Sometime in the wee hours of the morning on January 30th of 2006 the Detroit Pistons’ season turned. At no other point in the season was the disparity in won/loss record between what had come before and what was to come after greater. Prior to this day the team had won 37 games while only losing five, putting it on pace to match the best single season record of all time set by the Chicago Bulls at 72 and 10. The guys were hot. They were fab. There were tales of miraculous cures of diseases of all kinds to be had just by putting the part what ailed you against the TV screen while the games were on. Chants of MVP and Detroit Basketball rang down from the rafters even away from the Palace. The best starting five on the planet started to believe in their own manifest greatest. Even the pundits started to believe as all star time drew near. Prior to January 30th the Pistons won 88.1% of their games. After January 30th it was a different story. Not counting the last four games of the season when they didn’t play to win, the Pistons finished the season 26 and 10, winning at a 72.2% pace. Projected to a full season that is a thirteen game difference. Still ignoring the final four regular season games, but including the playoffs, the real picture emerges. Adding in the playoffs brings the post January 30th record to 36 up versus 18 losses, 66.7% of their games. That is a 54 win pace, fully 18 games below the pace set before January 30th. If we count all the games the team played after January 30th, they won 62.7%, a 51 win season pace. That’s on par with the final regular season records of the Heat, the Cavs, and the Grizzlies. That lines up pretty well with the six up and seven down playoff record in the second and third rounds. In other words, given the way the team played after January 30th, the second and third rounds of the playoffs turned out as expected given that the Pistons were playing teams with basically identical won/loss records - who they should have beaten about as often as they were beaten by. The last game before the fall doesn’t seem all that different from many others. The Lakers came to the Palace and got whipped. The final score of 102 to 93 barely reflects the twenty-one point margin the Pistons enjoyed after three quarters and the utter whipping they put on the Lakers in the first and third quarters. In some ways things look as you would want to see them – 24 for Sheed, 20 for Rip, 19 for Tay, 14 for Ben, and 10 for Chauncey – with 23 assists on 37 baskets. McDyess put in nine off the bench and Evans six. In other ways the game reflects all that we were soon to find wrong with the team. The starters average over 38 minutes each in what was a blow-out after three quarters. Only three bench players enter the game (Delfino, the third, gets four minutes and doesn’t score). The team is outrebounded by the Lakers on both the offensive and defensive ends. Sheed finishes with 24 points, 8 boards, 5 assists, 2 steals, and 3 blocks, all while managing to shoot two for eleven from beyond the arc. He was seven for ten from two point land. Recapping Scoring Over the Season Prior to and including the Lakers game on January 29th, the Pistons averaged 99.9 points per game while giving up 90.6 for an average margin of 9.3 points per game. For the remaining regular season games the Pistons average 93.7 while giving up 89.7 for a 4.0 point average margin per game. Pre and post the defense remains fairly stable, but the offense drops by 6.2 points per game (99.9 to 93.7). One might argue that after once around the league all of the other teams adjusted a bit to what the Pistons had been running. One might also argue that the Piston’s failure to make similar adjustments to keep their offense fresh was a primary cause of the post January decline, and the train wreck to come in the playoffs. Much of the large initial margin of victory the Pistons enjoyed is attributable to the first handful of games when the team held opponents to an average of 87 points. Beyond the first eight games, opponent scoring held fairly consistently around 90 for the remainder of the season. By the Rockets game on November 18th, just before the first loss of the season to Dallas the Pistons were outscoring their opponents by over thirteen points a game. From the Dallas loss on, the average margin never got above ten points and hovered in the six to eight point range the remainder of the regular season. Again, if we ignore the final four games, the Pistons ended the season on a tear. In the eight other games from March 29th to April 12th, the team averaged 99.9 points while giving up 88.5, an average margin of 11.4, back in line with how they started the season. They extended this run of play into the Milwaukee series, averaging 107.2 and giving up 97.6 for an average margin of 9.6 points per game (including the 104-124 loss in game three). This continues into the first two games of the Cleveland series with the team scoring 105.0 and giving up 88.5 for a margin of 16.5 per game, in line with the +17 during the first four games of the season. For the remainder of the playoff run the Pistons continue to hold the opponent’s scoring down. In no game do they give up 100 points and the opponents average 84.4, as good or better than any eleven game stretch during the season. The Heat average under 90 points per game despite the other worldly shooting of Shaq and Wade. The problem of course lies on the other end as they average 82.2 and are held below 80 in five of their last eleven games. I’ve always said there is no switch. I could be wrong. This is what happens when you turn it off. Breaking the Season Down One easy way to examine the season is to break it down into ranges of games. For the following I’ve used ten game spans, with eight games in the final span (ignoring the last four games of the regular season), to account for the whole season. The first chart shows the team’s winning percentage by the spans. As we all saw, the season started off with a bang. But then comes the end of January and the wheels fall off. Games 41 and 42 are both wins, against the Grizzlies and the Lakers. After that they play 0.500 ball for eight games, losing to the Nets, the Pacers, the Hawks, and the Heat – three teams in there they should have been eager to send a message to. They fight back with an eight for ten stretch, losing only to the Nuggets and Lakers, both on the road. Then they pick things back up, ending the season strong if we ignore that last four. I’ve aggregated the stats from the first four spans (games one through forty) and the three following spans (41-50, 51-60, and 61-70) to see if there is any difference in the stats between the team that won 88% of its games and the one that won 70%. The most glaring difference is in the shooting percentages which are down across the board. Tired legs? Or a league that has figured the Pistons’ offense out and is defending it better? At the same time, the team is trading out made free throws for threes. Bad shooting forces more desperation threes? The “easy” three gets harder to make? Isn’t there some saying about living by the jump shot? The Pistons trade 2.85 free throw attempts per game for 2.38 more three point shots. Why attack the basket and get slapped around when you can just jack up a three. What? They aren’t going in anymore? Try again. Beyond the shooting percentages and the shift to more three point shots, very little else stands out. Nearly 40% of the incremental steals seen below come from Hunter who plays in nineteen games during the second span. Player by Player Summaries Billups, Hamilton, and Prince all fall in shooting percentage for two point shots. The frontline goes up, but since they take fewer shots the overall shooting percentage falls. Billups actually shoots the three better when the team is playing more poorly, but Rip and Sheed fall off the map. Threes are good when they’re falling, but watch out when the shots don’t drop. BBen and Dice, owing at least in part to injured wrists more or less forget how to shoot free throws. Billups and Hamilton also fall, Rip by a wide margin. Billups, Rip, and Sheed all take more threes in the second span of games, 2.2 more three point shots per game between them. Sheed has the highest increase in number of threes per game. Beyond shooting percentages and shot selection, not much else distinguishes the good spans of the season from the bad ones. Most basic measures are pretty close as seen below. It seems much too simplistic a story. There should be bigger changes, more villains to revile. Once the first eight or ten games had passed the Pistons settled down into a decent defensive club. Sure, it seemed like anybody and his brother could stroll down the lane, but the only really useful ways to measure defense are points allowed and the difference between us and them, and not by memory and in game perceptions. Good defensive teams don’t allow the opponent to score and bad ones do. By this measure, the Pistons played consistent defense pretty much the entire regular season and by and large throughout the playoffs. What they failed to do consistently enough throughout the dog days of winter and from about playoff game eight on was to make jump shots and free throws. And when the shots didn’t go in, rather than trying to get closer, they moved back and took even longer shots. That seems evidence of tiredness, of way too many games and way too many minutes over three long seasons. Credits All raw data courtesy of www.dougstats.com.