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Archive → August, 2012

NBA.com looks back on Isiah Thomas in ‘Legends Profile

NBA.com has a lengthy look back at the career of Isiah Thomas that’s well worth your time and includes some great video clips that unfortunately are not embeddable here. I won’t excerpt much because if you’re an Isiah fan, you should really go read it all, but here’s a sampling:

Isiah Lord Thomas III came into the world in 1961 under the harshest of circumstances. He was the youngest of nine children growing up in one of the poorest and dangerous neighborhoods of West Chicago. His family sometimes went without food or heat, and the lack of bed space forced some of the kids to sleep on the floor. Isiah’s father left the family when he was 3 years old, leaving Isiah’s mother to raise the children.

Mary Thomas, whose courage inspired a 1990 television movie, did her best to shield her children from the drugs, violence and crime that plagued the area. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, one night, when thugs came looking for Isiah, his mother got out her sawed-off shotgun and warned them, “There’s only one gang here, and I lead it. Get off my porch or I’ll blow you off it!” Another night, when Isiah got home late, she grounded him for the entire summer.

Hat tip to reader RyanK for the link

Jonas Jerebko predicts Pistons will make the playoffs

Via Os Davis of Ball In Europe, Pistons forward Jonas Jerebko after his Swedish team’s loss to Germany in FIBA EuroBasket 2013:

Sweden’s NBA representative and top scorer at 22.0 ppg in the tourney, Jonas Jerebko, was surprisingly optimistic regarding his Detroit Pistons’ chances in 2012-13 and stoically realistic/pessimistic about the national team.

Jerebko was quite sunny about the 2012-13 edition of Pistons. The goal, Jerebko reckons, is to make the playoffs – an aim which, despite playing what the Swede calls “playoff-level basketball,” was well missed in ‘11-12. As for Team Sweden, well … despite a “very bright future,” making a proper splash in EuroBasket competitions will happen “not right now.”

The All-Also Rans: The Pistons and hometown reunions

In case you haven’t noticed, although I’m sure you have, this has been a pretty quiet off-season for the Pistons since the draft. So, in the spirit of having something (anything) to write about, I’m going to spend the next two weeks profiling some of my favorite Pistons who never made much impact on the team despite the fact that I irrationally expected great things from them.

In one of the essays I wrote in my Pistons book (Hey, it’s been a while since I’ve plugged that … you can buy it either as a printed or Kindle book through Amazon here) last year, I wrote a bit about Mateen Cleaves and the fascination the team has always seemed to have with in-state players:

Drafting Cleaves, a point guard who famously played in the national title game on a badly sprained ankle, to his hometown team, a team in need of a savior, a team whose most famous player ever just happened to be a point guard who had a well-known performance while playing on a badly sprained ankle, was not the best move for either party.

The Pistons have strangely had a weird fascination from just before the teal era on with acquiring players who have ties to Michigan from their amateur days. Occasionally, that’s worked out OK — Romulus native Terry Mills had a very good career with the Pistons, Detroit native Chris Webber made decent contributions as a rental player one season during their most recent run as title contenders, Saginaw’s Darvin Ham was a Larry Brown favorite on a title team and Rochester’s Walker Russell Jr. was a nice story last season, finally getting to make his NBA debut in his hometown.

But there’s also a long list of players from Michigan the Pistons have brought in who have not had great success playing for their hometown team — Flint’s Cleaves was traded after one season, Detroit native Negele Knight was soon out of the league after a brief signing by the Pistons and draft pick Ricky Paulding, also a Detroit native, never made the roster.

There are plenty of reasons to route against hometown team reunions. Sure, when they work, they’re incredibly fun, but they also make players much more susceptible to hangers on or distractions that might not be as present if playing in another location. Still though, I’m a sucker for them, and three of my favorite hometown reunions happened in the 1990s.

Grant Long, a standout at Romulus and Eastern Michigan, was a natural fit as a Piston. His uncle, John Long, was a star with the team in the 1980s and his cousin, Mills, had become a key player on the team by the time the Pistons traded for Long and Stacey Augmon in the 1996 offseason, giving up a collection of draft picks that never amounted to much.

Long was seemingly the kind of tough, blue-collar frontcourt player the Pistons lacked, averaging 13.1 points and 9.6 rebounds per game in his final season with the Hawks. With the Pistons, however, his numbers and minutes plummeted. He went from 36 minutes per game in his final season as a Hawk to 17 per game in his first as a Piston. Then, in his second season with the Pistons, he had one of the worst shooting seasons of his career. He left as a free agent and re-signed with the Hawks after that season. I was sure a hard-working, goggle-wearing lunch pail type of player like Long would succeed in Detroit, but for whatever reason, both he and Augmon struggled to fit after that trade.

Those same qualities are why Grand Rapids native and Michigan great Loy Vaught should’ve been destined for success as a Piston. Vaught helped Michigan win a national title, then went on to an unappreciated career with the L.A. Clippers as a perennially underrated player because, well, he played for the Clippers. He averaged double-doubles in back-to-back seasons in 1996 and 1997.

Cruelly, though, Vaught suffered a knee injury just before he was set to hit free agency and escape Clipperdom. He never got the opportunity to show that he was an underrated player post-Clippers. He signed with the Pistons in 1999 and played parts of two seasons with the team, but was never close to the same type of player he’d been pre-injury.

Mark Macon, a Saginaw native and Temple great, came to the Pistons as a bit of a reclamation project. The Nuggets traded him to the Pistons for Alvin Robertson midway through Macon’s second season, strange considering the Nuggets had just used a lottery pick on him and Robertson was being shipped out of Detroit for fighting then-Director of Player Personnel Billy McKinney. Incidentally, I loved this quote from Robertson on that incident:

“It was a split second when I lost my cool,” Robertson said of the fight. “And that split second is going to get me more media attention than I have had for the last two years, so I certainly regret the incident.”

Macon came into the league well-schooled defensively, obviously, playing for John Chaney at Temple. He was also a big combo guard, something that the Pistons have always had an affection for. His offense — he was a big-time scorer at Temple — never really translated to the NBA, though. It’s a shame too, because the former Mr. Basketball winner really was an elite, tough high school and college player.

As someone who runs a site partially dedicated to celebrating the basketball legacy in the state of Michigan, I’m obviously a huge fan of in-state players. But I always worry a bit when they join my favorite pro team, just because it puts so much unnecessary, behind-the-scenes pressure on them that might not otherwise be there, although it’s obviously cool to see up-close what guys who starred here in high school or college grow into as pros too.


Making advanced stats friendly and useful

One of the things I’m highly interested in is helping close the so-called divide between basketball fans who embrace advanced stats and those who are just fine using only their eyes thank you very much.

This week at BallinMichigan.com, my site that covers college and high school basketball in Michigan as well as keeps tabs on pro players from the state and other unique ties Michigan has to the basketball world, I interviewed three people with interesting connections to both Michigan and advanced statistical work in basketball who all offered great insights.

Kirk Goldsberry  (follow him on Twitter), a visiting scholar at the Harvard Center for Geographic Analysis and an assistant professor in the Department of Geography at Michigan State University, started Court Vision Analytics, a project that combines Goldsberry’s academic and professional background in mapping and imaging with his love of basketball to create easy to understand infographics that tell complex statistical stories. Goldsberry presented his work at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, he’s contributed to the New York Times NBA coverage and his work has been featured on many different NBA sites.

I asked Goldsberry about how in-depth infographics and mapping can help explain advanced stats to people who may not be interested in learning complex formulas behind the stats:

I know it can (help). We’ve seen it in other domains. For instance in chemistry, the Periodic Table has made a huge set of chemical elements understandable in new ways. The power of graphics to simplify or translate statistical information into knowledge is one of the huge pillars of the project. My project is not unique in that sense, but it is unique in the context of basketball. I think that’s what it has the potential to do. Every one of those charts you look at is thousands of numbers encoded visually as opposed to encoded in a spreadsheet.

These spacial structures are immediately understandable to the human eye. You can take advantage of the most powerful sense we have as human beings, which is vision. I can show that chart to a basketball coach in four seconds and circle key areas with a Sharpie and walk away, and that coach has just understood the product of a really sophisticated statistical analysis in a few seconds without ever seeing brief notation, without ever seeing a decimal, without ever seeing some obtuse numerical jargon that, let’s face it, most basketball people and most human beings don’t communicate in that statistical language.

Ben Gulker, a veteran of Detroit Bad Boys and a Wages of Wins proponent, is well known for his stats-based writing among fans who read DBB, PistonPowered or talk about the Pistons on Twitter. A lesser known fact: Gulker is also a former college basketball player. From my conversation with him:

One of the things I encourage skeptics of statistical analysis of sports to consider is the relationship between music and mathematics. Obviously, I’m going to oversimplify for the sake of brevity, but an art like music can be expressed in very meaningful ways by numbers. There is an incredibly complex relationship between the two, and learning about that relationship can enhance one’s appreciation for both.

Analogously, basketball is in many ways an art, and I’d venture to say that all basketball fans appreciate the sport for that reason. For example, watching the USA Olympic Basketball teams decimate their competition in style truly is a thing of beauty. When LeBron James is running the break, and executes a perfect no-look alley oop pass to Durant, you can’t help but ooh and ahh.

But at the end of the day, success and failure are expressed by the numbers on the scoreboard, not by how impressive your crossover or step-back jumpshot looks.

My third interview was with Marc Andreas, a high school coach in west Michigan who recently received funding for his company Net Value through Start Garden, a Grand Rapids-based venture capitol fund founded by Rick DeVos that awards seed money to entrepreneurs who make proposals for business startups. Net Value as a company is looking for new ways to measure individual defensive performance statistically. Andreas is doing some preliminary statistical work for the Orlando Magic and Cornerstone University. From our conversation:

In the sports world, I think it’s more rare to find the ‘numbers people.’ Most coaches aren’t numbers experts. I have found great reception from the coaches I’ve worked with so far. Cornerstone’s new women’s coach is Katie Feenstra-Mattera, she just retired from the WNBA. She’s not a numbers person or doesn’t have a statistics background, but the reason she got behind the concept and asked me to help the team is these statistics from Net Value shine a light on what goes on on the defensive end of the court. When you compare traditional statistics, it’s mostly geared toward the offensive end of the court. Our advanced stats don’t measure the offense. That’s already tracked by other stats. We integrate our statistics to show the other half of basketball. Coaches want to win and understand you have to play good defense to win.

This helps them know what players to scout, what players to give more or less playing time to, which players to scout or trade for. Net Value just illuminates this other half of the basketball court, and when you explain it to them like that, it makes a lot of sense to them.

I know a lot of PistonPowered readers are interested in advanced stats, including some of the work Dan Feldman does on this very site. If you’re interested in reading more, check out the full interviews with Goldsberry, Gulker and Andreas.

Ben Wallace is no symbol

Whether or not the Pistons and Ben Wallace mutually decide that one more season would be in the interest of both parties remains to be seen, but I think there’s a misconception out there about what he actually brings to the table.

Much of the talk about his presence is symbolic — he’d be a good mentor or role model for the young players. And I’m sure that’s true, but his on-court value is much greater. At this point in his career, he’s obviously not a big minutes guy. But he’s still a valuable defender and rebounder in a limited role and, though his offensive impact is minimal, he does help with his ball movement and offensive rebounding capability.

In today’s column for the Detroit Free Press, I wrote about why Wallace’s presence would benefit the team’s young bigs because he’d absolutely force them to beat him out for minutes, which should make them better in the long-run:

Wallace has enough skill left to offer tangible benefits to the team in limited minutes, reasonable things that they could ask their young bigs to replicate if they want those minutes, but he also doesn’t do present so towering a challenge that it would make it unrealistic for him to be out-produced by Drummond or Kravstov at some point during the season.

Kim English cleans up on NBA Rookie Survey ballot

The NBA conducts an annual survey of its rookies during the rookie symposium, asking them questions about their peers in their draft class. Kim English showed up in several of the responses in this year’s survey (note: players were not allowed to vote for themselves), Andre Drummond showed up in a couple categories and Kyle Singler showed up in one.

I think most Pistons fans have been impressed with English’s maturity and work ethic so far, and that is also noted among his fellow rookies. English received votes in the ‘Which rookie will have the best career?’ category. Here were the results of that one:

1. Anthony Davis, New Orleans — 40.6 percent

2. Harrison Barnes, Golden State — 12.5 percent

3. Damian Lillard, Portland — 9.4 percent

T-4. Thomas Robinson, Sacramento & Dion Waiters, Cleveland — 6.3 percent

Others receiving votes: Bradley Beal, Washington; Kim English, Detroit; Bernard James, Dallas; Perry Jones, Oklahoma City; Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Charlotte; Kendall Marshall, Phoenix; Fab Melo, Boston; Austin Rivers, New Orleans

English and Bernard James were the only two second round picks to receive a vote in that category. Drummond, Meyers Leonard, Terrence Ross, Dion Waiters and Jeremy Lamb were the only lottery picks who didn’t receive a vote in that category.

English also tied for third in the ‘most overlooked’ category, fourth in ‘best shooter’ and tied for fifth in ‘best defender.’

Drummond tied for fourth in ‘most athletic’ and received votes in ‘best defender.’ Singler received votes in the ‘best shooter’ category.

Is Kyle Singler on Team Coco?

Trey Kerby of The Basketball Jones points out striking similarities between Kyle Singler‘s rookie symposium photo and a Conan O’Brien poster. I’ll let you be the judges.

Khris Middleton worried about falling behind while unsigned

Khris Middleton:

I got a little anxious, of course, when I saw the rookies who were my teammates during Summer League – Kim English and Andre Drummond and Kyle Singler – sign contracts when I hadn’t. I wanted to come up here and get some work in and find a place to get settled. I enjoyed being back home and working hard while I was down there, but it was a delay. I just tried to work out and make it work.

I left that all up to my agent. I knew he was going to do what was best for me, so I stayed home and was working out mostly by myself with my high school coach – I lifted weights, tried to do some light conditioning to stay in shape and did a whole bunch of work on the floor – so I would be prepared to come up here when it got done.

I worried about falling behind, of course, knowing those guys were up here a couple of weeks ahead of me. They know what they’re doing when they come in every day. They already have their routines set and now I’m trying to figure out my routine.

The All-Also Rans: The Pistons once employed two of ‘B-Ball’s Best Kept Secrets’ at the same time

In case you haven’t noticed, although I’m sure you have, this has been a pretty quiet off-season for the Pistons since the draft. So, in the spirit of having something (anything) to write about, I’m going to spend the next two weeks profiling some of my favorite Pistons who never made much impact on the team despite the fact that I irrationally expected great things from them.

Athletes trying to become musicians has always been a running punchline. But ‘B-Ball’s Best Kept Secret‘ was no joke. That album was one of the many CDs I got for a penny from BMG Music in the 1990s. The reason I had to have it: Ced Ceballos can rap. He had the above video with Warren G and it actually got played on MTV Jams fairly regularly for a little while.

There wasn’t much else particularly memorable about the album, other than the fact that somehow a bunch of random NBA players decided to put out a hip-hop album together which is memorable in itself. But I was pretty excited when Ceballos and another player featured on that CD, Dana Barros, became Pistons late in their careers.

Ceballos played 13 games for the Pistons during the 2000-01 season, which turned out to be his last in the league. He didn’t have much left by the time he was a Pistons, but he was always one of my favorite underrated players in the league. He had the famous blindfold dunk to win the 1992 NBA Slam Dunk Contest, he was an All-Star during the 1994-95 season with a fun pre-Kobe/Shaq Lakers team that featured Nick Van Exel, Vlade Divac, Elden Campbell, Eddie Jones, George Lynch, Anthony ‘Pig’ Miller, Lloyd ‘Sweet Pea’ Daniels, Sedale Threat, Anthony Peeler and, amazingly, Kurt Rambis, who played in 26 games that season.

Ceballos was great around the basket and one of the better players in the league at moving without the ball. He never quite replicated the production he had that season, but he was a legitimate rotation scorer who didn’t need many plays run for him to get baskets throughout his career. He had one great performance for the Pistons, scoring 19 points off the bench in a loss to Indiana, and was eventually traded to the Miami Heat for a second round pick.

He didn’t make much impact for the Pistons, but he, along with John Wallace and Eric Murdock, at the very least was part of a trade that rid the team of Christian Laettner, so that’s a positive contribution in my book. And on top of that, the Pistons were eventually able to use Wallace in a trade that got them Clifford Robinson.

Barros lasted a bit longer with the Pistons, playing 89 games over two seasons after the team acquired him from Dallas for Loy Vaught. Although Barros’ rapping didn’t immediately stick out to me like Ceballos’ did, Barros, like Ceballos, was also a part of a really fun 1990s team, the Seattle Supersonics. I always liked Barros, a smallish sharpshooting point guard, on those teams, but stuck behind point guards Gary Payton and Nate McMillan, opportunities were limited for him in Seattle.

Barros was eventually traded to the Philadelphia 76ers, where he also made the 1994-95 All-Star Team, also his only appearance in the game. He signed with the Boston Celtics as a free agent, didn’t fully live up to expectations, and eventually found himself on a rebuilding Pistons team late in his career.

He had a good season off the bench for the Pistons in 2000-01, averaging 8.0 points per game while shooting 42 percent from 3-point range. The following season, started 19 games for an eventual playoff team, although his shooting dipped to 34 percent from three and he was eventually supplanted by Chucky Atkins as the regular starter.

I’ve met a lot of NBA fans over the years who remember that album for all kinds of nostalgic reasons. And looking back on it, it was pretty terrible music, as most athlete/actor attempts at becoming musicians inevitably are. But to a teenager obsessed with the NBA, it was great, and it’s pretty unique that the Pistons have three connections (the late Malik Sealy, a Piston for one season in 1997-98 was also featured on it) to such a random part of the 1990s NBA.


Pistons’ season projections leave faint reason for optimism

Good: Bradford Doolittle of Basketball Prospectus projects the Pistons will improve by 6.1 wins from their 82-game pace of last season.

Bad: Doolittle projects four other Eastern Conference teams will improve more.

  • Nets: 18.8
  • Raptors:10.8
  • Cavaliers: 9.6
  • Bobcats: 6.6
  • Pistons: 6.1

Worse: Doolittle ranks the Pistons 11th in the East with 32.9 projected wins.

The Pistons’ name still pops up in “who will lose the most games” polls, but there is upside to the Greg Monroe-Rodney Stuckey-Brandon Knight core. If rookie Andre Drummond can contribute in a positive fashion, Detroit could be one of the league’s more improved outfits.

Worst: ESPN’s summer forecast ranks the Pistons 13th in the East with 30 wins.