This week, Joe Dumars fired yet another coach – that makes 6 coaches in about 10 years by my count – and it seems as if John Kuester would have been fired sooner if the team’s ownership transition had not hindered such a decision.
The change makes sense for reasons obvious to anyone who followed the team, and I do not necessarily disagree with the decision. However, the Pistons blogosphere and mainstream media is filled with the sentiment that John Kuester was a complete failure as a coach.
In some ways, this is indisputable. He completely lost the respect of his players, which led to them publicly laughing at him when he was ejected from a game, as well as the infamous boycott of a shoot around. His rotations – especially as it relates to player position assignments and late-game lineups – left most fans scratching their heads.
But was Kuester a complete and utter failure?
I do not believe that to be the case, and there two important reasons why. Today, I will focus on the first. Tomorrow (or later this week), I’ll focus on the second.
John Kuester inherited a losing team
If you follow Wins Produced or this blog, this is a familiar point. The Pistons last made the Playoffs (barely) under Michael Curry’s leadership in 2008-2009. The production of those players looks like:
The 08-09 Pistons were led to the Playoffs by Antonio McDyess – a player Dumars included in the infamous trade for Allen Iverson, but who later rejoined the team after a buyout – and Tayshuan Prince. Beyond these two players, only Rasheed Wallace, Amir Johnson, and Jason Maxiell contributed at an average level or better. Of these players, only Prince and Maxiell returned in 09-10 – which means the Pistons lost three above-average big men before Keuster began his tenure.
The players who returned – Prince, Stuckey, Maxiell, Hamilton, Bynum, and Brown – were joined by a collection of veterans and rookies. Dumars’ retooling project resulted in the following roster, which includes the familiar Wins Produced statistics.
When we look at the players returning from 08-09, we see that most played within expectations. The exceptions are Rip Hamiltion, who plunged from a rotation-worthy guard to a negative contributor, and Kwame Brown. Rip’s decline is likely as much about age and injury as anything, and Kwame has been an inconsistent player his entire career. I do not believe Kuester is to blame for either decline.
In sum, then, the players Kuester inherited from the previous season played like they players they were the year before (and in some cases, the year before that, and that, and so on).
When we examine the new players to this roster, only Ben Wallace and Jonas Jerebko – an aging veteran who surprised everyone and a surprisingly effective second round pick from Europe – contributed meaningfully.
Beyond that? The Pistons received literally nothing. While the Pistons should have expected more from Villanueva, Gordon, Brown, and Wilcox, they shouldn’t have expected that much more. None of these players have ever contributed at an above-average rate for their positions consistently, so while they were certainly worse as Pistons, it wasn’t entirely surprising, at least from a Wins Produced perspective. It’s also worth noting that both Gordon and Villanueva struggled with significant injuries for much of the season.
In a basketball world where injuries don’t happen and players don’t get older, the 09-10 iteration of the Pistons may have been capable of winning close to 40 games… maybe. But injuries do happen, players do age, and sometimes players have off years.
The 2010-2011 season began where the 2009-2010 season left off. Our aging veterans got a little older, played a little worse, and in the case of Ben Wallace, played a lot less. McGrady was the new Ben Wallace – the aging veteran who surprised the league with his performance – and Greg Monroe was this year’s Jonas Jerebko – the rookie that exceeded expectations and contributed at a high level.
But beyond that, we simply see more of the same – mediocre or worse players playing mediocre or worse basketball. The net result was 30 wins, a three-win improvement.
Interestingly, what we don’t see is any dramatic drops in performance under Kuester’s tenure from established veterans. Ben Gordon continues to struggle in Detroit, but as I’ve noted here in the past, Gordon was never as effective as his PPG in Chicago suggested, and further, Gordon posted similar production in Chicago as a young player. In short, his decline in productino is not that significant in terms of wins produced, and it’s not crystal clear that coaching is causing the decline; injuries and regression to the mean are equally viable explanations.
Further, in the case of two young players, we actually see significant improvement under Kuester. Rodney Stuckey posted the best numbers of his career in 10-11, and Greg Monroe improved dramatically over the course of the season, nearly averaging a double double in the 2011 calendar year.
The point of everything above is simply to illustrate that John Kuester inherited a bad team.
The ultimate failure here is not John Kuester – although he certainly earned his early termination. The ultimate failure here is Dumars’ retooling project. The tools he gave his coach simply weren’t capable of doing the job he expected his coach to do.
Tomorrow, I will examine the one thing Kuester did well – give minutes to his most productive players, regardless of reputation or contract.