The Wizards Survive

Success and failure are relative terms.  If your parents are worth millions, but the best you can do is land a job paying $100,000 per year, you might think you are a failure.  But if your parents lived on food stamps, and you land a job paying $100,000 per year, you might consider yourself a success.  How you view your achievements clearly depends on where you started and what you expected.

This same lesson applies in sports. The Rockets have won six of their first twelve games and are clearly disappointed. The Washington Wizards, though, have won six of their first eleven and are clearly pleased.  How could such similar results lead to such different reactions?

The Rockets entered the season thinking they could contend with the best teams in the league.  A 0.500 record after 12 games suggests this team is not exactly on par with San Antonio, Dallas, and Phoenix.  Hence Houston and their fans are disappointed.

In contrast, the Wizards started the season without Etan Thomas, the team’s most productive big man in 2006-07 (0.179 Wins Produced per 48 minutes and 4.7 Wins Produced). Plus Gilbert Arenas, who led this team in Wins Produced each of the past three seasons, started the season hurt and is now lost to the team for three months.  Despite these losses, the Wizards have a winning record after eleven games.  How is that possible?

Let’s start with what we would have expected had this team’s players maintained the per-minute productivity we saw last year.

Table One: Projecting the Wizards in 2007-08

As Table One reveals, given the minutes and positions assigned to date, had Washington’s player maintained the per-minute performance we saw last year this team should be on pace to win about 37 games in 2007-08. Instead, even with the loss of Arenas, this team is on pace to win about 43 games.  Which players are causing this improvement?

The story begins with Andray Blatche.  Blatche entered this season with 860 minutes of NBA experience.  And in these minutes – as I noted last summer – he was below average.  Thus far this year, though, he has been above average.  Such a leap in a young player is not uncommon, and certainly welcomed by a team that lost its major star.

The improvement in Blatche’s performance is clearly important.  But this is not the big story.  The biggest leap we have seen is in the play of Brendan Haywood.  And for Haywood, the key to his improvement is rebounding.  For his career he has grabbed 11.9 rebounds per 48 minutes.  Given that an average center grabs 12.4 boards, Haywood has been a bit below par.  This year, though, he is grabbing 16.5 rebounds per 48 minutes.  This is more than three rebounds more than Haywood has ever grabbed per 48 minutes in a single season.  Given that Haywood is now in his seventh season, such improvement is quite unexpected.  In fact, it’s so unexpected it seems unlikely that this spike can continue. Still, if Haywood can keep rebounding (and his ankle sprain isn’t that serious) the Wizards might just be contenders for the playoffs when Arenas returns in three months.  

And if that happens, the Wizards are going to have a question to answer next summer.  If the team can contend for the playoffs without Arenas, should they give Agent Zero the money he demands on the free agent market? 

- DJ

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.

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