Reviewing the Signing of Big Ben

Posted on December 27, 2006 by


Yesterday I posted on how we can use offensive and defensive efficiency to evaluate a team and its players. In that post I said that I would begin offering evaluations of how teams have performed thus far in 2006-07. The first two teams I would like to analyze were involved in what I think was the biggest off-season move – Ben Wallace departing the Detroit Pistons for the Chicago Bulls. How did this move impact each franchise?

Big Ben Leaving the Motor City

Last year the Detroit Pistons finished with the best record in the NBA. The strength of the team appeared to be its defense. The Pistons only allowed 90.2 points per game, a mark that ranked 3rd in the league. Offensively the team ranked 19th, scoring only 96.8 points per contest.

Of course points scored and points surrendered, as I mentioned yesterday (and as John Hollinger and Dean Oliver have also noted), are misleading. To accurately assess a team’s offensive and defensive ability we have to consider efficiency, or points per possession. When we look at defensive efficiency we see that the Pistons in 2005-06 only allowed 1.00 points per possession, which ranked 5th in the league. Offensively Detroit scored 1.07 points per possession. Only Phoenix and Dallas were more efficient on offense. From this we see that if we compare Detroit’s offense and defense, the Pistons were actually a bit stronger on the offensive side of the game.

This year the Pistons are only allowing 92.5 points per game. This mark ranks 4th in the league and indicates that the loss of Ben Wallace did not dramatically impact this team’s defense. But if we look at defensive efficiency, we see that the Pistons this year are surrendering 1.04 points per possession, which ranks 16th in the NBA. Offensively the team is scoring 1.08 points per possession, which ranks 4th in the league. Consequently, it appears the loss of Big Ben had little impact on Detroit’s offense, but clearly reduced the effectiveness of its defense.

When we consider the Pistons offensive and defensive efficiency we see a team that should win about 50 games this season. And when we look at Wins Produced – the player evaluation metric we introduce in The Wages of Wins (which is based on a regression of wins on offensive and defensive efficiency) – we can see which players will produced these 50 wins.

The top returning player is Chauncey Billups, who produced about 16.3 wins last year and is on pace to offer 16.8 victories this season. The two prominent newcomers – Nazr Mohammed and Flip Murray – are also performing as expected. In terms of Wins Produced per 48 minutes (WP48), Mohammed is above average while Murray is far below.

Rasheed Wallace and Tayshaun Prince are each playing better in 2006-07, which might be representative of the Law of Diminishing Returns. As detailed in The Wages of Wins, when you add a productive player, one can expect other players to play somewhat worse. Likewise when a productive player departs, players should play somewhat better. One might expect in the absence of Big Ben, the remaining players might play better.

I would emphasize that it is very easy to make too much of this effect. Although the productivity of teammates has a statistical impact on a player’s performance, the size of the impact is somewhat small. In fact, when we look at Antonio McDyess, we can’t see any evidence that the departure of Big Ben is helping.

As we argue in The Wages of Wins, a number of factors impact player performance. In addition to the productivity of teammates one has to consider the player’s age, injury, coaching, and stability of a team’s roster. Above all, though, the most important determinant of what a player will do this year is what the player did last year. In other words, it does not appear that any amount of coaching or interaction with teammates will take a player like Flip Murray and turn him into a tremendously productive player.

Given what we did know about player performance in the past here is what we expected heading into this season:

  • The Pistons would not be as good without Ben Wallace
  • The Pistons would be led in wins by Chauncey Billups
  • Nazr Mohammed would be above average but not a replacement for Big Ben.
  • Flip Murray would offer very little help.

If we look at what this team had done after 26 games, all of these expectations have thus far been met.

Big Ben Goes to the Windy City

How has Ben Wallace impacted the Chicago Bulls? Last year the Bulls won 41 games. In terms of offensive and defensive efficiency one would expect Chicago to win about 54 games this year. Where will these wins come from?

Let’s begin with what we would have expected before the season started:

  • Ben Wallace would improve the team and lead it in Wins Produced.
  • After posting a WP48 of 0.200 in 2005-06, one would have expected Luol Deng to be the second most productive player.
  • Chris Duhon, Kirk Hinrich, and Andres Nocioni would be above average.
  • Ben Gordon would be far below average.

Thus far all of these expectations have been met. As noted HERE, the Bulls have been led by Wallace and Deng. Duhon, Hinrich, and Nocioni have also contributed. And Gordon continues to offer very little.

The Bulls would be even better, though, if it received more from P.J. Brown. For his career Brown has posted a 0.166 WP48. This year he has been far below average. P.J. was also a bit below average last year, so it could be the case that he is just getting old.

Brown is only 18 days younger than me, and I know my game has gone south in the last few years. At least, that is what I say now when I miss shots on the court. When I was younger I had other excuses for missing shots, such as the sun was in my eyes (excuse worked for me indoors and outdoors), my shoes are too tight, shoes are too loose, not sure my mother loves me, I am sure my mother loves me, etc…

Once again I digress. Beyond Brown’s decline I also would have expected more from Tyrus Thomas. Judging by what he did at LSU I would have thought Thomas would have been one of the better rookies on a per-minute basis. This has not happened so far, although his minutes have been quite limited.

If Brown and Thomas offer this team something, it could easily establish itself as the class of the Eastern Conference. If these players do not play better, though, the Bulls should still contend with the Pistons and Cavaliers for the best mark in the East and a trip to the NBA Finals.

Taking Requests

At the end of yesterday’s post I offered to take requests. Apparently people took this statement seriously. A-ro wanted more on the Pistons, which hopefully was satisfied by this post. Jeremy has asked for a review of the Golden State Warriors. Okapi wants to hear about the Dallas Mavericks. And Damo listed 12 different teams, which is a bit much. Perhaps I should have emphasized one request per person.

I was already planning on commenting on the Pistons and Bulls today, so A-ro’s request was satisfied first. But technically Jeremy made his request first, so the next team I will comment on will be the Golden State Warriors. Then I will look at the Mavs. And of Damo can narrow his requests to one team, I will take that team after the Mavs.

Of course, I still need to post the Week 16 Quarterback rankings. Hmmm…. is it just me or are these posts getting longer and more numerous? Perhaps my co-authors could finish their Christmas vacations and offer a bit help (hint, hint).

– DJ