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Just How Bad Have the Wizards Been Through Their 0-5 Start?

I'll start with some caveats. It's only five games, so every number and all the analysis should be viewed as benchmarking -- a first look at the Wizards performance so far this season. Much will change in the coming weeks, at least that's what Wizards fans have to hope. Another 5 losses and fans might be ready for a revolt.

Team-level numbers are bad, of course. That's to be expected in an 0-5 start. Record actually isn't the best way of measuring relative team strength. Better is scoring margin. Even better than that is a measure called Simple Rating System (SRS), which Justin Kubatko publishes at Basketball-Reference. SRS combines scoring margin with strength of schedule to yield a robust measure of relative team strength.

Through their 0-5 start, Washington has been outscored by 6.6 points while facing the league's weakest schedule so far. According to Basketball-Reference's strength of schedule measure, Washington's opponents have been 5.33 points per game worse than the league average. Combine the two into SRS, and the Wizards rank as the league's second weakest team so far this year -- ahead of only the Detroit Pistons.

Don't think this "second worst" ranking is undeserved. The Wizards have earned it. They rank dead least in offensive rating -- 9.0 points per 100 possessions worse than average, and 2.6 points per 100 worse than the second worst team.

Some fans have expressed optimism about the team's defense, but I'm skeptical. They do rank 12th overall, but they've faced teams with subpar offenses so far. Here are their opponents with their offensive ranks for this season and last season (this season's rank first):

  • Cleveland -- 17/24
  • Boston -- 20/25
  • Milwaukee -- 14/13
  • Indiana -- 27/7
Indiana's offensive woes have plagued them throughout the early part of the season, in no small part because of Danny Granger being out with knee trouble.

Here's a quick tour through the four factors that determine who wins and loses in the NBA. The categories are both offense and defense (technically, we could see 8 factors) and boil down to shooting from the floor, rebounding, ball handling, and getting to the free throw line. They're not of equal value: shooting from the floor is most important, followed by rebounding, and then ball handling and getting to the free throw line. Anyway, 

  • Shooting from the floor -- This category is measured by effective field goal percentage. Wiz rank 21st in efg; 19th in defensive efg. The defensive efg is potentially worrisome -- defense in the NBA is primarily about reducing opponent shooting efficiency. Washington ranks 12th in overall defensive efficiency, but just 19th in opponent shooting. They'll likely need to improve in this area to maintain their overall ranking.
  • Rebounding -- Measured by rebounding percentage (a team's rebounds vs. opponent rebounds), the Wizards rank 24th in offensive rebounding percentage, and 6th in defensive rebounding percentage. The rank on the offensive glass isn't that big a deal -- the real key to a good offense is shooting well and avoiding turnovers. Better offensive rebounding would be nice considering how poorly they shoot. The defensive rebounding is a positive -- and a HUGE improvement over recent years.
  • Turnovers -- Measured by turnover percentage (turnovers divided by total offensive possessions), the Wizards rank 22nd on offense and 10th on defense. In other words, Washington turns the ball over more than average, and forces more turnovers than average. The defensive numbers aren't as encouraging as they might initially seem. Teams that force higher numbers of turnovers typically aren't very good defensively because such teams often end up allowing opponents to shoot a higher percentage from the floor.
  • Getting to the free throw line -- Dean Oliver, who first wrote about the four factors, used this wording intentionally. Getting to the line affects wins and losses more than shooting a better percentage from the line. Making the free throws is still important though, so the measure is free throws made divided by field goal attempts. (I've sometimes used free throws made divided by possessions, but the correlation doesn't change and it's easier to do the math in my head while I'm scanning a box score and fixing breakfast.) However you want to measure it, Washington is dead last in getting to the line and about average (17th) at putting opponents on the line.
To summarize: the Wizards haven't been good at anything that causes winning, except defensive rebounding, and defensive rebounding is a secondary thing -- first you need to force missed shots.

Now to the individuals. To be honest, I was a bit surprised by some of the results in my stat system because they differ more than a little with the fan reaction. I'd point out two things: 1/custom/39) it's only 5 games; and 2) fan reaction isn't a good measure of anything. The fan view is highly subjective and prone to confirmation bias, emotional overreactions, selective viewing, and bad evaluation criteria.

At any rate, here are the scores in my rating system (100 = league average; higher is better; 60 = replacement value):

Trevor Ariza  23.6
Chris Singleton  13.0 127 
Jordan Crawford  19.2 122 
Emeka Okafor  24.0 105 
Martell Webster  24.0 102 
Bradley Beal  30.2 94 
A.J. Price  33.6 77 
Trevor Booker  24.8 38 
Jan Vesely  14.2 35 
Kevin Seraphin  23.3
Jannero Pargo  15.0 -16 
Earl Barron  16.0 348 
Cartier Martin  3.0 319 
Note: Barron and Martin are the bottom despite high per-minute production scores because they've played so few minutes.

Some thoughts/observations:

  • Trevor Ariza is the team's most productive player so far?! Yeah, I gulped when I saw that myself. Then I looked at the numbers. Ariza's shooting is atrocious, but there's more to the game than shooting. Adjusted for pace, Ariza is a shade below average in rebounding, and is better than average in assists, steals, blocks, turnovers and fouls. In other words, he does a lot of stuff well. I'd expect his overall rating to moderate as his extremely high steal rate (4.5 pace adjusted steals per 36 minutes) comes down.
  • Jordan Crawford is making the jump, right? Let's hold off on that one -- at least for another few games. Crawford's decision-making is still highly suspect, but his bad shots have been going in. I don't expect that to continue. Some good signs from Crawford: solid rebounding for a guard and good assist numbers (5.9 pace adjusted assists per 36 minutes).
  • Many fans have wanted to replace Ariza in the starting lineup with Martell Webster. Webster has been the team's most efficient offensive player thus far, but with the lowest usage. Meanwhile, Ariza is the better defender, rebounds, and passer. If Webster could maintain his efficiency with a higher usage rate, I could see the argument for making him a starter just for the offensive bump. But there's no evidence to suggest he'll stay this efficient with increased usage and against tougher competition.
  • Bradley Beal has bounced back nicely from a bad opening couple games. He was tentative to start the season, but seems to be figuring out how to apply his considerable ability in a way that can help a team. I anticipate seeing him rise in these ratings as the season moves along.
  • Nice to see Chris Singleton playing well after a bad rookie year. He's been more aggressive and more efficient offensively, and he's showing signs of becoming a fill-the-box-score "forward" who can provide the team solid minutes at either SF or PF. I have to admit that it's still frustrating to see him in a Wizards uniform -- even performing solidly above average -- when the team could have had Kenneth Faried, who's been one of the league's 10 most productive players so far this year.
  • Trevor Booker, Jan Vesely and Kevin Seraphin have been major disappointments so far this season. Seraphin created excitement with his first game, but has been awful since. He's turned it over on 1-in-4 possessions so far this season -- a whopping 4.8 pace adjusted turnovers per 36 minutes.
I don't envy Randy Wittman's job of trying to assemble a cohesive team from this group. He's probably doing as good a coaching job as can be done with the roster given to him by Ernie Grunfeld and Ted Leonsis.

The team needs John Wall and Nene to get healthy and back into the lineup. I'm dubious about Wall making a big difference -- Price and Pargo haven't been much good, but Wall's offensive inefficiency could continue to hamstring them unless he has improved his shooting and turnovers. The big difference-maker could be Nene, whose efficiency inside demands defensive attention.

Both players seem to be at least 2-3 weeks from returning to the floor, however. That means any improvement in the team's results will need to come from the players currently in the rotation. The best candidates for that are Booker and Seraphin. Booker has been better than average in his first two seasons; Seraphin was much improved last season. Both guys appear to have worked on their games -- they look smoother, more confident and more proficient on offense -- although the results aren't there yet.

I'd also expect to see steady improvement from Beal. At the same time, expect production drop-offs from Ariza (he'll be back down to around average soon), Crawford and Webster.

It's going to be tough to turn this team around until Nene gets back.