Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Maybe Pulling a Head Coach From the 2004 Pistons Was a Good Idea

Peachtree Hoops had a good post asking whether Mike Woodson has changed and it hit on a thought on which I've been noodling. I started Bill Simmons' NBA book last week and found myself disagreeing with Simmons description of how a championship team has to be constructed. I don't have the book in front of me, but Simmons argues that a championship team has to have an alpha dog who is one of the best players in the league, if not the best. My immediate thought when reading this was "2004 Pistons?" Simmons tried to shoehorn Chauncey Billups into the star role for that team, which is interesting coming from a writer who didn't seem to like Billups so much in 2007:

Announcers and studio guys steadfastly continu[e] to call Chauncey Billups "Mr. Big Shot," quite possibly the most undeserved sports nickname of this century. Here's a quick recap of Chauncey's career:

1997-2001: Bounces around from Boston to Toronto to Denver to Orlando to Minnesota.

2002: Plays well enough for the T-Wolves (0-3 in the '02 playoffs) that Detroit gives him a $30 million contract.

2003: Leads a Pistons team that eventually gets swept in the 2003 Eastern finals by New Jersey … and gets destroyed by Jason Kidd in the process. Billups shot 11 for 40 in the series; Kidd averaged 23.5 points, 7.5 assists and 10 rebounds per game. To be fair, Billups was playing with a sprained ankle. Just pointing out that the "Mr. Big Shot" nickname hadn't kicked in yet.

2004: Shoots 39 percent in the regular season, gets hot in the playoffs, leads the Pistons to the title, makes some big shots along the way, and somehow picks up the name "Mr. Big Shot."

2005: Leads the Pistons to the Finals, makes some big shots along the way, then pulls a relative no-show in Game 7 (13 points, 3 for 8 from the field, no big shots).

2006: Heading into the playoffs, with the Pistons peaking as a 64-win team, I wrote that Billups was "one more killer spring away from moving into the pantheon of Big Game Guards, along with Sam Jones, Jerry West, Dennis Johnson and Walt Frazier. Out of anyone in the playoffs other than Kobe, he's the one who can make the biggest leap historically. Well, unless Artest charges into the stands again."

Didn't happen. During the last three games of the Eastern semis against Cleveland -- which the Pistons nearly blew -- Billups shot 13 for 34. In the six-game loss to Miami in the Eastern finals, he shot 39 percent and 3 for 14 in the deciding game. So much for the pantheon of Big Game Guards.

2007: Struggled in the Chicago series (39 percent shooting), then completely flopped in the first four games of the Cavs series (22-for-57 shooting, 32 turnovers, some killer mistakes at the end of Games 3 and 4), to the point that people are now openly wondering how much money he's costing himself this summer.

So here's my question: With all due respect to Billups -- who's been a valuable player, a gamer and a winner over the past few years -- can we really keep calling a 41 percent career shooter who slapped together one great playoffs and nine-tenths of another great playoffs "Mr. Big Shot"? Isn't that a little insulting to Robert Horry? I vote that we call him "Chauncey" or "Billups" unless he completely redeems himself over these next few weeks. This meeting is adjourned.

And keep in mind that Simmons is big on the idea of reading what people wrote at the time that a player in question was at his peak and using those contemporaneous judgments as a measuring stick. That's one of his bases for arguing that Russell was better than Wilt. I digress.

The point at which I was driving is that the 2004 Pistons stand as an example for this Hawks team, a historical marker that shows that a team does not need to have a dominant superstar in order to win a title. Just like the 2004 Pistons, the Hawks will need a little good fortune in that the teams with the dominant superstars will need to be operating at below peak efficiency because of injuries, in-fighting, distractions, slumping supporting casts, inexplicable decisions to bring in aging, out-of-shape, not half as good as their reputations centers, etc. That said, there are precious few champions in any sport that don't require some good fortune.

The Pistons succeeded because they had a balanced roster that fit together nicely and because they had a head coach who was able to convince the players to co-exist and not play outside of their roles. It's been a bumpy road, but Billy Knight and Rick Sund collectively put together a logical roster full of complementary players. (Remember when there were constant complaints that Knight was assembling too many similar swing men? Does anyone watch Joe Johnson, Marvin Williams, and Josh Smith and think that they all do the same things? I suppose the story might be a little different if Josh Childress were still here.) And interestingly enough, through 11 games, Mike Woodson has his charges playing their roles and not trying to do things at which they struggle (read: Josh Smith shooting jump shots.)

To come back to the Peachtree Hoops post, this passage struck me as a good description of where Woodson has succeeded in a Larry Brown kind of way for the first 11 games of the season:

Jamal Crawford. The guy is doing things we have never had before in Atlanta. He can break guys down, get to the foul line, pass well, and get (if not always hit) wide open jumpers. As Hoopinion has mentioned well and I have tried to talk about badly, Woody's job is to manage these great skills against Crawford's very real weaknesses. How can you hide his defense? How can you manage his minutes in a way to control his shot selection? So far Woodson has done a great job, but so has Crawford. Where to stop lauding Jamal with praise and start tipping your hat to Woody is a tough line to find.

It's still early, but Woodson is fulfilling the Brown role of getting NBA players to limit themselves to roles that work for the team. Jamal Crawford has always been one of those guys about whom you'd say "he can be a very good player if..." Those ifs - namely, "...he had better shot selection and didn't always try to hard to get his" - have never come true because he's always played for bad teams that presumably had toxic environments. Maybe this is the environment where Crawford becomes truly valuable?

And one last question about the parallel to the 2004 Pistons: is that team viewed in NBA circles the way that I view the 2002 Ohio State Buckeyes, namely as a total anomaly, an exception to the rule, a team that followed a path to a title that is almost impossible to replicate? I honestly don't know enough about NBA history to know how really knowledgeable fans view the '04 Pistons.


Anonymous said...

Here is an answer to your question about the Pistons being like 2002 Ohio State. Unfortunately, the Pistons were somewhat like 2002 Ohio State.
Take a look at the best three guys from the title teams during the last 25 years in the NBA

1985 - Lakers (Magic, Kareem, Worthy)
1986 - Celtics (Bird, McHale, Walton)
1987 - Lakers (Magic, Kareem, Worthy)
1988 - Lakers (Magic, Kareem, Worthy)
1989 - Pistons (Thomas, Dumars, Rodman)
1990 - Pistons (Thomas, Dumars, Rodman)
1991 - Bulls (Jordan, Pippen, Grant)
1992 - Bulls (Jordan, Pippen, Grant)
1993 - Bulls (Jordan, Pippen, Grant)
1994 - Rockets (Olajuwon, Cassel, Horry)
1995 - Rockets (Olajuwon, Drexler, Cassel)
1996 - Bulls (Jordan, Pippen, Rodman)
1997 - Bulls (Jordan, Pippen, Rodman)
1998 - Bulls (Jordan, Pippen, Rodman)
1999 - Spurs (Duncan, Robinson, Elliot)
2000 - Lakers (Shaq, Kobe, Horry)
2001 - Lakers (Shaq, Kobe, Horry)
2002 - Lakers (Shaq, Kobe, Horry)
2003 - Spurs (Duncan, Robinson, Ginobili)
2004 - Pistons (B. Wallace, Billups, R. Wallace)
2005 - Spurs (Duncan, Ginobili, Parker)
2006 - Heat (Wade, Shaq, Mourning)
2007 - Spurs (Duncan, Ginobili, Parker)
2008 - Celtics (Garnett, Pierce, Allen)
2009 - Lakers (Kobe, Gasol, Odom)

For every team except 1989-1990, 2004 Pistons:
The #1 guys are NBA MVP types:
Magic, Bird, Jordan, Olajuwon, Duncan, Shaq, Garnett, and Kobe have all won league MVPs.

Wade hasn't won a league MVP but he is young, has made 1st Team All-NBA once, has been 2nd Team All-NBA twice and his team included Shaq who has won an MVP.

The 2nd best guys on many of those teams are 1st Team All-NBA good as well:
Pippen, Kareem, Robinson, Shaq, Drexler, McHale, Kobe

Now for the best guys on the Pistons title teams:

Thomas, Dumars, and Rodman were never MVP candidates but Thomas made 3 All-NBA 1st Teams, Dumars made 5 All-Defense 1st Teams, Rodamn, won 2 Defensive Player of the Year awards, made 7 All-Defense 1st Teams and was the best rebounder in the modern era.

B. Wallace, Billups, R. Wallace were never MVP candidates. B. Wallace won 4 Defensive Player of the Year awards, and made 5 All-Defensive 1st Teams. Billups made 1 All-NBA 2nd Team. R. Wallace is probably the most talented player on the 2004 Pistons but his only notable NBA award was All-Rookie 2nd Team.

So, basically the Pistons won three titles by featuring a Defensive Player of Year despite lacking a MVP quality player.

That means that every recent NBA title team has featured a player that won league MVP or DPOY at some point in their career.

There is only one player on the Hawks that seems to be capable of winning either award: Josh Smith.

It is not a coincidence that Hawks look great while Josh Smith is looking like a superstar (#10 in PER @ 25.24) If Josh Smith continues to play like this then he becomes a dark horse MVP candidate and the Hawks enter the conversation as one of the best teams in the East.

Joe Friday said...

"I don't have the book in front of me, but Simmons argues that a championship team has to have an alpha dog who is one of the best players in the league, if not the best. My immediate thought when reading this was "2004 Pistons?" Simmons tried to shoehorn Chauncey Billups into the star role for that team, which is interesting coming from a writer who didn't seem to like Billups so much in 2007"

Don't know if you have gotten there yet; but, Simmons clearly points out in the book that the 2004 Pistons are the exception to almost every rule regarding the championship team/Alpha Dog parallels. That said, your comparison of that team and 2002 Ohio State is an apt one.

Ryno said...

Wouldn't Mo Clarret be considered an Alpha Dog for 2002 OSU?

He had a pretty great year.

Anonymous said...

Here is stat head Dave Berri arguing that Josh Smith is playing like he is 3rd best player in the NBA behind Chris Paul & Lebron James.