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.

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7 thoughts on “Have the Pistons found a winning rotation?

  1. Interesting post. Do you know if WP “predicts” other teams’ current records as accurately as the Pistons’?

    What potential trade possibilities would further improve the lineup according to WP? Obviously we still need front court help, but are there any specific players the Pistons might realistically target that would make them a more legit playoff team?

    • Jeremy, warning, Wall o’ text inbound!

      Predictions are always risky, regardless of your statistical models. Efficiency differential is widely favored as the most reliable tool for projecting team wins. Wins Produced is derived from efficiency differential (in an oversimplified explanation, Wins Produced “assigns” credit to individual contributions to efficiency differential), and as a result, Wins Produced tends to be a very useful tool for projections.

      However, it’s certainly not perfect. What Dr. Berri’s research has found (after reviewing 30+ years of data) is that individual player performance tends to correlate highly from one year to the next, or in other words, players tend to perform very similarly from year to year. Using Wins Produced as a tool to project (as opposed to evaluate individual players, which is its primary purpose) can be very accurate.

      There are three important qualifiers, though.

      First is a player like Chris Wilcox. As I mention above, Wilcox has been unremarkable for most of his career; however, he did have one very productive year in Seattle and another that was respectable. This year, his performance has also been better than average, albeit not great. What’s my point? From the macro perspective, players tend to be very much the same year to year, but there are always exceptions — and there doesn’t seem to be a reliable way to predict them. Troy Murphy is another example I mentioned recently.

      Second is age. Young players (20-25) can improve, sometimes dramatically. Kevin Durant is a good example. In his rookie year, Durant was productive but not a superstar according to Wins Produced. In his second year, however, he posted a huge improvement. Greg Monroe is a good example from the Pistons. Early in the season, Monroe was getting worked by the opposition, getting nearly 30% of his shots blocked around the rim. In a short time, though, he’s improved dramatically. How much he will continue to improve is very hard to say.

      The flip side of that coin is that players over 30 tend to gradually decline — but as we’re seeing with Rip, sometimes the decline is sharp, not gradual. My personal opinion was that Rip’s game would age well, because it has been based on shot creation through off the ball movement. This hasn’t been the case at all though. So again, that can be hard to predict.

      Third and finally is injuries, which is fairly obvious. If TMac goes down, our guard rotation goes from strong to very poor, and our Playoff hopes vanish.

      As for trades, well, I really liked the Murphy for Rip trade. Beyond that, I like packaging TMac and Rip to Dallas for Butler’s expiring deal — but the word from the Pistons is that TMac isn’t getting moved as long as Playoffs are a possibility. I think we have some assets — Tay, Wilcox’s expiring deal, TMac, and Stuckey — but with the ownership transition, who really knows what’s realistic?

      This summer, there will be a variety of big men on the FA market — Marc Gasol, Samuel Dalambert, and Zach Randolph are likely to be targets. Depending on the new CBA and what Dumars decides to do with our own FAs, Stuckey, Jerebko, TMac, Prince, I could envision us adding a big man like that. And personally, I’d welcome Dalambert, because I think it’s possible he goes cheaper this summer than he normally would.

  2. Thanks for the reply. It makes sense that things like steep development, injury, an inconsistent career, or even a bad fit could yield unexpected results when judging based on statistical accomplishments. Correctly predicting Pistons wins this far into the season isn’t a bad trick though, and if WP is pretty consistent with that, while accounting for expected statistical weaknesses I’d consider that impressive.

    How does a trade centered around Rip and Elton Brand look to WP? How might it look with Jerebko back (I understand this is shaky ground with the potential for improved play or limitation due to injury)?

    I’d find a post that discusses different Pistons players’ success playing at different positions interesting, if you think the data is good and feel like writing about it at some point.

    • Brand is interesting. This is the first year since his injury that he’s been a steady, productive win producer (.170 WP48). Obviously, he’s still a significant risk, given the size of his contract and injury history, but if this year is what you could expect moving forward, a Rip for Brand swap would be highway robbery.

      I am interested in exploring scenarios that package Rip and TMac, although this wouldn’t be one of them. Brand has too much money left on his deal if TMac’s involved, IMO.

      That said, I’d rather move Rip for an expiring, because while Brand’s playing well, he is overpaid regardless of his health.

      I’m trying to not get my hopes up for JJ’s return. If he’s healthy, he’s another productive rotation player. By no means a superstar, but certainly a guy who contributes to winning. He’s a more productive PF than Daye is, and he’s a much more productive PF than Charlie V. Plus, it’s just fun to watch him play. He plays like a Piston. If he’s healthy, he could certainly help a playoff push … Is he the difference? Probably not, but it would all depend on whose minutes he’d be taking.

  3. Hi, Ben.

    Do you remember 2 summers ago when I first said that the Pistons actually had a number of players on their roster with solid NBA level talent, including:

    Richard Hamilton [all-star vet]
    Tayshaun Price [solid vet]
    Rodney Stuckey [emerging youngster]
    Ben Gordon [solid vet]
    Charlie Villanueva [suspect vet]
    Jason Maxiell [emerging youngster]
    Chris Wilcox [solid vet]
    Jonas Jerebko [undiscovered treasure]
    Austin Daye [untapped treasure]
    Dajuan Summers [untapped treasure]
    Deron Washington [undiscovered treasure]
    Will Bynum [solid vet; although poor combined with Stuckey, Hamilton & Gordon]

    and that what Detroit lacked was:

    1. Legitimate elite level coaching;
    2. A sound 8-9 player rotation with specific role designation; and,
    3. Team Cohesion … which is derived from #1 and #2.

    Cheers

    • That’s a fair point, khandor, but I’m going to quickly remind you that:

      1) I thought the Pistons had a legitimate shot at the Playoffs this year, if they utilized a specific rotation.
      2) That rotation involved minimizing the role of Richard Hamilton and Jason Maxiel, while hoping for a significant output from Greg Monroe (which given his age and inexperience was nothing more than hope) — and both of those seemed unlikely.
      3) No one envisioned McGrady being as effective as he’s been thus far — he’s been the wildcard and monkey wrench in my theories, which I’m quick to admit.
      4) It’s only been 8 games. I hope I’m still smiling 38 games from now :)

      Last point: I think you have to concede you’ve been wrong about Rip, don’t you?

  4. Hi, Ben.

    1. Thanks for the acknowledgment of correctness.

    2. No, I have not been “wrong” about Rip.

    RATIONALE

    IMO, Rip was never a dominant basketball player. Rip – as a non-ball-handling mid-range scoring OG – was a highly effective member of a highly effective team that, when well-coached, was able to perform at a high level, collectively, because “The Total” was always greater than “The sum of the individual parts,” as constructed by its architect [i.e. Joe D.]. The cultivation of Team Cohesion is the responsibility of the head coach; and, it’s proper Team Cohesion which the Pistons have lacked most, since the departure of Larry Brown. Rip Hamilton is still capable of playing basketball at a level which is fairly close to what he displayed during his last full season in concert with Chauncey Billups & Co. … if he has the opportunity to work with the right combination of teammates and coaches.

    [For example, a 9-player rotation which looks like this: PG/OG – Stuckey [#1] & Gordon [#9], PG/OG/SF – McGrady [#2 or #6] OG – Hamilton [#6 or #2], OG/SF/PF – Daye [#7], SF – Prince [#3], PF – Wilcox [#4], and C – Monroe [#5] & Wallace [#8] is just one variation which Coach Kuester could have used this season to play @ .500 ball without alienating any of Hamilton, Prince, Wallace, Stuckey or Gordon.]

    Unfortunately for his fans, with the combination that exists today, in Detroit, this is now highly unlikely to ever happen again.

    In contrast to what the stats gurus will try to tell you … “Coaching” is, in fact, one of the “wildcards” in the mix when it comes to distinguishing properly between winners and losers in the NBA.

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