Mosi Platt – from Miami Heat Index – sent me the following e-mail this weekend:

I don’t know if you saw/heard but they ran a graphic on NBATV showing the starting lineup for the ’80-’81 Pistons because that was the last time Detroit started the season 7-17.

The lineup was:

G: Keith Herron

G: Larry Wright

F: Phil Hubbard

F: Terry Tyler

C: Paul Mokeski

I’d love to read a post comparing the two teams!

As readers know, I was born in Detroit (hence I have spent a lifetime as a disappointed Lions fan). So I don’t need much encouragement to discuss the Pistons.

Let’s start the conversation with where the Pistons are today. As fans of the Pistons know (and as documented at Pistons by the Numbers earlier this month), this has gotten ugly.

This Pistons collapse against the Toronto Raptors in Saturday dropped the team’s record to 7-18. And unfortunately, this outcome is not a surprise. The Pistons only won 27 games last year; and after such a disaster of a season, Detroit (specifically, Joe Dumars) made the odd choice of retaining eleven players from the 2009-10 team. Given what happened last year, and the fact that the team only added rookie Greg Monroe and Tracy McGrady (each has only started one game), we should not be surprised that this team is on pace to win only 24 games in 2010-11.

The following table reveals where these wins will come from. Leading the way is Ben Wallace, who is once again posting a WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes] mark that is well above average. Beyond Big Ben, though, only Rodney Stuckey and McGrady have been above average.

And that means that Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva are both below average. This is consistent with what we saw from each player before these two were signed by the Pistons in the summer of 2009. In other words, no one should be surprised that the investment in Gordon and Villanueva hasn’t paid off.

Okay, the Pistons today are not good. Let’s now look back thirty years and see if we can uncover some hope in a review of history.

Before we get to the 1980-81 season, let’s take a quick look at two seasons earlier.  

Back in 1978-79 the Pistons won only 30 games. When we look at efficiency differential and Wins Produced, we see a team that should have won 34 games. The 34 wins were produced primarily produced by Kevin Porter (13.1 wins), M.L. Carr (9.9 wins), and Terry Tyler (7.7 wins). And since Bob Lanier missed 29 games due to injury, and produced less than what one should expect when he did take the court, one might think the Pistons in 1978-79 were not far removed from a spot in the playoffs (the Nets made the playoffs with a record of 37-45 that season).

After the 78-79 season, though, the Pistons made a number of moves that were supposed to make the team better (like signing Gordon and Villanueva today), but that ultimately didn’t work out (like signing Gordon and Villanueva today).

  • The Pistons drafted Greg Kelser with the 4th pick in the 1979 draft, passing on Sidney Moncrief.  As I noted in August of 2009, Moncrief went on to produce 126.8 wins while Kelser finished his career with 6.5 Wins Produced. Kelser, though, did win an NCAA title at Michigan State – a team led by Magic Johnson – so who can blame Dick Vitale for drafting him? (yes, that is sarcasm).
  • In July of 1979 Kevin Porter signs with Washington and the Pistons receive a 1980 first round pick.
  • In September of 1979, the Pistons sent two first round picks (their own and the pick acquired from Washington) to the Boston Celtics (which turned out to be the 1st and 13th pick in the 1980 draft) for Bob McAdoo.  As noted last August, that move didn’t quite work out.
  • In February of 1980 the Pistons sent Bob Lanier (who is in the Hall-of-Fame) to the Milwaukee Bucks for Kent Benson (the number one pick in the 1977 draft and someone who is not in the Hall-of-Fame) and a number one pick in the 1980 draft (who became Larry Drew).

Just to review… from the summer of 1979 until early 1980 – or across about eight or nine months – the Pistons lost Kevin Porter, M.L. Carr, and Bob Lanier (and ultimately the first pick in the NBA draft). The team added Greg Kelser, Bob McAdoo, and Kent Benson. This trio combined to produced 1.3 wins in 1979-80.  And in 1980-81 – as the following table reveals – Larry Drew and this trio combined to produce -1.0 wins.

In sum, the Pistons saw a number of productive players depart in a very short period of time. When the team failed to replace these players with productive talent, the fortunes of the team declined considerably. In 1979-80, the Pistons were the worst team in the NBA with a mark of 16-66. The team’s number one pick (along with the pick from Washington), though, was sent to the Boston Celtics in 1980. These picks were transformed into Robert Parish and Kevin McHale (and the rest – as they say – is history). 

Denied the top pick in the draft – and unable to add any other talent that was able to produce wins in large quantities –the Pistons in 1980-81 only won 21 games. Of the team’s 23.9 Wins Produced, about half can be tied to the play of Terry Tyler. Tyler – like Ben Wallace – was a productive second round draft pick who could produce wins in large quantities without scoring in large quantities. 

After Tyler, the Pistons in 1980-81 had only two other players who were above average (just like this year). And they had three players who played more than 500 minutes who were producing in the negative range (that could also happen this year).

So there are substantial similarities between the Pistons today and what we saw 30 years ago. In each case, the Pistons saw productive talent depart (or simply age) and the team’s management failed to find adequate replacements. 

If history continues to repeat itself, though, that will be good news for the Pistons. In 1981 the Pistons drafted Isiah Thomas. And in February of 1982 –two years after Bob Lanier left town – Bill Laimbeer arrived. As I noted in June of 2007, Laimbeer was a very productive center

In 1983-84 – or a few years after Laimbeer and Thomas arrived – the Pistons received 30.6 wins from Thomas and Laimbeer as the team won 49 games (and eventually the team added Dennis Rodman, and the rest – as they say – is history).

So what is the lesson this history teaches? 

If you lose productive talent and add less productive players, then your team will decline. If you wish for your team to get better, go find productive players.

All of this means the Pistons are going to have change their strategy. The current approach is to bring back the same talent and hope for different results. History teaches, though, that if you want different results, your best bet is to find different – and better – players. Until that happens in Detroit, though, look for the “ugliness” to continue.

- DJ