Are the Pistons Becoming Less Interesting?

Finally, the end is here. Since July I have been reviewing each team in the NBA. These reviews consisted of more than just posting a table recording each team’s Wins Produced the past two seasons.  No, for each team I tried to come up with some storyline that would make the review “interesting.”  And frankly, this was a bit difficult at times.  Some teams in the NBA are just not as “interesting” as others (a point I explicitly made in the review of the Milwaukee Bucks).

For the last team to be reviewed, the “interesting” angle is easy to find.  I was born in Detroit in 1969 and my family called Michigan home until 1981.  All my life I have followed the Pistons (well, at least since the late 1970s) and to me this team is quite “interesting.”

Of course, their ability to capture attention beyond Detroit tends to come and go.  Certainly the “Bad Boys” were interesting.  Grant Hill in the mid-1990s was definitely interesting.  And the title team of 2004 – as well as the team that lead the league in wins in 2005-06 – was also quite interesting.

Last year, though, the interest level in this team outside of Detroit might have waned a bit.  After leading the league with 64 wins in 2005-06, the Pistons faded to just 53 wins in 2006-07.  Yes, that was still the best regular season record in the Eastern Conference. But the Pistons no longer appeared to be on par with the best teams in the West.

Big Ben and Diminishing Returns

When we look at Wins Produced the past two seasons it’s easy to see why Detroit dropped off a bit.

Table One: The Detroit Pistons in 2006-07 and 2005-06

Two years ago the Pistons were led in Wins Produced by Ben Wallace, who produced 20.1 wins in 2005-06.  This was his tenth season of his career, and across these ten seasons Big Ben’s Wins Produced stood at 160.8.  To put that in perspective, 2005-06 was Rasheed Wallace’s eleventh season in the league. And in these eleven seasons, ‘Sheed had only produced 53.0 wins. 

Surprisingly (okay not to WoW readers, but perhaps to others), R. Wallace had been paid $105 million for his efforts while B. Wallace had only collected about $36 million. This means that ‘Sheed received about $2 million per win while Big Ben only collected about $225,000. Given what B. Wallace had collected, it’s not surprising that he wanted to cash in on his trip to the free agent market.

Free agent money, though, is not about what you did in the past.  It’s all about what you are going to do in the future.  And when Joe Dumars – the Pistons GM – looked at B. Wallace he saw a 32year old man whose game depended on energy and effort.  Given that old people don’t have much energy, Dumars concluded that giving B.Wallace his money was not the best investment for the Pistons.  Although I didn’t like that decision for the 2006-07 (and perhaps 2007-08 season), it certainly made sense if you were looking at the 2009-10 campaign (when Big Ben will be 36).

So Big Ben moved on to Chicago, where he led the Bulls in Wins Produced. Meanwhile, the Pistons declined, although perhaps not as far was one would suspect if all they looked at was Wins Produced.  In The Wages of Wins we note the Law of Diminishing Returns.  Basically when you add a productive player, others will become less productive.  And likewise, when you take away a productive player, others become better.  The effect doesn’t cancel out the impact of the productive player – your team is still worse off when Michael Jordan or Big Ben depart – but the impact is not quite as large as just looking at Wins Produced would suggest.

Why is there diminishing returns?  It’s important to remember that there is only one ball.  So when Jordan departs, now other people get to shoot.  And when Big Ben leaves, some of his rebounds get captured by his remaining teammates.

The diminishing returns effect, although statistically present, is not very large.  But still, we do see that Tayshaun Prince and Antonio McDyess did produce more without B. Wallace.  Surprisingly, though, R. Wallace didn’t (and part of what McDyess did could be recovery from his severe injuries).  Even with the improvement of Prince and McDyess, though, the Pistons were still not quite as good as they were with Big Ben.

Are the Pistons in Decline?

And it seems like the decline has a good chance of continuing in 2007-08.  This past off-season the Pistons lost a bit more talent.  Carlos Delfino, who posted a 0.188 WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes] and 5.4 Wins Produced in 2006-07, was sent to the Toronto Raptors.  Plus Chris Webber – who was slightly above average last year (yet nowhere near what he used to be) – has yet to be re-signed.

Taking the place of these players is Jarvis Hayes and Jason Maxiel.  Hayes has produced -0.1 wins in 226 career games (no, he hasn’t really helped much).  Maxiel produced -0.04 wins last year in 943 minutes.  If these players take the minutes of Delfino and Webber, and offer the same level of productivity we have seen in the past, the Pistons will be nine games worse in 2007-08.

Before we start planning on the Pistons winning only 44 games this next season we have to note that we are assuming that these players keep playing “bad” and nothing else on the team changes.  When we look at Hayes, it does seem likely he is not going to improve dramatically in his 5th season.  But Maxiel is still officially a player with potential.  Sure the potential has not yielded much so far.  Nevertheless, there is hope he can play better.

Furthermore, playing Maxiel and Hayes are not the only changes that will happen in Detroit.  The Pistons have said they will play Amir Johnson, an NBDL star and a player who posted a 0.247 WP48 in 124 minutes last year.  It’s too early to know if Johnson will be “good”, but the very early returns look promising. The Pistons might also play McDyess more minutes, and if he can maintain his productivity (which is a big if given his age and injury history), that would also help.

And then there is… okay, that’s about it.  For this team to maintain its contending status veteran players like Chauncey Billups (who has produced 62.9 wins the past five seasons) and R. Wallace must maintain their production levels.  McDyess must maintain what he did last year in more minutes.  And young player like Maxiel and A. Johnson must produce.

That’s fair number of ifs that must come through.  So although I hope the Pistons stay interesting to everyone, my sense is that the Pistons might be headed for a year where they are mostly generating interest for their fans.  Certainly I think it’s unlikely this team can repeat as the top seed in the Eastern Conference.

Okay, I am now done reviewing.  On Monday (or maybe Tuesday) I will post something that will kind of look like a forecast.  Not sure how specific I will get, but I will say something about who I expect to contend (and not contend) in 2007-08. 

– DJ

For a discussion of other teams see NBA Team Reviews: 2006-07

Our research on the NBA was summarized HERE.

The equation connecting wins to offensive/defensive efficiency is given HERE

Wins Produced and Win Score are discussed in the following posts

Simple Models of Player Performance

Wins Produced vs. Win Score

What Wins Produced Says and What It Does Not Say

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