It’s that time of year again. The time for everyone that has witnessed a ball go through a basketball hoop before to make some predictions, state their case, and forget what their take actually was when they’re eventually called out for being wrong. As you are probably already thinking based on the title of this post, I am no exception. It’s just too exciting of a time to resist, I’m sorry. And about that last part about being wrong – clearly I’m about to write all of this down so there will be no forgetting. It’ll just be your job to call me out.
And now, my takes. They range from the much talked about and predictable subzero cold takes to the highly speculative (and rather long-winded) scalding hot ones that no one seems to be talking about. As you might expect, we’ll start with the hottest.
Spewing Lava Hot Take
The Washington Wizards finish 3rd in the East, and win over 42.5 games set as the Vegas Over/Under line.
As much as I wanted to write an entire post about NBA wins over/unders, even I couldn’t stoop to that level of unoriginality. I figure that one official prediction is enough, despite a few of these takes being ipso facto O/U predictions themselves. I’m also sticking with one official prediction because I only have one; one that I’m so confident about that I may or may not have levered up and put my parents’ house down on a substantial personal loan to wager on it (Shout out to the UW Credit Union).
In all seriousness though, when assessing this current Wizards team, one must go back to the 2014-15 season in which Washington finished 46-36, swept Toronto in the first round of the playoffs, and was a John Wall-broken-hand-against-the-60-win-Atlanta-Hawks away from the Conference Finals. Remember that? Yeah, me neither until I looked it up. Fast forward 18 months to now and the Wizards are coming off a disappointing season in which, through the end of March, they were the most injured team in the league in terms of total games missed for their players, per mangameslost.com. Nevertheless, D.C. still managed to rack up 41 wins, just 1.5 shy of their projected win total for a 2016-17 season in which they are entering mostly healthy.
Of the players that missed time for them last year was Nenê, who was not re-signed by Washington this offseason for reasons more than likely relating to the fact that he is trending quite unfavorably in the ol’ age versus production continuum. At age 33 last season, Nenê posted career lows in both scoring (9.2) and rebounding (4.5), while missing the standard 20+ games that he averaged during his tenure with Washington. Add in the fact that Nenê offered next to nothing as far as defensive versatility is concerned and plays very similar to their existing, slightly less mid-rangier, starting big, Marcin Gortat, and you can understand why Washington didn’t jump in on the Nenê sweepstakes this summer, even at the $2.9 million value the market set for him.
The team instead decided to throw $64 million over 4 years at a guy who’s first name you’re guaranteed to mispronounce the first time, Ian Mahinmi. The money may be a lot as the 6’11” Frenchman (pronunciation hint) progresses into his 30’s, but as it relates to this year’s Wizards team, I really like the addition for their bench. Despite his stats not jumping off of the page – he isn’t a 20 point 20 rebound threat, and is a modest shot blocker – Mahinmi’s value is as discernible on paper as it is to the attentive eye after digging deeper. Mahinmi averaged a double-double per 36 minutes last season in Indiana and shot a career high 59% from the floor, good for 7th in the league amongst players who logged 18 minutes per game. Mahinmi’s adept shooting around the rim is just an added bonus in comparison to his defensive impact, which is where I think the substantial upgrade over Nenê will be. As the anchor to the league’s 3rd best defense last season, Mahinmi was 5th in the entire NBA in Defensive Real Plus Minus (more on this stat at a later date), which is most likely due to his unique ability to defend not only the rim, but also the perimeter. In 2014-15, Mahinmi was 6th in the NBA in Field Goals Defended at the Rim Percent 1. Despite seeing that percentage drop more towards the middle of the pack last season, Mahinmi posted the 3rd lowest opponent Field Goal Percentage on shots outside of 15 feet amongst centers2.
To borrow an analogy from one, Bill Simmons, Mahinmi plays basketball like an adult, as he has proven himself to be a smart, imposing center that is also reliable. Reliable enough to the point where I am not wavering in my Wizards prediction despite the fact that it has been revealed that Mahinmi will miss the first 8-10 games of the season with a minor knee injury. Bad vibes, I agree, especially with a rather difficult schedule for Washington to start the season, but not bad enough. His game should complement Mr. Midrange, Jason Smith (3rd in the league in mid-range shooting percentage last season amongst forwards, and yes, I promise to never refer to him by that nickname again), and Andrew Nicholson very well in the front court, and should help to make up for both of those players’ deficiencies on the defensive end.
Rounding out what could be a solid bench is a backcourt consisting of Trey Burke , Marcus Thornton, rookie Sheldon McClellan, Kelly Oubre, and a rookie from Barcelona, Tomáš Satoransky . Oubre and Satoransky are key cogs of this unit in my opinion for similar reasons conceptually. Based on what we’ve seen this summer and this preseason, Oubre is a breakout candidate that could not only be a huge asset scoring and defending off of the bench, but he could also be in line for starter type minutes as the season progresses. Satoransky, on the other hand, is a 24-year-old 6’7” former point guard for Barcelona that is athletic enough as a guard to do this, while also play either guard spot. Thus, pending an adjustment period for the NBA game, he could be the perfect option for when, not if, Trey Burke and Marcus Thornton inevitably start jacking shots and guarding nobody like they’re playing in a 1’s-and-2’s-up-to-11 noon ball game at the local Y. It comes around every year like Christmas, just wait.
Meanwhile, I’ve started my first ever post by taking a significant amount of time talking about guys named Ian Mahinmi (the official pronunciation is “Yan ma-HEEN-me”), and Tomas Satoransky. If you’ve made it this far, I applaud you. If you are a friend of mine, now is about the time where you can stop reading and just send me a text saying something like “Nice work, dude. I like the Wizards pick.” – This way it shows you took the time to read a couple hundred words and also supported your buddy in his journey to do God knows what with his life. Sorry….where was I?
Oh yeah, the big dogs, aka the starters, aka the bigger reason for my Wizards bullishness.
A lot of this comes down to Bradley Beal, an annual member of the “When Healthy” Team (a team that I may or may not chronicle on this site at some point). Beal has only played over 70 games once as a pro, and missed 27 games last year due to a tibial stress fracture that essentially debilitated him for the minute-restricted games in which he did play (I can attest to the debilitation from that injury from experience). If healthy, which by all accounts he is (the Wiz paid him $127 million this summer after all), Beal has the talent and skill to develop into one of the premier shooting guards in the world based on the fact that he is just 23 years old and has a career scoring average of 17 points per game on 40% shooting from 3pt range (20+ points per game average in the playoffs). Despite Beal’s game needing some fine tuning – he has posted relatively average mid-range shooting and free throw attempt numbers – he is unsurprisingly featured in the vast majority of the Wizards most successful lineups over the past two seasons. This can be attributed to his ability to play off the bounce in addition to stretching the defense off of catch and shoot opportunities set up by the 3-time All-Star point guard, John Wall , who joins him in virtually all of these successful lineups3. Together, they form one of the best back courts in the Eastern Conference.
Manning the front court for the Wiz will be Porter and Markieff Morris at the forward positions, along with the persistently productive Marcin Gortat playing center. With Gortat, 32, being a known double-double producing commodity at this point, I believe a lot of the Wizards’ improvement up front will depend on the fit that Morris provides. Morris, who arrived in D.C. at the trade deadline last season, has been the definition of an enigma so far in his career. One thing that is for certain though is that he was a definite upgrade over the contributions Kris Humphries provided in his 30 games with the Wizards last year. This can be summarized at a fairly high level with a comparison of the Wizards’ Points Per Possession numbers when these two players were on the court at separate times last year:
As you can see, the Wizards were definitively better in Points Per Possession and Points Per Possession Allowed when Morris played last year. Much of this is due to the fact that the former Jayhawk is entering the prime of his career at age 27, and brings a combination of toughness, athleticism and both offensive and defensive versatility to the floor. However, he also is not one without lapses in judgement both during play and not. If Scott Brooks can carve out a role for the somewhat of a tweener game that Morris has, he could be the piece that puts them in a category with the Celtics and Raptors in the East. If he can’t, there still is plenty of lineup data that suggests that the Wizards have the tools to successfully play small with a lineup such as Wall/Beal/Porter/Oubre/Gortat (assuming Oubre can man the position occupied by Dudley in this small lineup). That sort of lineup versatility is just another reason why I like the Wizards over the long haul this season. Want to know another reason why I like them? They have Scott Brooks coaching them. Actually, never mind, it’s pretty much just the fact that this guy is no longer coaching them:
A final dynamic that warrants attention throughout the season is the Wizards’ team chemistry. There are no per possession or player coordinate tracking metrics that can comfortably evaluate team chemistry. The closest we can come to defining it is referencing things like this and comparing them to this and this. Having the two best players on a team dislike each other isn’t necessarily a detriment to the team, and it is not a novel predicament for a team to deal with, but having the two best players hate each other is a completely different story. Just ask Shaq and Kobe. Throw Morris into the mix and it isn’t inconceivable that the Wizards will need to make some changes at some point, while missing the playoffs all together. However, due to the heightened awareness of this topic now that is in the public domain, as well as the recent follow-up comments of the pair, I think that the saying “winning cures everything” can and will apply to this team due to their top end talent.. A bet on the Wiz winning 2 more games than last year is like printing fun coupons in Vegas. Whether or not they finish near the top of the East is dependent on the pieces fitting just right. I think the pieces will fit and that they will lock up the 3rd best record in the Eastern Conference when it’s all said and done.
1 – Amongst centers averaging 18 minutes per game This is the main rim protection metric that is publicly available.
2 – Minimum 200 FG attempts
3 – Per www.82games.com