A Simple Question with a Simple Answer

Posted on December 16, 2010 by


Ben Gulker – who has offered posts in this forum in the past – now has his own blog.  And today at Pistons by the Numbers, Ben offered the Pistons some simple answers to their questions.  Below is Ben’s post in its entirety.

Over at Pistons.com, another Q&A with Keith Langlois and Joe Dumars has been released. The first two question drew my attention immediately. Keith asks,

KEITH LANGLOIS: Let’s start with a question I asked some of the players after the win over Atlanta. Was that the type of performance you envisioned when you put the roster together?

JOE DUMARS: Yes. When you put the roster together, you envision that particular team playing a certain style and a certain way. That changes based on your roster. With this particular roster, the idea is to have depth; the idea is to be able to go to your bench and have little to no dropoff. When you see a game like the Atlanta game, you sit there and you say that’s how this team is supposed to play. That’s the game plan right there – to be able to go nine or 10 deep and to be able to sustain for 48 minutes.

Okay, that’s fine as far as it goes. When Dumars was assembling this team, he envisioned a team that would be able to compete with and win against Playoff teams. Got it. Yet, this team struggles to do so, and by my count, the win against Atlanta is the first win against a quality opponent this season.

KL: The followup to that is a simple question and I suspect not a simple answer. Why in your mind has that type of performance been elusive?

JD: Tough answer. The Atlanta game is how it’s supposed to work. When we have these lulls and these droughts, when we have games where we don’t close out the fourth quarter like we’ve done so many times this year, you sit there and you look for answers. I can’t give you a simple answer why that is, but the Atlanta game is – if you just look at that – that is the game plan of how we’re supposed to play.

So our inability to compete isn’t lost on Langlois or Dumars, but the reasons why appear to be.

Winning in the NBA

I started this blog in order to offer a very specific type of statistical analysis, and that analysis might illumine these reasons. That analysis also suggests a very simple answer. The reason that victories similar to the one over Atlanta remain elusive is that the collection of players Dumars has assembled simply isn’t effective at doing the things it takes to win in the NBA.

I’ve provided several tables (like this one) detailing the individual win contributions of each player. (If you’re interested in a more recent table, you can check out Dr. Berri’s recent analysis here)

For this post, however, instead of creating another such table, I thought we could look at some very simple team stats and compare those team stats to the rest of the league. Where do the Pistons as a team rank relative to other NBA teams? (All statistics courtesy of http://www.basketball-reference.com)

Before we get to the stats, let me state in my own words my understanding of what NBA teams need to do in order to win basketball games in very basic terms:

  • Make efficient use of their own possessions, i.e., score the ball efficiently and maintain possession of the ball (not give possessions away via turnover, in other words);
  • Secure possession of the ball effectively (which also denies the opponent possession of the ball), because you can’t win in basketball without having the ball, i.e., grab plenty of rebounds and the get the occasional steal;
  • Make it difficult for the opponent to make efficient use of their possessions, i.e., play good defense.

Regardless of one’s feelings on how successfully Wins Produced allocates win production to individual players, the three points above appear to be generally well accepted. So with that in hand let’s explore how the Pistons are performing as a group relative to these three things.

Efficiently Using Possessions?

When it comes to making use of our own possessions, we can examine three things easily. First is how efficiently we are scoring the ball. Looking at effective field goal percentage (explained here), the Pistons are shooting 48.2%, good for 22nd in the league (league average 49.7%).

Second is turnovers. The Pistons are better at taking care of the basketball than they are scoring it. Given that the pistons play at a relatively slow pace, it will be more useful to consider turnover percentage instead of totals, where the Pistons 13.1% turnover rate is good for 8th best in the league.

Finally is free throw attempts, but thus far the Pistons aren’t exceptional at getting the to free throw line — one of the most effective ways to score in the game.

So in sum, while we are good about retaining possession of the ball when we have it, we’re not very good about putting the ball in the hoop.

Securing Possession of the Ball?

When it comes to securing possession of the ball, we can examine rebounds and steals. When it comes to rebounding totals, the Pistons are 22nd in the league — not very encouraging. However, rebounding totals are also affected by the fact that the Pistons are currently playing at the 2nd slowest pace in the league — so again, we can compare rates over totals for a more complete picture.

Relative to offensive rebounding, the Pistons are respectable, posting numbers only slightly below the league average (25.9% relative to 26.3%). Given that we miss our fair share of shots, it’s nice to have players who hit the offensive glass. Relative to defensive rebounding, however, the Pistons are struggling mightily, posting numbers that rank them 22nd in league and well below the league average.

How about steals? In terms of totals, the Pistons rank 22nd in the league. Cellar dwellers, as it were.

So in sum, the Pistons are not very good at securing possession of the ball. The Pistons are respectable on the offensive glass, very poor on the defensive glass, and not very good at forcing turnovers.

Making Things Difficult for Opponents?

When it comes to making it difficult for opponents to use possessions efficiently, we already know that our defense doesn’t force many turnovers, and we can add that we rank 24th in the league in terms of blocked shots. Further, we know that the Pistons allow opponents to shoot 47.7% from the field and score 100 points per game (relative to our 44.5% and 94.7ppg). Moreover, our poor defensive rebounding means that we surrender the 11th most offensive rebounds to our opponents, i.e., we give the opposition several free possessions each game (in spite of not turning the ball over at a high rate). So the story the statistics tell is that we don’t make it very difficult for our opponents to do what they need to do to win.

Is the answer simple or not?

Okay, this post claims it will offer a simple answer. Here goes…

KL: The followup to that is a simple question and I suspect not a simple answer. Why in your mind has that type of performance been elusive?

Keith, the answer is actually quite simple. This type of performance has been elusive because the current cast of Pistons players hasn’t performed well — neither this season nor historically — relative to the things NBA teams must do in order to win basketball games. We don’t score the ball well, we don’t rebound the ball well, and we don’t defend well, and as a result, we don’t win much.

Ultimately, it’s not magic, rocket science, bad chemistry, or bad coaching, Keith and Joe. It’s just not-very-effective players playing not very effectively.