Explaining the Pistons’ recent “success”

Since January 12 (the first game Richard Hamilton was removed from the rotation), the Detroit Pistons have gone 5-4. I recently pointed out that the Wins Produced numbers suggest that the rotation John Kuester is currently employing may give the Pistons a shot at finishing the remainder of the season’s games around a .500 and thus may have a chance at the Playoffs.

Thanks to Dre’s hard work over at NerdNumbers, we now have splits for Wins Produced numbers! In my previous post about the Pistons rotation, I did my best to credit individual players for recent wins based on the data I had. I now have better data and thus a more complete picture of who has impacted the Pistons’ recent success.

Microsoft Excel - 10-11 Recent Pistons Success

The most significant change between this data set and the one posted earlier is the performance of Chris Wilcox. Early this season, Wilcox was very productive in limited minutes, productive enough that Kuester promoted him to starting PF. In a larger role over the past 9 games, though, Wilcox hasn’t been helpful.

Time will tell, of course, if Monroe’s great play and Daye’s recent uptick are sustainable for the remainder of the season, and if McGrady and Wallace can stay healthy in big minutes. The recent success is certainly tenuous and fragile. If it does, though, the numbers suggest – at least to this Pistons fan searching for a glimmer of hope – that the Pistons do have just enough players performing well enough to make a Playoff push out East.

As to whether or not Pistons fans should be hoping for a Playoff berth instead of more lottery balls is an entirely different question. Maybe someone should write a good post about that Smile

A Tale of Two Backcourts

Last night, The Denver Nuggets visited The Palace and handed the Pistons a very disappointing loss. To add insult to injury, Chauncey Billups and Aaron Afflalo – two former Pistons traded by Joe Dumars – combined for 43 points on 27 shots. What’s more, Denver was also missing its most productive overall player, Nene, as well as Chris Anderson.

Detroit, by contrast, was mostly at full strength, with the exception of Stuckey being injured in the first half. Will Bynum filled in admirably, however, and more than plugged the hole created by Stuckey’s absence.

All Pistons fans know this story. It’s one we re-live each time Denver comes to town – early in the 08-09 season, Dumars traded Chauncey Billups (the team’s most productive player in 07-08 by a very wide margin) for Allen Iverson and his expiring contract. After Iverson (and Sheed) expired, Dumars invested the available financial resources created into Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva – neither of whom has performed well in Detroit. We all know this hasn’t worked out, and most wish it had happened differently.

What often flies under the radar, however, is that Dumars also dumped Amir Johnson and Aaron Afflalo – two young, promising players – for nothing but a little bit of cap space. While I was not writing about the Pistons at the time, I was flabbergasted by both decisions; you’ll have to take my word for it, I suppose, and I hope that you’ll not assume that what follows is little more than hindsight bias.

To be fair to Dumars, Amir never quite realized the expectations the organization had for him (which always seemed unfairly high to me), but he was and is a productive, rotation-caliber big man – something any NBA team, and certainly the Pistons, can use. Trading Afflalo was a little bit less confusing at the time, considering a backcourt of Stuckey, Hamilton, Gordon, Bynum, and Afflalo would have been quite crowded. The contracts suggested Afflalo was the odd man out, and Dumars agreed. However, Afflalo played well in Detroit when given opportunities, and it wasn’t clear to me at the time which of Stuckey or Afflalo would become the more valuable guard from the 2007 Pistons Draft Class.

Last night’s game, though, underscores just how poorly Joe Dumars evaluated the guards who now play for Denver and Detroit. Obviously, I can’t know with certainty what Dumars envisioned when he signed Gordon, but the size of his contract at least suggests that a large role was the plan. Stuckey’s role, however, has been spelled out much more clearly by Dumars in a variety of public settings, and all signs point to Detroit bringing him back next year. Some might think, though, that trading Billups and moving Stuckey into a starting role speaks loudly enough by itself.

A couple qualifiers to what follows. Obviously, the Pistons have received significant contributions from McGrady at a very low cost – hat tip to Joe Dumars. But that he’s on a veteran’s minimum contract, given that it’s hard to make the case anyone envisioned him performing this well, and given the uncertainty of his future with the Pistons, I’ll leave him out of the following analysis of the two backcourts. I’ll be doing the same for for the apparently banished Richard Hamilton, because DJ has already offered a thorough analysis of that situation.

The point of this post, then, is to compare the two former Pistons that Joe Dumars traded away – Billups and Afflalo – with the two players that Dumars envisioned playing the same positions for Detroit in the future – Stuckey and Gordon. Obviously, I’ll be comparing the players through the lens of Wins Produced (powered by Nerd Numbers, as always).

Microsoft Excel - Wondering What Could Have Been 1

Certainly, Billups is declining as he ages, but in spite of a very slow start this season, he appears to be rounding into form. He’s not the player he was for the Pistons during the “Going to Work” era, but he remains a highly effective point guard. Afflalo is thriving. He has proven to be a very efficient shooter (posting significantly better numbers than Ben Gordon is, I nfact), and is earning a reputation as a very good individual defender – something that isn’t captured completely in the box score statistics.

By contrast, Rodney Stuckey has struggled to become the player the Pistons hoped he would, and while he is having a career season, his performance doesn’t approach that of the aging Mr. Big Shot. Yes, he plays hard, he says all the right things, and he represents the franchise well. But, he doesn’t finish around the rim or shoot well, and he’s not great at creating shots for teammates. Ben Gordon? Well, we’ve covered that before.

Microsoft Excel - Wondering What Could Have Been 2

Had Joe Dumars opted to retain Billups, the Pistons would likely have a backcourt rotation of: Billups, Stuckey, Afflalo, Hamilton, and possibly Bynum. Hamilton’s contract and performance would remain a significant problem in any scenario, but that hypothetical rotation is certainly more appealing, both in terms of wins and finances, than the one currently employed by the Pistons.

I can’t think of a better or more accurate way to say it: trading Chauncey Billups for Allen Iverson was a colossal mistake. Using the money freed by doing to sign Ben Gordon was just as bad. Only in hindsight does trading Afflalo look as bad as it does at the moment, but that point is quickly balanced by the fact that he was traded for essentially nothing.

In an attempt to rebuild his own team, Dumars managed to create a starting backcourt for someone else’s Playoff team and all but destined his own team to mediocrity for years to come. This tale, at least for a Pistons fan, is a very sad one indeed.

BG and Charlie V

Over at PistonPowered, Patrick Hayes has an excellent post evaluating the performances of Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva as members of the Detroit Pistons.

In short, Patrick argues:

Both Gordon and Villanueva seem like pleasant enough guys. Both could have legitimate beefs about how they’ve been used at times with this team, and they’ve largely kept quiet in the media about it, remained positive and seem like good teammates.

Unfortunately, both are paid like cornerstones of a franchise, and clearly, neither guy is. Ultimately the blame for signing them to long-term deals for the amount of money they’re making lies with Joe Dumars.

I encourage any Pistons fan to check out the rest of his piece. It’s one of my favorite posts of the season. I agree with Patrick on essentially every point he makes, which is no surprise considering that BG and Charlie V are wonderful examples of the type of player that Wins Produced analysis argues conventional wisdom overvalues.

I thought it may be interesting, though, to supplement Patrick’s keen analysis with the Automated Wins Produced numbers to underscore the points he rightly makes. Without further ado, here are the career Wins Produced numbers for both players (powered by Nerd Numbers):

Microsoft Excel - BG and Charlie V_2011-01-25_16-22-06

Remembering that an “average” players posts a Wins Produced per 48 Minutes of .100, the Wins Produced numbers suggest that both players, who are on the books at significant cost to whomever the Pistons new owner might be, are actually below average. Or in other words, they contribute very little to winning, as Patrick rightly claims.

Both players present a significant problem for Detroit. They have certainly underperformed relative to their career averages (especially given their age – we would expect to see peak performance right about now), but even worse, their career performances in general are very underwhelming. Essentially, both have gone from bad to worse as Pistons, and there’s little to suggest they might right the ship.

With Patrick, although I’d argue the point a little more forcefully, I conclude that it’s time for a change.

It’s not Gordon’s or Villanueva’s fault that the Pistons offered them the deals they did. I respect that both players seemingly wanted to be in Detroit and made the commitment. But the Pistons rightfully expected more out of them, and whether or not the Pistons would be better off cutting their losses and looking for trades for both of their high profile signings of 2009 is now a legitimate question the team will have to answer.

Have the Pistons found a winning rotation?

Last month I suggested that it didn’t really matter who started at SG, because ultimately, the difference between Gordon starting and Hamilton coming off the bench isn’t that significant. That argument, however, was built on the assumption that both players would remain integral parts of the Pistons rotation.

Since then, however, that assumption has been rendered invalid. Richard Hamilton has been benched, and the Pistons have won 3 out of 4 – and just missed making it 4 for 4 in the last seconds against the Celtics at the Garden.

On the face of it, it appears John Kuester has found a rotation that works. Do the Wins Produced numbers agree?

Over the last four games, John Kuester has employed this nine-man rotation – notably excluding Maxiel and Hamilton completely:

Starters Bench
McGrady (.193 WP48) Bynum (-.035 WP48)
Stuckey (.093 WP48) Gordon (.023 WP48)
Prince (.121 WP48) Daye (.068 WP48)
Wilcox (.105 WP48) Villanueva (.032 WP48)
Monroe (.111 WP48)

Additionally, Ben Wallace is currently listed as day-to-day, meaning he could return to the rotation as early as Friday against New Jersey.

The short answer appears to be, “Yes.” The Pistons appear to have found a rotation that could compete for a .500 record over the course of a season.

Before I get too excited, the Wins Produced number suggest that this rotation wouldn’t be likely to make any noise in the Playoffs – at best, this team is sneaking into the Playoffs for a match up against a powerhouse. However, this rotation – including a healthy Ben Wallace – might be good enough to make a playoff push, and however unlikely an a first-round upset would be, there are plenty of Pistons fans who would welcome some consistent winning.

With Kuester’s new rotation in hand, I decided to play with some numbers to try to project what the second half of the Pistons season might look like if Kuester utilizes a rotation similar to the last 4 games over the remaining 42 (including a healthy Wallace). The following table assumes good health and consistent performance relative to what we’ve seen thus far from each Piston player. It also assumes that a healthy Wallace would move Daye into the backup SF position, where his WP numbers are more favorable.

From a long-term perspective, the Pistons are still a long way from contention. Several key rotation pieces will be free agents this summer and difficult to retain (such as Prince and McGrady), and we’re still in a very difficult financial situation as long as Rip’s contract is on the books.

Furthermore, there are some significant question marks with this projection. McGrady’s health is first and foremost among them. Is he durable enough to complete the season? It has been the defining question of his career, but for Pistons fans, thankfully, Arnie Kander is working hard to make that happen. Time will tell.

Wilcox and Monroe are two more significant unknowns. Wilcox is a an enigma. Apart from two good seasons in Seattle in 06-08, he’s been relatively unproductive. He was a dud for the Pistons last year, and in spite of his recent performance, I’m not convinced we can count on him for the second half of the season.

Monroe’s progression has been a joy to watch. Coming out of college, he was well-known for his playmaking ability, particularly as a passer from the high post. His question marks were on the glass and on defense. Ironically, he’s been very effective on the glass and the defensive end, and of late, he’s been finishing very well around the rim, but we’ve seen very little of his playmaking ability. In any case, he’s been very effective for a rookie — but, he’s still a rookie, and rookies are unpredictable. I certainly hope his recent progression is here to stay, but it’s a little too soon to say it is with much confidence.

In spite of those question marks, though, productive performances from McGrady, Wilcox, and Monroe in conjunction with the rest of the Pistons roster – which on the whole is performing up to expectations – could be enough to propel this team to a win total in the 30′s (the upper end of where I thought they might land going into the season). And in the East, 35 wins might just get you games 83, 84, 85, and 86 of the season versus Boston, Miami, or Orlando. Although the prospect of a first-round match up against any of these teams isn’t all that appealing, the journey getting there certainly would be. And at least at the moment, it seems attainable.

I was going to end this post there, but as a fan of Richard Hamilton, I am going to add this final thought.

It would be easy to conclude that removing Rip from the rotation has caused the recent surge in performance, especially in the context of the post I just offered. However, I think the numbers suggest this is only a small piece of the puzzle. In the first place, Hamilton has been replaced in the rotation by Bynum, and in spite of playing fewer minutes on average than Hamilton, Bynum has not been any better than Rip.

In the second place and more importantly, the Pistons play of late has been driven largely by McGrady, Monroe, Prince, Wilcox, and Stuckey – and none of those players has directly supplanted Hamilton in the rotation. Obviously, Hamilton’s absence allows McGrady and Stuckey to play more minutes at positions that best suit their skillsets, but the quality play of Monroe and Wilcox inside is equally important. Yes, removing Rip has helped, but it’s certainly not the only or even most significant reason why the Pistons have found their recent success.

The Nets want Rip in exchange for Murphy (UPDATE)

UPDATE: According to Chris Iott, the Nets are asking the Pistons to take on contracts and surrender a 1st round pick, which changes things dramatically. If it seems too good to be true…

I literally had to look twice when I saw this link over at PistonPowered. Apparently, the New Jersey Nets are making a play for Carmelo Anthony and are interested in including the Pistons in the deal.

In the complicated scenario that’s being discussed, the Nets would send Derrick Favors, Devin Harris and at least two first-round picks to Denver and Troy Murphy’s expiring contract to the Pistons. In return, the Nets would get Anthony and Chauncey Billups from the Nuggets and likely Richard Hamilton from the Pistons, who are looking to shed salary. Hamilton has two years and $25 million remaining on his contract.

In my option, this is absolutely the best possible trade scenario I could have imagined for Detroit. The  story that Wins Produced tells about Richard Hamilton has been told here before – he’s a relatively unproductive shooting guard who gets paid a lot because he shoots a lot.

The Wins Produced story about Troy Murphy has been told throughout the Wages of Wins Network, but never here. In short, Troy Murphy has been a productive, albeit strangely inconsistent, player. Here is a look at the Automated Wins Produced numbers:

Troy Murphy

This year, Murphy’s numbers are poor, but he’s also recovering from serious injury. Over the two seasons prior to this one, Murphy was a remarkably productive big man – something the Pistons are in desperate need of.

Further, Murphy is on an expiring contract, which presents a two-fold benefit. First, if Murphy doesn’t return to form, there’s no commitment beyond this season. Second, Richard Hamilton is owed around $30 million through 2013 (the last year isn’t fully guaranteed), and getting out of his contract would go a long way toward freeing up financial resources for the future.

This really is the best we Pistons fans could have hoped for. Time will tell, of course, if there is merit to the rumor, but for the moment at least, I certainly hope it’s true and that Dumars jumps at the opportunity if it formally presents itself.

John Hollinger criticizes Ben Gordon, confuses me

John Hollinger recently released his mid-season All-Disappointment team, and Pistons shooting guard Ben Gordon finds himself 10th on the list.

Hollinger says,

Ben Gordon, Detroit — Last year was easy to blame on a bad ankle that Gordon gamely fought through for much of the season. This season? I’m at a loss. Gordon can still stroke the 3 (39.5 percent from the distance) but doesn’t do anything else well enough to justify his $10.8 million salary unless he’s setting the nets ablaze. His rather tepid production thus far — 17.3 points per 40 minutes at a league-average TS% — won’t cut the mustard, and it’s even more puzzling because the Pistons’ lack of scoring options should allow him to put up big numbers. It’s hard to believe Detroit talked itself out of Carlos Boozer and plunked down its cash on Gordon and Charlie V instead, and it largely explains why the once-mighty Pistons are headed back to the lottery.

Now, I actually don’t disagree with anything Hollinger says here. I, too, am puzzled by Gordon’s inability to embrace a larger scoring role in Detroit, and to this day I struggle to believe that Dumars passed on potential targets like David Lee, Paul Milsap, and Carlos Boozer in favor of the Gordon / Villanueva combo.

So if I agree with Hollinger, why am I confused? I’m confused because during the 08-09 season, Hollinger’s Player Efficiency Rating rated all 3 players similarly. In fact, according to PER, Villanueva was the best player of the three!

Boozer Villanueva Gordon PER

PER’s problems are numerous and well-documented, so I can’t say I’m surprised to see that PER gets these players so completely wrong for 08-09, and it should be noted that Boozer has posted higher PER’s in seasons prior to this.

Still, I am surprised to see Hollinger criticizing Dumars openly for passing on the obviously superior Boozer when his own player evaluation metric would have suggested that Dumars was actually signing two quality players in Gordon and Villanueva – who together should be significantly more effective than Boozer by himself.

Which leads me to ask the obvious question, if Hollinger doesn’t trust his own metric, the should anyone else?

Mentoring Night at The Palace

Male MatchesI haven’t put much personal information on this blog, and while I don’t intend to moving forward, there will be an event this January at The Palace that involves both the Pistons and mentoring – two things that are very important to me personally.

I became a mentor through Big Brothers Big Sisters close to two years ago, and I am currently the Program Director for into the Mentor Michigan College Coaching Corps – an AmeriCorps program that utilizes the power and passion of AmeriCorps members to strengthen and grow mentoring.

On Saturday, January 22, the Detroit Pistons and the Palace of Auburn Hills will celebrate mentoring. Annually, the Pistons host several “Community Nights” at the Palace, where both awareness and funds are raised for different community needs. This year, we are incredibly fortunate to have the Pistons rallying in support of mentoring.

Throughout the evening, mentoring will be featured throughout The Palace and (hopefully) during the game as well. In addition, the Pistons have made discounted tickets available via this link (and this link only!). Further, for each ticket that is sold through this promotion, the Pistons will donate $5 to Mentor Michigan, 100% of which will be granted to local mentoring programs throughout the state. When purchasing tickets, please use the keyword “mentor“.MentorMichigan_PMS542

It goes without saying that this is an incredible opportunity for mentoring, and I wanted to make my readers aware of it. If you’re planning on attending a Pistons game this year, it would mean a lot if you are able to make it this one.