The following is another post from Alexander “Lexie” Barza. Lexie lives in Boston where he does marketing for The Cambridge Institute of International Education. He spends his free time playing with basketballs, data, and words (in no particular order). He appreciates the WP metric because it is based on data, not hunches or what “looks” right. Oh, and also because it’s the only metric that accurately reflects just how overrated Antoine Walker was. For those who like Twitter (and isn’t that everyone?), Lexie can be followed at @docoolstuff.
I’d like to tell you a story. It’s a story of unrealistic expectations, exaggerated promise and misallocation of credit. This tale’s two protagonists are given undue recognition for their teams success, while other significant contributors are praised more for their intangible “experience” and “toughness” than the real, honest-to-God, quantifiable production they generate. No I’m not talking about George Karl and most teams he’s ever coached – I’m talking about John Wall, Big Panda and the Washington Wizards!
If you’ve watched any Wizards games during this year’s playoffs, you’ve likely heard about Washington’s backcourt tandem of John Wall and Bradley Beal. If one were to take the pundits at their word, one would believe that Wall and Beal are the foundation of both the current Wizards and a future contender. However, even a shallow dive into the data shows this is exaggerated: not only are Wall and Beal not the foundation for this current team’s success – they likely aren’t the foundation for a future champion, either.
In order to understand why these two players aren’t responsible for the current team’s success or future championship material, let’s begin by investigating who is most responsible for the 2014 Wizard’s wins. Next, we’ll evaluate whether this young, highly touted backcourt is really promising enough to pilot a future championship contender.
The 2014 Wizard
88% of the 2014 Wizards 47 Wins Produced can be attributed to 5 players, each of whom performed at an above-average rate. Notably, John Wall was only the third most productive of these five principle contributors and the least productive on a per-minute basis. Moreover, none of these 5 players is named either “Bradley” and/or “Beal”
For Beal, who performed at a below average level, one has to assume he’s being credited more for his scoring totals, high draft status and youth than for actually helping the Wizards win games.
As for Wall, his proponents will argue that box score statistics don’t accurately account for all the value he provides, as his manic drives to the rim are said to compromise the defense, providing his teammates the clean looks the enable them to thrive. While this assertion is likely true to some extent (as it likely holds true for most team’s primary ballhandler(s)), it conveniently overlooks three key facts:
- Somebody has to actually make the shot, and players who can do that at a high rate (Ariza, Gortat, Webster) are extremely valuable.
- If Wall is to be given credit for providing his sharp-shooting teammates open looks, it’s only fair to likewise give credit to those highly-efficient shooters for helping to boost Wall’s assist numbers.
- The Wizard’s two highest win producers, Ariza and Gortat, achieved similar rates of productivity earlier in their careers before they had Wall’s help. For instance, Ariza generated WP48’s of .215 and .208 in 2007 and 2009 respectively (admittedly in fewer minutes), nearly matching his 2014 career high. As for the Polish Hammer, it’s hard to ascribe his success to his playing with Wall given that, before he ever had Wall’s help Gortat had produced numerous seasons (2009-2012) that match or better his 2014 productivity.
All in all, it’s pretty clear that Wall and Beal are receiving exaggerated credit because pundits would rather lionize flashy, high-scoring, highly-drafted guards like Beal and Wall than boring 3-and-D guys (Ariza, Webster) or solid big men who shoot high percentages (Gortat, Booker).
The Wizards of the Future
So now that we’ve seen that the 2014 Wizards success was disproportionately credited to its backcourt, let’s turn to the future: is this backcourt the foundational piece that will lead the Wizards to their first title since the Bullets won all the way back in ’78? In a word: no.
Wall is a good player. His high turnover rate is partially excused by his usage rate and high assist numbers. He also showed off an average 3-point shot this year, a skill that, when combined with his strong rebounding and steals, could elevate him to genuine star status over the next couple seasons. And yet, the fact that his turnover rate and shot-selection still leave much to be desired in his 4th year is an ominous sign for a player who should be “putting it all together” by this point.
Moreover, because his game relies so heavily on athleticism, which is the most notoriously fleeting and ephemeral of NBA skill sets, I expect Wall to age about as gracefully as a banana. Based on his career thus far, I would bet on Wall peaking over the next 3-4 years then suffering a precipitous dropoff far before I would ever predict his reaching “best player on a contender” status.
Beal still has a lot of time to improve, but his shot chart is currently too imbalanced for him to profile as a star. Although Beal’s a prolific 3-point shooter, he simply misses too many 2’s to generate the sort of scoring efficiency that is necessary for a shooting guard who offers too little else to be worthy of the “star” label. If Beal changes his shot distribution to prioritize 3-pointers and uses the drive/pull-up as a counter, he may become a very good, efficient scorer, but even then he’ll likely never be the second star on a championship team.
All in all, the Wizards should be proud of their 2014 success. But with key organizational decisions looming (Gortat, Ariza and Booker are all free agents and Beal is approaching his contract extension) the team must objectively evaluate its current assets to determine the best course of action for procuring that elusive second championship. If fans in the DC area are fortunate, Ernie Grunfeld and the Wizards brass will avoid getting caught up in the hype, recognize that Wall and Beal are more likely to be complementary pieces than the backbone of a championship contender in DC, and react accordingly. Unfortunately, given the Wizards history of myopic trades and contract extensions, fans in DC would be wise to not hold their collective breath.
- Lexie Barza