75
- Corey Kispert, 64
- Monte Morris, 62
- Delon Wright, 35
- Daniel Gafford, 28 (each)
And grenade attempts per game:
- Beal, 2.3
- Kuzma, 2.1
- Porzingis, 1.9
- Morris, 1.0
- Avdija, 1.0
- Kispert, 0.9
- Wright, 0.7
- Gafford, 0.4
Looking deeper, 12% of Kuzma’s FGA this season were grenades. That was pretty normal on the team — Beal and Avdija each were at 13%, Porzingis and Morris at 12%, Kispert 11%. Of the rotation guys, Gafford brought up the rear at 7%.
Of the eight rotation Wizards, Kuzma’s grenade efficiency ranked last with an effective field goal percentage of 43.3%. Here’s the list:
- Wright, 67.1% (efg on grenade attempts)
- Gafford, 64.3%
- Kispert, 56.8%
- Avdija, 52.7%
- Morris, 51.6%
- Porzingis, 49.6%
- Beal, 45.2%
- Kuzma, 43.3%
So, taking grenade attempts did reduce Kuzma’s shooting efficiency. His efg dropped the third most on the team — only Beal (-0.099) and Gafford (-0.089) saw bigger efg declines than Kuzma’s -0.085.
Back out Kuzma’s grenade attempts, and his efg on all other attempts was 53.0%. That’s better than the 51.8% he shot on all attempts, but still below the 54.5% league average (which includes grenade attempts). Remove ALL grenade attempts from the Wizards main rotation players, and Kuzma’s shooting on non-grenade attempts goes from second worst to third worst.
I suspect Kuzma backers will still want to blame the teammates. My view is that the accumulation of evidence shows a player not up to the challenge of being The Guy. That’s not as much of a criticism as it may seem. Few players are. It’s been a long time since the Wizards had one, including the guys they kept designating as The Guy.
In the right role, Kuzma has considerable value. What Winger, Dawkins and Schlenk should do is recognize the truth that they don’t have that role to offer in Washington — at least not on any timetable that retaining Kuzma at the salary he’ll command makes sense. Their goal should be to wring every bit of value in the form of draft picks and young players with potential from a team that thinks they have the right role for Kuzma or that overestimates his value as much as Sheppard did.
As much as fans have enjoyed his attitude, fashion, and (at times) performance, this offseason is time for a respectful and mutually beneficial breakup.