Myth: Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva were horrendous signings by the Detroit Pistons

Let’s flash back to June 30, 2009. It was a simpler time. Sarah Palin was still Alaska’s governor. “JK Wedding Entrance Dance” hadn’t been uploaded to YouTube. Nobody had punched Snookie in a bar (at least not while televised).

And the Pistons hadn’t signed Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva.

Those two have quickly become the poster children of the Pistons’ downfall. On the surface, it makes sense. They’re guaranteed a combined $95.7 million, and for that money, the early returns have been pretty poor.

But those are only the early returns.

Look, I’m not going to say those signings were great. They weren’t. But they certainly weren’t the brain-dead moves so many people make them out to be.

Those signings are viewed too negatively for three reasons:

  • People use the benefit of hindsight when assessing the initial idea of signing the pair.
  • People misunderstand the salary-cap realities of Detroit’s situation.
  • People assume Gordon and Villanueva won’t improve.

Class of the class

When the Pistons traded Chauncey Billups for Allen Iverson early in the 2008-09 season, creating the cap space used to sign Gordon and Villanueva, the free agent class looked much different. Around that time, ESPN’s Chad Ford listed the top possible 2009 free agents. The list was divided by type of free agent, and for one reason or another, several key players didn’t have their rankings hold up:

Carlos Boozer (No. 2 among early termination or player option candidates)

Despite Ford saying “Boozer is probably the biggest threat to leave his team in the summer. The Pistons also could be a serious option for Boozer if Joe Dumars decides to use his money,” Boozer never opted out.

Mehmet Okur (No. 4 among early termination or player option candidates)

Ford said Okur was unlikely to opt out, but with a solid season, I think there was a reasonable chance he would. Okur didn’t have one, and he didn’t opt out.

Eddy Curry (No. 7 among early termination or player option candidates)

Curry went from scoring 13.2 points per game on 54.6-percent shooting to playing three games.

Shawn Marion (No. 1 among unrestricted free agents)

This is the season Marion’s decline began. His number fell across the board.

So, that’s four players who the Pistons could have had in mind when they traded Billups, but none of those four were possibilities when summer hit. And when you consider not many players on Ford’s list had breakout seasons, the free agent class was pretty disappointing.

In fact, Gordon and Villanueva were among the cream of the crop.

Two days before free agency began, Dave D’Alessandro of The Star-Ledger ranked the 2009 free agents by position. Gordon was the No. 2 shooting guard behind Kobe Bryant, who wasn’t leaving the Lakers. Villanueva was the top No. 2 power forward behind Carlos Boozer, who didn’t opt out.

For comparison’s sake, Andre Miller and Raymond Felton were the top two point guards. Allen Iverson, even after his disastrous season in Detroit, was the No. 3 shooting guard. Hedo Turkoglu and Shawn Marion were the top small forwards. Besides restricted free agents and Detroit’s own Rasheed Wallace and Antonio McDyess, Brandon Bass was the top power forward. Anderson Varejao (before his transformation from flopper to stingy defender) was the top center.

As stated above, this ended up a pretty weak free agent class.

Just before free agency, Yahoo! Sport’s Johnny Ludden ranked the free agents. Gordon was No. 2, and Villanueva was No. 13.

Sports Illustrated’s Steve Aschburner had a similar view, ranking Gordon second and Villanueva 12th.

Ford wrote the Pistons had the league’s fourth-best offseason, saying of Joe Dumars:

He signed Ben Gordon, arguably the best free agent on the market, and quickly followed that up by signing Villanueva, probably the best free-agent power forward he could get with the money he had left. The combination of Gordon and Villanueva is an upgrade over Iverson and Rasheed Wallace.

That praise made sense at the time.

Gordon led the Bulls in win shares the previous two seasons. Stealing the best player of a division rival appeared to be addition by addition and subtraction by subtraction for an opponent.

Villanueva was also coming off what appeared to be a breakout season:

  • He scored more points per 36 minutes (21.7) than Chris Bosh, Zach Randolph and Amar’e Stoudemire.
  • He grabbed more rebounds per 36 minutes (8.9) than Udonis Haslem, Marc Gasol and Nene.
  • He posted a higher defensive rating (106) than Luc Mbah a Moute, Jason Kidd and Bruce Bowen.

Besides, who would you rather have had the Pistons sign? Hedo Turkoglu (five years, $52.8 million) or Shawn Marion (five years, $39,879,660)?

A common answer is David Lee, but he was a restricted free agent (not to mention, overrated, because his defense is poor and his numbers are inflated by Mike D’Antoni’s fast-paced system). As Alessandro showed, not only was this free agent class lackluster at the top, it thinned quickly. The Pistons couldn’t afford to wait 10 days for the Knicks to match an offer to Lee.

That leads the next problem with criticizing the signings.

Cap situation

The Pistons couldn’t have simply waited for the Class of 2010 – or at least it didn’t seem that way at the time.

If the Pistons hadn’t signed Gordon and Villanueva (or Chris Wilcox), they would have had the following players under contract this summer:

If the Pistons went this route, they probably wouldn’t have picked up DaJuan Summers’ option, so he wasn’t included. Adding five roster charges for having fewer than 12 players ($1,894,416), the Pistons would have had $39,147,861 committed in salary.

That would have meant $18,896,139 to sign free agents, enough for a max contract for anyone under 10 years experience. But it’s not so simple.

Shortly after the Pistons signed Gordon and Villanueva, the NBA sent a memo to its teams saying the salary cap was estimated to between $50.4 million and $53.6 million. Unless the cap was set at the high end of that range, Detroit wouldn’t have been able to match the contract, say, Carlos Boozer received.

In the end, the salary cap was actually $4.5 million higher than the July estimated maximum. But it’s probably not fair to criticize the Pistons for not seeing that coming.

Room for improvement

I’ve covered this before, so I’ll be brief. 

Gordon missed 20 games last season, and when he returned he played hesitantly. Villanueva only missed four games, but he played most of the season with plantar fasciitis and back problems.

It wasn’t a fair season to judge those two, but so many have already done that.

Gordon is 27, and Villanueva is 26. They can still improve.

But that’s not even necessary for the signings to be looked at in a different light. What if Gordon could shoot 3-pointers and Villanueva could rebound? Well, before last season, both did those things well.

Let them get healthy, then judge.

Also, don’t just use hindsight to bash the signings.

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