For 35 years, Washington has suffered through awful-to-pretty-good basketball, without a single team with even a .550 record. Now the city finally gets a cohesive, entertaining winner. Who wants a bunch of rude facts cluttering up our cheery New Year’s view?
But they’re arriving anyway. The 21st century is tough on rose-colored glasses in pro sports. A hard road trip, with losses to the Thunder and Spurs on Friday and Saturday, has revealed what advanced statistics have shown all season about the Wizards. They’re an exciting team, probably a few wins superior to last year’s 44-38 team. And they almost certainly will be the best team in D.C. since the late 1970s — a low hurdle because 45 wins is the best since 1978-79.
But an objective observer using current analytical methods would look skeptically at the Wizards’ 22-11 record. They’ve only outscored their foes this season by 2.15 points per game. Their schedule is third easiest in the NBA. And their six wins by three points or fewer are the most in the league. This western swing is just part of a larger reality check that will continue all winter.
Crunch the numbers, as Basketball-Reference.com does in its projected standings, and you might conclude the Wizards are the 14th-strongest NBA team and may go 26.5-22.5 the rest of the season. Gulp. That would give the Wizards 48 or 49 wins rather than the 60-or-more that seemed conceivable just two weeks ago when they were off to a 19-6 start.
A basic strength rating that combines margin of victory (plus-2.15 points) with strength of schedule (minus-0.73) gives the Wizards a modest rating of 1.42 points above the average team. Within their conference, that puts them significantly behind Toronto (plus-6.69), Atlanta (4.09), Chicago (3.58) and even the discombobulated Cavaliers (1.80). You seldom see a team, even one with a strong late-game identity for pulling out close games, get as far as a conference final unless its strength rating is two or three times as high as the Wizards are now.
As for the playoffs, the reference site says the Wizards have a 1.0 percent chance to be the Eastern Conference’s top seed, even though they are only three games out of that spot right now, with just a 1-in-22 chance to reach the NBA Finals. The decimal points are just to make you scream.
You will be delighted or appalled to know that, over the past decade or so, the NBA has amassed data for almost everything — and it’s easily available. The average NBA fan can now find the distance of every shot taken in the league, as well as the percentage of three-pointers a team takes from the corner (a shorter shot). In three clicks, you can figure out the percentage on “heaves” from beyond midcourt this season, 0 for 159.
There’s certainly some lost romance in such quantification. We watch the Wizards to see John Wall erupt toward the rim, Bradley Beal flick a three-pointer or Nene bounce an interior pass to Marcin Gortat — not to worship numbers. But data can help us be rational in our exuberance.
Few things in sports make me crazier than knowing a good team is viewed as an excellent one before it’s actually gotten there. It’s a setup. The team isn’t at fault. In the Wizards’ case, they should be praised for capitalizing on home games and beating easy foes as well as pulling out close games, like a 133-132 double-overtime win or a victory on an inbounds-lob-layup in the last instant.
Instead, their 19-6 start, on top of preseason praise, can become a potential snare. When results revert to the mean, it can feels like disappointment. Even the players themselves may fall into the mood of “What’s wrong with us?” when there’s actually not much problem at all.
Once the Wizards, who have now lost five of eight, finish their longest road trip of the season Monday in New Orleans, they need to focus on slow improvement. They don’t need to be a lot better — one basket a game. But in the NBA, it’s hard to get just one point better.
Advanced metrics show the Wizards need work on offense. On defense, they’re exceptional already at preventing offensive rebounds (fourth best), preventing shots within three feet of the basket (fifth) and disrupting their foes’ set offenses (No. 1 in lowest percentage of assists on opponents’ field goals). As a result, only three teams force foes to shoot further out (13.2 feet).
However, the Wizards show offensive oddities. The Shot That Nobody Wants in the NBA is the one beyond 16 feet but inside the three-point line so that it’s only worth two points. The 10- to 16-footer is no bargain. The Wizards are good midrange jump shooters; but do they overdo it? They’re No. 1 in percentage of shots from 10 to 16 feet and No. 4 from 16 feet to the arc. Cut that out!
The Wizards may have a solution staring at them out of the stats. They’re the most accurate in the NBA from beyond the arc (.393). Yet only two teams shoot fewer threes. That’s right, nobody shoots them as well, but almost nobody shoots them less (19 percent).
Part of the Wizards’ accuracy stems from selectivity. But perhaps they take it too far. They almost never pull up in transition for open threes, like many players they’ve just faced — Kevin Durant, James Harden and Dirk Nowitzki. And in a half-court offense, they seldom take the three off their own dribble. How do we know? Advanced stats: 92 percent of their threes come off assists (No. 2 in the NBA). Official scorers give an assist if a pass leads directly to a score, but few are given if a player shoots off his own dribble. Everybody else nails unassisted threes. Why not the Wizards?
Maybe this specific suggestion isn’t correct. But the Wizards need to improve at something. They’re a tenacious, unselfish, fun team. But they’ve played 40 percent of the season against a weak schedule and only outscore foes by 2.15 a game. That may grab more wins than any D.C. team in eons. But in April, such play may not even get you out of the first round of the playoffs.
This is the information age — in sports, too. Don’t fight the data. It’s available. And it isn’t lying. The Wizards are good. But they need to get better.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.