The 2003-04 Pistons: Great Timing?

Title: The 2003-04 Pistons: Great Timing?
Date: November 9, 2012
Original Source: Hoopdata
Synopsis: This article took a look back at the 2003-04 NBA Champion Detroit Pistons, highlighting how fortunate they were to not just have seven above-average rotation players, but also to have them all together near their respective peaks.

Scanning the box scores the other night I came across two lines that made me kind of sad.

Tayshaun Prince, Nov 6, Detroit @ Denver – 2/8 FG, 4pts, 3rbs, 1ast, 29min

Richard Hamilton, Nov 6, Chicago vs Orlando – 3/8 FG, 7pts, 3rbs, 2ast, 2to, 1stl, 28min

With The Basketball Jones identifying Rasheed Wallace as The Human Victory Blunt for the season and Chauncey Billups struggling to return from injury, it appears that all of the remaining members of the 2003-04 NBA Champion Detroit Pistons are on their last legs.

To wit, Mehmet Okur retired at 33 today. Ben Wallace is retired. Corliss Williamson is long since retired. And then there are the four men mentioned above, plus leftover bench players like Mike James and Darko Milicic.

It perhaps shouldn’t be surprising to me that the Pistons from nearly a decade ago are slowly filing out of the league and shrinking out of basketball minds (save for Rasheed, who is and forever will be a walking meme). After all, basketball careers are short and success fleeting, and there’s no exception for players like those 2003-04 Pistons who played very specific roles, most without superstar peaks.

But the box scores and retirements and jokes got me thinking about that team in general, and just how perfect a storm that team was, coming together and peaking at just the right time. They say that you need three stars to win now, or two top-50 All Time players and a third All Star, or something like that. But the top seven Pistons that year in terms of importance were all at or near the apex of their careers, a rare feat for seven teammates of varying ages. The graph below shows the Win Shares of each player across their careers.

Chauncey continued on the upswing for a few years after that championship season, but most everyone else was looking down at the rest of their careers. Rip and Tayshaun would stay at that level of play for a few more years, relative disappointments given their youth at the time. Corliss was out of the league shortly after, Big Ben slowly started to become less effective, and Rasheed had some ups and downs, as he is wont to do. Mehmet Okur took off, but it was outside of Detroit in Utah.

Again, maybe none of this is shocking, but to further illustrate how lucky the Pistons were to find seven players outperforming their peers at the same time, take a look at the graph below. This graph compares the Win Shares per 48 minutes (WS/48) of each of these players to what would be expected from a player that age based on historical data.

One final thing I wanted to look for was to see whether this happened to be the Pistons having seven players peaking at the same time despite age differences, or just seven very good players. Either way, the team was intelligent and fortunate, but we saw above that while it was a career apex for some, a couple of the players remained relevant for some time.

The graph below shows each player’s win shares at each age compared to the average player mentioned previously (in this case I took the “expected WS/48” and multiplied it by 36 minutes). This shows what a typical player at that age would be doing with 36 minutes a night. It’s not perfect, but it gives you a visual of how good these Pistons were, and how well-run and fortunate they were to have seven such players together at once, near their relative peaks.

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