Are the Pistons this Good?

Posted on December 11, 2007 by


When I write about sports I typically like to pretend that I’m an objective academic.  In essence, I look at the data and tell the story I see. 

Of course, sometimes I have trouble believing what I see.  Consider the team I follow, the Detroit Pistons.  As I noted last month, I was born in the Motor City and have spent my life following the Pistons, Lions, and Tigers.  When my teams win I am happy. 

A Lions Rant

And when my team loses because Paris Lenon doesn’t know a linebacker is supposed to fall on a fumble; then I’m unhappy. For those who missed the Lions game on Sunday, Detroit would have thwarted the Cowboys comeback if Lenon would have simply fallen on a fumble with about two minutes to play.  That’s all he had to do.  Instead he tried to pick it up and run. Where he was running to, I’m not sure.  When he tried to run, though, he booted it back to the Cowboys.  Soon after, Romo is a hero and the Lions season is shot to hell. 

Okay, enough ranting on the Lions.  What was I talking about?  Oh yes, the Pistons. 

Back to the Pistons

Last year the Pistons won 53 games, which is pretty good.  Not as good as the 64 this team won in 2005-06, or the 54 the team won en route to the NBA Finals in 2004 and 2005, but still much better than what the Pistons did in the late 1970s (my earliest memory of this team) or for a few years in the 1990s.

In the off-season the Pistons made few significant moves.  At shooting guard the Pistons gave Carlos Delfino – an above average shooting guard – to the Toronto Raptors (where he continues to be an above average shooting guard).  Detroit then signed Jarvis Hayes, who has produced -0.1 wins across his entire career.  Going from Delfino to Hayes didn’t seem like a step forward.

In addition to the Hayes for Delfino swap, the Pistons also failed to re-sign Chris Webber.  Webber was only average last year, but he looked to be a better player than his proposed replacement, Jason Maxiell. Maxiell posted a -0.002 WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes] last year, which is well below average.

Given these two moves, I fully expected the Pistons to decline somewhat in 2007-08.  But after 20 games this year, the Pistons are on pace to improve on last year’s record. Okay, the won-loss record doesn’t say there has been a big improvement. A 14-6 mark only put the team on pace to win 57 games, or a bit better than what they were last year.

But the team’s efficiency differential (offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency) is 9.1.  This mark is consistent with a team that plans on winning more than 60 games.  In sum, the Pistons – as John Hollinger’s rankings indicate – look like a title contender.

Turning to Wins Produced, we can see which players improved on this team.

Table One: Projecting the Pistons in 2007-08

Table One reports two projections.  The first indicates how many wins the Pistons could expect if these players (except the rookies) played as well as they did last year in the minutes they are playing this year.  This projection says this team should be on pace to win about 46 games.  In sum, right where I thought they would be before the season started.

But then there is the second projection.  This tells us how many wins this team could expect if the players continue to play as they did across the first 20 games.  This projection says the team is on pace to win 63 games this season. 

Turning to the individual players, we can identify three players who account for nearly 15 of the 17 additional wins we see in the second projection.  These players are Jason Maxiell, Jarvis Hayes, and Rasheed Wallace. 

Maxiell has posted the biggest improvement, and given that he had only played 1,100 minutes in his career entering the season, it’s not too surprising to see such a jump.  Young players can make big leaps early in their careers.

We cannot say the same about Hayes and Wallace.  These two players have been around awhile.  To see these players take a step forward is somewhat shocking.

An Explanation?

In fact, it leads me to search for an explanation.  Throughout the first few weeks of the season I have been looking at various teams around the league.  Each time I look at a team I say “it’s early.”  This means, the sample we have is too small and we shouldn’t be surprised if things change.

What does “it’s early” mean for the Pistons?  John Hollinger reports Strength of Schedule for each team in the Association. When we look at a team over the course of an 82 game schedule, SOS (average winning percentage for a team’s opponents) should even out.  But early on, SOS isn’t going to be even.  So far SOS for the Pistons is 0.447.  Only the Denver Nuggets have played an easier schedule.

Looking at Detroit’s schedule we see that the Pistons have only played five teams that currently have won more than they lost.  So far they have not played Boston, Toronto, San Antonio, and Phoenix.   One suspects that when the schedule gets tougher the efficiency differential of the Pistons will fall and the Wins Produced of the team’s players will decline.

Or maybe not.  Maybe Maxiell is really this good.  Maybe Wallace and Hayes have suddenly improved.  And maybe Paris Lenon, with a bit more practice, could learn how to fall on a fumble.

– DJ

Our research on the NBA was summarized HERE.

The Technical Notes at provides substantially more information on the published research behind Wins Produced and Win Score

Wins Produced, Win Score, and PAWSmin are also discussed in the following posts:

Simple Models of Player Performance

Wins Produced vs. Win Score

What Wins Produced Says and What It Does Not Say

Introducing PAWSmin — and a Defense of Box Score Statistics

Finally, A Guide to Evaluating Models contains useful hints on how to interpret and evaluate statistical models.