NBA

Why Were Pistons Bad Last Year?

| by David Berri

Chris Iott – of mlive.com (my favorite website for Detroit sports) – recently asked the question: If no more roster moves are made, how good will the Pistons be this season? In answering this question, Iott made the following observation: “Good health should count for something. The Pistons were decimated by injuries last season while stumbling to a 27-55 record.”

When I read these comments I contacted Ben Gulker (a fellow Pistons fan – who previously offered a great discussion on the relative merits of Rodney Stuckey and Rajon Rondo) and asked him to help me write a post centered on this question: How good would the Pistons be without injuries in 2009-10? In other words, were the Pistons really “decimated” by injury?

To answer this question we start with Table One, where we see what the Pistons did in 2009-10 (according to Wins Produced) and what we would have seen had each player maintained the per-minute performance we saw in 2008-09 (the performance of rookies – in red – are the same from both perspectives). 

Popular Video

A police officer saw a young black couple drive by and pulled them over. What he did next left them stunned:

Popular Video

A police officer saw a young black couple drive by and pulled them over. What he did next left them stunned:

The Pistons won 27 games in 2009-10, and that is essentially what we see from the summation of Wins Produced. Before we get to the impact of injuries, it is important to emphasize the impact of Ben Wallace and Jonas Jerebko. Of the team’s 27 wins, about 16 can be traced to the play of these two players. Jerebko was a second round pick, so it seems unlikely that the Pistons were counting on him to produce six wins. What about Big Ben?

Here is what was said about the Wallace acquisition last fall:

Dumars valued Wallace for his presence, his leadership and his intensity in the locker room. Any on-court production would be a bonus from a 35-year-old center who had missed 36 games during the past two seasons with assorted injuries.

“I just wanted to him to be an example for the younger guys,” Dumars said. “I thought he could still play, but I had no idea how much. I did know that, whatever he had left, he was going to give it all being back in Detroit. If there was one team that was going to get his maximum, it was Detroit.”

Ben Wallace went on to add in the same story:

“I came into this season with no expectations,” said Wallace, who was named NBA Defensive Player of the Year four times in Detroit. “I didn’t expect to play one minute. I was just coming in here to do whatever I could to help this team.”

The stats and these quotes lead us the conclude that the Pistons – who only won 27 games last year – would have been far worse had the team not received significant production from two players who were not expected to make much of a contribution at all.

Of course that observation doesn’t entirely get at the issue at hand. What about the impact of injuries?  The second half  of the above table indicates that the Pistons would have won about 35 games had per-minute performance remained constant from 2008-09 to 2009-10. This would not have been good enough to make the playoffs (and it is still the case that 12.5 wins are linked to Wallace and Jerebko).

Looking at per-minute performance, though, is not the entire injury story.  Injuries also limited the number of minutes the players were able to play. To address this issue, we looked at how minutes would be allocated had Wallace, Tayshaun Prince, Charlie Villanueva, Ben Gordon, and Richard Hamilton played 82 games.  The results of this analysis are reported below.

The numbers for 2009-10 consider the per-minute performance we saw last year with our “injury-free” allocation of minutes.  As one can see, that improves the Pistons to about 31 wins.  If we take performance from 2008-09, though, the victory total rises to 41. And that might have been enough to land the Pistons in the playoffs.

So were the Pistons “decimated” by injury? Like much in economics, the answer depends.  Specifically it depends on what we mean by “decimated.”  More specifically, what did people think would happen if this team was healthy?  In 2008-09 the Pistons won 39 games. If everyone was healthy last season, it is possible the Pistons could have replicated the 2008-09 season. Of course, after giving all that money to Gordon and Villanueva, fans of the Pistons probably expected a better season than just a repeat of 2008-09.  In fact, Detroit fans might have expected something closer to what we saw in 2007-08 when the Pistons won 59 games. It does appear that no matter how you slice the data, the Pistons – as constructed in 2009-10 – were not going to be serious contenders for a title.  And that suggests that the Pistons problems last year were not simply the health of the players.

This is also bad news going forward. Of the twelve players listed on Detroit’s depth chart at ESPN.com, eleven were with the team in 2009-10. The lone exception is Greg Monroe, the team’s reward for losing so much last year. Unless Monroe is truly exceptional (and he wasn’t last year at Georgetown), the Pistons are probably not going to improve much in the standings with essentially the same line-up.

And this is the same conclusion reached by Chris Iott: … I would argue that the ceiling — the absolute best the Pistons could hope for this season with their current roster — is a .500 record and an eighth seed in the playoffs. More realistically, it would appear they are headed for another sub-.500 season — probably around 36 wins — and another trip to the lottery.

Yes, even if healthy the Pistons – as currently constructed – are not nearly as good as the team we saw back in 2007-08.  And until the construction of this team changes, the outcome for the Pistons is probably not going to change.

- Dave Berri and Ben Gulker