Losing and Gaining Hope in Washington

Posted on October 12, 2008 by


From 1968-69 to 1978-79 the Baltimore-Washington Bullets

  • suffered only one losing season.
  • averaged 49 wins per season (or won 60% of their games).
  • reached or surpassed 50 wins five times.
  • won their only NBA title (in 1978).

In the 29 years since this era ended, the Washington Bullets-Wizards

  • have suffered twenty losing seasons.
  • have averaged only 35 wins per season (assuming the team would have won 30 games in the lock-out shortened 1998-99 season).
  • have never won more than 45 games.
  • have only made it out of the first round of the playoffs twice and have never advanced any further than the second round.

When we look at these two records the truth becomes obvious.  The Bullets won only 44 games – or only 53.7% of their contests – in the 1977-78 regular season.  Despite this mark, this team won the NBA title.  The next season this team won 54 games and lost in the NBA Finals.  In fact, the team never won a title when its victory total surpassed 50 win mark.  This experience clearly taught a lesson. For Washington to win the title it must keep its win total under 50 games.  And under 45 wins gives Washington an even better shot at a title.

Washington Approaches the Limit

Once we understand the lesson of the magical 1978 season we see that Washington has been very successful across the last three decades. 

Unfortunately, the team assembled for the 2008-09 season threatened to surpass the 1978 limit. To see this point, we need to go back to 2006-07.  That season the Wizards – led by 11.0 Wins Produced from Gilbert Arenas – won 41 regular season contests.  Due to injury, though, Arenas only played 13 games in 2007-08.  Despite the absence of their most productive player from 2006-07, the Wizards managed to win 43 games last season.

Before I get to how this happened, let me note why what we saw last season jeopardizes Washington’s game plan.  Arenas was scheduled to be healthy for the 2008-09 season.  If you add a player who can produce 11 wins in a season to a team that won 43 contests, it’s possible the team will surpass 50 wins.  And for the Wizards, this means there’s no chance this team could win a title.  Again, only when this team wins fewer than 45 games have they have ever won the championship.

Fortunately, 50 wins is not likely to happen in 2008-09.  Not only will Arenas not be available the first few months of this next season, the team has also lost Brendan Haywood – the team’s starting center – to an injury that will cost Haywood four months.  Given the loss of Arenas and Haywood, it looks like the Wizards will take a step back.

The Expected Step Back in 2007-08

Of course, that’s what we thought last year when Arenas went down.   And that didn’t happen.  Before we think we know what’s going to happen next, let’s first try and figure out what happened in 2007-08.

The answer starts with Table One.

Table One: The Washington Wizards in 2007-08

Table One presents two views on the Wizards.  The first tells us how many games the Wizards would have won in 2007-08 had the players on this team played as well as they did in 2006-07.  The second view tells us how many games the team should have won given how the players played in 2007-08.

As one can see, the difference in these two views is about 13 wins.  And most of this change can be tied to two players, Antawn Jamison and Roger Mason.   Of these two, the big increase was seen in the production of Mason.  Although Mason was below average in 2007-08, he was immensely bad in 2006-07.  The difference between these two below average performances was about 6.1 additional wins, or about half of the team’s overall improvement.

Mason, despite his improvement, wasn’t really the primary source of the team’s wins.  In the end, Mason only produced 1.6 wins last year (he was expected to produce -4.4). For the source of most of this team’s wins we need to look at four players: Jamison, Caron Butler, Brendan Haywood, and Antonio Daniels.  These four players produced 35.8 wins last season (they were expected to produce 29.4).   So this quartet was responsible for much of this team’s success.

In the off-season Mason signed with the Spurs.  Again, this was not a huge loss.  And with Arenas returning it looked like the team was going to be much improved.  In fact, this team looked like it could surpass the magical 44 win mark.

Of course, given what I said earlier about the magical 1978 title team, this would mean the team could not contend for a title.  To solve this problem, Arenas and Haywood both went down with injuries.  And consequently, hope in Washington remains.

Hope Departs?

In all seriousness, hope has likely departed Washington. 

Well, maybe not entirely.  Etan Thomas – who posted a 0.179 WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes] in 2006-07 – returns after missing all of last year.   So it’s possible that Thomas can help mitigate the loss of Haywood.  If Jamison (who is also hurt but looks like he will soon recover), Butler, and Daniels can maintain what they did last year, the Wizards should surpass the 30 win mark and might even approach 40 wins.

Unfortunately, I am not sure that 40 wins gets you into the playoffs in the Eastern Conference in 2008-09.  The following teams are likely to surpass the 40 win threshold: Boston, Detroit, Orlando, Philadelphia, and Cleveland.   In addition, I think Toronto and Indiana also have a good chance of passing the 40 win mark.  And finally, I think the Miami Heat – with Dwyane Wade, Shawn Marion, and Michael Beasley – will be much improved (yes, I think they might even win more than 40).

If you count it up, that’s eight Eastern Conference teams that I think have a chance to be better than the Wizards.  This means Washington might be missing the playoffs in 2009 (and even if they make it, they would be heavy underdogs against the top teams in the conference).

So it looks like the Wizards are finally going to pay the price for too many injuries.  Ultimately it’s not the clothes that win games but the players in the clothes.  And once too many of those players are different, the team’s outcome has to change.

Hope Next Season?

Let me close by noting that this team should have hope going past the 2008-09 season.  The Wizards have Arenas, Jamison, Butler, Haywood, Daniels, and Thomas under contract for the 2009-10 season.   So if these players can return to good health, change will be coming to Washington.  Yes, with all of its productive players actually healthy and on the court, Washington might finally surpass the 45 win mark in 2009-10.  And despite what I said, this means this team will actually be getting closer to its second championship.   

So as the losses mount this year, fans of the Wizards should keep an eye on the future.  With an improvement in the health care of this team, the future starting in 2009 can be substantially brighter.

– DJ

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Our research on the NBA was summarized HERE.

The Technical Notes at wagesofwins.com provides substantially more information on the published research behind Wins Produced and Win Score

Wins Produced, Win Score, and PAWSmin are also 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

Introducing PAWSmin — and a Defense of Box Score Statistics

Finally, A Guide to Evaluating Models contains useful hints on how to interpret and evaluate statistical models.