Do the Winless Pistons Need Better Coaching?

The Detroit Pistons are the last winless team in the Eastern Conference.  After losing to the Boston Celtics, the Pistons began looking for answers.  The head coach – John Kuester – argued that the Pistons “…have to collectively someway or somehow find another voice besides my own that is going to lead us.”
Tayshaun Prince answered his coach with the following observation: “… He’s right, but at the same time it goes both ways,” Prince said. “We can sit here and continue to get on each other and be vocal, but like I said, the right thing has got to come from him as well as us. It goes both ways. He says we got to be more vocal, he has to do some things better, too. Obviously, we’re 0-4 so it ain’t just the team.”

Just to summarize… Kuester claims the team needs more leadership.  Prince agrees, but thinks the coach has to be better also.  And apparently, both Prince and Kuester think that if team improves with respect to coaching and leadership that somehow the Pistons would be vastly improved. 

But does the team just need better coaching?  For an answer we turn to today’s Wall Street Journal, where David Biderman asks, “Do NBA Coaches Actually Make an Impact?”  Biderman’s story should be familiar to readers of Stumbling on Wins (the book I co-authored with Martin Schmidt). 

To quickly summarize… Michael Leeds, Eva Marikova Leeds, Michael Mondello, and I examined 30 years of player performance data.  Our study indicated that of the 62 NBA coaches we examined, more than 75% had no statistically significant impact on player performance.  In other words, most NBA coaches fail to systematically alter the productivity of the players they are given to lead.

And that suggests the problems the Pistons are having this year are not about coaching or leadership.  The Pistons won only 27 games last year.  Despite this performance, Joe Dumars chose to bring back most of the players employed in 2009-10.  Somehow he thought that the same players could produce very different results.  But as I noted last October, the current edition of the Pistons isn’t very good.  In essence, if everything goes right for this team it might reach 40 wins in 2010-11.

Obviously everything isn’t going right.  But it isn’t clear that the team really needs a new coach or better leadership.  What the team needs are more productive players.  If we look at the current Wins Produced numbers (and in case you didn’t notice, the automated numbers from Andres Alvarez are currently being updated daily), the following Pistons are posting above average WP48 marks [average Wins Produced per 48 minutes is 0.100]:

Ben Wallace: 0.335

Tracy McGrady: 0.217

Ben Gordon: 0.123

Rodney Stuckey: 0.121

The rest of the roster is currently below average.  Yes, it is possible for some of the below average players to play somewhat better.  And it is also possible – given what we have seen from their respective careers – for Gordon and Stuckey to offer less.  When we look at everything these players have done across their respective careers, though, it seems unlikely that the current Pistons are suddenly going to morph into the team Stuckey saw a few weeks.  In case you missed this, here is what Stuckey said in September:

We all just have to stay healthy and the sky is the limit for us. On paper, we are the best team in the League. We are deep and athletic. All we have to do is play to our abilities.

The past performance of these players suggests that they do not have the ability to be the best team in the league.  They don’t even have the ability to be a serious playoff contender. 

Unfortunately, I suspect Dumars doesn’t think so.  And when playoff contention doesn’t happen this year, John Kuester will probably get fired.  Firing Kuester, though, probably won’t help.  What the Pistons need to do is fire some of these players, and of course, bring in more productive talent.

– DJ

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