Are we just talking about practice?

Posted on November 27, 2008 by

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Before Allen Iverson came to town the Detroit Pistons were undefeated.  In the ten games with “The Answer” the Pistons have been 5-5.  The story told by the Pistons to explain this outcome is that the team simply hasn’t found the right “chemistry”.  Here is how Iverson described the situation.

“(Iverson) talked Saturday about the importance of finding chemistry with a new team through practice.

“I’ve been through it before,” Iverson said. “I think the toughest part of it has been our schedule. We’ve been on the road a lot. That was tough. For me, it’s just getting a chance to settle in.

“The most important thing is getting more practice time.”

In an effort to get more practice time, Michael Curry – Detroit’s head coach – called for an additional practice session on Thanksgiving. Although I am sure the team was not happy with this decision, with but one exception, everyone made it in today.  The lone exception was none other than Mr. Iverson.

Curry has said that Iverson will pay a “hefty” fine for missing practice.  But I am not sure this is necessary.  In fact, I think I agree with Iverson’s actions (not his words).  Practice is probably not going to make much difference.

Iverson vs. Billups

To see my point, consider what Iverson has done this season, as well as across his career.  For comparison purposes, let’s also consider the numbers Chauncey Billups – the primary player the Pistons gave up to acquire Iverson – has posted. 

  • Iverson Career (prior to this season): 0.090 WP48
  • Iverson with the Nuggets in 2008-09: 0.083 WP48
  • Iverson with the Pistons in 2008-09: 0.086 WP48
  • Billups Career (prior to this season): 0.181 WP48
  • Billups with the Pistons in 2008-09: 0.254 WP48
  • Billups with the Nuggets in 2008-09: 0.225 WP48

When we look at Wins Produced per 48 minutes [WP48] for these players, we see that Billups has done more than Iverson.  And this is the picture we see if we look at the numbers across each player’s career, as well as what each player has done this year.

Given the disparity in what these players offer, it’s not surprising the Pistons have struggled somewhat with Iverson (although I think they are better than a 0.500 team).  And it’s not surprising the Nuggets have improved with Billups.

Changing the Story in Denver

Right now, though, the Pistons are in denial (at least publicly).  As for the Nuggets, the denial has apparently ended. 

The following article from the Denver Post — Point guard praise: Billups over A.I. – indicates that George Karl is no longer one of Iverson’s biggest fans:

Unquestionably, the Allen Iverson experiment produced some scintillating moments for the Nuggets and their fans. But the more coach George Karl watches Chauncey Billups run his offense – and watches Iverson lead the Pistons – it has become clearer that Iverson, well, wasn’t the answer.

“There are less bad plays, more solid plays,” Karl said. “I think the wasteful, cheap possessions that we used to have 10 to 15 a game, they don’t exist very much anymore.”

What always irked Karl was Iverson’s inability to run the offense like a general. Arguably, Iverson shot too much, and like Karl said, Denver could outscore about half the teams in the NBA. But when it came to beating the elite teams, the Nuggets had too many questions with “The Answer” – about his shot selection, his dedication to defense and his ability/inability to trust his teammates.

“We have contested-shot charts, bad-shot charts and cheap defensive possessions,” Karl said. “I would say that when A.I. was here, we had most games in the teens of contested, tough shots, sometimes in the 20s. And I don’t think we’ve had a double-digit one since (Billups has) been here.

“I don’t think there’s any question coaching a team for many minutes, without a passing and point guard mentality, is frustrating for a coach. Sometimes I saw something, but I couldn’t get it done on the court because I didn’t have a playmaker out there.”

But with Detroit, Karl thinks Iverson can thrive, because he is surrounded by more veteran playmakers and will trust his teammates, as opposed to forcing a shot he thought he had a better chance of making.

“A.I., at times, had trouble trusting the guy he’s throwing it to,” Karl said.

It’s important to note that Iverson had practice problems in Philadelphia with three different head coaches (Larry Brown, Chris Ford, and Maurice Cheeks).  And he now has a problem with Curry.  But he never had a problem with Karl (at least none that we have heard about).  Despite consistently practicing with the Nuggets, though, Iverson only posted a 0.134 WP48 last season.  This is above average, but less than what Billups offered in even his worst season in Detroit.

Now it’s certainly possible that practice makes perfect.  But it seems unlikely, at this point in Iverson’s career, practice is going to transform “the Answer” into a great player.  So maybe the Pistons shouldn’t be too upset when Iverson skips practice.  Maybe he’s just telling Curry — despite what Iverson says publicly — that practice really isn’t going to help.  And after “the Answer” departs Detroit, I suspect Curry will follow Karl’s lead and tell us that he agrees.

– DJ

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Our research on the NBA was summarized HERE.

The Technical Notes at wagesofwins.com 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.