Really the Answer is Iverson

Posted on December 16, 2008 by


It’s currently a sad time in the Motor City (my hometown).

  • The big three automakers are clearly in trouble. And it’s not just the manufacture and sale of cars that has proven difficult. Begging for money from Congress also appears to be something out of the skill-set of the CEOs of these companies.
  • In September Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick resigned. And then in October he went to jail.
  • The Detroit Free Press and Detroit News – two papers I read when I was young – are moving away from the newsPAPER business.

In sum, whether we look at business, politics, or the local media, Detroit is in trouble.  So let’s not look at these things.  Let’s go to that one place that can always make us happy.  Let’s look at sports.

  • The Detroit Tigers were considered a favorite to go to the World Series in 2008. Instead this team finished in last place.
  • The Detroit Lions were the only undefeated team in the NFL preseason. And now they are the only winless team in the league. And they have a good chance of finishing the regular season with a spotless mark.
  • The Michigan Wolverines just finished the worst season in the 129 year history of the football team (not sure this counts as Detroit, but I grew up rooting for the Wolverines).
  • The Detroit Pistons started off 4-0, and looked like a team ready to make yet another trip to the Eastern Conference finals. Since this start, though, this team has gone 9-9. And just getting out of the first round of the playoffs might now be a challenge.

Wow, this list is not making me happy.  So much misery.  And so little explanation for how this could all happen.

Although I can’t end the misery, I think I can offer some explanation. At least, I think I can explain what has happened to the Pistons.

A Recap

First, let’s recap.  The Pistons won 59 games last year and finished the season with the league third best efficiency differential (offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency).  With essentially the same cast, the team started off 2-0.

And then the team traded Chauncey Billups to the Denver Nuggets for Allen Iverson.  At the time I argued (see Did I Mention I Was an Allen Iverson Fan?) this trade would cause the Pistons to decline in 2008-09 (and the Nuggets to get better).  And since this trade, the Pistons have clearly declined and the Nuggets have gotten better.

Still, Michael Curry, the head coach of the Pistons, argued recently that we shouldn’t blame Detroit’s problems on Iverson (see Curry: Don’t blame Iverson).  And when I read this, I felt a very strong urge to respond to what Curry said.

Before we get to my comment, let me note that if Curry meant that Iverson is not to blame for the problems in the Mayor’s office, the automobile industry, the newspaper business, the Lions, the Tigers, and the Wolverines; then he’s absolutely right. 

Really, It’s Iverson

As for the Pistons… let’s just look at the numbers:

Table One: The Detroit Pistons after 22 Games in 2008-09

Table One reports the standard views of a team.  First we have what the Pistons could expect given what their players did last year.  And then we have what these players are doing this year.  As one can see, both views are not much different.  Given what these players did last year, the Pistons should be on pace to win about 48 games.  Their performance this year, though, suggests about 41 victories. 

About half the drop-off – from 48 to 41 – can be tied to a decline in Richard Hamilton’s production.  But as I noted a few months ago (see The Misperceptions of Rip Hamilton) last year was Hamilton’s best season.  In other words, Hamilton’s decline could be interpreted as a return to form.

Regardless of what’s going on with Hamilton, the big story is what the Pistons could expect from their current roster.  Remember, Detroit won 59 games last year.  This year – given what these players did last year – the team shouldn’t be expected to get to 50 victories.

People have argued that Detroit’s decline is all about coaching or chemistry.  But do we need to search this hard for an explanation?  Let’s just review the recent history of Allen Iverson.

  • Iverson left Philadelphia and the Sixers got better.
  • Iverson was expected to transform the Denver Nuggets into a title contender. Denver, though, never got out of the first round of the Western Conference playoffs.
  • Iverson left the Nuggets and the team got better.
  • Iverson has arrived in Detroit, and the team got worse.

Wins Produced tells exactly the same story.  Replacing Chauncey Billups – a very productive point guard – with Iverson (a player who has never been far above average in production), means your team is going to lose more often.  It’s not coaching.  It’s not chemistry.  It’s simply a roster move where a player who produced many wins was replaced by someone who produces less.  In sum, the Answer is Iverson.

And I think Curry should embrace this explanation.  The alternative is to blame the coach.  Given how quickly coaches get fired in the NBA, taking the blame – especially when it’s not your fault – can’t help your job security. 

Building a Contender

Although it’s hard to know for certain, one senses that Dumars knew the acquisition of Iverson wasn’t going to help.  In fact, it seems likely that Dumars made this move because Iverson’s contract is expiring. If this is true, then Dumars knew after two games this season that another trip to the Eastern Conference Finals wasn’t going to happen.  So fans of this team shouldn’t be too disappointed if this doesn’t happen.

When the season ends, though, fans of the Pistons can expect Joe Dumars to take Iverson’s salary slot and start building another title contender. Already some building blocks are in place.  Tayshaun Prince has developed into an above average player.  In addition, Rodney Stuckey and Amir Johnson – two very young players — are both above average performers this year (although Amir isn’t playing much).  To this core, the Pistons are adding another draft pick (which might be good) and whatever Joe Dumars can find in the free agent market.

In sum, there’s some hope for Detroit.  As for the automobile industry, local politics, the newspaper business, the Lions, the Tigers, and the Wolverines…. well, there’s only so much some salary cap space can accomplish.

– 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.