Why Wins Produced undervalues both Ben Gordon’s past and upside

Patrick wrote a very thoughtful and well-argued post yesterday criticizing Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva for struggling with the Pistons, all but saying it’s clear neither player will improve dramatically in Detroit. Ben Gulker followed that up with a very thoughtful and well-argued post agreeing with and expanding on Patrick’s points. You should read both their posts. They’re really great.

But I almost completely disagree with them when it comes to Gordon.

Not totally – I won’t argue that Gordon hasn’t struggled with the Pistons. I’m not delusional. But I think Patrick and Ben underrate what Gordon accomplished with the Bulls, and therefore, what he’s capable of accomplishing with the Pistons. Gulker writes of Gordon and Villanueva:

Both players present a significant problem for Detroit. They have certainly underperformed relative to their career averages (especially given their age – we would expect to see peak performance right about now), but even worse, their career performances in general are very underwhelming. Essentially, both have gone from bad to worse as Pistons, and there’s little to suggest they might right the ship.

That’s the Wins Produced argument in a nutshell: Gordon and Villanueva have never been good, so why should we expect them to become good now?

I’ll leave Villanueva for another day, but I think Wins Produced vastly underrates Gordon.

If you haven’t read Nate Silver’s fantastic article on Carmelo Anthony’s impact, I suggest you do. My Gordon defense is based on the same logic.

Ben Gordon’s effect on offensive rating

Let’s look at the Bulls’ offensive rating since Michael Jordan retired. The red bars represent years Gordon played for Chicago, and the black bars represent years he didn’t. The black line represents the NBA’s average offensive rating.

As you can see, the Bulls’ offensive rating jumped when Gordon joined the team and fell when he left.

The Bulls didn’t surpass the the league average until Gordon’s final season with the team, but consider how dismal their offense was before they drafted Gordon.

Also keep in mind the Bulls’ coach during Gordon’s first four seasons was Scott Skiles, who, in 11 seasons, has never coached a team that finished higher than 16th in offensive rating – and that came during a year when he took over midseason in Phoenix for Danny Ainge, whose previous teams always finished in the top half of the league in offensive rating.

Ben Gordon’s burden

On a basic level, defenses pay more attention to the player they perceive is the offense’s top scorer, and Ben Gordon definitely earned that type of recognition with the Bulls while leading them in scoring his final four seasons with the team. An immeasurable numbers of times, he attracted a defense’s attention and made it more likely his teammates made a shot.

But his positive impact on the offense expands beyond that.

On every possession, a team’s goal is to make a shot* – whether it be a field goal or a free throw. But before the team can get that far, it must take a shot. The only other option is a turnover, and that’s obviously not helpful.

*Excluding rare end-of-game scenarios

A team has 24 seconds to find a good shot. As the shot clock runs down, more difficult shots become good shots. In those late-shot-clock scenarios, teams often rely on their top scorer.

That negatively impacts the efficiency of a team’s stop scorer. When he takes a large number difficult shots, his shooting-efficiency numbers, and subsequently his Wins Produced, shrink. But isn’t that preferable to a lesser scorer taking the difficult shot?

That is the argument Silver makes about Carmelo Anthony, and estimates made by using 82Games’ data indicate it apples to Gordon, too. (Unfortunately, 82Games’ stats for shots taken by range in the shot clock are rounded to the nearest whole percentage, leaving some room for variance.)

Since the Nuggets drafted him, Anthony has played 67.2 percent of their minutes and taken 20.4 percent of their shots in the final 10 seconds of the shot clock.

In his four seasons as the Bulls leading scorer, Gordon played 66.0 percent of their minutes and took 17.4 percent of their shots in the final 10 seconds of the shot clock.

Although, Gordon led the Bulls in shots taken with 10 or fewer seconds remaining on the shot clock each of the four seasons he led them in scoring, he clearly didn’t take as many Anthony did. Still, I’d say they were in the same range.

But Gordon’s numbers account for him taking fewer late-in-shot-clock shots. Even counting his rookie year and two years with the Pistons (three of his worst four true-shooting percentage seasons), Gordon has a significantly higher career true-shooting percentage to Anthony – .551 to .542.

If Gordon had the luxury of being more selective with his shot, his true-shooting percentage, and therefore his Wins Produced, would look much better. But that would have hurt his team.

Benefit of Ben Gordon taking difficult shots

Neither Ben Gordon (2.9 assists per game for his career) nor Carmelo Anthony (3.1 assists per game for his career) passes extremely well. But as Silver showed, they can still help their teammates.

I’m going to look at a sample with the same parameters Silver used – players who played at least 2,000 minutes for the Bulls in the years Gordon led the team in scoring and have played at least 2,000 minutes for other teams. Nine players fit that criteria. (I’m counting every minute a player played for a team, not necessarily minutes shared with Gordon on the floor.)

Player Minutes with Gordon TS% with Gordon Minutes without Gordon TS% without Gordon TS% Change
Kirk Hinrich 9,513 .5346 9,221 0.5073 .0274
Luol Deng 9,468 .5330 6,077 0.5228 .0101
Andres Nocioni 6,944 .5602 4,802 0.5126 .0477
Chris Duhon 5,551 .5273 7,642 0.5206 .0068
Ben Wallace 4,324 .4317 26,438 0.4822 -.0505
Joakim Noah 3,472 .5666 2,808 0.5613 .0053
Thabo Sefolosha 3,039 .4885 4,311 0.5127 -.0242
Derrick Rose 3,000 .5163 4,544 0.5342 -.0179
Tyson Chandler 2,121 .5667 15,226 0.5966 -.0299

Of the 16 players who played at least 2,000 minutes with Anthony and 2,000 minutes without Anthony, 14 saw their true-shooting percentage improve with him. That’s a bit more impressive than the 5-of-9 Gordon helped.

But, as demonstrated above, Gordon didn’t take as many late-in-shot-clock shots, and his true-shooting percentage is much higher. Plus, the four players whose true-shooting percentage dropped with Gordon aren’t the best indicators.

  • Wallace wouldn’t get the ball in late-in-the-shot-clock situations no matter who surrounds him. I don’t think his true-shooting percentage is a reflection of Gordon or any of his teammates throughout the years.
  • Sefolosha left the Bulls and joined a team with one of the NBA’s elite scorers, someone who attracts the attention of opponents and can be counted on to take end-of-shot-clock shots with the best of them. As much as Gordon may have helped Sefolosha, Kevin Durant probably helps him more.
  • Rose, as expected, naturally grew from a raw rookie to an MVP candidate. That process would have happened regardless of Gordon.
  • In his only season with Gordon, Chandler shot a career low 53.5 percent from the line. Gordon’s presence can certainly influence how many free throws Chandler takes, but Gordon can’t impact how many of them Chandler makes. For Chandler, effective field-goal percentage is probably a better measure, and his EFG% with Gordon surpasses his EFG% without him. Also, Chandler was a pretty poor offensive player with the Bulls, and he improved after leaving by developing post moves and working on his free-throw shooting. Gordon shouldn’t be blamed for Chandler being a late bloomer offensively. Plus, after leaving the Bulls, Chandler played with some of the league’s better passers – Chris Paul, Raymond Felton and Jason Kidd – and they can take advantage of Chandler’s good hands and leaping ability by setting him up for plenty of alley-oops, which raise his true-shooting percentage.

With some context, Gordon has boosted a large clip of his teammates’ true-shooting percentages.

Why has Ben Gordon struggled with the Pistons?

Maybe Ben Gordon has always excelled at making difficult shots. Maybe after years of shooting difficult shots with the Bulls, they’ve become habit and Gordon takes them when he should work for a better shot.

If you’ve watched Gordon play, he’s adept at making difficult shots. That’s a valuable skill. But it’s not  necessarily a skill that benefits the Pistons.

The Pistons surrounded Gordon with players who want the ball in their hands so they can score – Rodney Stuckey, Richard Hamilton, Charlie Villanueva, Will Bynum, and to a lesser extent, Tayshaun Prince. They don’t need a scorer like Gordon, who doesn’t do much else positively on the court, to bail them out late in the shot clock.

But how many of those players are definitely part of the Pistons’ future? Let’s look at the three guys who clearly are – Greg Monroe, Jonas Jerebko and Austin Daye. Not only can they impact the game in plenty of other ways than creating their own shots, creating their own shot ranks low on their list of skills.*

*Daye is a good ball-handler and has shown he can create shots for himself. But at this stage in his career, he’s more prepared to be a complimentary shooter when playing against starters.

So, maybe Gordon doesn’t fit with Stuckey, Hamilton, Villanueva, Bynum and Prince. But he could still be a great fit with the players the Pistons know they want to build around. So, the Pistons should think twice about trading Gordon right now.

How to make Ben Gordon worth his large contract

If Gordon had a coach who demanded he take better shots, I think he’d get better. Larry Brown took Chauncey Billups from a gunner* to one of the NBA’s most efficient players. There’s no reason Gordon couldn’t follow the same path.

*Even though Billups improved by leaps and bounds as a point guard under Rick Carlisle, he took a ton of bad shots until Brown straightened him out. I remember times early in Brown’s tenure in Detroit when Billups forced contested 3-pointers early in the shot clock and the coach immediately called a timeout to pull Billups, talk to him, then immediately sub him back in at the next stoppage.

If Gordon became the primary scoring option, I think he’d get better. Gordon excels when he can take a lot of shots and get into rhythm. With the Pistons’ current roster, he can’t do that. Shooting late in the shot clock, and also at other times, gets spread around.

Gordon probably won’t work with his current teammates and/or his current coach. So the Pistons must decide:

Do they keep him or them?

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