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Archive → January, 2011

Time for another depressing Chauncey Billups return to Detroit

Essentials

Teams: Denver Nuggets at Detroit Pistons

Date: Jan. 26, 2011

Time: 7:30 p.m.

Television: Fox Sports Detroit Plus

Records

Pistons: 17-28

Nuggets: 26-18

Probable starters

Pistons:

Nuggets:

  • Chauncey Billups
  • Arron Afflalo
  • Carmelo Anthony
  • Kenyon Martin
  • Nene

Las Vegas projection

Spread: Pistons +3

Over/under: 207

Score: Nuggets win, 105-102

Three things to watch

1. The Billups-Hamilton reunion.

We know Hamilton and Billups are BFFs, so maybe it will be good for Rip to have a sympathetic ear in town. It’s weird though. Billups returning to Detroit seemed like a huge deal last year. Now? The game’s not even on regular FSD, it’s on Fox Sports Detroit Plus.

2. Frontcourt matchups

Active big men have given the Pistons headaches the last two seasons and Denver features one of the league’s most active in Nene. Nene is shooting a ridiculous 65 percent from the field this year, and he’s stronger and more athletic than Monroe up front, so the Pistons will need another strong effort from Ben Wallace if they’re going to have any success in that matchup.

3. Will the defense continue?

The Pistons have played two straight good defensive games against good offensive teams, limiting the Suns to just 74 points and holding Orlando below their season average as well. Denver is another potent offense. In fact, the Nuggets lead the league in scoring at 107.7 points per game. If nothing else, this will be a matchup of two teams who have played pretty well of late in the face of immense off-court distractions.

Pregame Reading

Chauncey Billups sees you, Rip Hamilton

Chauncey Billups makes his annual return to Detroit tonight with Denver, and as could be expected, he’s baffled by what’s happened with Rip Hamilton. From the Denver Post:

“I feel bad for him,” Billups said. “He’s going through a tough time. What’s going on is shocking. It’s pretty disrespectful for them, honestly. He’s kind of Pistons royalty. He helped win a championship, had some great years and now he’s not playing. It’s not like his skills have diminished. Whatever is going on, it’s crazy.”

Now, I do disagree slightly with Billups in that Hamilton’s skills, at least if you look at his plummeting shooting percentage the last two years, have diminished some. But I do agree that skill-wise, he’s also not a player who should have eight straight DNP-CDs. We’ll see if he gets off the bench tonight.

Greg Monroe earns misdseason rookie Most Improved Player recognition

ESPN’s David Thorpe gave out his midseason rookie awards, and he named Greg Monroe Most Improved Player:

He looked lethargic playing 18 minutes a game for a bad team in November. Now he flirts with double-doubles most nights in 30-plus minutes a game for an improved team. His 1.9 steals per game in January tells us he’s fighting to make winning plays. He’s starting to look like a long-term starter as well — gold for the Pistons.

Monroe also moved up to No. 4 in Thorpe’s Rookie Rankings – behind Blake Griffin, John Wall and Landry Fields.

Why Wins Produced undervalues both Ben Gordon’s past and upside

Patrick wrote a very thoughtful and well-argued post yesterday criticizing Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva for struggling with the Pistons, all but saying it’s clear neither player will improve dramatically in Detroit. Ben Gulker followed that up with a very thoughtful and well-argued post agreeing with and expanding on Patrick’s points. You should read both their posts. They’re really great.

But I almost completely disagree with them when it comes to Gordon.

Not totally – I won’t argue that Gordon hasn’t struggled with the Pistons. I’m not delusional. But I think Patrick and Ben underrate what Gordon accomplished with the Bulls, and therefore, what he’s capable of accomplishing with the Pistons. Gulker writes of Gordon and Villanueva:

Both players present a significant problem for Detroit. They have certainly underperformed relative to their career averages (especially given their age – we would expect to see peak performance right about now), but even worse, their career performances in general are very underwhelming. Essentially, both have gone from bad to worse as Pistons, and there’s little to suggest they might right the ship.

That’s the Wins Produced argument in a nutshell: Gordon and Villanueva have never been good, so why should we expect them to become good now?

I’ll leave Villanueva for another day, but I think Wins Produced vastly underrates Gordon.

If you haven’t read Nate Silver’s fantastic article on Carmelo Anthony’s impact, I suggest you do. My Gordon defense is based on the same logic.

Ben Gordon’s effect on offensive rating

Let’s look at the Bulls’ offensive rating since Michael Jordan retired. The red bars represent years Gordon played for Chicago, and the black bars represent years he didn’t. The black line represents the NBA’s average offensive rating.


As you can see, the Bulls’ offensive rating jumped when Gordon joined the team and fell when he left.

The Bulls didn’t surpass the the league average until Gordon’s final season with the team, but consider how dismal their offense was before they drafted Gordon.

Also keep in mind the Bulls’ coach during Gordon’s first four seasons was Scott Skiles, who, in 11 seasons, has never coached a team that finished higher than 16th in offensive rating – and that came during a year when he took over midseason in Phoenix for Danny Ainge, whose previous teams always finished in the top half of the league in offensive rating.

Ben Gordon’s burden

On a basic level, defenses pay more attention to the player they perceive is the offense’s top scorer, and Ben Gordon definitely earned that type of recognition with the Bulls while leading them in scoring his final four seasons with the team. An immeasurable numbers of times, he attracted a defense’s attention and made it more likely his teammates made a shot.

But his positive impact on the offense expands beyond that.

On every possession, a team’s goal is to make a shot* – whether it be a field goal or a free throw. But before the team can get that far, it must take a shot. The only other option is a turnover, and that’s obviously not helpful.

*Excluding rare end-of-game scenarios

A team has 24 seconds to find a good shot. As the shot clock runs down, more difficult shots become good shots. In those late-shot-clock scenarios, teams often rely on their top scorer.

That negatively impacts the efficiency of a team’s stop scorer. When he takes a large number difficult shots, his shooting-efficiency numbers, and subsequently his Wins Produced, shrink. But isn’t that preferable to a lesser scorer taking the difficult shot?

That is the argument Silver makes about Carmelo Anthony, and estimates made by using 82Games’ data indicate it apples to Gordon, too. (Unfortunately, 82Games’ stats for shots taken by range in the shot clock are rounded to the nearest whole percentage, leaving some room for variance.)

Since the Nuggets drafted him, Anthony has played 67.2 percent of their minutes and taken 20.4 percent of their shots in the final 10 seconds of the shot clock.

In his four seasons as the Bulls leading scorer, Gordon played 66.0 percent of their minutes and took 17.4 percent of their shots in the final 10 seconds of the shot clock.

Although, Gordon led the Bulls in shots taken with 10 or fewer seconds remaining on the shot clock each of the four seasons he led them in scoring, he clearly didn’t take as many Anthony did. Still, I’d say they were in the same range.

But Gordon’s numbers account for him taking fewer late-in-shot-clock shots. Even counting his rookie year and two years with the Pistons (three of his worst four true-shooting percentage seasons), Gordon has a significantly higher career true-shooting percentage to Anthony – .551 to .542.

If Gordon had the luxury of being more selective with his shot, his true-shooting percentage, and therefore his Wins Produced, would look much better. But that would have hurt his team.

Benefit of Ben Gordon taking difficult shots

Neither Ben Gordon (2.9 assists per game for his career) nor Carmelo Anthony (3.1 assists per game for his career) passes extremely well. But as Silver showed, they can still help their teammates.

I’m going to look at a sample with the same parameters Silver used – players who played at least 2,000 minutes for the Bulls in the years Gordon led the team in scoring and have played at least 2,000 minutes for other teams. Nine players fit that criteria. (I’m counting every minute a player played for a team, not necessarily minutes shared with Gordon on the floor.)

Player Minutes with Gordon TS% with Gordon Minutes without Gordon TS% without Gordon TS% Change
Kirk Hinrich 9,513 .5346 9,221 0.5073 .0274
Luol Deng 9,468 .5330 6,077 0.5228 .0101
Andres Nocioni 6,944 .5602 4,802 0.5126 .0477
Chris Duhon 5,551 .5273 7,642 0.5206 .0068
Ben Wallace 4,324 .4317 26,438 0.4822 -.0505
Joakim Noah 3,472 .5666 2,808 0.5613 .0053
Thabo Sefolosha 3,039 .4885 4,311 0.5127 -.0242
Derrick Rose 3,000 .5163 4,544 0.5342 -.0179
Tyson Chandler 2,121 .5667 15,226 0.5966 -.0299

Of the 16 players who played at least 2,000 minutes with Anthony and 2,000 minutes without Anthony, 14 saw their true-shooting percentage improve with him. That’s a bit more impressive than the 5-of-9 Gordon helped.

But, as demonstrated above, Gordon didn’t take as many late-in-shot-clock shots, and his true-shooting percentage is much higher. Plus, the four players whose true-shooting percentage dropped with Gordon aren’t the best indicators.

  • Wallace wouldn’t get the ball in late-in-the-shot-clock situations no matter who surrounds him. I don’t think his true-shooting percentage is a reflection of Gordon or any of his teammates throughout the years.
  • Sefolosha left the Bulls and joined a team with one of the NBA’s elite scorers, someone who attracts the attention of opponents and can be counted on to take end-of-shot-clock shots with the best of them. As much as Gordon may have helped Sefolosha, Kevin Durant probably helps him more.
  • Rose, as expected, naturally grew from a raw rookie to an MVP candidate. That process would have happened regardless of Gordon.
  • In his only season with Gordon, Chandler shot a career low 53.5 percent from the line. Gordon’s presence can certainly influence how many free throws Chandler takes, but Gordon can’t impact how many of them Chandler makes. For Chandler, effective field-goal percentage is probably a better measure, and his EFG% with Gordon surpasses his EFG% without him. Also, Chandler was a pretty poor offensive player with the Bulls, and he improved after leaving by developing post moves and working on his free-throw shooting. Gordon shouldn’t be blamed for Chandler being a late bloomer offensively. Plus, after leaving the Bulls, Chandler played with some of the league’s better passers – Chris Paul, Raymond Felton and Jason Kidd – and they can take advantage of Chandler’s good hands and leaping ability by setting him up for plenty of alley-oops, which raise his true-shooting percentage.

With some context, Gordon has boosted a large clip of his teammates’ true-shooting percentages.

Why has Ben Gordon struggled with the Pistons?

Maybe Ben Gordon has always excelled at making difficult shots. Maybe after years of shooting difficult shots with the Bulls, they’ve become habit and Gordon takes them when he should work for a better shot.

If you’ve watched Gordon play, he’s adept at making difficult shots. That’s a valuable skill. But it’s not  necessarily a skill that benefits the Pistons.

The Pistons surrounded Gordon with players who want the ball in their hands so they can score – Rodney Stuckey, Richard Hamilton, Charlie Villanueva, Will Bynum, and to a lesser extent, Tayshaun Prince. They don’t need a scorer like Gordon, who doesn’t do much else positively on the court, to bail them out late in the shot clock.

But how many of those players are definitely part of the Pistons’ future? Let’s look at the three guys who clearly are – Greg Monroe, Jonas Jerebko and Austin Daye. Not only can they impact the game in plenty of other ways than creating their own shots, creating their own shot ranks low on their list of skills.*

*Daye is a good ball-handler and has shown he can create shots for himself. But at this stage in his career, he’s more prepared to be a complimentary shooter when playing against starters.

So, maybe Gordon doesn’t fit with Stuckey, Hamilton, Villanueva, Bynum and Prince. But he could still be a great fit with the players the Pistons know they want to build around. So, the Pistons should think twice about trading Gordon right now.

How to make Ben Gordon worth his large contract

If Gordon had a coach who demanded he take better shots, I think he’d get better. Larry Brown took Chauncey Billups from a gunner* to one of the NBA’s most efficient players. There’s no reason Gordon couldn’t follow the same path.

*Even though Billups improved by leaps and bounds as a point guard under Rick Carlisle, he took a ton of bad shots until Brown straightened him out. I remember times early in Brown’s tenure in Detroit when Billups forced contested 3-pointers early in the shot clock and the coach immediately called a timeout to pull Billups, talk to him, then immediately sub him back in at the next stoppage.

If Gordon became the primary scoring option, I think he’d get better. Gordon excels when he can take a lot of shots and get into rhythm. With the Pistons’ current roster, he can’t do that. Shooting late in the shot clock, and also at other times, gets spread around.

Gordon probably won’t work with his current teammates and/or his current coach. So the Pistons must decide:

Do they keep him or them?

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Ben Gordon talks to Hoopsworld about uncertainty of this year’s Pistons

Interesting timing after the discussion here yesterday, but Ben Gordon talked to Hoopsworld‘s Alex Kennedy Monday and had this to say:

“When you see stuff happening to a guy like Richard Hamilton, who has won a championship here and had so many great years, I’d be foolish to think that the same couldn’t happen to me or anybody else in this room. That’s what’s going on right now with our team,” Gordon said.

For what it’s worth, but Vince Ellis and Vincent Goodwill expressed skepticism that Gordon would be traded. I think Gordon was probably just making general comments about how the players view the situation rather than saying he feels like he’s being dangled in trade talks.

(Hat-tip to Steve Kays on the link)

Fanhouse: Tracy McGrady loves his new role with Pistons

Tracy McGrady has obviously been a key component in Detroit’s recent resurgence. But while most people would’ve never expected McGrady to thrive offensively as a point guard, McGrady told Fanhouse’s Tim Povtak that a move like this was always in the works for him:

“If this can prolong my career, I’m all for it. When I was younger, that’s how I envisioned my career being, just an all-around player and not a scorer.”

I think it’s reasonable to say that most Pistons fans have been pleasantly surprised with not only how much McGrady has contributed, but how unselfish he’s been.

Average age through the years: NBA playing its young players more

There’s no specific news hook for this post, other than we were talking about it among the TrueHoop Network, and it’s interesting.

Here’s a chart of the NBA’s average age season-by-season.

Seasons are denoted by their second year. For example, the 2010-11 season is shown on the graph as 2011.

The blue line represents the average age of anyone who played that year, and the red line represents a weighted average based on playing time (data from Basketball-Reference).


It’s interesting how the gap between the weighted average age and the average age has closed.

Here’s a chart that includes the age of the oldest and youngest player each season.


Could D-Leaguer Walker Russell Jr. help the Pistons?

For whatever reason, the Detroit Pistons have not used the D-League as a viable source to find players very often. But the trend leaguewide has certain been going up the past couple seasons, and guys like Trey Johnson, Mustafa Shakur and Garrett Temple, to name a few, have been given looks by NBA teams this season after starting out in the D-League.

Great D-League blog Ridiculous Upside recently identified one D-League player who could help each NBA team. Here’s who they picked for the Pistons:

Detroit Pistons: Walker Russell Jr., Fort Wayne Mad Ants. Tracy McGrady has done an admirable job at point guard, but no one is fearing a T-Mac/Stuckey/Will Bynum rotation.

Alternative: Courtney Sims, Iowa Energy.

Now, adding any D-Leaguer is purely hypothetical considering the Pistons would have to open a roster spot either by making a trade that yeilds fewer players than they give up or by cutting someone. Scott Schroeder described Russell as a “pure point guard who sees the court well,” and D-League Digest picked Russell as a D-League All-Star this season, so if the Pistons were in a position to take a look at someone like that later in the season, I don’t think anyone would object to it.

Richard Hamilton-John Kuester blame game attracting attention from another dismal season by Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva

While everyone is busy deciding who deserves more blame between Rip Hamilton and John Kuester, the attention caused by that rift has taken the focus off two other players who deserve their fair share as well: Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva.

Both Gordon and Villanueva seem like pleasant enough guys. Both could have legitimate beefs about how they’ve been used at times with this team, and they’ve largely kept quiet in the media about it, remained positive and seem like good teammates.

Unfortunately, both are paid like cornerstones of a franchise, and clearly, neither guy is. Ultimately the blame for signing them to long-term deals for the amount of money they’re making lies with Joe Dumars.

But I’m all about nuance. Dumars is left to deal with the financial implications of signing players who have underperformed to long-term deals, but let’s remember the basis of why both guys were signed: they were young players, both of whom pined for increased roles on their former teams, both of whom felt disrespected by how things played out with said former teams (the Bulls letting Gordon walk as a free agent, the Bucks opting not to give Villanueva a qualifying offer). Both have fallen well short in Detroit, and both deserve a share of the blame for failing to meet expectations.

Can Ben Gordon be a primary option?

This was the question when Gordon signed in 2009, and it still lingers today. Now, defenders of Gordon will quickly point to his scoring averages in Chicago as justification for the signing. It’s true, Gordon was an explosive, elite scorer in limited minutes. But let’s look at each of his seasons a bit closer:

  • 2004-05 season: Gordon was third on the team in scoring as a rookie at 15.1 per game, one of four Bulls to average double figures. Contract-year Eddy Curry (don’t laugh … before he was destroying exercise balls, he had a couple pretty good offensive seasons) led the team in scoring at 16.1 per game. Kirk Hinrich averaged 15.7, and Luol Deng, also a rookie, averaged 11.7. The Bulls were a balanced team on offense that overachieved based on their strong defense and control of the tempo. Gordon had a great rookie season, but he obviously didn’t shoulder the offensive load himself.
  • 2005-06 season: Gordon upped his average to 16.9 per game and led the team in scoring, but once again, four Bulls averaged in double figures. Hinrich (15.9), Deng (14.3) and Andres Nocioni (13.0) provided plenty of balance to the Chicago offense.
  • 2006-07 season: Gordon averaged a career-best 21.4 points per game and once again led the Bulls in scoring, but Deng (18.8), Hinrich (16.6) and Nocioni (14.1) all improved their scoring averages as well. Once again, the Bulls’ top four was a pretty balanced group.
  • 2007-08 season: The Bulls dipped significantly this season, missed the playoffs and they made their big Ben Wallace trade midseason to clear salary. Gordon led the team in scoring this season, but his average fell back to 18.6 per game. He didn’t have a significant dropoff in minutes, either. He went from 33 a game the previous season to 32 a game this season. Deng (17.0), Hinrich (11.5), Nocioni (13.2) and Joe Smith (11.2) were all in double figures that season. Once again, the Bulls had balanced offense, even if their on-court results this season weren’t good.
  • 2008-09 season: Gordon led Chicago in scoring for the fourth straight season in his final year with the Bulls. Derrick Rose (16.8), Deng (14.1), Tyrus Thomas (10.8), Nocioni (10.4) and midseason acquisitions John Salmons (18.3) and Brad Miller (11.8) also provided significant offense for Chicago.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that although Gordon scored a lot of points in Chicago, he did so with several other players capable of being potent offensive threats around him. I would argue the Bulls never ran their offense solely through Gordon. Maybe they did for portions of games, but for whatever reason, in five seasons, the Bulls never viewed Gordon as a guy they could exclusively depend on as their primary offensive option.

Gordon, as the dynamic scorer he was (and hopefully still is), obviously disagreed. He started more than 41 games in a season only two of his five seasons with the Bulls. Guys who are capable of playing offense like Gordon does obviously want to start. Starting is important to players, and I think everyone understands why. So it made sense that if Chicago didn’t view him as that player, he would look elsewhere.

Enter Detroit. Theoretically, Gordon would sign there looking for an opportunity to start (I know he said the right things when he signed, that he’d be OK coming off the bench, etc. But read between the lines … he constantly hinted in Chicago he wanted to be a starter.).

Theoretically, Detroit would sign him to a large contract believing if they increased those situations in which Chicago ran its offense through him, Gordon’s production would naturally increase with the expanded role.

And on the intangible side, Dumars has always picked out players like Gordon, who felt under-appreciated or felt they could do more if given an opportunity.

Without looking at the rest of the Pistons roster, those three points meant signing Gordon made a lot of sense. Theoretically.

We’ve found Gordon has actually been used in an even more reduced role than in Chicago (he hadn’t played below 30 minutes a game since his rookie season, but he has played 27.9 and 27.2 respectively in Detroit). The Pistons have found, without being surrounded by other players who can help create shots for him, Gordon’s 3-point shooting touch has declined significantly since leaving Chicago, as have his offensive rating and true-shooting percentage.

The reality of Gordon’s situation was a tough one. He had to come in and deal with trying to beat out an incumbent shooting guard in Hamilton who had no interest in giving up his prominent spot on the team. But that gets to that intangible “chip on his shoulder” quality that possibly made Gordon a target by Dumars in the first place: we haven’t really seen Gordon rise to the occasion in the competition. Let’s face it: Hamilton’s performance over the last two years has declined. There are a few staunch Hamilton defenders in the comments here who will probably object, but there is no data any of them can provide to suggest that Hamilton has been an asset on the court this season or last.

The problem, however, is that Gordon hasn’t been much better. Offensively, he’s slightly more of a threat than Hamilton. Defensively, he’s been worse than Hamilton. There is not a legitimate case to be made that either guy makes the team better. And ultimately, Gordon has to accept blame for that. He supposedly wanted the pressure of being a cornerstone player when he signed that contract, and he’s done nothing but regress during the last two seasons.

Can Charlie Villanueva play like a big man?

Villanueva provides some limited value to the team. He’s been a decent offensive player off the bench this season. As I said above, he’s been a positive teammate, he worked hard in the offseason, and even if his contract is expensive, I don’t think his price is that outrageous when compared to some stretch fours around the league with similar skill-sets.

The problem? The Pistons have never been a team that has had much use for highly paid specialists. When Villanueva was signed, an oft-cited stat was his per-minute production in Milwaukee. “After all, this guy averaged 16 points and 7 rebounds in only 26 minutes a game last year,” the thinking went. Just give him more minutes in Detroit, and he’s a sure double-double guy. Clearly, the Pistons wanted him to become a more traditional power forward who scores and rebounds.

Villanueva, undoubtedly, wanted more than 26 minutes per game in Milwaukee. He undoubtedly signed in Detroit for the opportunity to become that double-double guy Dumars was confident he would be.

Instead, the opposite has happened. He’s become even more of a “specialist” type player. Villanueva has become a worse rebounder in Detroit. He’d never averaged fewer than 7.9 rebounds per 36 minutes in his career prior to Detroit. In two seasons here, he’s averaged 7.1 and 6.8.

His rebound rate was never lower than 13.5 percent before Detroit. The last two years, it has been 12.0 and 11.5.

Villanueva was not signed to be an All-Star here. But even if he didn’t become a double-double guy, I don’t think Dumars anticipated he’d actually become a significantly worse rebounder than he had been in his pre-Detroit career.

He’s settled into his role as offensive firepower off the bench, and been pretty reliable in that respect this season. But that still falls short of what he was supposed to become in Detroit.

What do the Pistons do?

This isn’t so much an indictment on Gordon and Villanueva as a way to try and balance the ridiculous amount of Hamilton coverage. The situation with Hamilton is far from the most pressing issue with the team. The most pressing issue is the fact that two players signed long-term to be key pieces of the team’s future have thus far failed to live up to expectations. Hamilton wants to be traded, the team wants to trade him. That will work itself out even if he and the coach hate each other in the interim.

But what do the Pistons do with Gordon and Villanueva? Neither guy is a useless player, but both are paid enough that adding players as well as giving eventual raises to young players like Jonas Jerebko, Austin Daye and Rodney Stuckey means many of the team’s resources would be tied up in players who haven’t proven they can be key components of a winning team.

It’s not Gordon’s or Villanueva’s fault that the Pistons offered them the deals they did. I respect that both players seemingly wanted to be in Detroit and made the commitment. But the Pistons rightfully expected more out of them, and whether or not the Pistons would be better off cutting their losses and looking for trades for both of their high profile signings of 2009 is now a legitimate question the team will have to answer.