Will Shuffling the Pieces Solve the Puzzle?

If you haven’t heard yet, Pistons Coach John Kuester plans to shake One of my all-time favorite Rip picsup the starting lineup beginning tonight at Toronto. The Pistons have deployed multiple starting lineups this season, so why is this newsworthy? This time, Kuester is benching Richard Hamilton, who has been the “masked man” of the franchise for the better part of a decade, in favor of Ben Gordon.

I have a special affection for Rip Hamilton. Some of you may know that I was fortunate enough to play college basketball at a small liberal arts school, and as a freshman, I was struggling to figure out how I could improve my game so that I could contribute to my team. Over a holiday break, I asked my high school coach what he thought – and he told me to watch the way Rip Hamilton used screens to create space, both for himself but also for his teammates. And watch him intently I did, for hour after hour after hour. I modeled the way I tried to play on the court – using screens, moving without the ball, etc. – after the way he did. Naturally through this process, I became a Rip fan.

ben-gordon-detroit-pistons-d5c694c30a5efa37_largeSo like many Pistons fans, this news is bitter sweet. On the one hand, it’s another door closing on the old era that we cherish so dearly. On the other hand, this appears to be the right move for the present and the future. Put simply, at this point in their respective careers, Ben Gordon is the better player and appears to be the best option for the Pistons at starting SG.

This appears to be the consensus of conventional wisdom, and in the case of Hamilton vs. Gordon, the Wins Produced numbers agree. Here are the numbers through 28 games:

2010-12-22 Automated Wins Produced

With Gordon now the starter, what can Pistons fans expect?

Keith Langlois, editor of Pistons.com, offers the following comments:

If Gordon as a starter can provide 18 or 20 points consistently and efficiently, the Pistons will be better than a 9-19 team. Maybe good enough to chip away at .500 and put themselves back in the playoff chase. But if Hamilton is true to his word and embraces his new role, then perhaps the Pistons can be significantly better than that. […]

Twenty points isn’t a magical barometer, I suppose, but both Hamilton and Gordon are primarily scorers. That’s their best asset. If they can figure a way to get each of them to score 15 a game, at least, the Pistons probably could mount a playoff push. […] With neither playing performing at close to capacity, why not reverse their roles?

Best case, both of them start scoring consistently and efficiently. But if it even jolts one of them back on course, the Pistons will be ahead of where they’ve been.

To sum up, there are three things Keith is arguing here. First, both Gordon and Hamilton are underperforming (at least that’s how I read them being “off course” at least). Second, if either one of them is “jolted back on course” by this change, the Pistons will be better moving forward than they’ve been. Third, if this change causes them both to play the way they did on October 28, 2009 on a consistent basis, the Pistons could complete the season at a better than .500 clip.

Wow! The Pistons, who have won just 9 of 28 thus far, might be able to anticipate finishing the season by winning more than 26 of their remaining 54 games simply by swapping the roles of two shooting guards. That is truly remarkable. But do any of the arguments hold up to scrutiny?

Are Gordon and Hamilton underperforming?

Rip’s performance this season hasn’t been good, and there’s no question about that. However, what may be surprising to some Pistons fans is that Rip has never been very productive relative to Wins Produced. In fact, his career season with the Pistons was 2003-2004 (at age 25) when he produced 4.7 wins with a WP48 of .081 (average is .100). Yes, in his best season with the Pistons, Rip was “below average.” Furthermore, Rip is getting old, and in spite of working tirelessly on his conditioning, Rip can’t defy age indefinitely. So while his performance is declining, it’s not clear to me whether this is the natural result of age or the result of being assigned the wrong role in the rotation.

What about the newly-signed, highly-paid Ben Gordon? His minutes, shot attempts, and points per game have all dropped since joining the Pistons. That must be a result of having two good scorers at the same position, right? Well, not necessarily, according to the numbers. Ben Gordon’s career season came in 2008-2009 with the Chicago Bulls (at age 25) where he produced 5.6 wins with a WP40 of .090 – remarkably similar to Rip’s career season, isn’t it? And while he has produced better numbers in other seasons prior to that one as well, this season is not a dramatic departure from what Gordon has offered in the past. Yes, he’s not performing optimally, but it’s not as bad as many people suggest.

So, while it’s true that both players aren’t performing optimally, it’s not clear that the roles of the perspective players are to blame.

Will the Pistons be better if either one thrives in a new role?

This one’s easy. If either player improves, and if the other’s production doesn’t fall of a cliff completely, yes, the Pistons will better. That’s obvious. If your individual players play better, of course the team is better. The question is, how much better? Langlois is clearly thinking playoffs – finishing the season 26-26 for a total of 37 wins is likely to put the team in the Playoff hunt. All due respect to Keith, I don’t think this is very likely.

As a thought experiment, let’s imagine that moving Ben Gordon into the starting lineup does propel him back to his peak performance (.090 WP48). Let’s also imagine that Ben Gordon averages 36 minutes per game at SG (ignoring for the moment how that impacts Rip’s minutes and position). With 54 games left to be played, the Pistons could expect approximately 3.6 wins from Ben Gordon. Given the relatively unproductive cast of players the Pistons employ, I struggle to see how an additional 3-4 wins matters much. Instead of winning 26-27 games as the current numbers project, the Pistons could win 29-31. To my eye, that amounts to fewer lottery balls, not a playoff berth.

A Case Study: October 28, 2009

I recently argued that the Pistons aren’t very good because the Pistons aren’t very good. Yes, I think it’s that simple. We don’t have many productive players; therefore, we don’t win much.

It is true, however, that this collection of players has played very well together at times – and one need look no farther than the first game this team every played together as a group on October 28, 2009. That night, Hamilton scored 25 points on 53% shooting, and Ben Gordon scored 22 points on 58% shooting – a remarkable shooting performance from both, to be sure. Langlois seems to suggest that this should be the case study – both for the fans and perhaps also for the coaching staff as well – that models what Dumars envisioned for this team when he put it together. If Kuester can find a way to replicate this performance, the Pistons problems will all be solved, right?

Alas, replicating that performance has been difficult. As Keith observes,

Remarkably, there has been only one other game since the two became teammates that both scored over 20 points. The other came last Feb. 21 when the Pistons beat San Antonio in overtime.

The good news is the Pistons are undefeated when Hamilton and Gordon score 20-plus. The bad news is it’s happened twice in 62 games when they’ve both been available. The worse news is they’ve had four games already this season in the 25 they’ve both played when each one finished in single digits. Last year, there was only one such game in the 37 when both played.

To put this as simply as possible – Gordon and Hamilton are not going to shoot over 50% on a regular basis, let alone on the same night. And as a result, history will keep repeating itself – the nights that both players score a lot and efficiently will continue to be rare, regardless of who’s starting and who’s coming off the bench.

How do I know this? Because of the statistics that the NBA tracks, I can view their career shooting percentages and see with absolute clarity that they’ve never shot above 50% consistently (and most SGs in the NBA don’t either, not even the best ones). So as fun as that game was to watch back on October 28, 2009 – and yes, I did watch and enjoy it – I think it’s unlikely to expect many games like that in 2010-2011.

In other words, juggling the rotation in hopes of achieving, “If we could just play like we did that one night last season, we could turn this thing around!” doesn’t seem like a very good strategy.

Same Pieces, Same Puzzle

Unfortunately for the Pistons and their fans, I don’t think changing the starting Shooting Guard will have a dramatic impact. I do agree that it’s the right move, and it seems to be the natural next step in the transition from the old guard to the new, but ultimately, not that much is changing. One unproductive SG is being replaced by a slightly less unproductive SG, and the rest of the Pistons problems – specifically, poor shooting, poor defense, and poor rebounding – remain.

Kuester can arrange the pieces however he wants – and I don’t fault him for trying – but the puzzle when completed is going to look very much the same.

Could the Pistons land Gerald Wallace?

Apparently, the Bobcats are shopping Gerald Wallace. This is very much a rumor, and it’s unclear what Charlotte would expect in return.

From the perspective of Wins Produced, Gerald Wallace has been a very productive player — at least in the few years prior to this one. A quick look at the Automated Wins Produced Numbers and Wallace’s box score statistics reflect a drop in performance this season, which is primarily due to a decrease in shooting efficiency.

I haven’t seen much of Charlotte this season, so I can’t offer much beyond that. In spite of recent struggles from the field though, Wallace is exactly the type of player I’d love to see in a Red, White, and Piston Blue. So, let’s hit the Trade Machine.

Here’s a very simple start. Here I’m assuming that Charlotte would want to take back rotation-caliber players and gain financial flexibility. I’m also assuming that Larry Brown would welcome the opportunity to coach Tayshaun Prince again. Further, Stuckey’s development, while slow, is happening; he’s currently having a career year. So there’s the potential Larry Brown could mold him into a PG that Charlotte could re-sign (I can hear Dr. Berri chuckling about that last point).

I got a good LOL out of Hollinger's prediction on team wins.

If this year’s performance is the measuring stick, this trade is largely a wash. All of these players are hovering around “average” (.100 WP48). However, Tay is coming on strong of late, Stuckey is having a career year, and one would think Wallace — given his age and recent performance — is capable of offering more.

Obviously, I could be waaay off about what Charlotte’s looking for. There are a couple other trade scenarios out there that are much more complex than this one (see here and here). I am inclined to think that Patrick Hayes is right in that Charlotte would probably want to get out of some of its bad contracts. Still, Wallace is the type of player that’s worth taking a risk for. The question would obviously how big a risk is worth this particular reward.

Thoughts?

A simple question with a simple answer

Over at Pistons.com, another Q&A with Keith Langlois and Joe Dumars has been released. The first two question drew my attention immediately. Keith asks,

KEITH LANGLOIS: Let’s start with a question I asked some of the players after the win over Atlanta. Was that the type of performance you envisioned when you put the roster together?

JOE DUMARS: Yes. When you put the roster together, you envision that particular team playing a certain style and a certain way. That changes based on your roster. With this particular roster, the idea is to have depth; the idea is to be able to go to your bench and have little to no dropoff. When you see a game like the Atlanta game, you sit there and you say that’s how this team is supposed to play. That’s the game plan right there – to be able to go nine or 10 deep and to be able to sustain for 48 minutes.

Okay, that’s fine as far as it goes. When Dumars was assembling this team, he envisioned a team that would be able to compete with and win against Playoff teams. Got it. Yet, this team struggles to do so, and by my count, the win against Atlanta is the first win against a quality opponent this season.

KL: The followup to that is a simple question and I suspect not a simple answer. Why in your mind has that type of performance been elusive?

JD: Tough answer. The Atlanta game is how it’s supposed to work. When we have these lulls and these droughts, when we have games where we don’t close out the fourth quarter like we’ve done so many times this year, you sit there and you look for answers. I can’t give you a simple answer why that is, but the Atlanta game is – if you just look at that – that is the game plan of how we’re supposed to play.

So our inability to compete isn’t lost on Langlois or Dumars, but the reasons why appear to be.

Winning in the NBA

I started this blog in order to offer a very specific type of statistical analysis, and that analysis might illumine these reasons. That analysis also suggests a very simple answer. The reason that victories similar to the one over Atlanta remain elusive is that the collection of players Dumars has assembled simply isn’t effective at doing the things it takes to win in the NBA.

I’ve provided several tables (like this one) detailing the individual win contributions of each player. (If you’re interested in a more recent table, you can check out Dr. Berri’s recent analysis here)

For this post, however, instead of creating another such table, I thought we could look at some very simple team stats and compare those team stats to the rest of the league. Where do the Pistons as a team rank relative to other NBA teams? (All statistics courtesy of http://www.basketball-reference.com)

Before we get to the stats, let me state in my own words my understanding of what NBA teams need to do in order to win basketball games in very basic terms:

  • Make efficient use of their own possessions, i.e., score the ball efficiently and maintain possession of the ball (not give possessions away via turnover, in other words);
  • Secure possession of the ball effectively (which also denies the opponent possession of the ball), because you can’t win in basketball without having the ball, i.e., grab plenty of rebounds and the get the occasional steal;
  • Make it difficult for the opponent to make efficient use of their possessions, i.e., play good defense.

Regardless of one’s feelings on how successfully Wins Produced allocates win production to individual players, the three points above appear to be generally well accepted. So with that in hand let’s explore how the Pistons are performing as a group relative to these three things.

Efficiently Using Possessions?

When it comes to making use of our own possessions, we can examine three things easily. First is how efficiently we are scoring the ball. Looking at effective field goal percentage (explained here), the Pistons are shooting 48.2%, good for 22nd in the league (league average 49.7%).

Second is turnovers. The Pistons are better at taking care of the basketball than they are scoring it. Given that the pistons play at a relatively slow pace, it will be more useful to consider turnover percentage instead of totals, where the Pistons 13.1% turnover rate is good for 8th best in the league.

Finally is free throw attempts, but thus far the Pistons aren’t exceptional at getting the to free throw line — one of the most effective ways to score in the game.

So in sum, while we are good about retaining possession of the ball when we have it, we’re not very good about putting the ball in the hoop.

Securing Possession of the Ball?

When it comes to securing possession of the ball, we can examine rebounds and steals. When it comes to rebounding totals, the Pistons are 22nd in the league — not very encouraging. However, rebounding totals are also affected by the fact that the Pistons are currently playing at the 2nd slowest pace in the league — so again, we can compare rates over totals for a more complete picture.

Relative to offensive rebounding, the Pistons are respectable, posting numbers only slightly below the league average (25.9% relative to 26.3%). Given that we miss our fair share of shots, it’s nice to have players who hit the offensive glass. Relative to defensive rebounding, however, the Pistons are struggling mightily, posting numbers that rank them 22nd in league and well below the league average.

How about steals? In terms of totals, the Pistons rank 22nd in the league. Cellar dwellers, as it were.

So in sum, the Pistons are not very good at securing possession of the ball. The Pistons are respectable on the offensive glass, very poor on the defensive glass, and not very good at forcing turnovers.

Making Things Difficult for Opponents?

When it comes to making it difficult for opponents to use possessions efficiently, we already know that our defense doesn’t force many turnovers, and we can add that we rank 24th in the league in terms of blocked shots. Further, we know that the Pistons allow opponents to shoot 47.7% from the field and score 100 points per game (relative to our 44.5% and 94.7ppg). Moreover, our poor defensive rebounding means that we surrender the 11th most offensive rebounds to our opponents, i.e., we give the opposition several free possessions each game (in spite of not turning the ball over at a high rate). So the story the statistics tell is that we don’t make it very difficult for our opponents to do what they need to do to win.

Is the answer simple or not?

Okay, this post claims it will offer a simple answer. Here goes…

KL: The followup to that is a simple question and I suspect not a simple answer. Why in your mind has that type of performance been elusive?

Keith, the answer is actually quite simple. This type of performance has been elusive because the current cast of Pistons players hasn’t performed well — neither this season nor historically — relative to the things NBA teams must do in order to win basketball games. We don’t score the ball well, we don’t rebound the ball well, and we don’t defend well, and as a result, we don’t win much.

Ultimately, it’s not magic, rocket science, bad chemistry, or bad coaching, Keith and Joe. It’s just not-very-effective players playing not very effectively.

Pistons History Repeating Itself

Just in case there are readers of this blog who aren’t following the Wages of Wins Journal, I wanted to link to Dr. Berri’s most recent post: Looking Back Thirty Years We Can Once Again See History Repeat Itself in Detroit.

It’s one of hte lengthier posts that you’ll see on his blog, but for Pistons fans, it’s definitely a must-read.

I absolutely love the simplicity of the conclusion:

If you lose productive talent and add less productive players, then your team will decline.  If you wish for your team to get better, go find productive players.

All of this means the Pistons are going to have change their strategy.  The current approach is to bring back the same talent and hope for different results.  History teaches, though, that if you want different results, your best bet is to find different – and better – players.  Until that happens in Detroit, though, look for the “ugliness” to continue.

This is getting ugly

Out of 19 games, the Pistons have won only 6, and tonight we’re scheduled to play the Orlando Magic – a team that made fools of us in the second half earlier this week.

Unfortunately, the Wins Produced numbers offer little consolation; we really aren’t any better than our record. As a whole, our roster has managed to produce exactly 6 wins, and only 2 players who have played significant minutes are performing above average for their position.

2010-12-03

After solid play early, Stuckey and Gordon are regressing toward their respective means, which I guess I’m not completely surprised about. I had hoped against hope that their improvements were lasting, but alas, it appears they are not.

On the upside, Ben Wallace and Tracy McGrady – who will make less than $3 million combined this season – are playing very solid basketball. However, that’s little consolation, given that their age eliminates them from being parts of any future core of players. Tayshaun appears to be rounding into form after an awful start. Did someone say “trade value”? Monroe, while struggling to put the ball in the basket and avoid getting stuffed by opposing bigs, is still rebounding very well, which is a good sign for the future … or at least the best one I can find.

Beyond those few things, however, this team is simply playing ugly basketball, and given the history of the players employed, it’s unlikely we’ll see a much better product.