If you’re an NBA executive embarking on a rebuild that explicitly includes changing the team’s infamous second-rate culture, you’re going to need at least a few been there, done that veterans with enough game and gravitas to command the attention and respect of the team’s youngsters.
You need someone who prepares the right way, is unselfish, plays hard, does the dirty work, defends at a high level, avoids mistakes, and isn’t stingy with correction and accountability.
Basically, you need someone like Delon Wright.
In his age 30 season, Wright did for the Wizards what he’s done throughout his career, only a bit better. He was the team’s only impactful defender, and he generated a career-best 3.7 steals per 100 possessions — which would have led the NBA last season if he’d played enough games to qualify.
On offense, he’s low-usage and selective, subsisting on a diet of two-point attempts at-rim or from floater range, and open looks from three. He’s not a good shooter overall, but his selectiveness makes him efficient — 84.2% on at-rim attempts, and basically league average accuracy on spot-up shots.
That’s enough for his above-average rebounding, defensive ball-hawking, and playmaking to have value. His efficiency hit a career high 127 points produced per 100 possessions last season in part because he’s trimmed his turnovers (which were never a problem) to nearly Monte Morris levels. Last season, his assist to turnover ratio hit a career best 4.4 to 1.
Now, while Wright has some real value to the Wizards this season, he’ll also be a 31-year old on an expiring contract with a salary that’s solidly below the current mid-level exception. In other words, while I expect he’ll begin the season in Washington, I’d be surprised if he ends the season in the same uniform.
Given his age and level of production, it’s improbable that he’d want to return to Washington when his contract ends in 2024. It’s similarly improbable that the Wizards would want him back, even though he’s good player and a good guy. I expect a trade.
So let’s talk doppelgängers. My Statistical Doppelgänger Machine factors age and an array of pace-neutral statistical categories like minutes played, usage, preferred shot types, offensive and defensive rebounding, assists, steals, blocks, turnovers, fouls, scoring, and an overall measure of the player’s production relative to era.
The Machine does not include variables for size, position, or athleticism, but even so individuals tend to get “doppelgängers” who are relatively close in each of those categories.
- Ron Harper, 1996-97, Chicago Bulls — Harper had some distinct phases in his career. After taking a couple years to learn the league, he erupted into a “do-everything” All-Star (maybe even All-NBA) level performer with the Cleveland Cavaliers. The the Cavs traded him along with two firsts and a second for Danny Ferry (the Clippers had drafted him, but Ferry refused to play for the team). After 28 terrific games with the Clippers, Harper blew out his knee and was never close to the same. This comp season was one of four consecutive years as an above average defense, rebounding and dirty work guard alongside Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen.
- Brent Barry, 2000-01, Seattle Supersonics — Quick story: I took my then-five or six year old daughter to see the Wizards take on the Sonics. The Wizards built a double-digit third-quarter lead and were rolling. Seattle took a timeout to staunch the bleeding. Wizards fans rose to our feet as one and cheered. Except, I look over and my daughter is slumped in her seat crying. “The Wizards always lose,” she said. “Not this time,” I said. “They’re up 13, they’re playing great. Seattle’s just about to give up.” This being the Wizards, they promptly coughed up the lead and turned a blowout into a nail-biter. Until Brent F. Barry knocks down a final seconds three to defeat the Wizards. After which, my daughter turned and said sagely, “See? They always lose.” Anyway, Barry was an excellent player for a bunch of years. But F him. (There’s more to this story. See below.)
- Andre Iguoudala, 2014-15, Golden State Warriors — Another “tale of two career phases” player, except without the devastating injury. In his younger days with the Philadelphia 76ers, he was a very good two-way player who scored and defended well enough to make an All-Star game in 2012 and to receive All-NBA votes in four different seasons. The Warriors had Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, and mostly just the needed the defense.
- Ron Harper, 1995-96, Chicago Bulls — The year before the match at the top of the list. This was probably his pinnacle with the Bulls, though he wouldn’t get All-Defense votes until his on-court performance had slipped a bit two seasons later.
- Charlie Ward, 1999-00, New York Knicks — Ward went from Heisman winner to the NBA (he also played NCAA basketball) and became a full-time starter in his fourth season (1997-98). By the comp season, Ward’s performance had begun slipping, and the following season he began his move back to the bench. Those Knicks teams, coached by Jeff Van Gundy, were a fascinating stew of top five defense and bottom five offense. Ward was a starter on the 1998-99 team that lost in the Finals to the San Antonio Spurs.
- Jamario Moon, 2008-09, Toronto Raptors & Miami Heat — Someone should make a documentary series about Moon. After a season playing for a community college, he bounced around minor leagues for several seasons — including a stint with the Harlem Globetrotters. Then he impressed the Raptors in a minicamp, got a two-year contract, and became a 27-year old rookie...and was good. For two seasons. Then he signed a three-year, $8.9 million offer sheet with Cleveland and was never much good again. No playmaking to speak of, but at his best, efficient on low usage, excellent rebounding and defense.
- Andre Iguoudala, 2013-14, Golden State Warriors — Iguoudala’s only season to receive first-team All-Defense. He was voted second team All-Defense in 2010-11. He got All-Defense votes in 14 different seasons. For the first time in his career, Wright got votes for the honor last season.
- Don Buse, 1981-82, Indiana Pacers — In many ways, Wright feels like a bit of a throwback. Having a comp from 41 years ago seems about right. Buse was a helluva player in his day. This might have been best NBA season (he got started in the ABA), though he made the All-Star team in 1976-77 (the first year of the NBA/ABA merger). Buse also played in the 1976 ABA All-Star game. Not bad. He made first team All-Defense six times, and was All-ABA second team in 1975-76. And this comp season, for which he received no awards or honors, still might have been his best.
- Charlie Ward, 2000-01, New York Knicks — When I mentioned earlier the “following season” when Ward began shifting back to the bench, this was the following season. He still started half the games, but his production was down and his playing time diminished.
- Michael Cooper, 1988-89, Los Angeles Lakers — A lot of similarities, except of course Cooper ranked ninth in three-point attempts per 100 possessions at 5.2, and Wright ranks well below average at 4.7. Also, Wright rebounds more than Cooper did. The strengths are similar, though — quality defense and good playmaking with few turnovers.
Who’s next through the Doppelgänger Machine?
This poll is closed
A few years after Brent Barry daggered the Wizards and confirmed my daughter’s belief in the Washington Wizards’ futility, I ran into Barry at an NBA game. We talked for a few minutes about trivial league-related items, and then I told him the story I described above. When I finished, he burst into the mirthiest of laughs.
He said, “It’s good she learned early how much it sucks to be a Wizards fan.”
I opened my mouth to refute him and what came out was, “You’re such an asshole.”
To which he laughed even harder.
And he’s henceforth known to me as that m-fer, Brent F. Barry. No, his real middle name does not begin with an F.