Sorting the Detroit Pistons by how much they each play with Ben Wallace could be the key to building their best lineup

TrueHoop’s Henry Abbott often talks about the value of advanced statistics. His opinion, and one I share, is they’re valuable. But they shouldn’t always stand alone. They should be combined with qualitative observations. Here’s my attempt at doing that.

In his recent Q&A with Keith Langlois, Joe Dumars talked about what he’s learned this season. The general manager said, with all of Detroit’s injuries, you really can’t tell what kind of team you have. But you can evaluate individual players.

I’m just not sure we’ve been doing that properly.

If you’ve watched the Pistons this season, you know Ben Wallace has been their best player. You don’t need advance statistics to tell you that, but here are a few anyway:

  • His plus-minus per 48 minutes (-1.3) leads the team.
  • He leads Detroit in win shares (3.4).
  • He leads the Pistons in offensive rating (117) and defensive rating (104), too.

By almost any measure, quantitative or qualitative, Wallace is Detroit’s best player.

He gets most of his credit for defense. He blocks a lot of shots and alters even more. He’s a very good defensive rebounder. He also collects many of steals.

Wallace provides plenty on offense, too. He leads the league in offensive rebounding percentage. He sets excellent screens. He’s a good passer for his size. His true shooting percentage is even its highest since his second season in Detroit.

On both sides of the court, Wallace knows his assignment. When Wallace is playing, Pistons coach John Kuester can focus on the other four players – just another way Wallace makes Detroit more effective.

After Wallace, ranking the Pistons gets pretty murky.

Think about your ideal Detroit lineup. Wallace is obviously in it. But who are the other four players? Besides DaJaun Summers, you could make a semi-reasonable case for anyone else on the roster.

(And before you say it, playing Chucky Atkins at point guard might be the way to make Rodney Stuckey most effective, if that’s what you’re going for.)

Still, you have an idea of which players besides Wallace are best. But I think most evaluations of the other Pistons miss a critical factor.

My theory: Someone who plays a high percentage of his minutes with Wallace is more likely to be overrated. Someone who plays a low percentage of his minutes with Wallace is more likely to be underrated.

That’s not to say this is a rule. But if someone has more opportunities to play with Detroit’s top player, especially one who does so many little things well, I think that’s a tremendous advantage. That player could easily end up looking better than he is.

Let’s look at a visual.

Chart

image

Some keys to reading this graph:

  • The farther right the player, the more minutes he’s played with Wallace.
  • The higher on the graph a player, the better his plus-minus per 48 minutes.
  • The red line represents the expected value of a a player’s plus-minus per 48 minutes based on the percentage minutes he’s played with Ben Wallace. The farther a player is above the line, the better he’s done that expected based on the percentage of his minutes he’s played with Wallace. The farther a player is below the line, the worse he’s done that expected based on the percentage of his minutes he’s played with Wallace.

Most likely to be overrated

Obviously, there are a lot of ways to assess whether a player is overrated. But let’s just stick with this measure. Here are the percentage of each player’s minutes he’s played with Wallace:

  1. Tayshaun Prince (73.7 percent)
  2. Jonas Jerebko (73.7 percent)
  3. Richard Hamilton (73.6 percent)
  4. Rodney Stuckey (71.2 percent)
  5. Ben Gordon (63.7 percent)
  6. Charlie Villanueva (60.4 percent)
  7. Chucky Atkins (56.6 percent)
  8. Jason Maxiell (48.1 percent)
  9. Will Bynum (42.5 percent)
  10. Austin Daye (36.1 percent)
  11. Chris Wilcox (29.3 percent)
  12. DaJuan Summers (23.2 percent)
  13. Kwame Brown (7.3 percent)

So, if the goal is to evaluate which players are best, the players near the bottom of that list should play more minutes with Wallace instead of the players near the top.

Let’s look at a couple specific switches the Pistons should make to their rotation:

Kwame Brown for Chris Wilcox

Brown’s plus-minus per 48 minutes is farther above his expected value than any other Piston. But getting on the court with Wallace could be difficult.

Wallace and Brown are the only two Pistons who can legitimately play center in the NBA (and judging by Brown’s minutes, Wallace is really the only one). That explains why Brown has, by far, played the fewest minutes with Wallace.

Wilcox hasn’t played a lot with Wallace, either. But it’s been more than three times as much as Brown.

And despite more playing time with Wallace, Wilcox has been less effective than Brown in terms of plus-minus per 48 minutes.

Before the season, there was talk of Wallace and Brown starting together. I think it’s time to give that duo another chance. Maybe Brown wouldn’t look as terrible as he has.

Austin Daye for Tayshaun Prince

Next to Brown, Daye has performed the second best based on how much he’s played with Wallace. Prince is third worst behind Wilcox and DaJuan Summers.

Prince and Daye both play small forward, so the switch makes a lot of sense. A bonus: Daye is younger and a key part of the Pistons future, and Prince isn’t.

Daye has played a lot in garbage time, and Prince has been injured. So, there’s a good chance Daye would flop if he took Prince’s minutes.

But I’d be willing to take the chance to find out.

A new lineup

To restate, I’d like to see Austin Daye and Kwame Brown play more minutes with Ben Wallace. Those three haven’t played together much this season, just 7:20.

I know the sample size is small, but in that limited time, they’ve been awesome. They’re plus-11 with an offensive rating of 135.7 and a defensive rating of 57.1.

By conventional wisdom, Wallace, Daye and Brown would best be paired with a backcourt of Stuckey and Hamilton – maybe Stuckey and Gordon. Neither of those combinations has played together this season.

The Pistons should take a serious look at these changes. It would help them evaluate their players better. And it might even help them win some games.

Summary

  • Ben Wallace is the Pistons’ best player.
  • Players who play most of their minutes with Wallace might look better than they really are.
  • Kwame Brown, in lieu of Chris Wilcox, should play more minutes with Wallace.
  • Austin Daye, in lieu of Tayshaun Prince, should play more minutes with Wallace.

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