While everyone is busy deciding who deserves more blame between Rip Hamilton and John Kuester, the attention caused by that rift has taken the focus off two other players who deserve their fair share as well: Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva.
Both Gordon and Villanueva seem like pleasant enough guys. Both could have legitimate beefs about how they’ve been used at times with this team, and they’ve largely kept quiet in the media about it, remained positive and seem like good teammates.
Unfortunately, both are paid like cornerstones of a franchise, and clearly, neither guy is. Ultimately the blame for signing them to long-term deals for the amount of money they’re making lies with Joe Dumars.
But I’m all about nuance. Dumars is left to deal with the financial implications of signing players who have underperformed to long-term deals, but let’s remember the basis of why both guys were signed: they were young players, both of whom pined for increased roles on their former teams, both of whom felt disrespected by how things played out with said former teams (the Bulls letting Gordon walk as a free agent, the Bucks opting not to give Villanueva a qualifying offer). Both have fallen well short in Detroit, and both deserve a share of the blame for failing to meet expectations.
Can Ben Gordon be a primary option?
This was the question when Gordon signed in 2009, and it still lingers today. Now, defenders of Gordon will quickly point to his scoring averages in Chicago as justification for the signing. It’s true, Gordon was an explosive, elite scorer in limited minutes. But let’s look at each of his seasons a bit closer:
- 2004-05 season: Gordon was third on the team in scoring as a rookie at 15.1 per game, one of four Bulls to average double figures. Contract-year Eddy Curry (don’t laugh … before he was destroying exercise balls, he had a couple pretty good offensive seasons) led the team in scoring at 16.1 per game. Kirk Hinrich averaged 15.7, and Luol Deng, also a rookie, averaged 11.7. The Bulls were a balanced team on offense that overachieved based on their strong defense and control of the tempo. Gordon had a great rookie season, but he obviously didn’t shoulder the offensive load himself.
- 2005-06 season: Gordon upped his average to 16.9 per game and led the team in scoring, but once again, four Bulls averaged in double figures. Hinrich (15.9), Deng (14.3) and Andres Nocioni (13.0) provided plenty of balance to the Chicago offense.
- 2006-07 season: Gordon averaged a career-best 21.4 points per game and once again led the Bulls in scoring, but Deng (18.8), Hinrich (16.6) and Nocioni (14.1) all improved their scoring averages as well. Once again, the Bulls’ top four was a pretty balanced group.
- 2007-08 season: The Bulls dipped significantly this season, missed the playoffs and they made their big Ben Wallace trade midseason to clear salary. Gordon led the team in scoring this season, but his average fell back to 18.6 per game. He didn’t have a significant dropoff in minutes, either. He went from 33 a game the previous season to 32 a game this season. Deng (17.0), Hinrich (11.5), Nocioni (13.2) and Joe Smith (11.2) were all in double figures that season. Once again, the Bulls had balanced offense, even if their on-court results this season weren’t good.
- 2008-09 season: Gordon led Chicago in scoring for the fourth straight season in his final year with the Bulls. Derrick Rose (16.8), Deng (14.1), Tyrus Thomas (10.8), Nocioni (10.4) and midseason acquisitions John Salmons (18.3) and Brad Miller (11.8) also provided significant offense for Chicago.
All of this is a roundabout way of saying that although Gordon scored a lot of points in Chicago, he did so with several other players capable of being potent offensive threats around him. I would argue the Bulls never ran their offense solely through Gordon. Maybe they did for portions of games, but for whatever reason, in five seasons, the Bulls never viewed Gordon as a guy they could exclusively depend on as their primary offensive option.
Gordon, as the dynamic scorer he was (and hopefully still is), obviously disagreed. He started more than 41 games in a season only two of his five seasons with the Bulls. Guys who are capable of playing offense like Gordon does obviously want to start. Starting is important to players, and I think everyone understands why. So it made sense that if Chicago didn’t view him as that player, he would look elsewhere.
Enter Detroit. Theoretically, Gordon would sign there looking for an opportunity to start (I know he said the right things when he signed, that he’d be OK coming off the bench, etc. But read between the lines … he constantly hinted in Chicago he wanted to be a starter.).
Theoretically, Detroit would sign him to a large contract believing if they increased those situations in which Chicago ran its offense through him, Gordon’s production would naturally increase with the expanded role.
And on the intangible side, Dumars has always picked out players like Gordon, who felt under-appreciated or felt they could do more if given an opportunity.
Without looking at the rest of the Pistons roster, those three points meant signing Gordon made a lot of sense. Theoretically.
We’ve found Gordon has actually been used in an even more reduced role than in Chicago (he hadn’t played below 30 minutes a game since his rookie season, but he has played 27.9 and 27.2 respectively in Detroit). The Pistons have found, without being surrounded by other players who can help create shots for him, Gordon’s 3-point shooting touch has declined significantly since leaving Chicago, as have his offensive rating and true-shooting percentage.
The reality of Gordon’s situation was a tough one. He had to come in and deal with trying to beat out an incumbent shooting guard in Hamilton who had no interest in giving up his prominent spot on the team. But that gets to that intangible “chip on his shoulder” quality that possibly made Gordon a target by Dumars in the first place: we haven’t really seen Gordon rise to the occasion in the competition. Let’s face it: Hamilton’s performance over the last two years has declined. There are a few staunch Hamilton defenders in the comments here who will probably object, but there is no data any of them can provide to suggest that Hamilton has been an asset on the court this season or last.
The problem, however, is that Gordon hasn’t been much better. Offensively, he’s slightly more of a threat than Hamilton. Defensively, he’s been worse than Hamilton. There is not a legitimate case to be made that either guy makes the team better. And ultimately, Gordon has to accept blame for that. He supposedly wanted the pressure of being a cornerstone player when he signed that contract, and he’s done nothing but regress during the last two seasons.
Can Charlie Villanueva play like a big man?
Villanueva provides some limited value to the team. He’s been a decent offensive player off the bench this season. As I said above, he’s been a positive teammate, he worked hard in the offseason, and even if his contract is expensive, I don’t think his price is that outrageous when compared to some stretch fours around the league with similar skill-sets.
The problem? The Pistons have never been a team that has had much use for highly paid specialists. When Villanueva was signed, an oft-cited stat was his per-minute production in Milwaukee. “After all, this guy averaged 16 points and 7 rebounds in only 26 minutes a game last year,” the thinking went. Just give him more minutes in Detroit, and he’s a sure double-double guy. Clearly, the Pistons wanted him to become a more traditional power forward who scores and rebounds.
Villanueva, undoubtedly, wanted more than 26 minutes per game in Milwaukee. He undoubtedly signed in Detroit for the opportunity to become that double-double guy Dumars was confident he would be.
Instead, the opposite has happened. He’s become even more of a “specialist” type player. Villanueva has become a worse rebounder in Detroit. He’d never averaged fewer than 7.9 rebounds per 36 minutes in his career prior to Detroit. In two seasons here, he’s averaged 7.1 and 6.8.
His rebound rate was never lower than 13.5 percent before Detroit. The last two years, it has been 12.0 and 11.5.
Villanueva was not signed to be an All-Star here. But even if he didn’t become a double-double guy, I don’t think Dumars anticipated he’d actually become a significantly worse rebounder than he had been in his pre-Detroit career.
He’s settled into his role as offensive firepower off the bench, and been pretty reliable in that respect this season. But that still falls short of what he was supposed to become in Detroit.
What do the Pistons do?
This isn’t so much an indictment on Gordon and Villanueva as a way to try and balance the ridiculous amount of Hamilton coverage. The situation with Hamilton is far from the most pressing issue with the team. The most pressing issue is the fact that two players signed long-term to be key pieces of the team’s future have thus far failed to live up to expectations. Hamilton wants to be traded, the team wants to trade him. That will work itself out even if he and the coach hate each other in the interim.
But what do the Pistons do with Gordon and Villanueva? Neither guy is a useless player, but both are paid enough that adding players as well as giving eventual raises to young players like Jonas Jerebko, Austin Daye and Rodney Stuckey means many of the team’s resources would be tied up in players who haven’t proven they can be key components of a winning team.
It’s not Gordon’s or Villanueva’s fault that the Pistons offered them the deals they did. I respect that both players seemingly wanted to be in Detroit and made the commitment. But the Pistons rightfully expected more out of them, and whether or not the Pistons would be better off cutting their losses and looking for trades for both of their high profile signings of 2009 is now a legitimate question the team will have to answer.