The Wizards Are…Hold On…Good?

Twenty games into their season, the Washington Wizards were sitting at a very Wizardian 7-13. It would have been entirely understandable if the team’s fanbase – comprised entirely of my friend Justin – had abandoned ship. But he stuck it through, mostly because if there is anything that Justin has gotten used to in his time as a fan, it is the Wizards being simultaneously underwhelming and tantalizing.

Since that poor start, the Wizards suddenly rewarded Justin’s fandom with a 22-7 run, pushing their overall record to 29-20, good for 4th in the Eastern Conference and, given the ongoing struggles of the Toronto Raptors, the possibility that the team will climb even higher.

What is going on?

The most obvious place to begin is the team’s health. Previous seasons have seen the team routinely undermined by the fact that its arena and practice facility are built on an abandoned graveyard full of broken mirrors and black cats. But this year’s team is currently healthy. It’s a funny thing but as it turns out, having all of your best players available to actually play in the games turns out to be hugely beneficial. The Wizards have been built around a ferocious backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal – easily a top-five NBA backcourt, and for even more funsies, maybe a top-two NBA backcourt – but the team has rarely been able to put the twosome on the court together, owing to Beal’s body having been built out of balsa wood.

Beal has only missed four games this season* and, after a relatively unimpressive start to his season, one in which he was likely playing himself back into the shape necessary to contribute at a routinely high-level in actual NBA games, Beal has cooking. He is averaging 22pts/3.5ast per game since the start of the new year, and he is looking like every single bit of the player that fans have thought possible.

And then there’s Otto Porter. Long the subject of “What if this guy gets better?” type conversations, the former third pick’s fourth season has seen him getting career highs in points (14.2 per night), rebounds (6.5 per night), and three-point shooting percentage (a staggering .463, up from a previous high of .367). This is the kind of development that gets fanbases excited, especially because he is still relatively young.

Which brings us to perhaps the team’s most important piece: John Wall. Although Colin Cowherd (a bag of utter garbage) would have his listeners believe otherwise, the fact of the matter is that Wall is one of the NBA’s best players and, perhaps more importantly, one of the league’s fastest players. He is, simply put, a blur.

Speed isn’t everything of course – Wall’s shooting is…uhh…well, it could be better, let’s say – but his ability to get to the tin in the blink of an eye makes the missed jumpers slightly more tolerable. Meanwhile, like Beal and Porter before him, Wall’s game is sharper than ever: he’s averaging career highs in points (23), assists (10.3), steals (2.1) while fouling at a career low. Dude is good.

What this means for the Wizards’ outlook is hard to say. This team functions so well when all of its pieces are operating at full pace, but that happens so rarely that it is impossible to imagine the team being able to maintain its momentum if an injury inevitably occurs, especially since we have seen what happens when all of its players aren’t available.

But thinking of the bad is no fun at all. So for the time being, let’s not do that, and let’s instead a Wizards team that finally – FINALLY! – looks like a genuine threat to be as good as the one that we have all imagined for so long.

* -knocks so hard on a piece of wood that it literally turns into sawdust-

Bad Quadruple-Doubles Keep Happening

Earlier this year, this website tackled bad quadruple-doubles, wherein a player gets double-digits in three of the five positive counting statistics (points/rebounds/assists/steals/blocks) and double-digits in the game’s single negative counting statistic: turnovers.

At the beginning of this season, the league had seen four such performances since 1982: Clyde Drexler, Charles Barkley, Fat Lever, and Jason Kidd had each achieved the feat once (curiously, those players were 3-1 in those games). But now we’re almost three full months into this season, and we’ve seen that total doubled. Between them, Russell Westbrook and James Harden have accounted for an additional four bad quadruple-doubles (those players were 2-2 in those games). That brings the aggregate record of bad quadruple-double getters to 5-3.

Which leads us to a brief, albeit bigger, conversation: are turnovers even that bad? Or at least, are they bad in this case?

It is tempting to believe that turnovers are an enormous deal. “One guy turning it over more than 10 times?” we want to scream. “That’s how you lose basketball games!” The very small sample size says otherwise and there are other confounding factors too. The players who have turned the ball over the most? They happen to be the among the game’s greatest ever players.

But then, it makes perfect sense that the game’s greatest ever players turned it over the most. You have to have the ball to turn it over, and what team anywhere isn’t going to constantly get the ball into the hands of their best players? Harden and Westbrook don’t have four bad quadruple-doubles between them by accident. Both are by far and away the best players on their respective teams and those teams don’t go unless Harden and Westbrook have the ball constantly.

This is reflected in their usage rates, a hugely useful statistic that reflects how often a player has the ball, although it should be noted that there are competing ways to specifically calculate usage rate. But all calculations point to one very obvious thing: Harden and Westbrook have the ball constantly.

It naturally follows then that each of them would have an incredible number of opportunities to turn the ball over and, as expected, both Westbrook and Harden have been aggressively doing so. Westbrook coughs it up 5.5 times a game and Harden is even worse, at 5.7. That’s good for first and second in the league. Their next closest competitor is John Wall, who is losing the ball 4.3 times per game, or more than a full turnover less than Westbrook and Harden. But each of these three are also the league’s leaders in assists-per-game.

What exactly are we seeing? Given the success that both Westbrook and Harden have had (and, frankly, Wall too, given the recent play of the Washinton Wizards), turnovers seem suspiciously meaningless in the grand scheme of things, especially among truly great players. Or, to put that another way, three teams whose best players average the most turnovers-per-game are at a collective 81-50 in league play. All three teams would make the playoffs at this point.

So are there any conclusions to be drawn about bad quadruple-doubles?Well, they are very funny. Turning the ball over 10+ times a game is obviously not great, and it makes for a fun bit of apparent statistical failure. But in the broader scheme of things, they barely seems to matter.

The Abyss Stares Into The NBA

Shooting the basketball is a spectrum. At its very best, it appears to be an almost effortless thing, simultaneously precise and simple. At its worst, it is a sisyphean nightmare in which the only thing that is supposed to be happening simply does not.

But most of all, shooting the basketball is hard. The very best shooters in the world rarely average better than 50 percent, and overall, the average NBA player shoots less than 45 percent from the field and less than 35 percent from deep.

For the sake of charity then, let’s imagine numbers that might constitute great, good, average, tolerable, bad, and the beyond. Let’s avoid the subtleties of distance and the free-throw line. Let us focus instead raw percentages achieved from the floor.

It seems fair enough to conclude – given what we know about league averages – that anybody shooting better than 52.5 percent on a given night is shooting great, that anybody shooting above 47.5 percent is shooting good, that anybody shooting above 42.5 percent is shooting average, that anybody shooting above 37.5 percent is shooting tolerable, that anybody shooting above 32.5 percent is shooting bad. With the exception of the very top category (which accounts for everything from Great – 52.5-100), we have five point windows for each of our categories: Good – 52.5-47.5, Average – 47.5-42.5, Tolerable – 37.5-42.5, Bad – 32.5-37.5. It should be acknowledged that this list might not be fair, and that the difference between a player’s presence in any of them can be as little as a single made shot. (A player who shoots 4-10 goes from Tolerable to Good if he had only made one more.) But then there is the Abyss, the place beyond bad, the place where hope goes to die, a place of double-digit attempts and single digit makes. This is the place beneath 32.5 percent.

Last night saw players not only approaching the edge of the Abyss, but jumping in with both feet.

Robert Covington

The 76ers are a team on the brink of going all the way from garbage to awful. That’s why they’re celebrating having won two straight games for the first time in a year-and-a-half. Covington though did his best to undo the effort after going a grisly 4-13 from the field. We’ll get back to this game though, as his struggles were dwarfed by a competitor’s.

Andrew Wiggins

Wiggins is one-half of the future in Minnesota, a team still trying to figure out how to recover from the loss of Kevin Garnett (and then, to a much lesser extent, Kevin Love). Wiggins has been on a scoring tear these past few weeks too so it makes sense that he might have thought that he enjoyed an unrepentent green light to chuck until infinity. Unfortunately, infinity proved to be going 5-18 in a loss to the Boston Celtics.

John Wall

Wall is Washington’s sublime point-guard, a badly underpaid player who, at his very best, can take teams apart with his otherworldly speed. But his jump shot is an iffy proposition, and if that quickness isn’t getting him to the basket, things can south in jaw-dropping fashion. This is what happened last night, as Wall shot 6-24 from the field. Mercifully, he managed to still do all of the other Wall things that make him so valuable, and so although he wallowed in the Abyss, his team survived. Barely.

Glenn Robison III

Robinson’s Pacers were facing the rounding-into-form Warriors, a team against which mistakes cannot be made if a team wants to have any hope of success. Constant defensive pressure coupled with relentless offensive execution are the hallmarks of any team that even wants to be competitive with the Warriors. Unfortunately for the Pacers and just prior to tip-off, Robison touched the Abyss’s icy waters, as evidenced by the atrocious 3-14 he managed in a blow-out loss. At least he can rest knowing that his team likely would lost even if he hadn’t tempted fate.

Josh Richardson

Richardson’s future with the Miami Heat is bright. He is a rail-thin guard who goes out onto the court and does stuff. He is young, too, meaning that he has room to grow on a team that is in the midst of a rebuild after the championship heights it achieved with its Big Three. But his 1-11 from the field in a loss to the lowly 76ers is something else entirely. Would a semi-competent night have won the Heat the game? Not necessarily, but it certainly would have helped them to be more competitive.