The Pistons Finally Learn the Rip Hamilton Contract Extension Was Not A Great Idea

On November 2nd of 2008, the Pistons — the team I root for — were 2-0 and coming off a season when the team had won 59 games.  The next day, though, the Pistons decline began.  Chauncey Billups, Antonio McDyess, and Cheikh Samb were sent to the Denver Nuggets for Allen Iverson.  At the time, Joe Dumars – the president of basketball operations for the Pistons – was quite optimistic: “We just felt it was the right time to change our team.  Iverson gives us a dimension that we haven’t had here and we really think it’s going to help us.”

Before the 2008-09 season ended, though, Iverson had stopped playing for the Pistons (apparently unhappy with the idea of coming off the bench).  And when the season concluded, the Pistons had only won 39 games.

Iverson came off the books, though, and the salary cap space gave fans of this team optimism. Unfortunately, Dumars took that space and spent it on Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva.  With Gordon and Villanueva on board, the Pistons only won 27 games last year.  And this year hasn’t been much better.

The Iverson, Gordon, and Villanueva decisions have been discussed in this forum in the past.  What hasn’t been discussed (at least, I don’t think this has been talked about before) was another decision made in the same week Iverson was added to the roster.  On November 4th of 2008, the Pistons agreed to a three-year extension with Richard Hamilton.   At the time, Hamilton still had two years remaining on a seven year deal he had signed in 2003.  So the $34 million extension didn’t start until the 2010-11 season.

The 2010-11 season, though, hasn’t gone well for the highest paid person on the Pistons roster.  On January 10th, Hamilton came off the bench and missed all five field goals he attempted in a loss to the Chicago Bulls.  Since this performance, the Pistons have played five games and Hamilton – like Iverson at the end of his brief time in Detroit — has yet to leave the bench. 

At the time Hamilton was first benched there was some thought that he was about to be traded.  But now that the Carmelo Anthony trade that involved the Nuggets, Nets, and Pistons is reportedly dead, it doesn’t appear that Hamilton is going anywhere soon.  And this means the Pistons highest paid player (have I mentioned this fact already?) is getting paid a great deal of money to watch his teammates play basketball.

Here is how Rob Otto summarized this situation at MLive.com:

With the potential trade dead, now the team has lost the built-in excuse for benching Hamilton.  Now if he remains out of action, they are going to have to admit the real reason why:  because the Pistons are a better team without Rip Hamilton.

So what does the team do with him now?  It was a gift that the Nets were willing to take that horrible contract off of Detroit’s books.  I do not expect any other team to be willing to do that, although seeking that trade is exactly what Dumars has to try to do.  Good luck with that.

Are the Pistons really better off without Hamilton?  The numbers seem to agree with this assessment.  After 42 games the Pistons have won 15 times.  The team’s efficiency differential (offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency) is -4.5; a mark consistent with a team that can win about 30 games across an entire season. When we move from efficiency differential to the team’s Wins Produced – reported below – we see that Hamilton has posted a WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes] of 0.025.  And since Hamilton has played 878 minutes, his Wins Produced this far is 0.45.  If Hamilton played as much in the second half of the season, he would still produce less than one win in 2010-11.

The team’s other options at shooting guard – Tracy McGrady (0.205 WP48 as a shooting guard), Ben Gordon (0.046 WP48 as a shooting guard), and even Rodney Stuckey (0.127 WP48 if he played shooting guard) are all more productive than Hamilton.  Will Bynum does offer an ADJ P48 [per 48 minute performance before we adjust for position played] below Hamilton’s mark.  But it does appear that Hamilton’s production this year doesn’t warrant him getting many minutes over most of the other options the team has at guard. 

Again, though, Hamilton is in the first year of his three-year extension.  And according to player salary information at HoopsHype.com, Hamilton, Gordon, and Villanueva are currently part of the Pistons’ future.  In fact, each is due to collect more than $33 million for the 2012-13 season.  This trio – if they repeated in the second half of this season the per-minute performance and minutes played observed in the first half of 2010-11 – would only produce 4.5 wins this season.  So that is not very helpful.  And at their age, it seems unlikely the Pistons are going to get more in the future.  When the 2012-13 season starts, Hamilton will be 34 years old while Villanueva and Gordon will be 28 and 29 years of age respectively. In other words, each player will have passed their peak; a peak that wasn’t really that impressive in the first place.

The shortcomings of Gordon and Villanueva have been discussed previously.  Let’s focus now on why Richard Hamilton isn’t that helpful.

These numbers indicate that Hamilton is above average with respect to getting assists, getting to the free throw line, hitting free throw shots, and taking field goal attempts.  He is generally below average with respect to shooting efficiency from the field.  But because he takes a large number of field goal attempts, Hamilton is an above average scorer.  And therefore – given how scoring totals drive wages in the NBA – we should not be surprised that Hamilton will be paid more than $100 million in his NBA career.

When we move past scoring, though, we see that getting shots from the field to actually go in the basket is not the only issue for Hamilton.  Relative to other shooting guards, Hamilton is also below average with respect to rebounds, steals, blocked shots, turnovers, and personal fouls.  Given all these deficiencies, it is not surprising that Hamilton has generally posted a below average Win Score [and correspondingly, a below average WP48].  And during his nine seasons in Detroit, he has only produced about 30 wins. 

Despite this production, though, Hamilton was still signed to a three-year extension that is supposed to pay him more than $12 million when he is 34 years of age.  And that means, the Iverson trade was not the only bad decision Dumars made during the first week of the 2008-09 season.  As Rob Otto notes, though, fixing this bad decision is going to be difficult.

Although the big decisions haven’t worked out so well for the Pistons, I think there is some hope for this team.  Greg Monroe – the team’s lottery pick – has been almost average for an NBA center (and slightly above average if he is a power forward).  So that is very good for a rookie.  And Tracy McGrady is playing well (for just $1.3 million). 

And that means… well, not much.

McGrady is 31 years old and even if he re-signed with the Pistons, he is still 31 years old.  Plus, Tayshaun Prince – who leads the Pistons in Wins Produced this year – is also a free agent (and 30 years of age).  Ben Wallace – who is third in Wins Produced [and about equal to McGrady in WP48] is under contract for next year.  But Big Ben is now 78 years old (okay, just 36). 

So the Pistons leaders in Wins Produced are old.  The team has guaranteed money to players who don’t produce.  But we do have one rookie who is above average.

Okay, I guess I don’t have that much hope for this team.  And no, a three-game winning streak doesn’t give me that much optimism.  As Dean Oliver noted in Basketball on Paper, there is a 90% chance that a team with a 0.300 winning percentage (a bit worse than the Pistons current mark) will win three in a row at some point in an NBA season.  So fans of this team shouldn’t think that benching Rip Hamilton suddenly solves all the problems with the Pistons.

- DJ

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