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.

12 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Backcourts

  1. Ben,
    Awesome post. Funny how things worked out for the Nuggs. We did a similar deal to New York with Balkman, who we never play. I gotta say with McGrady and Wallace being your best players your team may be in trouble. Here’s hoping Ben and V demand trades and get their wish.

  2. Ben,

    re: “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.”

    If what you want to do involves only an evaluation of the Pistons’ back-court situation then what you should actually be comparing looks like this:

    Option 1 [Your recommendation for the Pistons’ back-court]
    – Billups, Stuckey, Afflalo, Hamilton, and possibly Bynum

    Option 2 [Joe D’s 1st choice for the Pistons’ back-court]
    – Stuckey, Hamilton, Iverson, Gordon, Bynum and a future 2nd Round Selection in the 2011 NBA Draft [obtained in exchange for Afflalo & White]

    Option 3 [Joe D’s 2nd choice for the Pistons’ back-court]
    – Stuckey, Hamilton, McGrady, Gordon, Bynum and a future 2nd Round Selection in the 2011 NBA Draft

    If you do that specific type of comparison what you should then be able to see … not from a Wins Produced perspective mind you but from a Basketball Acumen perspective … is where the real problems have been rooted for Detroit, since Larry Brown was moved out of the head coach’s chair … i.e. i. Will Bynum [small PG] is a “poor fit” with their team, as long as Ben Gordon [small PG/OG] is also in their rotation; and, ii. Michael Curry and John Kuester have both done a “poor job”, overall, in terms of using the players available to them in a proper way which increases [not decreases] Team Cohesion and Role Specificity.

    The fact is … I told Pistons fans back in the summer of 2009 that THESE 2 things would THE 2 major problems for Detroit to be able to overcome heading to the future, and nothing which has gone on with the Pistons since then has proved/shown that I was wrong when I first said it.

    A lack of “NBA level” talent has not been a major problem for Detroit, despite what DJ and others might try to claim based on a statistical-based metric like Wins Produced.

    • I just want to say that I don’t think that brgulker in particular and the WP metric in general claim that the players on the Pistons don’t have NBA level talent. They claim that the players in general, have below average production, which is fairly obvious. Remember that below average NBA players are still NBA talents and light years better at basketball than almost everybody else.

      The distinction between talent and production is important. Players produce at different levels for many reasons, such as talent, playing time, match ups, whatever. However, it must be noted that the relatively consistent production of players over time suggests that production is more inherent to the individual players than we might otherwise think.

      • This is exactly it. Wins Produced evaluates statistical production relative to wins.

        It does ont claim to say anything about talent, skillsets, potential, and only rarely does it say anything about coaching. When it does make claims about coaching, those claims are related to whether or not coaches generate increases in statistical production relative to wins.

        So certainly there are lots of things that Wins Produced doesn’t say, and those of us who utilize the metric are honest and up front about that (check out Required Readings if you’re interested in what WP does and doesn’t say).

        Thanks for pointing this out so clearly, Ra’s Head. You’re exactly right.

  3. FWIW …

    IMO, Joe D’s biggest mistake thus far has been failing to see, in advance, that Carmelo Anthony [SF/PF] was always going to become a much better NBA player than was Darko Milicic [PF/C] … which is something that I stated would happen prior to the 2003 NBA Draft. If Joe D had selected Melo with the No. 2 Draft Pick that year, instead of Darko, as I … and plenty of others, as well … had said he should, then the Pistons would not be in this situation today.

  4. My take on Dumars is that he gambled big and lost. He (really the Pistons) had had considerable success with a conservative strategy since their championship. Keeping the core intact and relying on them through the season and playoffs worked well to an extent. Complaints about a lack of young player development or bench development and a general lack of major trades and signings indicate this to me. After slowly having worsening results in the postseason, Dumars got frustrated (I did too) and decided that he needed to take some risks.
    I think he thought he was buying “hot stocks” in Stuckey, Gordon, and CV. Gordon and CV were coming off of career years and Dumars seemed to have big faith in Stuckey. I think he thought he was ahead of the curve. He was wrong. He was too optimistic about these players and their potential. While I agree that he made the wrong choices I have some empathy for what might have motivated him.

    • I think you’re probably right about Dumars’ motivation, and on most days, I’d probably express things similarly. No doubt, this post was influenced by watching Billups and Afflalo torch us.

  5. Pingback: Pistons roundtable: Rodney Stuckey’s long-term value and importance « PistonPowered

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