Could a hypothetical starting five of former Pistons make the playoffs in the East?

Darko Milicic is obviously the impetus of this post.

For those who haven’t noticed (and judging by the coverage it has received, how haven’t you noticed?), Milicic has found himself of late in Minnesota, averaging 16.5 points, 8.3 rebounds, 4.0 blocks and 3.5 assists per game over his last six games while shooting over 50 percent. He’s also leading the NBA in blocked shots at 2.9 per game overall. Darko Milicic. Darko. Milicic.

But although Milicic and his newfound production is the biggest gut-punch, he’s far from the only recent Piston benchwarmer to suddenly figure things out in another location. In fact, there are quite a few of them floating around the league now, enough to form a pretty intriguing (and cheap) starting five.

Former Pistons have been so good (or at least better than I thought they’d be), in fact, that I’ve recently been wondering: could this hypothetical starting five of former Pistons make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference?

Here’s my lineup:

Chauncey Billups

Billups is the no-brainer of the group. The perception of Billups at the time he was dealt was that he had at least plateaued as a player, if not started a decline.

Well, as his tenure in Denver has shown, stories of his decline were greatly exaggerated. He’s still one of the top PGs in the league, an effective leader/locker room presence and he even posted a career-high season in scoring last year at age 33. There are limitations to Billups’ game (he still struggles some defensively against quick point guards), but I have no doubts that he could still lead a team to the playoffs.

Arron Afflalo

There were signs that Afflalo was going to be a late first round steal when he was in Detroit. He was well known for his work ethic at UCLA and the Pistons also praised him throughout his first two seasons in the league for always working hard in practice even if he wasn’t being rewarded with consistent playing time.

Afflalo was traded to Denver in a cost cutting move and deemed expendable because the team signed Ben Gordon and extended Rip Hamilton. All Afflalo has done is turn into one of the best 3-point shooters in the league, plays solid defense and his .631 true shooting percentage this season is nearly identical to Gordon’s (.632) and it’s a higher mark than Hamilton has ever had in his career for only a fraction of the cost of either of those players.

Carlos Delfino

Delfino is the super athletic and versatile wing off the bench the Pistons really could’ve used during every season of the Flip Saunders era. And unfortunately, Delfino was right there on the bench, ready to get an opportunity, that whole time. He never stayed in the rotation in Detroit for long and was sent to Toronto in a deal for a future second rounder.

Delfino had a solid season with the Raptors, played one season in Russia, then re-emerged as a starter on a playoff team in Milwaukee last season. Delfino isn’t elite in any one facet of the game, but he can shoot, slash to the basket, defend and pass reasonably well.

Amir Johnson

For a late second round pick, Johnson has had a good career already. Most guys picked where he was selected don’t last long in the NBA, and Johnson is now on his third NBA contract. Detroit spent several seasons developing him, hoping he’d become a rotation player. In his final season in Detroit, he briefly started for the Pistons, then disappeared from the rotation, then made a few cameo appearances the rest of the season before getting traded to Milwaukee, who spun him to Toronto for (interestingly) the rights to Delfino.

In Toronto, Johnson has had the same problem that plagued him in Detroit: he fouls too much. But he’s also played consistent minutes.

Johnson can’t be counted on to be a 35-minute-per-game big man at this point, but for 20-25 minutes a game, he’ll play with energy, he’ll shoot a really high percentage, you’ll never have to run a play for him, he’ll rebound and he’ll block shots.

This season, he’s averaging 8.7 points, 5.5 points and 1.1 blocks per game in 20.1 minutes while shooting nearly 60 percent.

He doesn’t have the major upside many thought he did (Matt Watson, I’m looking at you) in Detroit, but he’s become a solid rotation big man who, if he continues this level of production, will be worth the contract many scoffed at when he re-signed in Toronto.

Darko Milicic

As stated above, Darko has been a terror over the last six games after a miserable start to the season. Personally, I don’t want to live in a world where Milicic is a good NBA player. Or one where David Kahn makes a good signing. But we have to face facts: if Milicic produces near this level throughout the life of his contract, he’s going to be one of the best values in the NBA.

And remember: for as long as he’s been around, he’s only 25-years-old, and he’s still a young 25 since most of his NBA career has been spent glued to the bench in Detroit, Orlando, Memphis or New York.

There’s really no reasonable way to predict how this lineup would compete against other starting fives in the league. But (thanks to Dan Feldman for putting running all the numbers in his spreadsheets), we can at least see, based on Win Shares, how they compare.

Here are the Win Shares for my hypothetical starting lineup:

  • Billups – 0.6
  • Afflalo – 1.4
  • Delfino -0.6
  • Johnson – 1.6
  • Milicic – 0

That lineup has produced 4.2 total Win Shares. League average for most common starting fives used by each NBA team is 5.9 Win Shares, so this hypothetical group of starters currently would be 23rd in the league in that department. Not good, although they are better than the Pistons most common starting five, which has 3.1 combined Win Shares.

Another thing to keep in mind: Billups has started the season slow, and his total will almost certainly go up. Delfino has been injured, so he could go up as well and Darko started the season so poorly offensively that even his torrid offensive pace over the last six games still leaves him with a negative total of offensive Win Shares for the season. That could change if he keeps shooting the ball well.

Of course, Milicic and Johnson could both see their production decline significantly as well and this whole post will look really dumb in a few weeks when they fall back to Earth.

I’ll definitely be watching as the season goes on though and updating if necessary. In a lot of cases, the players who got away from the Pistons are becoming more significant stories in Joe Dumars’ legacy than the players who are here.

UPDATE: As noted in the comments, Ben Gulker too this idea and applied it using the Wins Produced stat over at Pistons by the numbers. Check out his whole post, which is really interesting, particularly his idea to sub another former Piston in my hypothetical lineup for Monsieur Milicic. Here’s part of Ben’s conclusion:

These five former Pistons who will make shy of $28.5 million as a group project to win roughly the same amount of games that I (somewhat optimistically) predicted the 2010-2011 Pistons would win as a whole. For context, Rip and Ben Gordon will make somewhere around $22 million combined, depending on which numbers one uses. Wow, just … wow. And it’s not as if these players departures were beyond Joe’s control – all of these players could have been retained relatively easily (perhaps not Delfino, I suppose).

Also, commenter nuetes offers more stats below that are worth checking out if you haven’t already.

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