In The Boys of Summer, the legendary author Roger Kahn has an interesting digression about the problems that arise when sportswriters make assumptions about the games they are covering. I don't have the book and couldn't find anything online, so you'll have to take my word for it; as a sportswriter, I took notice.
Entering the NBA Finals, every sportswriter I read, every commentator I listened to, as well as most of the fans, failed Kahn's maxim. Okay, there were a few holdouts who actually thought the Detroit Pistons would win, and a larger group that figured the series would be close, but for most people, the question was not if the Los Angeles Lakers would win, but when and by how much.
As a result, we are seeing precisely what Kahn thought was problematic. The analysis of the Finals so far, besides the digressions about Kobe Bryant's shot, Luke Walton's performance, and Larry Brown's decision not to foul, has focused not on how well the Pistons have played, but why the Lakers have played so poorly.
Editor's Note: Yes, I know that Tom Tolbert, Byron Scott, and Doc Rivers all said the same thing during the fourth quarter of Game 3. I already had this lead written, and I wasn't creative enough to think of a new one, thank you very much.
I'm here to tell you, that's all wrong. These Detroit Pistons are very good and very underrated, and if they do manage to get the two wins they need to win this series (we certainly wouldn't want to assume anything, would we?), they will be deserving NBA champions.
I'll admit to being guilty of often judging how much of teams' success in the playoffs was due to luck based on their regular-season performance. In many cases, this is a mistake. That was true with both sides in this series. It's not fair to judge the Lakers by January, when they were playing without several starters, and it's equally unfair to judge the Pistons based on three and a half months they played without Rasheed Wallace (and Mike James, for what it's worth).
Since Larry Bird and Magic Johnson brought the NBA into its modern era in 1979-80, only one NBA Champion (the 1994-95 Houston Rockets) has won fewer games than this year's Pistons, at 54. (Of course, the lockout San Antonio Spurs also won fewer games, but their winning percentage was better.) Nobody judges the Rockets as a fluke, because they, like the Pistons, remade their team with a midseason trade.
When the Pistons acquired Wallace, it was clear that the move had huge ramifications for the playoffs.
"Wow," I wrote in my deadline trade analysis. "This is an incredible deal that sets up Detroit as a strong contender, possibly the favorite, for the Eastern Conference crown."
The rest of the season, despite Wallace missing four games, Detroit went 20-6, a .769 winning percentage that would translate into 63 wins over the course of an 82-game season. Now that's more like it. Nobody's won 63 games in a season since the Lakers did it in 1999-00, the first year of their threepeat. In fact, only six teams have won at a better clip since the 1989-90 season -- three Bulls squads, that Lakers teams, and two Western Conference Champs who ran into the Bulls buzzsaw (the 1995-96 Sonics and the 1996-97 Jazz).
Amazingly, that figure may understate the Pistons' dominance. After all, three of Detroit's six losses were by a single point. Over the 26-game stretch, the Pistons crushed their opponents by an amazing 12.1 points per game. By contrast, the top team this season over the full course of the year was the San Antonio Spurs (+7.2). For more comparison, the 72-10 Chicago Bulls, the team that owns the best record in NBA history, outscored its opponents by 12.2 points per game.
There are two caveats here. One is sample size. 26 games do not a season make. Secondly, the Pistons' schedule in this stretch was rather weak, averaging a winning percentage of just .438. That does make what Detroit has done somewhat less impressive.
(I should also point out that much of my subsequent research, including that, is me typing numbers off the Pistons' schedule and box scores into Excel, so some errors are to be expected. Take these numbers with a grain of salt.)
In the playoffs, the Pistons have not been incredibly dominant. After Game 3, they sit at 14-7 in the playoffs, their .667 winning percentage below the average of the last decade (.760). On the other hand, nobody held it against the Lakers when they went 15-8 in the playoffs in 2000.
What is clearly most impressive about the Pistons post-Wallace trade is their defense. Detroit was a very good, if overrated team, prior to adding Wallace. With him in the fold, they've been nothing short of magnificent.
As you've probably heard countless times during the playoffs, the Pistons tied the San Antonio Spurs for the best defense during the regular season, allowing 84.3 points per game. Pre-Wallace, they were at 86.8 points per game. With him, they allowed just 78.9 points per game, which is, well, incredible. As best I can tell, no NBA team has allowed less than 80 points per game over the course of the season since the institution of the shot clock.
This was not just a figment of pace. While the Pistons played slightly slower post-trade, they allowed just 76.9 points per 100 possessions, down from 85.5 pre-trade. How outstanding is this figure? San Antonio just beat out the Pistons for top honors this season, at 82.3 points per 100 possessions.
Unfortunately, I only have per-possession data going back to 1989-90. Since then, however, the 1998-99 Spurs are the best defensive team in terms of points allowed per 100 possessions at 80.5. The Pistons with Wallace blow them out of the water. Accounting for league average produces a similar result. The post-trade Pistons were a crazy 13.2 points per 100 possessions better than league average on defense. The 98-99 Spurs again rank first previously at 7.4 better than league average.
For a more comprehensive look, we can turn to Dean Oliver's Basketball On Paper, which studies the best defenses (and offenses) since 1973-74. Note that Oliver uses a slightly different measure of Offensive Efficiency than I do, not counting offensive rebounds as a new possession and using a 0.4 multiplier for free throws instead of 0.44. By this method, the Pistons allowed 87.4 points per 100 possessions post-trade, 14.5 better than league average and 3.9 standard deviations below it.
In the book, Oliver finds by both methods that the 1992-93 New York Knicks are the greatest defense in NBA history, and, along with the 1993-94 edition, "far and away" the greatest. The 1992-93 Knicks were 8.4 points and 2.9 standard deviations better than league average on defense. The post-trade Pistons blow both marks out of the water.
Sadly, we can't statistically compare the current Pistons to, say, Bill Russell's Celtics. For the era we have complete data for, however, the Pistons post-trade were the best defense on record. How much that should be adjusted down because of Detroit's schedule is open for determination.
In the playoffs, facing the other two best teams in their own conference and the Western Conference Champion Lakers, Detroit has still been outstanding on defense, allowing 79.4 points per 100 possessions (by my method). I think the fact that they were doing the same thing in the regular season essentially answers the "good defense or bad offense" question posed so many times during the Eastern Conference Finals.
Take heed of Roger Kahn. The statistical evidence suggests that the Los Angeles Lakers are not losing this series, the Detroit Pistons are winning it, and if they manage to hang on, they should take their rightful place with some of the greatest teams in NBA history.
Now if only I had known that when I made my picks before the playoffs.
Odds and Ends
I just linked it there, but a far more formal shout out is in order to KnickerBlogger, which, in addition to being incredibly kind to my work, is providing some excellent analysis of the Knicks and the league in general. There isn't much better analytical work about the NBA out there on the net. Good news in that regard is that John Hollinger is back at CNNSI.com, and will apparently be writing on a weekly basis.
Where do you go to find out how many games previous champions won? Their Finals records? There are now two outstanding basketball reference sites, the appropriately named BasketballReference.com and Basketball-Reference.com. Both sites have great info and both owners have, at various times, sucked up to me, so I switch back and forth between the two.
It was disappointing news to read recently that Rob Neyer of ESPN.com is headed to Insider. I know that Neyer has his critics, but it was through him, not Bill James, that I was first indoctrinated to the world of sabermetrics. That, in turn, led me to NBA statistical analysis. I know I'm not alone, as Aaron Gleeman (who I often think was separated from me at birth and just happened to go down the baseball path instead of the basketball one) tells a similar story about becoming a "stathead". While Marc Stein and David Aldridge are both outstanding and Stein has been very receptive to statistical analyses (not to mention Roland Beech of 82games.com doing some playoff work for Insider), here's hoping that we someday see a Neyer-esque column on ESPN.com introducing NBA fans to how statistics can further their understanding of the game.
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