A History Lesson from Detroit that Seems to be Repeating

Posted on January 12, 2010 by


On Monday evening the Detroit Pistons were blown out by the Chicago Bulls.  This was Detroit’s 13th consecutive loss, the team’s longest losing streak since the 1993-94 season (thankfully the streak ended on Tuesday night). When I saw the comparison with the streak from more than 15 years ago my thoughts turned back to that 1993-94 campaign.  So today’s post is going to about this particular Pistons team.  Specifically I am going to compare my thoughts at the time (at least, what I remember of my thoughts) to what my analysis today says about the 1993-94 Pistons (with a brief comparison to today’s team).

Thoughts from 1993

Back in 1993 I was a long-haired (literally) graduate student, focused on taking classes and learning how to teach (I started teaching my own classes at Colorado State in the fall of 1992).  My research on basketball had not begun (and wouldn’t begin in earnest until 1995).  In fact, in 1993 much of the research on basketball we discuss today had not begun (or was only in its infancy).  Despite the scarcity of empirical research, though, I was blessed – like so many young basketball fans (I was only 24 at this time) – with many opinions.   

Before I get to these opinions, a brief history lesson.  In 1984 the Pistons made the first of nine consecutive trips to the NBA playoffs (after missing the playoffs the previous six seasons).  Within this streak Detroit won two NBA titles in 1989 and 1990.  But in 1992-93 – with Dennis Rodman missing 20 games — the Pistons won only 40 contests and missed the playoffs by just one game. 

Before the 1992-93 campaign began the Pistons sent John Salley to the Miami Heat for a first round pick in the 1993 NBA draft.  The Heat only won 36 games in 1992-93, hence the Pistons ended up with the 10th and 11th picks.  With these choices, the Pistons selected Lindsey Hunter and Allan Houston.   I can still remember Dick Vitale insisting that Houston was going to be a star (as we will see, in his first year Houston was not).  And Lindsey Hunter – from Jackson State – once scored 48 points in a game against Kansas.  So fans of the Pistons fully expected Hunter to eventually take over for Isiah Thomas and Houston to be an outstanding player (after all, Dickie V said so!!).

Eventually, though, is the key word.  For the 1993-94 season the Pistons still had both Isiah and Joe Dumars.  Both guards had played in the 1993 All-Star game and both would eventually be voted into the Hall-of-Fame.  So with two All-Stars and two lottery picks, Detroit’s backcourt was expected to be very good.

Beyond the backcourt, the team also employed other talented players (or at least, players who were supposed to be talented).   At the time Hunter and Houston were drafted, Rodman was still with Detroit.  In October, though, the Pistons sent Rodman – and his 7.0 points per game and various off-court issues – to the San Antonio Spurs for Sean Elliott and David Wood.  In 1989 the Spurs selected Elliott with the 3rd choice in the NBA draft.  And in 1992-93, Elliott averaged 17.2 points per game and appeared in the All-Star game.  I can still remember hearing about this trade and being quite excited.  Imagine, a head case and non-scorer like Rodman being traded away for an NBA All-Star.  It seemed impossible for that scenario to work out any better.   

With this deal the Pistons now had three All-Stars in the starting line-up (Thomas, Dumars, and Elliott).  But this was not all the team had on the roster.  Terry Mills – from the University of Michigan – was signed as a free agent in 1992.  In 1992-93, Mills averaged 14.8 points per game and dropped 41 points on the Celtics in one game in March.  In addition, the Pistons began the season with Bill Laimbeer, Olden Polynice, and Greg “Cadillac” Anderson joining Mills in the frontcourt. 

So the Pistons started the 1993-94 with three All-Stars, two lottery picks, a scoring forward (Terry Mills), and three productive big men.  With such a roster, I fully expected the Pistons to return to the playoffs in 1994.  And such was the argument I made frequently to my fellow basketball fans at Colorado State University.

Again, in 1993 I had not started my research in sports and economics. So my opinions – which I certainly considered well-informed at the time – were based strictly on my observations of the NBA.  Such observations were based on more than a decade of watching and thinking about basketball.  In sum, at the age of 24, I very much considered myself a very knowledgeable NBA fan.  In fact, like many young basketball fans, I considered myself an expert.

The Wins Produced Story

Despite my expertise and opinions, though, the Pistons in 1993-94 were awful.  The team suffered losing streaks of 8, 14, 6, 7, and 13 games.  And when the season ended, the Pistons had only won 20 games. 

So where did the Pistons go wrong?  How could a team with three All-Stars lose more than 60 games? 

Various explanations were offered at the time. Apparently Isiah and Sean Elliott didn’t get along; consequently, Elliott’s scoring average dropped.  Laimbeer also retired before the end of November and Olden Polynice was traded in February to the Sacramento Kings for Pete Chilcutt.  Such moves clearly didn’t help. 

But chemistry and player transactions don’t tell the entire story.  Let’s imagine that we go back in time and re-visit the construction of the 1993-94 Pistons.  If we consider what these players did in 1992-93 – via Wins Produced – would a Pistons fan still be very optimistic in November of 1993?

As Table One indicates, the data suggests that I wasn’t quite the expert I believed myself to be at 24 years of age.  At least, I wasn’t much of an expert then if we believe what my research indicates today.

Table One: The Detroit Pistons in 1993-94

If we consider what the players the Pistons employed did in 1993-94 prior to that season, we would have only expected this team to win about 13 games.  Of these 13 wins, only about 11 could be traced to the expected play of Isiah, Dumars, and Elliott.  In other words, the three All-Stars were simply not that productive in 1992-93.  And in 1993-94, this trio did even less (only 3.4 Wins Produced).  This analysis does indicate that Elliott didn’t play well in Detroit.  But it also tells us that even if each All-Star maintained his production from 1992-93 the Pistons still wouldn’t have been very good.

When we look at the 1992-93 production numbers we see that not only were the All-Stars not very productive, most of the roster didn’t offer much.  An average player posts a WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes] of 0.100.  Looking at the 1992-93 numbers we see only four players – Polynice, Anderson, Elliott, and Laimbeer – surpassed the mark of an average player. And none of these players reached the 0.150 mark in 1992-93. 

In 1993-94, the population of above average players was smaller.  Still, Polynice, Anderson, and Mills improved and each surpassed the 0.100 mark.  And these three players combined to produce 20.4 wins.  Unfortunately the rest of the roster combined to produce 0.0 wins. 

Part of the problem was the two lottery picks.  Both Allan Houston and Lindsey Hunter were in the negative range. And Mark Macon and Marcus Liberty – two young players acquired in November – were also in the negative range. Had these players not been in the negative range – and the All-Stars maintained what we saw in the 1992-93 – this team could have won about 37 games.  They still would have missed the playoffs (so I still would have been wrong), but the Pistons wouldn’t have been as bad as they were.

Lessons Learned

One of the lessons learned from this story is that at the age of 40 we tend not to look kindly upon our thoughts at 24.  At least, that story is true for me (by the way, this is probably the same story at 60 when we look back at what we say at 40).

Beyond the personal reflection (which is probably only interesting to me), though, is a basketball story (the important story for this forum).  The Pistons in the early 1990s tried to re-build a title team – a title team built on defense –by acquiring scorers (i.e. Mills, Elliott, Houston, and Hunter).  But since these scorers were not very productive, these acquisitions never helped much.

In 2009, the Pistons – now led by Joe Dumars – seemed to make the same mistake.  The title team Dumars built in 2004 didn’t emphasize scorers. But in trying to maintain the contending status of his team, Dumars turned to two free agent scorers (Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva).  Because neither is very productive, and furthermore, because many of the players the Pistons employ today are not very productive; the Pistons in 2009-10 are not winning many games.

As a fan of this team I can only hope the outcome of these bad decisions today turn out as well as they did back in the early 1990s.  The disaster that was 1993-94 led to the third choice in the 1994 draft.  And with that pick the Pistons selected Grant Hill.  Led by Hill – a productive scorer — the Pistons were back in the playoffs by 1996.  And although Hill left the Pistons without winning a title, his departure brought to Detroit a young Ben Wallace (a productive non-scorer who did help the Pistons win a title).

Will this scenario play out again?  We don’t know yet.  But like fans of the Lions, followers of the Pistons are already thinking about the 2010 draft and wondering… who does Dickie V. think we should take this time?  Okay, that’s not what we are thinking.   But we are counting down the 162 days until the next draft and checking out sites like NBADraft.net and  Draft Express.

– DJ

The WoW Journal Comments Policy

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.