The Washington Wizards now stand at 0-25 on the road, just four losses away from tying the 1992-93 Dallas Mavericks' record 0-29 road start. The records for consecutive road games lost during one season (37, by the 1990-91 Sacramento Kings) and overall (43 by that same team) remain in danger, and the Kings' 20-year-old record for worst road season -- 1-40 -- is in jeopardy.
But what is perhaps most incredible about these Wizards is that despite the team's terrible road performance, Washington is pretty alright at home in the Verizon Center. The Wizards are 13-10 in D.C., on par with playoff teams like the New York Knicks and Charlotte Bobcats, and playoff hopefuls like the Houston Rockets and Phoenix Suns.
So why exactly are the Wizards so bad on the road? What is it they are doing well at home but terribly away from Washington?
I broke down the splits made available by Basketball-Reference.com to determine how many points per game worse the Wizards are on the road in each of the major factors of performance. The following list is ordered by greatest impact to lowest.
SHOOTING DEFENSE. In D.C., Wizards' opponents shoot an effective field goal percentage of .486, on par with top-10 NBA defenses. But when the Wiz leave the District, opponents' eFG shoots up to .536, worse than every team's season average ... including the dreadful Cleveland Cavaliers. The difference costs Washington about 3.9 points per game. (For comparison's sake, the Suns -- a shoddy defensive squad -- give up an eFG of .508 at home and .527 on the road. The Wizards' split is almost twice as large.)
DEFENSIVE REBOUNDING. The Wizards are not a good defensive rebounding team anywhere, but are so, so bad at it on the road that the split has a big impact on the squad's bottom line. Washington rebounds 75 percent of its opponent's misses at home (right around league average), but just 68 percent on the road. That's worse than the Golden State Warriors' season average, and the split costs the Wizards an estimated 3.3 points per game. Running splits on individual rebounding is difficult, but big men have (obviously) an inordinate impact on defensive rebounding numbers. Lay blame accordingly.
FOUL RATE. Foul rate is believed by many to have the greatest impact on home court advantage in the NBA; in their new book Scorecasting, economist Tobias J. Moskowitz and Sports Illustrated scribe L. Jon Wertheim present data that suggests referees systemically (and, I hope, subconsciously) call games in favor of the home team. That applies to the Wizards, it seems, as opponents score 0.26 free throws per field goal attempts when facing Washington in their own gym, and 0.22 at the Verizon Center. That split represents an estimated 3.3-point impact on the road Wizards. No other current team I dug up data on, including the Suns, Knicks, Rockets and Nets, had such a great split, though. That would imply that either refs are especially hard on the visiting 'Zards, or that the lack of defensive effort we see manifested in shooting defense and defensive rebounding also applies to the foul game.
OFFENSIVE REBOUNDING. The Wizards have a terrible home-split on the offensive glass, too. Washington rebounds 28.6 percent of its own misses at home (near-elite) and 25 percent on the road (bad). The split represents an impact of 2.3 points per game. Again, individual rates are difficult to ascertain; again, it seems to be a big man issue. (For what it's worth, without adjusting for opportunities: Andray Blatche averages 2.7 offensive rebounds per 36 minutes at home, and 2.0 on the road. JaVale McGee averages 4.0 at home and 3.8 on the road. Both play fewer minutes on the road than at home, but McGee's minutes splits are pretty huge, a 17 percent reduction on the road.)
Flip Saunders is and will continue to take heat for his team's road performance. If you ask basketball experts where in the box score effort and energy show up, they'd tell you that it can be found in shooting defense and rebounding. Three of the four most impactful negative road splits the Wizards have seen this season are shooting defense, defensive rebounding and offensive rebounding. That tells me the Wizards aren't playing as hard on the road. That tells me that it's not just a mental issue, or a random oddity of noise. It's effort. What the Wizards give on the home floor doesn't travel, and it's leading to an embarrassing campaign.
There is precedent for this type of bizarre split, by the way. Those 1990-91 Kings, they who lost 37 straight road games, and finished 1-40 away from Sacramento? That team (coached by Dick Motta, who led Washington to its only NBA title) was 24-17 at home, and like these Wizards saw a massive degradation in defensive performance when setting out on the road. Were I a Wizards fan, given the infamy those Kings reached in terms of road futility, I'd be rather fearful of the teams' similarities.