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Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Honestly Evaluating the Denver-Detroit Deal

Has Allen Iverson ruined the Pistons? Has Chauncey Billups "changed the culture" in Denver? Or do too many people jump to conclusions way too quickly after only considering a small sample size of games and not looking at all of the relevant information? Here are some answers to those questions:

The Denver Nuggets currently have the third best record in the West (31-16), while the Detroit Pistons are tied with the Miami Heat for the fifth/sixth best record in the East (25-21), so the initial returns on the early season trade between the Nuggets and the Pistons seem to suggest that Denver came out ahead -- but are matters really that simple and straightforward?

It is very important to remember that this was not simply an Allen Iverson for Chauncey Billups trade; the Pistons also dealt away Antonio McDyess and were without his services for 17 games until NBA rules permitted them to re-sign him. Why is that significant? McDyess was Detroit's leading rebounder last season (8.5 rpg) and he is their leading rebounder again this season (8.1 rpg).

Without him in the lineup, the Pistons dropped from their perch near the top of the league in rebounding differential last season to near the bottom of the league in rebounding differential early in this season. Not surprisingly, the Pistons went just 9-8 without McDyess, a far cry from their 59-23 record last season. In 2007-08, the Pistons had 26 wins before suffering their eighth loss, so spending nearly a fifth of the season without their best rebounder all but ensured that they would not come close to 59 wins this season.

Last season, the Pistons used a total of nine different starting lineups but their normal lineup -- Billups, McDyess, Richard Hamilton, Rasheed Wallace and Tayshaun Prince -- started 63 games, going 46-17. This season is barely half over and the Pistons have already used nine different starting lineups; even more importantly, none of those lineups has played more than 13 games together.

The Pistons have apparently decided that young Rodney Stuckey must be a starter no matter what and thus have relegated Hamilton -- a three time All-Star who has started the vast majority of games during his career -- to the bench. Kwame Brown has started 18 games for the Pistons this season and, as any Lakers fan can tell you, that is not a good sign.

This is also Michael Curry's first season as head coach. The Pistons were correct to fire Flip Saunders, who inherited a championship level roster but never took the team to the Finals, but Curry is clearly learning on the fly as a rookie head coach and this is reflected in the constantly shifting lineups as well as some questionable strategic decisions. Saunders was not the right man to guide an elite team to the Finals but the jury is still out regarding whether or not Curry is the right man to run a team that is now in transition.

Iverson is attempting fewer than 15 shots per game as a Piston, easily the lowest average of his career. He is averaging just six free throw attempts per game, also a career low. Iverson's best asset is his ability to break down defenders off of the dribble and thus create a shot for himself or a teammate; not only has he won four scoring titles but he also ranked in the top 10 in assists the past four seasons.

Pistons President Joe Dumars initially said that he acquired Iverson to add that kind of shot creating dimension to Detroit's offense but the Pistons are not playing a style or tempo that maximizes Iverson's skill set (as Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy both noted during Sunday's Cleveland-Detroit game). It makes no sense to bring in Iverson and then ask him to play like Billups; that is like saying, "I love you, you're perfect, now change."

Iverson leads Detroit in scoring and steals and he ranks just behind Stuckey in assists. Iverson would most likely be even more productive if he were being used properly but even as things stand now he can hardly be blamed for Detroit's decline in the standings compared to last year.

What about the Nuggets? It is important to understand that the idea that Billups has "transformed the culture" in Denver is, at the very least, unproven. The Nuggets were a good team when Iverson played for them but they were not an elite team -- and it is premature to suggest that the Nuggets have suddenly become an elite team this season.

Do you remember what the Nuggets' record was last season at this time? They were 29-18, just two games worse than they are this season. Then they played seven of their next 12 games on the road, went 6-6 in those dozen games overall and finished with a 50-32 record, just good enough to earn the eighth seed in the playoffs and a first round sweep at the hands of the L.A. Lakers.

The Nuggets are about to host the Spurs before going on an eight-game road trip, followed by a three-game homestand versus the Celtics, Hawks and Lakers. It is entirely possible that after those 12 games they will have the same record than they did after 59 games last season.

Individually, Billups is certainly playing well but he is hardly doing anything that is significantly outside of his career norms: his shooting percentages from the field, three-point range and the free-throw line are all right around his career averages, while his scoring average has increased (from 17.0 ppg last season to 18.9 ppg) largely because he is attempting a couple more shots per game. It is also worth remembering that injuries slowed him down in the playoffs in recent seasons, which is undoubtedly part of the reason that the Pistons were willing to part ways with him; Iverson is a year older than Billups but has averaged more regular season mpg during his career (41.6 to 32.0) without showing any signs of breaking down physically.

Looking at the bigger picture, it is easy to understand Detroit's plan: the huge salaries of Iverson and Wallace come off of the books after this season, so Dumars will have plenty of salary cap room to try to sign LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh or other big name free agents in 2010.

Meanwhile, Hamilton, Prince, Stuckey and Jason Maxiell -- each of whom is 30 or younger now -- will be the nucleus of the team in 2009-10 if Iverson and Wallace are not brought back (the 34-year old McDyess, who is still very productive, can be re-signed for next season at a price that will not jeopardize the 2010 plans or perhaps his minutes will be taken over by Maxiell or young Amir Johnson). The Pistons may or may not right the ship this season but it is clear what direction they will be sailing in over the next couple years.

On the other hand, it is not nearly so clear what the Nuggets are doing. It may be exciting for Denver fans to temporarily be near the top of the West but the Nuggets probably will not maintain that status by the end of the season. More than likely, they will once again be a first-round playoff casualty if they don't stay in the top four in the standings, so after all of the hoopla about "changing the culture" the Nuggets will probably not go any further with Billups than they did with Iverson.

Last summer, they cut costs by shipping Marcus Camby to the Clippers while getting essentially nothing in return; Camby currently ranks second in the league in rebounding and blocked shots. Meanwhile, Billups' contract lasts two more seasons (plus a team option for 2011-12), so the Nuggets will not be able to significantly upgrade their roster any time soon. Are the Nuggets slashing costs to save money/rebuild or are they trying to win now? It seems most likely that they will get caught in the middle with a roster that is good enough to fight for a playoff spot but not really good enough to contend for a championship.

It will be very interesting to see what people are saying about this trade and these teams in a couple years -- or even as soon as this summer, if the Nuggets do not make a good playoff run.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:18 AM



At Tuesday, February 03, 2009 8:58:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

agreed, but to be honest, I expected detroit to play a little better.

i just think that billups gets undeserved credit for carmelo's "maturity" while iverson gets undue blame to detroit's faltering interior defense and rebounding.

i think billups is a good fit in denver, and from a purely basketball point of view, i can understand why they did it.

given that detroit got a year older, do you think that the pistons will be right where they are now with billups at the helm?


At Tuesday, February 03, 2009 10:48:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I also expected Detroit to play better. In fact, with the talent that the Pistons currently have it is still not too late for them to get in gear and finish the season strongly.

I agree 100% with your description of how Billups is getting too much credit and Iverson is getting too much blame.

Billups has been a good fit in Denver so far but I still am not sold on their overall plan--I'm not even sure what their overall plan is. Billups is a declining player, even though he has performed well in the first half of the season, and I can't see this Denver team being a serious contender in the next couple years with the current roster. They are basically stuck with Billups, which may not sound bad today but might not be so good a year from now if they have suffered another first round playoff loss and are mired in the middle of the West playoff hunt in '10.

The question of where the Pistons would be if they had not made the deal is not simple, because if they had not made the deal then McDyess would not have missed a month and they would almost certainly have gotten off to a better start. If all things were equal and you somehow simply swapped Iverson back for Billups I don't see that change significantly improving the Pistons, because their problems are not stemming from anything that Iverson is doing or not doing but rather other areas. However, one way that having Billups in the fold might help is if the Pistons would then have kept Stuckey on the bench and Rip in the starting lineup.


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