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PistonPowered Mailbag: A sidebar on translating stats, All-Star snubs and small forward solutions

Submit questions for the weekly PistonPowered Mailbag to  patrickhayes13(at)gmail(dot)com or on Twitter @patrick_hayes.

I want to offer a quick thought building on Dan Feldman’s great, detailed post on the Pistons’ use of analytics from earlier today that everyone should definitely read. An excerpt from a talk Ken Catanella, Pistons director of basketball operations, gave at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference stood out to me:

And how could I add value walking in as a graduate assistant at that time?

I noticed a few things in terms of their pregame prep, and I was doing some video logging of opponent games. And I automated a process that created what now is commonplace, but over a decade ago was a rarity, is a shot-zone chart that had visuals and colors. At that point, I gave it to the coaching staff and thought nothing of it. And the next thing I knew, at the practice later that day, in preparation for the next day’s game, Coach had blown it up to an infinite size, brought it over to the bench where the guys were sitting. Of course, it was a proud moment for a geek like me, but he showed it to the guys and said, ‘This is what we have to do to stop this team if we play this player this way.’

And at that moment, I realized, if you can just find that niche of something that is missing or that you can add an element that can make them better at their job, they’re going to really appreciate you and trust that you have their best interests at heart.

I interviewed Kirk Goldsberry, whose amazing data visualization graphics highlighting advanced stats have been must-read at Grantland, The New York Times and a few other places over the last few years, last year. He said something similar:

There is really a lot of in-depth statistical work going on with complex and continuously evolving stats and measures in basketball, but there has always been a kind of push-back on that from people who may not understand or want to be bothered with the complex math or science behind it or who don’t think it’s a necessary element in the game. Do you think that work you’re doing, putting complex stats work into easy to understand graphics, can maybe help bridge that gap some?

I know it can. 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.

So yes, this helps people who are not domain experts in statistics understand statistics or at least understand the findings of statistical analysis. When you hear coaches or general managers or people in the media who are skeptical of statistical work or don’t see a use for it, to me, that’s on the analytics community, not the people pushing back. It’s part of our job to make our findings digestable by people. It’s the part of of the scientific process I like to describe as landing the plane. Great, you’ve done great analysis, you’ve found something out, now you know that. But I think that’s where a lot of people stop. One of the strengths of good visualization is it helps you land the plane in the sense that not only do you know that, now you’re sharing that with other people who also just learned that. The more effective you can be in that sharing, the better you are as a scientist, the better you are as a communicator.

Both guys touched on something really key — not advanced stats themselves, but how statistical analysts communicate their findings in plain English. At this point, there’s no debating the vital need for advanced stats work in the NBA (and in all sports, really). It’s a billion dollar industry with every team looking for every possible competitive advantage. Stats can help give a competitive advantage if properly analyzed and implemented into strategy, lineups, matchups, talent acquisition, etc. So it makes no sense for any team to employ so-called “non-believers.” Data visualization is a really powerful way to explain a complex topic to a general audience.

The key to getting all fans to embrace the importance of advanced stats lies in exactly what Catanella and Goldsberry are talking about — making them digestable and usable to anyone.

On to this week’s questions:

Is Andre Drummond really an All-Star “snub?” He’s the best player on the Pistons this season, but being a good player on a bad team usually doesn’t lead to an All-Star appearance. — Dan

I mean, it’s not a Kendrick Lamar losing to Macklemore level snub, but it’s still a snub. Drummond is having an incredible season for someone as young as he is, as Dan Feldman pointed out yesterday. He definitely deserves consideration, but I can’t say that any of the other bigs selected as reserves — Chris Bosh, Joakim Noah, Paul Millsap, Roy Hibbert — are unworthy All-Stars. Those are all really good players on better teams than the Pistons. I could quibble with picking DeMar DeRozan and Joe Johnson at the guard spots, but if you want two guards on your bench, you can’t replace one of those guys with Drummond (and really, Kyle Lowry should be in over either of those two and Arron Afflalo has a strong case as well).

So I dunno … I get why Pistons fans are mad about it. Drummond is the lone bright spot this season and the first player they’ve had actually deserving of an All-Star appearance in damn near a decade. I can’t feign much outrage over it though. I mean, Anthony Davis isn’t an All-Star and he’s arguably been the most fun player to watch in the league this season (at least among players not named Kevin Durant). The talent disparity between the West and East is so off balance that I’d be in favor of blowing up the entire All-Star format, letting fans, coaches, players and media (and bloggers!) vote for the top 24 players in the league regardless of conference, then have the top two coaches at the break take turns picking their roster. That’s probably too much work for an All-Star Game though.

Recently read a few reports of Boston looking to dump contracts. Think there is any chance either side goes for a Charlie V for Jeff Green trade? I doubt we’re signing any FA who’d be much better than him at SF and Boston gets a ton of Cap space. — Mark

Green is no great shakes, but he’s solid enough, expensive but not super expensive and still relatively young. I can’t see Boston just giving him away for just an expiring deal, but if the Pistons were willing to offer an expiring and a couple of future second round picks … that might be enticing to them if they’re truly trying to cut salary.

The problem is, Green is basically an average NBA starter. He’d be an upgrade, but not a drastic upgrade. If the Pistons can’t hope to do better than “average-ish starter” at the small forward position in a trade, I’d prefer they hold off on making an in-season deal and see what develops either in the draft or on the trade/free agent market in the offseason. My hunch is you can get a similarly productive player to Green for less money.

I’m curious if those questions are real or made up. — Brian

I addressed this last week in the DBB comments after the … uh … minor shitstorm I started last week, but just wanted to reiterate here: no, I have yet to resort to making up mailbag questions. Full disclosure — I do know a couple of the people socially who have submitted questions in the sixish weeks I’ve been doing this, but the majority of questions really do come to me from people on Twitter or through email. You’ll be able to tell when I’m making up questions if they start containing an inappropriate amount of Workaholics references and/or multiple quotes from C.M. Punk promos.

Utah, worst team in the west, is only 2 games behind Piston. U think Dumars regreting picking KCP over Burke? — FT33

Nah. Caldwell-Pope hasn’t had the opportunity to put up gaudy numbers because he hasn’t really been asked to, but he’s been a decently effective rookie. As a starter, he’s a fifth option on offense and he’s already emerged as a very good perimeter defender in a league where good perimeter defenders come at a premium. I thought passing on Burke was the wrong move and I still do. But Caldwell-Pope has closed that gap. Long-term, I still believe Burke is the better prospect but I’m not convinced that it’s impossible for Caldwell-Pope to surpass him. An athletic, lockdown defender who can knock down a corner three with consistency is a long-term starter in this league, and if his game evolves offensively to more than just being a spot-up shooter, he’s a potential All-Star considering the age of the league’s top shooting guards at the moment. I mean, in a year where DeMar DeRozan made an All-Star team and Arron Afflalo was a serious contender for it, is it really a stretch to think that Caldwell-Pope has the potential to be at least as good as those players?

Things could obviously change in both in favor or against the pick, but as of right now, there’s no real reason for Dumars to regret it.

I know there is a lot of talk about moving a big for someone who can space the floor, but i personally don’t think this is our biggest issue. With the cap space we have this summer it shouldn’t be too hard to sign someone to fill that role. What scares me is watching Jennings night after night treat each game like an AAU tournament. He seems to have no clue how to run an offense, and is only engaged when he’s jacking up shot after shot. I don’t see him meshing well with the other teammates, and Cheeks (don’t get me started) can’t seem to get through to him. Do see any way out of watching him for the next 3 seasons? I’ve been praying for a swap of Rondo/Green for Jennings and Moose/Smith. — Mark (times two)

Brandon Jennings is better than Brandon Knight and Khris Middleton (although Middleton is looking more and more live a very nice young find for Milwaukee). So even with Jennings’ flaws, that trade is a win for the Pistons. His contract isn’t overly expensive, he’s talented if inconsistent and either he’ll figure out how to be a more traditional point guard with improved shot selection or he’ll continue to be an erratic yet occasionally explosive offensive player. He has value in this league, likely more value than Knight will ever have. Playoff aspirations aside, the Pistons came into this season looking to upgrade the talent on the roster. I’m not convinced Jennings is a long-term fix in the minds of anyone in the organization at this point, but he represents a definite talent upgrade who hopefully won’t turn into a negative asset for the Pistons like a certain other high profile offseason acquisition.

Who do you think projects as the better offensive player between the two (Caldwell-Pope or Michigan State’s Gary Harris)? — @HiroBeats

This was asked before Harris’ lights out performance against Michigan which kind of clearly made the case before I even had to, but Harris is by far a better offensive prospect than Caldwell-Pope and he might be a better defensive prospect as well (taking nothing away from Caldwell-Pope). I can’t find the link, but Tom Izzo recently called Harris the best offensive and defensive player in the Big 10. That’s certainly a subjective (and likely biased) analysis, but Harris has been insanely good this season. MSU is missing two important starters and has hardly missed a beat, losing a close game to a very good Michigan team and then beating a tough Iowa team on the road (in a place where Iowa rarely loses). Harris and Keith Appling are insanely fun to watch on defense, and the fact that Harris is a likely to 10 pick this season is a major reason I’m hoping the Pistons land somewhere in the top eight. Obviously, I’d love them to end up with one of the draft’s stars, but if they fall just short of that? Ending up with a defender and shooter like Harris to add to their perimeter would be a lot of fun.

As for whether or not he’s better than Caldwell-Pope offensively? If Harris had come out after his freshman season, where he was good but not this good, he still was likely to get picked higher than KCP would’ve.

Here are some questions/musings I like to hear your opinion on: 1. I hear so much about Drummond working with Coach Sheed and how it is helping him. That´s a really cool story but I would love if we could get Big Ben to be his next development coach for the summer. How great would that be, him learning the defensive ropes from one of the best ever and the Palace being treated to the Wallace brothers on the bench. On a similar note don’t you just wish Rip Hamilton would retire already so that he could spent his summers with KCP?; 2. The Pistons are dead last in ft%, we know that. But I cannot understand why they rank so low in FTAs (17th). They should be foul magnets with their combination of interior focused scoring and weak foul shooters. Combined with the fact that we are the no. 1 off reb team shouldn’t the Pistons love it if Drummond gets fouled? He might miss one but that might just be another opportunity at an offensive rebound. I would love it if the Pistons realized they are better off playing as much in the bonus as they can, even with their dismal ft%. What´s your take on this? 3. Lastly while Drummond is our best player and Smith our highest paid one (and also the media focus) the Milwaukee and NO games showed again that game to game the Pistons go as Jennings goes. If he is engaged defensively, they are, if he picks his spots and plays unselfishly their offense flows and vice versa. However I´ve never seen him string four good quarters together in a Pistons uniform. He always has at least one bad or good stretch each game which is one of the primary reasons for the Pistons fourth quarter problem as well. So what´s the solution? Shouldn´t the Pistons get a reliable pg backup? One who is a good shooter and better defender than Bynum? And if they decide to go that way, who is available? I´d love this trade but I doubt Dumars would do it. (Notice that Beverly and D-Mo are the focus as I doubt Asik would quit his whining in Detroit and play backup). — Fabian

1. Short answer — I would LOVE to have Ben Wallace involved in the organization in an official capacity. I think he and Rasheed Wallace are two of the smartest bigs to play in the modern era and they could teach Drummond/Monroe a lot about offense and defense in the league. Unfortunately, with the rate Maurice Cheeks is going, I’m not sure him or any of his staff will be in place next season. I don’t really share your enthusiasm about Hamilton … I loved watching him when he was good, but Caldwell-Pope is probably already a better defender than Rip ever was and I’m not sure Hamilton’s long-two heavy offense is how the Pistons envision Caldwell-Pope fitting into their lineup. They need him to be a killer from the corner three spots.

2. I don’t know that lack of free throw attempts is a problem. They rank low in overall free throw attempts, but their 25.8 attempts per game are fifth in the league. The problem isn’t getting to the line — several Pistons are very good at that. The issue, as you point out, is converting those opportunities.

3. The Pistons should, theoretically, address some of their roster balance issues. Whether they actually have the means — through assets they’re willing to part with and other teams are interested in giving something of value for — is debatable. Drummond and Monroe are likely the two main pieces the Pistons have that would be of interest to other teams, and they’re unlikely to part with either. The Pistons would probably love to trade Smith, but his contract and less than stellar play make it doubtful they’d get any positive assets in return. The trade you suggest to Houston would be really unfair to the Rockets. They’re taking back the worst contract, giving up a prospect in Motiejunas, who at one time was considered a potential top five-ish pick and giving up a really solid PG in Beverly while getting no clear replacement for him. They had some reported interest in Smith in the offseason and still might, but they would have all the leverage in any deal — the Pistons would have to give up really good assets in order for Houston to take that contract because Smith’s value has tanked this season.


  • Jan 31, 20144:31 pm
    by Brandon Knight


    The OKC Thunder are playing great without Westbrook! Why not trade him? Greg Monroe would definitely help them!
    I would love to have Russel Westbrook!

    • Jan 31, 20144:59 pm
      by Huddy


      Yeah!  That’s pretty equal value.  How could OKC say no to that?

      • Feb 1, 20141:23 am
        by Brandon Knight


        I didn’t say Greg Monroe for Russel Westbrook straight up. 

        • Feb 1, 20143:55 am
          by oats


          So you are throwing Andre Drummond in now? OKC turns down any Westbrook trade that doesn’t include Drummond.

        • Feb 1, 20149:39 am
          by Huddy


          We cannot trade a first rounder because we owe a conditional pick so Anything of quality value you package with Monroe will make the Pistons the loser of the trade.  And oats is probably right about only Drummond making that work.

  • Jan 31, 20144:45 pm
    by Brian


    Dude, are you flexing?

  • Jan 31, 20145:25 pm
    by Zeiram


    Thanks for the answers Patrick, good point on Rip. He really had a game from a different era when the 2-pointer wasn´t as hated as it is now. Still I´d love some of his off the ball work and hurdling around screens to rub off on KCP. But maybe it is already in his repertoire and he just doesn´t get the ball in the right spots.
    Regarding the Houston trade, Smith and Howard are buddies and he´d be a perfect 4 for them. I still think Houston wouldn´t say no to fast but you are right Smiths value is at his lowest right now.

    • Jan 31, 20146:20 pm
      by oats


      I don’t really see Caldwell-Pop moving around much, and he didn’t really do it that much in college either. It seems clear to me that moving without the ball just isn’t a point of emphasis for the Pistons right now. Really the only guy that does it is Kyle Singler, and he brought that with him from Duke. The team doesn’t really do a whole lot of setting screens away from the ball, so Rip’s primary skill set wouldn’t have much use on this team. I also don’t think it really requires a specialist to teach a guy to run around a screen. That part of it is pretty simple.
      Learning how and when to make cuts to the basket or when to flair out for a 3 is a different matter, but that wasn’t ever what Rip’s game was really about. Someone like Shane Battier would be closer to the ideal for that. There are a lot of coaches that are good at teaching this though. George Karl, Rick Adelman, Jerry Sloan, and Greg Popovich all do it or have recently done it on the pro level. Coach K or any of the Princeton offense guys in the college game are also big on this skill set. It’s still a skill that has more use in a more motion based offense than what Detroit runs, so I’d put the priority on hiring a guy to work on this with KCP well behind just getting a new head coach.

    • Feb 1, 201410:23 am
      by Patrick Hayes


      I don’t think Houston would be unwilling to consider a Smith trade. I just think, based on Morey’s track record, they aren’t going to give up any of their better young prospects and they are going to expect Detroit to give up a pick or picks for taking on what is now a bad contract.

      I don’t think it’s impossible to trade Smith, but the Pistons would probably be taking an equally unappealing asset in return or giving a young prospect or picks of their own to make it happen.

  • Jan 31, 20147:15 pm
    by oats


    Is Jennings really better than Knight and Middleton? I’m becoming less convinced of that as the year goes by because Jennings has been pretty bad. Knight’s putting up more points on a per minute basis, and he’s much more efficient as a shooter by merely being average. Knight’s also way better defensively, and the turnover gap has largely disappeared. I get that Jennings is a much more active passer and that gives him somewhat of an excuse for the turnovers, but I’m growing increasingly unconvinced that his assist advantage makes up for his other deficiencies. There is a legitimate argument that Jennings might be worse than Knight this year. Jennings is capable of starting at PG and Knight clearly shouldn’t be, but that doesn’t necessarily make him the better player of the two. That’s all without considering the fact that Middleton has morphed into an efficient shooter that doesn’t dominate the ball and plays solid defense. Oh, and the Knight and Middleton combo are much cheaper than Jennings right now. I still think Jennings is the best player in that trade, and generally it’s a good idea to walk away with the best player. Yet the difference between him and the other two guys is slight enough that it may have been one of the few cases where that isn’t true.
    I really don’t know if this trade was a win for Detroit. Jennings is a bottom tier starter at the point and the team should try to upgrade off of him. I don’t know what kind of value one of the 5 worst starting caliber PGs has when they are making more than $7 million a year, so moving him would likely be pretty tough if an upgrade is found. It’s relatively unlikely they have someone to upgrade on him by next season, so being stuck with him for another year isn’t so bad. After that it will be an expiring deal, but as we’ve seen with Stuckey that doesn’t automatically mean he can be moved for real value. Knight and Middleton both would be more natural fits coming off the bench and their cheap contracts make them a bit easier to trade away, so there is a legitimate argument that the team would be better off in the long term with them instead of Jennings. This seems pretty close to a wash to me.

    • Feb 1, 201410:20 am
      by Patrick Hayes


      OK, I should’ve qualified that better … that trade has a chance to be a bad one. I still have no faith in Knight have much of a ceiling as a competent starting guard (and following Bucks bloggers on Twitter and laughing at their Knight observations would seem to back that up). I do, however, realize he’s been slightly better scoring-wise this season and Jennings is not having a good season. I also realize Middleton has at times looked like he could develop into a fringe starter or at least rotation caliber wing. If those three trends keep up, then yes, that trade was a loss for the Pistons.

      However, based on track records, Jennings is still the best player in that trade, so I’m not willing to call it a complete loss yet. As you point out, that could definitely change though.

    • Feb 1, 20141:07 pm
      by pablum


      @Oats Interesting point on the question of whether Knight is better than Jennings, or vice -versa. Jennings clearly has more raw talent, much better ball-handler, and explosive scorer. But Knight’s sheer will and determination to be an all-star caliber player + his talent actually, I think, make him better than Jennings right now. But not potentially. Jennings could be a superstar IMHO if he was as dedicated as Knight. He has all the damn weapons/talent to do it. Whether he has the head to do it is the only question.

  • Jan 31, 20148:14 pm
    by pablum


    Eh–This is some superb work by Dan and you. Patrick, sir ( so you know it’s sincere). WOW. completely raising the local hoops media bar. It’s outstanding journalism. (But check “spacial” in great 3# quote.) But, just thanks for the great work. Genuinely impressive.

  • Jan 31, 201410:00 pm
    by gtg2013


    A possible modification of Fabian’s proposed trade:
    Not as good for the Pistons, but on the other hand, the Rockets might actually consider it.
    I just want to see Smith go.

    • Feb 1, 201410:31 am
      by Patrick Hayes


      I think that one’s more realistic, but Lin isn’t having a bad season and Asik, despite his thinking that he should start over Dwight Howard or whatever his problem is, still has value. I still think the Pistons would have to give future picks up to make that deal enticing enough for Houston, even if they do think they can fix Smith’s issues.

      • Feb 1, 201412:38 pm
        by pablum


        You and Dan are not getting your deserved props for your outstanding work! Again, these two articles on analytics are just outstanding! There are no others beat writers on Hoops doing this locally! It’s truly excellent work! Thank you!

      • Feb 1, 20148:18 pm
        by Jon


        Tossing a pick into that trade wouldn’t be a problem I don’t think as long as it has appropriate protections.  With the value those two players have and the fact that they’ll be expiring contracts next season, they could probably be traded for late first round picks next season.  Houston has less need for Smith now though since Terrence Jones is on the way to being better than Smith

  • Feb 2, 201412:20 am
    by JYD for Life


    - if we could figure out a way to transplant Bynum’s heart into Jennings, we might be able to tap into that superstar potential.  With all of the technological advances over the past few years, we have to be close, right?  
    At this point, it looks like we traded what will be two solid role players who would have filled a few needs for this team (average 3-Pt shooting, defense and heart) To Milwaukee for a “lower-tier” starting point guard.  It does appear that Knight could close the talent gap between he and Jennings with the sheer desire to work at it.  The lack of interest in playing D is what kills me about Jennings.  
    While we did upgrade our talent, I would rather have the role players and continued the search for a better point guard this season.  There is still hope (at least on my end) that Jennings works with Billups and Cheeks to turn things around.  If not, why not find a more stable solution this summer and bring Jennings off of the bench to have free reign to chuck away against the backups for other teams?  With two years left on his deal and after a glance through the rosters throughout the league, it is difficult to see a potential fit for him to land another job as a starter.  
    - Why would one of the better GMs in the league who places a strong emphasis on analyzing data prior to making personnel decisions trade for Smith?  Seriously, his free throw shooting alone would be enough to scare them off of any idea of pairing him with Dwight.  
    - Analytics or not, the smith signing was horrendously flawed (Unless the recent rumors come to fruition and Smith is moved for a small asset).   Why would you chase a guy who was part of mediocrity for so long?  At their peak, Atlanta made it to the second round of the playoffs.  
    Common sense would tell you that our roster was not even close to what Atlanta had last year, let alone with Joe Johnson a few years ago.  Adding Smith to play the same or an expanded role with a less talented supporting cast and expecting anything greater than a first round exit is insane.  
    The value is only there for about 65% of his games played…kind of like his ability to shoot free throws.  
    Other teams have to know this.  
    I’m interested in seeing where this goes…

    • Feb 3, 20143:06 am
      by oats


      You might have a point about adding Smith if this roster was supposed to be the roster that actually competes. I don’t think that’s the case though. I think they expected to be a first round playoff exit this year and then try to get better from there. The team will have $10 million to spend in free agency before retaining Monroe and a few young players capable of internal development. I’d say that means that the roster could eventually become better than the one that Smith played on in Atlanta. Maybe not a real contender, but likely enough to be only a piece away. That’s basically the situation the Pistons were in before the Sheed trade and that worked out. I wouldn’t count on repeating the Sheed trade, but that’s not the only way to get that extra piece. Maybe a second round or late first round pick turns out better than is normally expected of them. Maybe a MLE player or one of the guys on the roster takes a leap that allows them to exceed their expected value. Maybe the team makes a trade that isn’t quite as one sided as the Sheed deal but requires the team to move Monroe and having Smith makes it so they can afford to do so. It would take some luck, but I don’t mind trying to get about a piece away and hoping to get a little bit of luck to find that other piece.

      • Feb 3, 201411:24 pm
        by JYD for Life


        @oats – You’re probably right…Unfortunately, I see Smith as the piece that will swing another team into contention.  He’s going to continue to wear out his welcome (albeit incredibly short-lived already) in Detroit and will end up being the Sheed for a team about to make the leap.
        I agree that’s he’s wildly talented, but I think it will take a certain coach/team to maximize his potential (which would most likely be on a squad where he is the fourth or fifth best player in the starting lineup).  As long as he’s here and paid like the top banana, he will continue to have that mentality. 
        So much of everything we talk about here depends on what happens over the next two weeks. It’s tough to predict, but after reading the comments from Gores, it sounds like they will not make a major move and will evaluate things this summer.  

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