Is Joe Dumars Learning From Isiah Thomas?

The New York Knicks in 2005-06 were expensive failures. Given a very large budget, Isiah Thomas went into the market and purchased every scorer he could lay his hands upon. His team of expensive scorers, though, could not win [as previously noted HERE and HERE and HERE and HERE].

This past summer, Isiah appeared to learn from his fellow teammate, Joe Dumars. Dumars built a Pistons team around Ben Wallace, a player who could produce large quantities of wins without scoring. Shown the importance of role players, Isiah drafted Renaldo Balkman, signed Jared Jeffries, and has elevated the playing time of David Lee. Although the Knicks are not serious contenders this year, clearly this team has improved.

While Isiah has been adding role players, Dumars is now going in the opposite direction. Ben Wallace was allowed to sign with the Chicago Bulls. The team added Nazr Mohammed to take his place, and although Mohammed is not Ben Wallace, he has been above average this season. After 36 games Mohammed has produced 2.5 wins and has a Wins Produced per 48 minutes [WP48] of 0.176.

Replacing Wallace with Mohammed has reduced Detroit’s ability to wins games. Still, in a weakened Eastern Conference, the Pistons are still contenders.

Now the Pistons appear to be replacing Mohammed with Chris Webber. Webber has historically been a scorer. So the Pistons are clearly departing from the blue print that produced a championship. That does not mean this move won’t help. It might indeed help, if the right Webber shows up in Detroit.

The Old Webber vs. The Injured Webber

Webber says he is signing with the Detroit Pistons because he wishes to play in his hometown and also play for an NBA title.

As noted in the AP article (by Larry Lage) citing this move:

“I look forward to joining a roster of talented athletes and working towards a fourth NBA title for the Pistons and the great city of Detroit,” he (Webber) said.

After 26 games – as you can see in the permanent post entitled NBA Analysis 2006-07 – the Wins Produced of this team indicated that the Pistons were on pace to win about 50 games. After 36 games the projected wins has dropped to about 47. This drop-off is directly related to the loss of Chauncey Billups, the most productive player on the Pistons this year.

Billups might come back in time for Detroit’s next game. So going forward, barring any more moves (more moves are likely, so that is important to keep in mind), the Pistons will be at full strength. But full strength might mean that the team has replaced Mohammed with Webber.

The key to this move is which Webber the Pistons have signed. A couple of months ago I reviewed the NBA careers of Michigan’s Fab Five. In this post are two tables detailing the career productivity of Juwan Howard and Webber.

Howard and Webber: Year-by-Year Productivity

Howard and Webber: Career per-minute Performance

As these tables note, coming into this season Webber had a career WP48 of 0.180. Average is 0.100, so Webber has been above average. But Webber’s career can be neatly divided into two segments. From his rookie season in 1993-94 to the 2002-03 season, Webber produced 98.8 wins and had a WP48 of 0.208. After his injury in 2003, though, Webber only produced 9.3 wins and had a 0.073 WP48 across the previous three seasons. And this year he has only produced 0.7 wins and posted a 0.062 WP48. In sum, the Old Webber — before his injury — was an NBA star. After the injury Webber was a below average NBA player.

Webber claims he is now healthy, but his performance suggests otherwise. Still, if Webber can return to what he was before the injury, then the Pistons are helped somewhat by this move.

Does this move give Detroit one of the best starting five in the NBA?

Yesterday Dumars said: “The starting five that we’ll put out there eventually, with him, it’s going to be right up there with the best in the league.”

To see if this is true or not, consider the average WP48 of a team’s starting five players. I did not look at every team, but here are a few of the top teams in the NBA.

  • Cleveland Cavaliers [Eric Snow, Larry Hughes, LeBron James, Drew Gooden, and Zydrunas Ilgauskas]: Average WP48 = 0.151
  • Chicago Bulls [Chris Duhon, Kirk Hinrich, Luol Deng, Andres Nocioni, and Ben Wallace]: Average WP48 = 0.173
  • Dallas Mavericks [Devin Harris, Jason Terry, Josh Howard, Dirk Nowitzki, and Erick Dampier]: Average WP48 = 0.227
  • Phoenix Suns [Steve Nash, Raja Bell, Boris Diaw, Shawn Marion, and Amare Stoudemire]: Average WP48 = 0.189
  • San Antonio Spurs [Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Bruce Bowen, Tim Duncan, and Fabricio Oberto]: Average WP48 = 0.193

This is not a complete list, but it does give us something to assess the claim made by Dumars. This year the Pistons have primarily started Billups, Rip Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Rasheed Wallace, and Mohammed. These five players have an average WP48 of 0.161.

If Webber replaces Mohammed, and he offers what he gave Philadelphia this year, the WP48 of the starting five drops to 0.138. If Webber returns to what he was before the injury – an unlike event – then the Pistons starting five would average 0.167.

From this we see that Pistons starting five – with either version of Webber – does not quite offer as much as we see in Chicago, Dallas, Phoenix, or San Antonio.

It’s important to remember that a team is not just the starting five. Bench players do matter quite a bit.

Dumars Learns From Isiah

Beyond this issue is the point I made at the beginning of this column. Dumars appears to be replacing a role player – Mohammed – with a scorer. This gives the Pistons a starting line-up consisting entirely of players who can put points on the board. Before Webber joined the team the Pistons already ranked towards the top in the league in offensive efficiency and in the middle of the pack in terms of defense. In other words, this team was already becoming the opposite of the defensive-minded teams that won three titles in Detroit.

Now the Pistons are becoming even more offensive-minded. In essence, just as Thomas appears to be learning from Dumars, now Dumars is learning from Thomas. The only problem is that the focus Thomas initially had on scorers is not a lesson anyone should be learning.

In the end, I do not think this move makes the Pistons dramatically worse off. I also do not see how adding Webber makes this team better off. And given where this team stands relative to the true powers in the NBA – Dallas, Phoenix, San Antonio – I cannot see Webber winning a title with Detroit in 2007.

As I wrote this column, the Pacers made a major trade with the Warriors. My next column will examine the implications of this move.

– DJ

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