The Washington Wizards: The Anti-Nets

Posted on October 1, 2007 by

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Yesterday’s column – titled The Nets Surrender – was intended to make two points. 

First, player performance in the NBA – relative to the NFL and MLB – is quite consistent.  Consequently we have a much better idea of how an NBA team will do before a season starts than we do in either football or baseball.  

The consistency of NBA players (which I have noted before and is mentioned in The Wages of Wins) led to my second point.  Rod Thorn announced that several teams in the Eastern Conference had passed the Nets.  Such an announcement was a de facto surrender, and given what we know of the Nets roster today, quite consistent with the empirical evidence.  In sum, Thorn is probably right, and it is surprising that we know this before training camp starts.

Is That What I Said?

Okay, that is what I was trying to say.  Here is how NetsDaily.com summarized my story:

Researcher Says Thorn to Blame for Declining Wins

When I saw this my first thought was “did I say that?” 

Looking over the column it appears that this is indeed what I said.  The Nets failure to contend is tied to a lack of a supporting cast.  And the lack of a supporting cast is Thorn’s fault.

As noted in the discussion of the Pareto Principle (and perhaps repeated a few too many times), wins in the NBA are primarily produced by the top three players on the team.  The Nets have the hard part down.  This team’s top three players last year produced 39.7 wins.  Only four teams in 2006-07 (Phoenix, San Antonio, Chicago, and Dallas) had a better top three. When we look at the supporting cast, though, we see that no NBA team employed less support for its stars than New Jersey (all this can be seen in Table One, which is a repeat from the original post on the Pareto Principle).

Table One: The Pareto Principle in the NBA in 2006-07

The Anti-Nets

Okay, enough on the Nets.  Now let’s turn to the anti-Nets.  The Nets took a combination of great stars and no support and won 41 games.  The Wizards also won 41 games.  But their combination was almost the opposite: Not so great stars and a pretty good supporting cast.  To see this point, let’s look at Table Two.

Table Two: The Washington Wizards in 2006-07 and 2005-06

An average player in the NBA posts a WP48 of 0.100. If everyone on your team posted a mark of 0.100, you would win 41 games.  If everyone on your team posts a mark of 0.157, which Gilbert Arenas did in 2005-06, the team would win close to 65 games.  Unfortunately, if 0.157 is the mark of your best player – which it was for the Wizards in 2005-06 — you really have very little chance of coming close to 60 wins.  This is because it’s unlikely that you can build a team where every player is as good as the best player.  Assuming the other players are not quite as good, your team should fall short of championship contention.  And in 2005-06 that’s what we saw from Washington (a point I made both last October and last January)

When we look at 2006-07 we see that Arenas improved, posting a WP48 at 0.180.  But when we look at the WP48 of the top three, we only see a mark of 0.170. Let’s put 0.170 in perspective.

The following teams were led by three players who posted a combined WP48 below the Wizards mark of 0.170: Memphis, Indiana, Sacramento, Atlanta, Milwaukee, Seattle, Portland. 

The following four teams had a mark better than 0.170, but below 0.190: Minnesota, Philadelphia, Charlotte, LA Clippers.

What do all eleven teams I listed have in common?  Yes, all of these teams missed the playoffs. 

My Story

So this is my story (really, this is it):  For an NBA team to be successful, it must be led by players who are truly outstanding.  Now this is a necessary but not sufficient condition for title contention.  The Nets demonstrate this point, employing the stars but not the necessary supporting cast.

The Wizards seem to have the easy part down.   Washington employs a number of players who can post an above average WP48 (Arenas, Caron Butler, Antonio Daniels, Antawn Jamison, Brendan Haywood, and Etan Thomas).  But the star of this team – Arenas – is simply not as productive as other top stars.

Yes I know.  Many believe Arenas is one of the NBA greats (primarily because he can score).  And Arenas is very good. But he is not as good as players like Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, Shawn Marion, Steve Nash, LeBron James, etc… And if Arenas is your top player – and he leads the Wizards in Wins Produced – even a great supporting cast is only going to get you so far.

Yes the Wizards had injuries last year.  But even with everyone healthy this team was not going to win more than 50 games.   Given that this team is bringing back virtually the same cast in 2007-08, again you can expect the ceiling on this team to be lowered relative to the other top teams in the league.  And with the improvements we see in the East, the Wizards – like the Nets — are simply going to have trouble contending for the conference title.

I should close by noting that Washington’s shortcomings are not really anyone’s fault.  Every team does not get a truly great player.  And you can’t just turn a switch and make a player rise from good to great. Arenas does have a reputation of working very hard on his game.  Perhaps all that work will eventually pay off and he will truly join the NBA’s elite.  If he reads this, I know I have done my part.  From what I understand, he is motivated by slights (and of course, aren’t we all?).

– DJ

For a discussion of other teams see NBA Team Reviews: 2006-07

Our research on the NBA was summarized HERE.

The equation connecting wins to offensive/defensive efficiency is given HERE

Wins Produced and Win Score are discussed in the following posts

Simple Models of Player Performance

Wins Produced vs. Win Score

What Wins Produced Says and What It Does Not Say