Starting Amir

Posted on October 9, 2008 by


The 2008 playoffs ended for the Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals.  Again.  For the past three seasons the Pistons have advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals, only to lose in six games.

After seeing the Pistons lose to the Celtics last May, Joe Dumars appeared to promise major changes.  He was quoted as saying “everybody’s in play. There are no sacred cows here.” As noted at True Blue Pistons: “the message is clear: If Dumars has his way, the Pistons are going to look significantly different by the time they convene for training camp in October.”

Joe’s Big Changes

When the summer ended, though, significant differences were hard to find.  Here are the changes made to the roster:

  • Kwame Brown – the first player taken in the 2001 draft – was added via free agency. Brown has never lived up to his lofty draft status and is expected to be a back-up center with the Pistons
  • Walter Sharpe — as second round draft choice of the team formally known as the Seattle Supersonics – was acquired on draft night. Sharpe might become the primary back-up at the small forward position. Then again he might not.
  • Trent Plaisted – another second round draft choice by the team formally known as the Seattle Supersonics – was also acquired on draft night. Plaisted currently plays for Angelico Biella (in the Italian Serie A).
  • Deron Washington was selected by the Pistons with the 59th choice in the draft. It’s not clear where he is playing. He is listed on Detroit’s current roster but has yet to log any playing time in the pre-season.
  • The Pistons also gave two-year contracts to Alex Acker (the team’s second round draft choice from 2005) and Will Bynum (an undrafted player). Each player appeared briefly in 2005-06. Acker played 35 minutes with the Pistons while Bynum played 162 minutes. Each player might occasionally be seen off the bench for the Pistons in 2008-09.

When it comes to player acquisitions, this is about all the Pistons did.  From this list it appears Dumars has concluded that the Pistons primary problem in 2007-08 was the players sitting on the bench.  Apparently Dumars believes that a better cheering section on the bench will be enough to push the Pistons past the Celtics and Lakers in 2008-09.

In all seriousness, Dumars did more than just change Detroit’s cheering section.  Dumars fired head coach Flip Saunders (who I think is a good coach).  And the Pistons have indicated the following two changes to the team’s rotation.

  • First, Amir Johnson has been inserted into the starting line-up.
  • And secondly, there are indications that a more concerted effort will be made to give additional minutes to Rodney Stuckey.

Are these moves, though, going to be enough to push the Pistons to the top? 

Can Amir Really Make Detroit Fans Happy?

To answer this question, let’s start with the Amir Johnson story.  It was only a few days ago that the Pistons announced that Johnson will be inserted into the starting line-up.   Here is how John W. Davis of Pistonscast responded to this news: I am so freakin happy.  I am excited.  I feel stupendous.  I feel like going for a 7 miles run in Amir’s honor.  Okay, IM HAPPY. 

John was not the only one to have this reaction.  In general, fans of the Pistons see Amir starting as a reason to be optimistic about the 2008-09 season.

At first glance, it’s hard to see why the decision to start Johnson would generate such a sentiment.  Johnson was only a second round draft choice in 2005 and has played fewer than 1,o00 minutes in the first three years of his NBA career.

But as detailed last February (see Meet Amir Johnson), what we have seen in these minutes has been quite impressive.  To illustrate, here is how the Pistons returning to the team in 2008-09 (who played at least 500 minutes last season in Detroit)  rank in terms of WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes] from 2007-08.

  • 1. Chauncey Billups: 0.304 WP48
  • 2. Amir Johnson: 0.244 WP48
  • 3. Antonio McDyess: 0.172 WP48
  • 4. Tayshaun Prince: 0.143 WP48
  • 5. Rasheed Wallace: 0.142 WP48
  • 6. Jason Maxiell: 0.141 WP48
  • 7. Richard Hamilton: 0.131 WP48
  • 8. Arron Afflalo: 0.079 WP48
  • 9. Rodney Stuckey: 0.069 WP48

When we look at this list we see that the Pistons return seven players who were above average last season (average WP48 is o.100).  So this is an impressive roster.  And in terms of WP48, only Chauncey Billups was more impressive than Amir.

Amir only played 764 minutes last season.  So this list – at first glance – suggests that giving more minutes to Amir will lead to many additional wins in 2008-09.  I am not sure, though, that this first glance is really accurate.

To see the source of my doubts, let’s first consider how Detroit allocated minutes at the center and power forward positions last season:

  • The primary rotation players – Antonio McDyess, Rasheed Wallace, Jason Maxiell, and Amir Johnson – played 7,168 and produced 24.2 wins.
  • The bench players – Theo Ratliff, Nazr Mohammed, Primoz Brezec, Cheik Samb, and Walter Hermann – played 729 minutes and produced 0.9 wins.

Last season McDyess and Wallace played about 30 minutes per contest.  Even with McDyess moving to the bench, it’s hard to see how his minutes are going to decline substantially.  Therefore for Johnson to get many more minutes – assuming Brown gets the 729 minutes from the bench players (he probably gets more) — the team is going to have to transfer minutes from Maxiell.

Maxiell was above average last season, but not nearly as productive – on a per-minute basis – as Johnson.  Let’s imagine that the Pistons simply switched the minutes these two players played.  Specifically, let’s say Johnson played 1,768 minutes in 2008-09 (what Maxiell played last season) and Maxiell plays 764 minutes (again, what Johnson played last season). 

Last year Johnson produced 3.9 wins last season while Maxiell produced 5.2.  If we reverse the minutes the players play -and production per minute doesn’t change – then Johnson will produce 9.0 wins and Maxiell will offer 2.2.  In sum, the combined wins from these two players will increase from 9.1 to 11.2.  Yes, the move to Johnson might be worth about two more victories.  

Now it’s possible that the Pistons could give even more minutes to Johnson.  And that could lead to more wins.  But to take this step the Pistons would have to take minutes from McDyess or Wallace (and don’t forget Kwame Brown who is also going to see some playing time).  And I just can’t see the minutes of McDyess and Wallace falling far below 30 minutes per contest.

So let me summarize how I see the move to start Amir:

  • Although Amir is the most productive big man on the Pistons (on a per-minute basis) most of the other big man are above average players. So the gain from switching minutes is less than what we would see if Amir was given the minutes of a truly below average player.
  • In addition, I just can’t see the Pistons substantially reducing the playing time of McDyess and Wallace. Therefore the minutes Johnson will play – even as starter – will be limited.

Given these two points, the gains the Pistons will see from starting Amir will probably be quite small.

Can Stuckey Help?

Although these gains are small, at least the movement to Amir will likely take the Pistons in a positive direction.  The plan to play Stuckey more may actually hold this team back.

As we saw in the Amir story, minutes are finite.  If Stuckey is going to play more, someone else has to play less.  When we look back at the WP48 list – and see that Stuckey is the least productive returning Piston – it’s hard to conclude that giving more minutes to Stuckey will make this team better.

Before Stuckey fans get to angry about that last statement, let me note that although Stuckey was below average for an NBA player last season, he was above average for a rookie (rookies tend to post a WP48 that’s below 0.050). Furthermore, young players tend to get better. All that being said, Stuckey is going to have to get substantially better before an increase in his playing time is justified. As the above list indicates, Chauncey Billups is the most productive player on the team and the fifth most productive point guard in the league.  Although Stuckey will probably get better, it’s unlikely that he will start posting a WP48 in excess of 0.300.

Of course the Pistons could take minutes from Rip Hamilton.  Hamilton does offer more than Stuckey, but the difference is much smaller.  One should remember, though, that Hamilton didn’t seem happy that his minutes were cut by Flip Saunders.  It may make Hamilton quite unhappy if Michael Curry – the team’s new head coach -cuts Rip’s minutes even more.

Getting Better?

When the off-season began, Detroit fans were promised substantial changes.  When we look at all that has happened, though, it’s hard to see how this team has closed the gap on the teams they must defeat to win a title.   Certainly the two big moves – regarding Amir and Stuckey – are unlikely to add much to the team’s victory totals. 

All of this means that the Pistons are unlikely to win a title in 2000. Although I am a fan of Detroit (having been born there); I just can’t see this team catching the Celtics.  And I certainly can’t see this team catching the Lakers.

So the Pistons’ 2009 season – unlike the Detroit Shock’s 2008 WNBA season – will end with a loss.  And when that happens, I hope fans of the Pistons tune in to see the Shock try and defend their WNBA title.  If the Shock are successful, it will be their fourth title in seven years.  And that should help ease any pain the Detroit basketball fans feel from yet another Pistons failure.

– DJ

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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.