2021-22 Forecast: Wizards reset the roster to remain in playoffs picture

Ted Leonsis made changes three years ago. He parted company with Ernie Grunfeld. He tasked Tommy Sheppard to manage the team. Sheppard cleared the board by dumping veterans and using the team’s meager cache of player acquisition resources to onboard youngsters with potential while they waited for John Wall to rehabHis Achilles tendonitis.

Wall expected to return, Sheppard & Leonsis switched to a “win now”plan, which made a difficult left when they sent Wall (and a first-round selection) to the Houston RocketsRussell Westbrook. As fun and frantic as the Westbrook gambit was, the team wasn’t good enough to compete for anything meaningful.

They “win now” strategy veered again when they accommodated Westbrook’s trade request and dealt him to the Los Angeles LakersKentavious Caldwell–Pope, Kyle Kuzma and Montrezl Harrell were selected as first-rounders. They used space available under the luxury tax in order to acquire Spencer Dinwiddie as a backcourt running buddy for Bradley Beal.

The ticking sound that gets louder and louder. The deadline for convincing the team’s cornerstone to stay in Washington.

What are the goals this season? Keep Beal. Make it to the playoffs. Win. How? He is surrounded by a group of professional, competent players who are theoretically very deep.

The Wizards replaced high production potential with solid performers at many positions. They also have young players who could make significant leaps in production — Daniel Gafford, Rui Hachimura, and Deni Avdija.

They have some wildcards with Thomas Bryant (returning from a torn anterior cruciate ligament) and Corey Kispert (a rookie who probably won’t play a lot this season). Dinwiddie probably has one foot in this category as well — he looked healthy in the preseason, but he did miss virtually all of last season with a partially torn ACL.

They now have Wes Unseld Jr. as their coach, who is also a former assistant and was known for his meticulous preparation. Will the sacrifice-Westbrook-and-surround-Beal-with-depth gambit pay off? It could — just know that winning and making the playoffs will likely require a step forward from one or more of those youngsters or wildcards.

That up-stepping is necessary because Kevin’s numbers-heavy analysis of the roster indicates that veterans in the rotation have established their performance levels and are unlikely to make significant jumps — up or down. His approach suggests that some players could reach higher levels than they have at this point in their careers, but the same analysis found that most players who are similar to him tended to reach their peak at younger ages.

For example, based on his comps, Beal’s theoretical peak is a 180 PPA (his best season so far is 160). His peers had an average peak of 26.4 years. Dinwiddie’s theoretical peak is PPA 129 (his best season so far rated a 117), but the average peak of his comps was 26.1. Both are 28.

Here’s each player, their age this season, their projected peak, and the average peak age of their comps:

  • Bradley Beal — 28 — 180 — 26.4
  • Spencer Dinwiddie — 28 — 129 — 26.1
  • Kentavious Caldwell-Pope — 28 — 110 — 27.5
  • Kyle Kuzma — 26 — 111 — 24.4
  • Montrezl Harrell — 28 — 159 — 24.7
  • Davis Bertans — 29 — 89 — 27.8
  • Rui Hachimura — 23 — 107 — 24.3
  • Deni Avdija — 21 — 64 — 22.2
  • Daniel Gafford — 23 — 161 — 26.5
  • Raul Neto — 29 — 115 — 27.5
  • Aaron Holiday — 25 — 79 — 25.3
  • Thomas Bryant — 24 — 155 — 24.1
  • The forecasts use Kevin’s 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 what causes NBA teams to win and lose. PPA is pace neutral and includes accounting for defense and the level of competition a player faces when he’s on the floor. PPA’s average is 100. Higher is better and 45 is the replacement level.

    Ron continues with his thoughts on each player as well as the team.

    Last season, Kevin ran four different forecast approaches: one using his 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).

    The Final predictionThey were unable to win one game (33 wins vs. 34 real wins) and one position in the standings (9th spot predicted; they finished eighth). While individual forecasts of players were unpredictable, the overall approach was able to predict team quality.

    Projecting playing time is the most difficult part of any forecast. It’s impossible to predict injuries, and this year COVID-19 increases risk of players missing games. Kevin used Five Thirty Eight’sForecasted minutes with adjustments made based on team-specific information

    Key:

  • Last PPA = last season’s PPA
  • DOPP PPA = forecasted PPA using the Doppelgänger approach
  • MILK PPA = forecasted PPA using last season’s PPA and an age adjustment
  • SIMP = forecasted PPPA using a “simple”Three-year average weighted PPA
  • SAGE = forecasted PPA based on a “simple”Weighted three-year average and age adjustment
  • BLEND = Predicted PPA using an average from the four approaches above
  • The *** represents Kevin’s best guess of which forecast is most probable for each individual.

    Beal’s career-high PPA (160), was achieved two seasons ago when he added playmaking scoring to his score. Last season, he played with Westbrook and both his playmaking and his PPA (slightly) dropped. At 28, he’s likely in the “plateau” stage of his career, which is fine — he’s very good and deserved the third-team All-NBA honor last season. He’s likely to remain in the mix for All-NBA and a scoring title.

  • Last PPA: 153
  • DOPP PPA 143
  • MILK PPA 150
  • SIMP PPA 155
  • SAGE: 151
  • BLEND: 150***
  • Ron’s Take: This past season may have been Beal’s last (and best) chance to pace the Association in scoring. Early season thinking suggests that Brad doesn’t have to drop 30 just so he can keep it close. To be sure, he can—easily! He’s aged and matured as a scorer, which means that his outpouring of buckets will be even more palatable for us basketball viewers. He’s no longer needed to do everything offensively, so I expect his efficiency and trey ball to improve. He will be a repeat All-NBA honoree.

    Dinwiddie appeared to be mostly healed from the torn knee ligament which kept him off the field last season. At 28, he’s also likely in the plateau stage of his career, though at a level significantly lower than Beal (or Westbrook, who he replaces in the lineup). His 2017-18 career-best PPA of 117 was in 2017-18. His PPA in the 3,972 minutes he’s played since is 97.

  • Last PPA: 109 (last complete season before the injury).
  • DOPP PPA 107
  • MILK PPA 107
  • SIMP PPA 103
  • SAGE: 101
  • BLEND: 104***
  • Ron’s Take:Preseason was my first time to closely follow Dinwiddie. He appears healthy and his intelligence and playmaking seem legitimate. No doubt he’s uber-talented. I can recall hearing talk that he should have been an All-Star in 2019 I don’t think he quite gets there this season; the East is too star-studded and opposing coaches are haters. My fear is that, no matter how good he plays this season’s East team, Dinwiddie or Westbrook will be compared to each other like the last two options for a social-media post. I hope that I’m wrong but if last night’s chatter is any indication…

    Gafford is one those young wildcards that could make the difference between getting into the play-in and being 6th out of 7th in standings. He’s long and athletic and a thrilling finisher at the rim. He’s capable of being a defensive presence, though he’s still learning and will have to cut down on mistakes and fouling. Preseason action showed that his conditioning was improving. His performance didn’t make as much a jump in Washington as many seem to think, but that’s actually a good thing — he was figuring out his role in the NBA and got a little better at it with the Wizards. One open question is how he’ll do without Westbrook feeding him. The Wizards made a good move by signing him to a 3-year contract that starts in the 2023-24 seasons. He is locked up for five more seasons, totaling $43.9 million. That’s likely to be an excellent value for a productive center who just turned 23.

  • Last PPA: 119
  • DOPP PPA 125***
  • MILK PPA 137
  • SIMP PPA 104
  • SAGE: 122
  • BLEND: 122
  • Ron’s Take:Gafford is a man of excitement. I wish he were stronger, because then it would be clear that he could fill the role of starting center. So what I’m looking forward to from him is adding weight, minutes, points, and blocks. If managed correctly, the springy center will produce double-doubles, pace league in blocks, or dunk on anyone. YOU’RE ON NOTICE, JOEL EMBIID.

    (Also, in the final preseason game against The KnicksThe Bullets Forever handle tweeted that Gafford, who is only 23, has a visible spot of baldness. Is his bald spot the key to unlocking him? As a rule, brothers with alopecia tends to have brolic. Maybe there’s a link between alopecia and bulking up.)

    The story on Hachimura’s last season was that Hachimura had improved. That didn’t show up in the numbers. He looked almost the same, but not nearly as good. One exception is that his on-ball defense improved throughout the season, though his help defense was still poor. Although he was more productive in playoffs than in regular season, his postseason performance was still average. Entering his third season, he needs to make authentic improvement to cement a significant role in the team’s future.

  • Last PPA: 75
  • DOPP PPA 91***
  • MILK PPA 80
  • SIMP PPA 82
  • SAGE: 94
  • BLEND: 87
  • Ron’s take: Regardless of the numbers, I agree with the group that believes Rui has improved over the past season. What’s more impressive (to me) is that he average just under 14 points per game while being an afterthought on the offensive end. I pray Dinwiddie sees Rui as a potential player and helps him reach his goals by (forcefully) feeding him the ball.

    Kuzma enters his fifth season as a solid forward, but with subpar offensive efficiency. While he probably won’t make a significant leap at this point in his career, the potential is there as he theoretically could take on a bigger role without Lebron James and Anthony Davis. However, he was in that position for much of last year and his performance was average.

  • Last PPA: 98
  • DOPP PPA 89***
  • MILK PPA 99
  • SIMP PPA 86
  • SAGE: 87
  • BLEND: 90
  • Ron’s take: I’m looking forward to the Wizards verifying Kuz’s contention that he can do more. It’s true. Kuz is a matchup problem/x factor, whether he’s starting or coming off the bench. And he’s an improved defender, having learned from LeBron and AD. I hope we can use this 6-10 weapon properly.

    Bertans arrived at training camp in terrible shape after signing that $80 million contract for five-years. He performed poorly — worst season of his career — and got hurt. Yet, he shot just slightly under 40% on a high volume (33) of threes (many contested, and from extreme range). While there isn’t much else to his game, the elite shooting provides value. He’s a good bet to improve from last season, though his overall production will probably remain below average.

  • Last PPA: 73
  • DOPP PPA 61
  • MILK PPA 68
  • SIMP PPA 85***
  • SAGE: 80
  • BLEND: 74
  • Ron’s Take: Ehh.

    Solid player who had his best season (PPA 110), four years ago. He’s miscast as a starting SF, but the Wizards may need him there because they continue to lack an NBA-quality performer at that spot. I suspect that Unseld and the coaching staff recognize he’ll have more value as a SG/SF super-sub (and potential Sixth Man of the Year candidate) and will use Kuzma in a starting role.

  • Last PPA: 95
  • DOPP PPA 84
  • MILK PPA 93
  • SIMP PPA 90
  • SAGE: 88
  • BLEND: 89***
  • Ron’s Take: Before the trade, I didn’t know Brad and KCP were close friends. During Media Day, he mentioned he has the playmaking toolset in his bag, and I’m looking forward to seeing if it’s true. Regardless, he’s an upgrade over what we had this past season. Plus, he gets first crack at guarding the opposing team’s best player. They are best friends indeed.

    While the numbers aren’t pleasant, and Avdija looked about the same in preseason as he did last season, he’s way too young to write off. He has potential and seems well-informed. He needs to be stronger and have better ball handling, shooting, defensive technique and awareness. Young players can often improve, but not always in a linear fashion. About 40% of Avdija’s closest comps didn’t make significant improvements and were out of the league after 3-4 seasons.

  • Last PPA: 48
  • DOPP PPA 48
  • MILK PPA 70
  • SIMP PPA 48
  • SAGE: 70
  • BLEND: 59**
  • Ron’s TakeDeni has the tools. Opportunity has been the only thing lacking. Lack of opportunity can stifle confidence. So what I’m looking forward to is whether Unseld can instill some confidence in Deni by putting him in position to succeed.

    Last season was the best of Neto’s career, and the Wizards did well to bring him back at the league minimum. At 29 years old, he’s not likely to get any better, but he should be able to remain at a solid contributor level.

  • Last PPA: 93
  • DOPP PPA 91
  • MILK PPA 87
  • SIMP PPA 84
  • SAGE: 79***
  • BLEND: 85
  • Ron’s Take:Raul Neto would easily win Most Plucky player if there was an award. He’s the embodiment of grit — or as the Brazilians call it, coragem e força. Even so, I’m hoping not to see much of him this season. Aaron Holiday is faster, younger, and a bit more skilled than Montrezl. Outside of the rare game where we need a spark from someone other than Aaron or Montrezl — or against Denver when he gets to face off his Argentine rival, Facundo Campazzo — the Wizards have better options than Neto.

    Harrell is a good regular season player who’s been sidelined by opponents targeting his poor defense. That’s not a big issue for the Wizards, whose first concern is making the postseason. Bryant is likely to trade him when he gets back on the court.

  • Last PPA: 123
  • DOPP PPA 116
  • MILK PPA 121
  • SIMP PPA 123
  • SAGE: 120
  • BLEND: 120**
  • Ron’s Take: I like Harrell. His face is covered in grit. To use a more cultural reference, he’s a DAWG. I’m looking forward to seeing him play the role of team enforcer as well as providing instant energy off the bench.

    It’s not clear to me why the Wizards moved down in the draft to acquire Holiday, who’s been a subpar reserve in his first three seasons. He’ll likely vie with Neto and maybe Kispert for backcourt minutes. He will be expected to perform more like the 79-PA guy from two years ago than the replacement player from last year.

  • Last PPA: 41
  • DOPP PPA 61***
  • MILK PPA 42
  • SIMP PPA 53
  • SAGE: 55
  • BLEND: 53
  • Ron’s Take:I was impressed with Aaron’s performance during the preseason. Like his older brother, Aaron can keep his distance at 94 feet, make timely threes, and get to that cup. To that end, I would love it if he received the lion’s share of backup PG minutes. I know the numbers suggest he’s below average, but I blame that on him sharing a backcourt with T.J. McConnell.

    When healthy, Bryant was a special offensive weapon — elite finisher at the rim with accurate shooting from distance, terrific reads in pick-and-roll sets, good screener. He had leaden feet and was a poor defender. He probably won’t be back until at least December as he continues rehabbing the torn knee ligament. If he is able to make a full recovery, Harrell and he could be traded by the Wizards at the deadline.

  • Last PPA: 139 (last complete season before injury)
  • DOPP PPA 136
  • MILK PPA 148
  • SIMP PPA 134
  • SAGE: 144
  • BLEND: 134***
  • Ron’s take: I wish Bryant a speedy recovery and good performance. I also hope that he and the Latvian Laser/Baltic Bust get fair compensation.

    This group figures to consume the vast majority of the team’s minutes this season. Kispert may be able to crack the rotation as a backup to Beal. Kevin projects him at a PPA around 70 in his rookie season, which suggests that the team would be better off using KCP as a reserve G/F with Neto or Holiday as the primary backup.

    Vegas Wizards have the over/under on wins set to 33.5. This I think will end up being on the low side unless they sustain a rash or injuries.

    The Wizards want a return to the playoffs, and my analysis indicates that’s a realistic goal. While they could easily fall apart and lose 33 games, I think 38-40 wins is more likely. That could get them as high as 8th? though I think 9th is where they’ll land.

    In the East? they’re still behind the Brooklyn Nets? Milwaukee Bucks? Boston Celtics, Miami Heat, Atlanta Hawks, and the New York Knicks. I think they’re also behind the Chicago BullsAnd Indiana Pacers, which indicates they’ll duke it out for 9th and 10th with the Charlotte HornetsPerhaps the Toronto Raptors.

    These are the forecasted wins for each of these approaches that I have described:

  • DOPP: 38.8
  • MILK: 40.6
  • SIMP PPA 38.9
  • SAGE: 40.0
  • The team can win 42.4 by using the best-case scenario for each player. The worst-case prediction predicts 37.2

    The blend has 39.6 wins.

    With luck and one or two players significantly improving, they could reach 44 wins. They could drop as low at 35 if they suffer from injuries or regression.

    Kevin’s Final Prediction: 39-43 will get them 9th place and at least one play in game.

    Ron’s Final Prediction: 42-40, and a 7/8 match against Boston in the playin. This time, the game will take place in DC.

    Comment your prediction!

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