Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Misunderstood Success of the Detroit Pistons

For many basketball purists, the dominant Detroit Pistons teams from 2001-2006 served as a metaphorical hat tip to the halcyon days or yore, when it was allegedly teams, not superstars, who won dominated the league by sharing the load, prioritizing “we over me” and generally playing the “right way.” When the 2004 Pistons bested the heavily favored and star-studded Lakers, it served as a coronation for the grouchy pundits who had long lamented the (alleged) new shift of emphasizing individual superstars over teams. For a generation of hoops fan, these Pistons were living proof that you didn’t need a superstar to win it all, let alone a “Big 3,” so long as you had a strong “team.” 

All of this philosophical pontificating is well and good and serves as excellent fodder for Thanksgiving debates with your uncles. Unfortunately, for those old-school hermits who are adamant that you can (and should?) win without a superstar and that good teams beat great individuals, the 2000-2006 Pistons teams happen to provide excellent support…for their opposition.

You see, dear reader, the Pistons featured one of the best players in the league. In order to demonstrate this point, I built off of the excellent research produced by Mr. Arturo Galletti. A few years back, Arturo crunched the numbers and developed a chart delineating the average distribution of wins among a given team. I opted to compare this average distribution of wins to that of the Detroit Pistons to determine whether the Pistons really were successful because of their depth. If the Pistons really were a starless team who won because they featured 5 (or more) good players, one would assume their breakdown of wins to be somewhat equitable among the starters (~16% each) or at least for the contributions to not skew heavily towards one player. The data, on the other hand, suggests something completely different:

As you can see, the Pistons relied heavily one afroed man, who contributed an absurd 36% percent of their wins: Mr. Ben Wallace.

So what have we learned from this exercise? Not only that the Pistons were actually more top heavy than than those frequently cited 2004 Lakers, who produced 62% of their 51.55 wins from their top three slots (Shaq, Kobe, Payton), but that the Pistons did indeed feature a superstar; his name was Ben Wallace and he had excellent hair and a proclivity for airballing free throws. Don’t believe me that Ben Wallace was not only the Pistons best player, but also among the handful of top players in the league during that time? Check out where Wallace ranked in the NBA in terms of Wins Produced each year from 2001-2006: 1, 1, 1, 2, 6 and 2.

In reviewing the success of the Pistons, it’s important to remember them as an excellent team who owes much of their success to team defense, a facet of basketball that is more attributable to the efforts of the entire team than any individual (1). However, the prevailing narrative of the Pistons as the quintessential example of how “teams beat stars” is downright inaccurate. The story of the Pistons isn’t one of ultimate teamwork or the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. Rather, it’s about a team dominating its opposition by relying on great team defense as well as the otherworldly production of Ben Wallace and the occasional brilliance/consistent contribution of Chauncey Billups and Tayshaun Prince.


(1) For the record, Ben Wallace was their best individual defensive player, too...'

Thanks to Xquach for pointing out that while Ben Wallace was a superstar and the Pistons were more top-heavy than average, they were not an exceptionally top-heavy roster.

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