MVP Voting and the 65-Game Rule Examined

The NBA’s new 65-game minimum to be eligible for awards has met mixed reviews.  Adam Silver passed the rule to try to encourage meaningful participation in the regular season.  During the All-Star break, Silver posited that the rule had been a success: “I can tell you that the number of games that players have participated in is up this season, and interestingly enough, injuries are actually down.” 

I’m not sure what data Silver is specifically relying on, but it does seem that some older stars are playing more but there have been notable problems.  Specifically, Joel Embiid appeared to have injured himself trying to play through injury based on the pressure to stay eligible for the MVP race.  Also, in a quest to have All-NBA eligibility, Tyrese Haliburton played part-time through injuries, instead of just sitting until he fully recovered from a hamstring pull.  Haliburton didn’t play great during this span and his minutes clock led to some awkward game play (he had to sit in close fourth quarters sometimes).

Still, no rule is without a downside and, arguably, these two instances are worth it for the overall good.  I thought we could review the 65-game minimum and how it would’ve applied in the past MVP races, FAQ style…

Has a player ever won the MVP with fewer than 65 games played?

The only player to win an MVP with fewer than 65 games played in an 82-game season was Bill Walton in 1977-78.  Walton played only 58 games before breaking his foot, which effectively ended the star portion of his career.

For posterity, let’s address whether Walton deserved the MVP that season.  It has been widely assumed that Walton was the runaway winner because Portland was 48-10 when he played and 10-14 without him.  In fact, the vote was pretty close.  Walton beat George Gervin 96 to 80.5 in the voting and SI wrote near the end of the 1977-78 season that “if Bill Walton is not basketball’s MVP, Gervin certainly is.”  But SI did not explain the debate further. 

Let’s take a look at the stats to see how the top candidates, Walton, Gervin, David Thompson, and Kareem compared with each other:

-Walton: 58 games, 33.3 mpg, 18.9 ppg, ,554 ts%, 13.2 rpg, 5.0 apg, 1.0 spg, 2.5 bpg, 24.8 per, .209 ws48, 8.1 bpm, 4.9 vorp

-Kareem: 62 games, 36.5 mpg, 25.8 ppg, .589 ts%, 12.9 rpg, 4.3 apg, 1.7 spg, 3.0 bpg, 29.2 per, .257 ws48, 9.3 bpm, 6.5 vorp

-Thompson: 80 games, 37.8 mpg, 27.2 ppg, .578 ts%, 4.9 rpg, 4.5 apg, 1.2 spg, 1.2 bpg, 23.2 per, .202 ws48, 4.8 bpm, 5.2 vorp

-Gervin: 82 games, 34.8 mpg, 27.2 ppg, .594 ts%, 5.1 rpg, 3.7 apg, 1.7 spg, 1.3 bpg, 24.7 per, .201 ws48, 4.8 bpm, 4.9 vorp

So, Thompson and Gervin were in a near dead heat but were a notch below the centers in terms of efficiency.  Kareem also missed the two months of the season when he broke his hand on Kent Benson’s face two minutes into the season.  The Lakers were 37-24 with Kareem (we aren’t counting the season opening two-minute cameo) and 8-13 without him.

Kareem accrued more VORP in his 61 games than either of the other candidates and his counting stats and BPM were off the charts.  Walton’s argument rests on the dominance of his team putting him over the top.  Not a crazy argument but it appears, to me, that Abdul-Jabbar was the best player in the NBA and would’ve gotten my vote (though it would be rational to give Kareem demerits for his self-inflicted injury that cost his team dearly).  In either case, the rightful MVP was a guy who played fewer than 65 games.

How would the 65-game rule have affected voting in the before times?

From 1983-84 through 2018-19, 33 players that played fewer than 65 games received MVP votes (we are excluding the two lockout shortened seasons).  Of that group, most received a few stray votes and didn’t place particularly high in the rankings.  Here’s the list:

PlayerYearGamesMVP Rank
Baron Davis2006-076315

The players with the fewest games played were Jordan and Magic during their brief comebacks but they only received a few token votes.  Four other players finished as high as seventh:

-Chris Webber in 2001-02 played only 54 games but was clearly the Kings’ best player. 

-Bernard King was seventh as well and played a ton of minutes in 1984-85 before a catastrophic knee injury ended his season after 55 games. 

-Chris Paul 2013-14 (62 games) and Joel Embiid 2018-19 (64 games) played a bit more for their seventh-place finishes.

The highest finish of the group was Shaq in 1997-98, who was fourth, despite playing only 60 games.  O’Neal actually got a first-place vote that juiced up his totals but he finished behind MJ and Karl Malone, who were quite clearly better.

MVP Voting, post-Covid

Before the Covid season, the distribution of MVP votes for players with fewer than 65 games played was pretty stable:

1980s: 4

1990s: 17

2000s: 6

2010s: 9

When Covid hit, things changed.  Both the 2019-20 and 2020-21 aren’t really fair data points because full seasons weren’t played and Covid forced rest on players as well.  Nevertheless, the 2020-21 season featured Embiid coming in second in the MVP vote with only 51 games played (and down ballot, James Harden, LeBron James, and Kawhi Leonard tied for 13th despite playing between 44 and 52 games). 

The past two full seasons, the trend seem to expand as eight players received votes despite playing under the 65-game limit:

PlayerYearGamesMVP Rank

From an MVP perspective, most of these players were receiving back-end votes, which is no different than what was happening back in the 1990s (the only player with a reasonable case to win the MVP with fewer games played was Giannis last season).  Based on the data, though, there is no serious reason to have a 65-game limit to be eligible for the MVP.  The voters have already sorted out this issue and have already considered games played.  Perhaps the rule makes a bit more sense in the All-NBA context but I see no benefit in the MVP voting system.

Sidney Moncrief’s Forgotten Comeback

In the past, we’ve done deep dives on the comeback attempts of some Hall of Famers like Magic, Jordan, and Cousy.  I recently was reminded of another comeback attempt by a Hall of Famer that I thought was worth an examination.  The only difference is that this guy is more marginal a Hall of Famer and his comeback is almost totally forgotten. I am referring to the comeback attempt by Sidney Moncrief with the Hawks in 1990-91.  Moncrief’s return isn’t particularly well-documented so let’s give it a little bit of attention because it was relatively fruitful and interesting.

A Little Background Moncrief

Most fans remember Moncrief as the tough two-way guard from Arkansas who was a key star on the 1980s Don Nelson Milwaukee Bucks.  He wasn’t merely a good player. Moncrief was a five-time All-Star and two-time Defensive Player of the Year.  Moncrief’s peak was from 1981-1986, when he put up some eye popping stats:

21.0 ppg, .592 TS%, 5.8 rpg, 4.7 apg, 20.5 PER, .212 WS48, 4.8 BPM, 24.0 VORP.

Those are impressive numbers.  In a world without Jordan and Drexler, Moncrief’s 1981-82 BPM is the second best by a shooting guard of the 1980s and 1990s (MJ & Clyde have the top 17 slots).  While Andrew Toney and George Gervin have arguments, to me, Moncrief was best shooting guard in the NBA for most of the early 1980s. 

Moncrief’s End in Milwaukee

It took until 2019 for him to finally get in the Hall of Fame.  This delay relates partially to Moncrief’s comeback in a roundabout way.  After his excellent 1985-86 season, Moncrief hurt his knee and was never the same player again.  He played only 39 games in 1986-87 and had only 11.8 ppg.  He played a little more and a little better the next two seasons but was not re-signed after the 1988-89 season.

Moncrief was turning 32 and his last season was not horrible but way below his prior standards: 25.7 mpg, 12.1 ppg, .591 TS%, 2.8 rpg, 3.0 apg, 16.4 PER, .151 WS48, 2.6 BPM

One would think those stats would be enough to earn Moncrief another deal somewhere but he really struggled in the playoffs:  

20.4 mpg, 6.1 ppg, .500 TS%, 2.9 rpg, 1.4 apg, 9.7 PER, .062 WS48, -2.9 BPM. 

In other words, Playoff Moncrief looked totally cooked.

Playoffs aside, shouldn’t a two guard who could put up 12 ppg at age-31 be able to get a job for age-32?  Well, not so much.  From 1973-74 to 1985-86, only 15 players defined as shooting guards played more than 1,500 minutes at age-32 and the norm was to write off these players, rather than keep them around.

According to an October 1989 UPI report, the Bucks wouldn’t offer Moncrief any deal because of the state of his knees.  Moncrief announced his retirement at the time as follows: “’I think my injuries played a role in my decision but more importantly I think the market pretty much dictates that your services are no longer a very hot commodity….I think the market told me and my body told me because the last couple of years I’ve had a number of injuries.”  Yup, no team wanted to give Moncrief a good contract because of his troublesome knee.

Return to Atlanta

Moncrief sat out the 1989-90 season but was contacted by the Hawks to be an assistant coach for the 1990-91 season.  He told The New York Times in October 1990 article that he would try a comeback instead because “”I wanted to know if I could still play.” 

In this January 1991 Chicago Tribune article, Moncrief gave more detail around his thought process for returning: “I felt I could still play when I retired, but I was just burned out on basketball.  I had knee problems, but nothing that threatened my career. I just had played a lot of minutes, and with the number of games and travel, I found everything was bothering me…. I felt I still could play so I didn`t think I`d be a good assistant. I`d be looking to project myself on the court.” 

Interestingly, both the Nets and the Hawks offered him a tryout but he chose Atlanta because the Nets were in a deep rebuild (they had just drafted Derrick Coleman).  Moncrief had a good camp and even hit a game winning three-pointer in an exhibition game and made the team as a fourth(ish) guard.

Moncrief played in 72 games averaged about 15 mpg.  His overall stat line reflected that he imparted some value:

15.2 mpg, 4.7 ppg, .620 TS%, 1.8 rpg, 1.4 apg, 13.5 PER, .142 WS48, -3.1 BPM.  

He also showed adaptability.  Whereas previously, like most 1980s players, Moncrief barely took any three-pointers, in 1990-91, he made 33% on threes (21-64) and took them at the highest rate of his career.  Some of his other highlights for the season were as follows:

-On January 18, 1991, Moncrief scored a season high 16 points in a win against MJ and the Bulls.

-On February 22, 1991, Moncrief scored 14 points on 7-8 shooting and 5 assists in a win against the Magic Johnson Lakers.

-The 1992 Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball wrote that he “held Reggie Miller to one shot in 12 minutes in [a] game where [the] Pacer guard was toasting the Hawks.” It’s not clear which game this was from the logs.

-Moncrief’s best moment came in Game 4 of Atlanta’s first round series against the Pistons.  He put up 23 points on 8-11 shooting, as well as 4 rebounds, 4 assists, and 2 steals and helped force a deciding Game 5 (Detroit walloped Atlanta by 32 in Game 5).

Moncrief retired for good after the season but with a sense that he showed he still could play.  Moncrief assessed his play as follows: “I feel I`ve performed well.  People see points as a barometer of how well you`re playing, but I`ve always been one to look at helping a team win. Do you pick up the team, or does it lose ground when you`re in there? Are you playing hard, and are you focused?   I`ve been very pleased at what I`ve been able to do, and that it might be a different way each night is exciting.”  Sure it was a low stakes return but, in many ways, Moncrief’s return was as successful, on its own terms, as most other comebacks we have reviewed.

A Quick Look At Some Older Stars

The main question going into the stretch run of the season is whether any team can beat the Celtics.  We’ll come back to that question in a few weeks but, for now, I was interested in the durability of and performance of the old stars in the Western Conference.  While they aren’t quite the top of the conference, the Clippers, Suns, Warriors, and Lakers are riding old stars in a way that NBA team rarely have since the time that the Jordan Bulls, Stockton-Malone Jazz, and Hakeem-Barkley-Drexler Rockets did so in 1997 and 1998.

Unlike those teams, most of the current teams aren’t serious contenders.  This isn’t the fault of these older stars, who are still playing great.  I thought we’d take a quick look at how these stars are doing this year versus their last few years to see how close they are to their established norms and what, if anything, this tells us about the future.

The Clippers Stars

The Clippers are playing much better than the other teams noted above.  Their stars are also a little younger but let’s review their Big Three (Russell Westbrook doesn’t really count any more) because they each have had significant durability (or other issues) in the past.

Kawhi Leonard, age 32: 23.6 PER, .199 WS48, 6.1 BPM

Kawhi’s advanced stats are in line with his 2022-23 stats overall.  He has shown an ability to get more shots in the 3-10 foot range (20%, highest of his career), while finishing the 0-10 foot range shots at the highest percentage in his career and has dunked the highest percentage of his shots (.078%) since 2013-14.  He has also has nearly stopped taking any long twos (career low .092% of his shots).  Kawhi is still near his peak, assuming his knee can take the rigors of the playoff schedule for the first time since 2020.

Paul George, age 33: 18.3 PER, .128 WS48, 2.1 BPM

PG13’s advanced stats are a little down from the last few years, though that seems to be a function of losing shots to a more available Kawhi and the acquisition of James Harden.  George’s passing and usage are down but his turnover rate has also dropped to a career low 9.7% (he was at 13.4% last year).  He has also turned into more of a 3-point shooter, taking a career high .480% from three and making them at a .394% clip.  In short, he’s still good but the change in personnel makes him a second or third banana on offense.

James Harden, age 34: 19.5 PER, .185 WS48, 5.1 BPM

Can we actuallymake any conclusions from Harden’s year-to-year stats?  He’s constantly changing his role and his (ahem) intensity level.  While his usage is way down this year (20.6% versus 25.0% last season), the plus-minus data has been largely consistent since he left Houston in 2020.  In terms of shooting, Harden is not getting to the rim (.146% of his shots), a number that’s been cratering since 2021-22.  But, man, is Harden adaptable.  He’s shot a career high .594% of his shots from three and made a career high .416%.  Look, I wouldn’t want to pay his next contract either, but the guy is super talented.

In sum, the Clipper Crew has been as good as ever this year and the results seem fully sustainable.  The Clippers can do damage as long as Kawhi stays healthy (TBD). 

Kevin Durant, age 35: 22.5 PER, .161 WS48, 5.1 BPM

It’s hard to criticize KD but his advanced stats are simply a notch below what he did in Brooklyn (26.0 PER, .199 WS48, 7.1 BPM).  The decline seems to be pretty evenly distributed among the statistical categories too.  Nor does KD have the explanation that his stats are down because he’s deferring to teammates on the shallow Suns.  Also troubling is that KD is playing 37.2 mpg, the highest since 2021-22, when he clearly ran out of gas in the playoffs from high minutes.  Durant is still awesome but there are warning signs that Phoenix could flame out.

LeBron James, age 39: 22.9 PER, .144 WS48, 6.2 BPM

LBJ is fairly amazing.  His decline is real but quite gentle.  He has matched his 2022-23 stats, which are a notch below his peak but still great.  His usage is slightly below 30% for the first time since he was 20 years old (his percentage of shots made off assists are near the career highs set in his teenage years with Cleveland).  LeBron still gets to the rim and finishes and he is somehow shooting a career high .408% from three.  The Lakers look like their playoff chances are tenuous but James is doing his part.

Stephen Curry, age 35: 20.9 PER, .145 WS48, 5.4 PER

The major problems in Golden State have nothing to do with Steph and they have seemed to correct the rotation issues recently.  Still, a focus on Curry’s stats show a little erosion in assists, despite his high usage.  The real decline, though, is his ability to get shots near the rim.  He is taking a career-low .070% at the rim and the number has descended 20-30% each of the last four seasons.  Steph has been much more three-point reliant.  This is not too big a deal because threes are Steph’s thing but this decline in layups bears watching going forward. 

Revisiting The Almost Trade of Worthy for Aguirre

The 1986 Draft is best remembered for the tragic death of Len Bias, the 76ers’ execrable trades, and quite a few other historical ripples but I wanted to focus on one big deal that almost happened that day but ended up being aborted at the lats minute.  The huge deal on the table was the trade of James Worthy from the Lakers to the Mavericks for Mark Aguirre and the seventh pick in the 1986 Draft, who would’ve been the talented but troubled Roy Tarpley.  I thought we could do a deep dive to understand the context in which the trade arose and what might’ve been.

At the outset, it seems unthinkable that the Lakers would trade Worthy, the rising star who would become a legend and famously clinched the 1988 title with his Game 7 triple-double.  Nevertheless, a trade in 1986 seemed quite imminent and we can indulge in some hypotheticals.

What was the state of the Lakers in June 1986?

The Lakers’ mood was bleak following the 4-1 upset loss to the Rockets in the 1986 Western Conference Finals.  The Lakers had been 62-20 and the clear class of the West.  They had  won the Conference the prior four seasons but the Rockets upended them behind Hakeem Olajuwon, who was a force of nature in that series (31.0 ppg, .520 FG%, 11.2 rpg, 2.0 apg, 2.2 spg, 4.0 bpg).

Worthy’s performance in the series basically equaled his regular season stats (20.2 ppg, .524 FG%, 4.8 rpg, 3.6 apg).  Looking at his game lines, Worthy struggled the first two games of the series but finished very strong the final three games (44.7 mpg, 24.7 ppg, .615 FG%, 6.3 rpg, 4.3 apg). 

If there were scapegoats in the series for the Lakers, they were the frontcourt players who couldn’t slow down Hakeem and Ralph Sampson.  Also, Byron Scott shot poorly by his standards (.441% in the WCF versus .525% the prior two rounds).  Certainly, Worthy had done nothing to get himself branded as a problem.

So, Worthy was good but did a trade make sense anyway?

Aguirre was a great scorer and getting him plus a top pick for Worthy sounds reasonable in the abstract.  Let’s see the stats of the two players as of the end of the 1985-86 season to see how they compared:

Aguirre: Age 26, 33.8 mpg, 22.6 ppg, .547 TS%, 29.0 USG%, 6.0 rpg, 4.6 apg, 19.2 PER, .090 WS48, 0.3 BPM

Worthy: Age 24, 32.7 mpg, 20.0 ppg, .613 TS%, 22.6 USG%, 5.2 rpg, 2.7 apg, 20.4 PER, .185 WS48, 3.9 BPM

Worthy was younger and a much more efficient player.  In fairness to Aguirre, he was trying to create shots as a primary scorer while Worthy was essentially a third option who got a ton of points in transition.  Aguirre likely would’ve been much more efficient in the same context but it’s clear that Worthy fit that role better AND defended much better.

On top of the fact that Worthy had advantages in age, defense, and fit on offense, Aguirre had other issues.  He was not easy for coaches to deal with.  A great summary of Aguirre’s constant beefing with Coach Dick Motta can be found here but let’s tick through a few highlights:

-“[D]uring the 1984-85 season…Motta and Aguirre had a locker-room blow up in front of players and note-taking reporters. Motta called Aguirre a quitter. Aguirre told Motta he wanted a trade. Motta scoffed, ‘Nobody wants you.’  [Aguirre was forced to apologize].”

-In 1985-86, “miffed at Motta, Aguirre refused to play in the second half of what turned into a blowout loss. The Mavericks suspended Aguirre [again].” 

-Ironically, the Mavs ended the 1985-86 season with a loss to the same Lakers in the second round of the playoffs.  Sam McManis of the L.A. Times described the Aguirre-Motta relationship during that series as follows: “A pout almost always adorns Mark Aguirre’s face on the basketball court. It may be Aguirre’s most prominent feature, even more distinctive than a lower body that should have a wide-load sign attached…. The usual unfolding of these well-publicized tiffs: Aguirre does something on the court that irks Motta. Motta yells and then yanks Aguirre from the game. Aguirre sulks. Motta fumes. They exchange words in the locker room afterward. They meet later and, temporarily, patch up differences.”

McManis then stumbled across this gem of a quote from Aguirre that presaged the potential trade coming 6 weeks later: “[i]f I had been drafted in Los Angeles, it probably would have been looked on as a positive thing. I mean, Byron Scott is flamboyant. James Worthy is, Kareem is, in a way. They are allowed to show their emotions. That’s partly because (Pat) Riley is a player’s coach.”  And then, as if to perfectly capture the value proposition, McManis wrote that: “In Aguirre’s mind, there are only three small better small forwards in the NBA–Larry Bird, Alex English and Worthy.”  (Note that Aguirre was 15th in small forward VORP that year, and was 9th the prior season).

So, there you have it: contemporaneous reporting that Worthy was considered better than Aguirre and that Aguirre longed to play in the Lakers’ system.  As a side note, the notion that Aguirre would score more with the Lakers seems silly (as was the notion that Riley would be a friendlier coach).  Aguirre scored about 25 ppg as a Maverick and his shots and usage were sure to go down with the Lakers.  Still, it was not unreasonable that Aguirre might be happier playing in Los Angeles and winning more with Magic and Kareem, even with fewer shots. 

What was the rationale for the Lakers to make this trade?

In all, Aguirre was a talented but distressed asset and Worthy was a budding star.  The x-factor was Magic Johnson, who was tight with Aguirre and they clearly talked about playing with each other.  All the reporting at the time pegged Magic with being the driving force for the potential trade.  In November 1987, Curry Kirkpatrick wrote in Sports Illustrated that Magic, Aguirre, and Isiah Thomas were “buddies”  and  that “Johnson reportedly—though he denied it—once tried to get his fellow Laker…Worthy traded to Dallas for Aguirre.”   The same story quoted Michael Jordan as saying that “James is getting too good for Magic’s taste.”  Yep, that’s quite saucy.

Jeff Pearlman wrote in “Showtime,” that Magic “thought Aguirre would be an upgrade” and went directly to owner Jerry Buss to get a deal done.  Buss deferred to Magic and negotiated a deal without consulting GM Jerry West.  Dallas thought a deal was done and The Dallas Morning News reported that “Tarpley’s agent was reluctant to allow Tarpley to come to Dallas for a press conference because he was certain that Tarpley was going to be traded to the Lakers.”  When West heard about the trade, he “went beserk” and killed the deal.  West’s perspective was that “Aguirre—while talented—was a me-first player who would destroy the Lakers’ chemistry {while] Worthy…could do twenty different things to help a team win.  If Aguirre wasn’t receiving the ball and scoring, he was useless.”

There was truth to the idea that Aguirre was only a scorer and that Magic’s relationship with Aguirre was influencing his opinion.  The trade, however, was not totally crazy.  After getting pummeled by Hakeem, the Lakers did need a body like Tarpley to help out and Tarpley would’ve been a great help if he was sober (it’s not clear if West had intelligence indicating that Tarpley had a problem at that time).  Putting Tarpley aside, West clearly did the right thing in killing the deal because the difference in value and fit between Worthy and Aguirre was not evened by the seventh pick.

What would’ve happened if the Aguirre/Worthy trade had gone through?

 Obviously, we can’t know for sure but we do know that it’s unlikely that the Lakers would’ve done better than they did by standing pat (as a reminder, the Lakers won the next two titles and lost in the Finals the third year).  It’s possible that the Lakers would’ve gone back-to-back with Aguirre and Tarpley but much less likely.  Aguirre was just not nearly as versatile a player as Worthy (though it should be noted that Aguirre played selflessly and filled a lesser role in Detroit when he was ultimately traded). 

It almost seems sad and fruitless to predict how Tarpley would’ve handled Los Angeles.  He lasted two good years in Dallas before his career was derailed and it’s not likely he would’ve been anymore together elsewhere.  Putting all these unknowns on the table, here are the principals’ aggregate stats for 1986-87 and 1987-88:

Aguirre: 33.6 mpg, 25.4 ppg, .550 TS%, 31.5 USG%, 5.5 rpg, 3.4 apg, 22.0 PER, .162 WS48, 3.4 BPM

Tarpley: 23.8 mpg, 10.6 ppg, .527 TS%, 20.4 USG%, 9.6 rpg, 0.9 apg. 17.9 PER, .141 WS48, -0.6 BPM

Worthy: 34.9 mpg, 19.6 ppg, .575 TS%, 22.5 USG%, 5.4 rpg, 3.3 apg, 18.3 PER, .151 WS48, 2.4 BPM

Aguirre’s black hole offense was really good the next two years and that efficiency, even scaled down a bit to fit with the Lakers, would’ve been an asset.  Tarpley was very raw but also a useful body.  At the end of the day, though, it’s hard to see the Aguirre/Tarpley Lakers winning a title.  In 1986-87, they would’ve faced the peak Celtics front line in the Finals and Aguirre couldn’t guard Bird or McHale and I strain to see a good match up for Aguirre in that series.  In 1988, Aguirre could’ve matched up with Detroit but would he have played better than Worthy?  The Lakers needed an epic game from Worthy to win that title.  This is not to say that the Lakers wouldn’t have won either title with Aguirre but it would have made it much less likely.

A Look at the Detroit Losing Streak

Thankfully, the Pistons finally ended their excruciating 28-game losing streak Saturday night.  Let’s step back and process this whole debacle, FAQ style…

Is this the most embarrassing run of basketball in recent memory?

I guess that’s not the real question.  The real question is just how bad are the Pistons?  Subjectively, I don’t think they are really that bad relative to historically bad teams we’ve seen in the past.  In fact, the Pistons’ -10 SRS is basically dead even with the Spurs and Hornets, and pretty close to the Wizards’ SRS.  A -10 SRS clocks in at 19th worst SRS ever.  That’s bad but not anywhere near the ghastly -14.68 SRS put up by the 1992-93 Mavs (or the 2011-12 Hornets at -13.96).

Yes, Detroit is bad but they are more like a 20-win team.  The Pistons’ most glaring team stat deficiencies are as follows:

-Last in turnover percentage and 27th in defensive turnover percentage

-The Pistons are 28th in 3-point percentage (.334%)

-The Pistons give up the most free throws in the NBA and most fouls doled out

-Detroit has had the third hardest strength of schedule so far

So, you have a bad defense that gives up a ton of free throws, without actually forcing any turnovers.  On offense, they are at the bottom in three percentage and turn the ball over a lot.  They are a slightly worse team on offense (28th) than they are on defense (26th).  This team shouldn’t be quite as bad as its record so far.

Who is to blame for the offensive mess?

There has been much talk that the Pistons lack a true point guard and that running Cade Cunningham in a high usage Luka/Harden role is not a good idea.  Cade has the fourth lowest BPM (-1.4) of any player in the modern era with a usage over 30% (minimum 30 games played).  The only worse are some doozies:

Shawn Kemp, 1999-00: -2.1

Kobe Bryant, 2015-16: -1.6

Kyle Kuzma, 2023-24: -1.5

Cade Cunningham, 2023-24: -1.4

Yes, we have late-stage Kemp & Kobe, as well as Kuzma this season.  Cunningham also plays a lot more than any of the other players on the list do (35 mpg versus about 30 mpg for the others).  In Cade’s defense, he is surrounded by many non-shooters.  Ausar Thompson, Jaden Ivey, and Killian Hayes have played big minutes and can’t hit from three (Ausar is an active player but crazy raw and has shot more airballs than makes from three so far).  Vet backup Monte Morris has missed the entire season while, the only Detroit first rate shooter, Bojan Bogdanovic missed 20 games. 

Having said all that, it does not seem Cade as Harden works.  Cade just doesn’t shoot well enough off the dribble at this point to fill that role.  On the bright side, his shooting numbers are way up from the prior two seasons and it is possible that he could blossom further if he tries this experiment longer.  But Harden and Luka were much better at age-22 than Cade:

Harden 2011-12: 21.1 PER, .660 TS%, .230 WS48, 4.3 BPM

Luka 2021-22: 25.1 PER, .571 TS%, .159 WS48, 8.2 BPM

Cade 2023-24: 15.6 PER, .545 TS%, .014 WS48, -1.4 BPM

Cunningham is just not in that ballpark (Harden was still a sixth man at the time but his advanced stats were quite impressive).  Cade could continue to improve but even a reasonably improved version is just not efficient enough to stick with this offense.  It’s hard to change offensive schemes in the middle of the season and Detroit also lacks the actual point guard to turn to but it’s time to consider turning the page on this soon and putting Cade in an offensive role more suited to his skills. 

How many wins will the Pistons end up with?

Just for a little comparison, here is how the other teams with 20 or more losses in a single season did after the losing streak:

-2010-11 Cavs: 11-18 after streak (final record 19-63)

-2013-14 76ers: 4-6 after streak (final record 19-63)

-1995-96 Grizzlies:  4-7 after streak (final record 15-67)

-1997-98 Nuggets: 9-33 after streak (final record 11-71)

-2011-12 Bobcats: Streak ended with final game of season (final record 7-59)

-1972-73 76ers: 5-15 after streak (final record 9-73)

-1993-94 Mavericks: 12-46 after streak (final record 13-69)

-2020-21 Rockets: 6-25 after streak (final record 17-55)

With the exception of the execrable 2012-13 Hornets, the 20 game streakers played much better after this streak (though in the case of some of these teams, they had multiple lengthy losing streaks that same season).  Some of this improvement could be legitimate learning and development but it seems that these bad teams were able to bank wins late in the season due to tanking or disinterest of other teams.  If they are facing an epically bad overall record, the Pistons will be motivated to win later in the season when most eliminated teams are checked out.

If Detroit plays at a 20-win pace hereafter, they would get 15 wins for the season, which is horribly bad but not unprecedented.  There are 13 prior instances of a 15-win season in an 82-game season (only ten teams have won fewer than 15 games in an 82-game season).  I’m guessing the Pistons break 20 wins this season but this has been an ugly year.

Revisiting the “Super” 1988-89 Hawks

Watching the Clippers cadre of older stars thrash about trying to squeeze out a title run in a crowded field brought me back to my quest to do deep dives of some older forgotten attempted super teams.  A team that popped into my mind that gave me 2023-24 Clippers vibes was the 1988-89 Atlanta Hawks.  While not exactly an overwhelming or famous team, these Hawks did get a lot of buzz when they acquired Reggie Theus and Moses Malone to pair with Dominique Wilkins for a potential title run in 1988.

Was this Hawks’ squad truly a “super team” as the term is understood today?  There is no one definition of what a super team is but generally it now seems to be a team made up of two or three All-Star level players agreeing to play together by free agency and/or trade demands.  The group isn’t all inner circle stars but it should include at least one top five to ten player (i.e. LeBron, Durant, Kawhi) and one player that is, at least, top 25 level.  This definition does not really fit as well in the olden times before easy player movement.  By 1988 standards, getting two All-Star level players in one summer to add to a good core is pretty close to the equivalent of super teaming in 2023 and was an interesting enough story for us to revisit….

How Good was Dominique Circa 1988?

Wilkins had his drawbacks: he was a bit of a streaky outside shooter and his defense wasn’t great but he was a dynamic leaper and scorer in the open court.  My memory was that 1988 Nique was a clear inner circle NBA star in the group just behind Bird, Magic & Jordan.  Let’s dig into the numbers to see where he objectively stood.  In 1987-88, 28-year old Wikins put up the following advanced stats: 23.5 PER, .160 WS48, 4.3 BPM, 4.7 VORP.  These stats all ranked about tenth in the league (WS48 can be buggy and he was 20th in that category behind luminaries like Danny Schayes).

Another interesting factoid was that Wilkins put up these stats on 35.2% usage, which led the NBA that year and was really high for that time.  Nique’s usage that season ranks 25th best since the three-point line was enacted in 1979-80 and second highest of the 1980s/1990s behind MJ’s epic 1986-87 season (38.3%).  In addition, Nique was coming off his best playoff series against the Celtics, where he scored 31.2 ppg and dropped 47 points in a close Game 7 loss.  He finished sixth in the 1987-88 MVP voting behind MJ, Bird, Magic, Barkley and Drexler (Wilkins also finished second in 1985-86 MVP vote and fifth in 1986-87 MVP vote).  It’s fair to say that Wilkins was, at worst, the third best forward in the NBA and easily nestled in the five to ten range overall in the summer of 1988.

State of the rest of the Hawks in June 1988

Wilkins’ Hawks were steadily improving with coach Mike Fratello.  Much like his mentor Hubie Brown, Fratello preached careful offense and a defense-first game plan.  Here’s how Atlanta did during the Fratello years up to 1988-89:

1983-84: 40-42, 18th in offense, 7th in defense, 23rd in pace (missed playoffs)

1984-85: 34-48, 16th in offense, 11th in defense, 18th in pace (missed playoffs)

1985-86: 50-32, 11th in offense, 6th in defense, 19th in pace (lost to Celtics 4-1 in the second round)

1986-87: 57-25, 4th in offense, 2nd in defense, 21st in pace (lost to Pistons 4-1 in the second round)

1987-88: 50-32, 5th in offense, 14th in defense, 21st in pace (lost to Celtics 4-3 in the second round)

The Hawks were clearly a fringe title contender at this point and, despite the drop in team defense in 1987-88, the team was pretty deep.  They had good role players like jump shooter Randy Wittman, a young Kevin Willis, shot blocker Tree Rollins and a credible bench (Jon Koncak, Cliff Levingston, Antoine Carr, Spud Webb, and John Battle).  On top of that, point guard Doc Rivers was an All-Star in 1987-88 and had shockingly strong advanced stats for the two prior years:

1986-87: 19.9 PER, .191 WS48, 6.0 BPM, 5.3 VORP

1987-88: 20.4 PER, .159 WS48, 4.9 BPM, 4.4 VORP

By advanced stats, Doc was as important to the Hawks as Wilkins was.  That may be a bit of a stretch but Rivers was clearly a top point guard and a foundational piece and arguably a top 25 player in the NBA at the time.

Moses and Theus in 1988

So, we could argue that Wilkins and Rivers were a compelling enough core to add stars to meet the super team definition.  Were Moses Malone and Theus such added stars?  This is arguable but here are their stats for 1987-88:

Malone 1987-88: Age 32, 34.1 mpg, 20.3 ppg, .577 TS%, 11.2 rpg, 1.4 apg, .163 WS48, 1.6 BPM, 2.5 VORP

Theus 1987-88: Age 30, 36.3 mpg, 21.6 ppg, .529 TS%, 3.2 rpg, 6.3 apg, .066 WS48, -0.9 BPM, 0.7 VORP

The raw stats for both are pretty eye catching but they both had warts.  Moses was still effective on the boards but there was a fear that his offensive set up in the block clogged the lane for drivers.  As Gordon Jones wrote in “Tales From the 76ers,” by 1985-86, “Moses’ effectiveness was diminishing.  His shot totals were going up, his shooting percentage down.  His weaknesses as a passer and defender were being exposed.”  The 76ers went on a run after Moses was injured late in the year, going 6-1 and unleashing Charles Barkley and then doing very well in the playoffs too.  This provided an impetus for the famous trade to dump Moses to Washington.

Moses spent two years as an All-Star in Washington but his stats didn’t reflect team success.  The Bullets were a .500 team with a bottom five offense both seasons.  So, there was evidence that Moses’ gaudy raw stats were less valuable than they seemed, though it was hard to argue that he wouldn’t be a help over non-scorers Rollins and Koncak.

Turning to Theus, he had long been the central offensive engine to many blah teams in Chicago and later with Kansas City/Sacramento.  Theus, who was the pre-MJ star in Chicago, was famously benched in 1983-84 by coach Kevin Loughery who felt that Theus was a ball hog and a non-defender.

Loughery was being somewhat unfair.  Yes, Theus was an imperfect player and he correctly identified Reggie’s weak areas but the Bulls were bad and Theus wasn’t the main problem.  Ultimately, Theus spent the next five years as essentially the same high usage guy for blah Kings teams, where they were more comfortable with his game.  Still, like with Moses, there was reason to believe that Reggie’s raw counting stats weren’t as valuable as they seemed on paper (in fact, he was -0.9 BPM in 1987-88).

Theus did hold pretty decent perceived value as Sacramento got a decent starter in Randy Wittman and the 18th pick in the 1988 draft (Ricky Berry) for Theus.  At the time, Hawks President Stan Kasten said: “We are very excited to have Reggie with the Hawks organization.  He is an outstanding shooter and should fill a need for us this season.”

As for Moses, he was a bona fide free agent and turning 33 but the Hawks gave him a three-year $4.5 million deal.  This was a good chunk of change for 1988 and made Moses the 15th highest player in the NBA (tied with Nique).  At the press conference after his signing, Moses said “I may be in my 30s, but I still will get my 20 points and 10 rebounds a game. People just don’t realize I can still do it…. But I think the Lord is taking care of me. . . . My name is Moses, isn’t it?”

Kasten also saw this as a title team with many stars: “It will be a difficult job for the coaches because we’ve got a lot of talent and egos to mesh, but every great team has had that problem. We’re taking a gamble with talent. Without talent, you have no chance. We think we have that talent now.”

Fratello set the realistic expectations as follows: “Los Angeles and Detroit, the two teams that met in the NBA finals, have to be considered the favorites, but we like to look at it that we have two new starting pieces and hopefully we’ll be stronger.”  The upshot was that the Hawks had a moderate super team buzz internally. 

Hawks 1988-89 Pre-Season Buzz

The media was moderately bullish on these Hawks as well.  Here’s a sampling:

Vegas had them at +1200 to win the title, sixth in the NBA and behind Detroit, Boston, and Cleveland in the East.

-Sports Illustrated ranked Atlanta second in the East noting that: “the inner and outer strength that helped Malone become one of the most indomitable forces in league history has certainly lessened.  That is the main concern of the multi-talented Hawks, who enter the season with high expectations—most pegged to Malone.  Never mind whether there will be enough basketballs to satisfy [Wilkins, Moses, and Theus]….Fratello will likely convince them that they must share the goodies to [win].  The more relevant issue is whether the addition of Malone…makes the Hawks stronger that the Pistons.  The answer here is no.”

-The 1989 Pro Basketball Handbook picked them for third in the Central and pegged them as a contender: “If not for Larry Bird’s [heroics in Game 7], Fratello’s Hawks would have gone to the Eastern Conference finals.  Even in defeat, they answered a lot questions about their heart….Pencil in another 50-victory season and further advancement in the playoffs.”     

The Hawks seemed like they were a clear second round playoff team with an outside chance of even better if everything broke right.

Hawks 1988-89: Rubber Meets Road

Things sort of broke right and wrong.  Larry Bird had foot issues that quickly derailed Boston from contention, but New York, Cleveland, and Chicago had become legit good teams (ie teams that could win over 50 games) and Milwaukee was still good, not to mention the conference title winner Detroit looming over all these teams.  This logjam complicated plans to get deep into the playoffs.

All things considered, Atlanta did pretty well.  They alternated months at about .500 with torrid months:

November 1988: 8-6

December 1988: 11-3

January 1989: 7-7

February 1989: 9-4

March 1989: 7-8

April 1989: 10-2

The hot streaks coincided with home stands (33-8 at home, 19-22 on the road).  Here’s how Moses and Theus did for Atlanta versus their prior years:

Malone 1987-88: 34.1 mpg, 20.3 ppg, .577 TS%, 25.2 Usage, 11.2 rpg, 1.4 apg, .163 WS48, 1.6 BPM

Moses 1988-89: 35.5 mpg, 20.2 ppg, .581 TS%, 23.4 Usage, 11.8 rpg, 1.4 apg, .178 WS48, 1.8 BPM

Theus 1987-88: 36.3 mpg, 21.6 ppg, .529 TS%, 26.1 Usage, 3.2 rpg, 6.3 apg, .066 WS48, -0.9 BPM

Theus 1988-89: 30.7 mpg, 15.8 ppg, .534 TS%, 22.8 Usage, 3.0 rpg, 4.7 apg, .113 WS48, 0.6 BPM

Moses and Theus were more efficient on lower usage than the prior year as featured players and they palpably helped the free throw rates as they had the two best free throw rates on the team.  Dominique’s stats were down slightly overall but he still was great and led the team in usage (29.4) while Rivers was just as good as the prior year.  Here is how the 1988-89 team compared to the prior team overall:

1987-88 Hawks: 50-32, 4.02 SRS, 5th offense, 14th defense, 21st pace

1988-89 Hawks: 52-30, 5.26 SRS, 4th offense, 9th defense, 19th pace

The Hawks were better overall and really improved from ninth in free throws, to leading the NBA, though assists per game dropped from 14th to 21st.  In all, Atlanta should’ve been happy” they were a 52-win team and the four seed with homecourt in round one against the 49-win Bucks.  So far, Atlanta was basically meeting expectations (Atlanta was the four seed because Cleveland won 57 games and really broke out to get the three seed. Detroit, of course, was the top seed). 

Dealing with Playoff Disappointment: Blame Reggie?

The Hawks ended up losing a close five-game series in the first round.  This sounds okay in theory but it was worse than it sounds.  The Bucks were missing Paul Pressey the whole series and the Hawks fell behind 2-1 and had to eke out an overtime victory in Game 4 in Milwaukee.  Atlanta was keyed up to go home to clinch and the Bucks’ best player, Terry Cummings, hurt his ankle and would miss Game 5.

After Game 4. Bucks’ coach Del Harris sounded less-than-optimistic that Milwaukee had a shot: “[w]hoever we have or don’t have, there’s not much said about it.  If we have people out, we have people out. We’re not predicated on one guy. We build our whole team on team offense or team defense.”  Despite all this tone, the Bucks pulled out a 96-92 win in Game 5 behind 25 points from super sub Ricky Pierce.  Moses had a great game (25 points, 16 rebounds, +18.5 BPM) and Nique had 22 points but was just okay (+1.1 bpm).  In all, it was a bitter defeat given the pre-season expectations and the fact that the Hawks dropped two home playoff games against a team missing its two stars.

In the greater scheme of things, the loss didn’t really matter.  The Hawks would’ve likely been pummeled by the eventual champs Detroit in the second round anyway.  Atlanta went 1-5 against the Pistons in the regular season and Detroit swept the same Bucks team that the Hawks struggled with (the Pistons outscored Milwaukee by about 12 points per game).  But making the second round meant a lot to Atlanta management and weren’t thinking about the fact that a win over the Bucks would’ve resulted in the Hawks being the Pistons’ speed bump.

Blame was assigned to Theus.  He did have a miserable playoffs: 25.4 mpg, 7.4 ppg, 1.4 rpg, 4.8 apg, 6.0 PER, -.048 WS48, -6.8 PER.  Combine those bad stats with getting toasted by the Bucks guards Pierce and Jay Humphries and Theus was deemed the primary problem.  In fact, in early April 1989, there were already articles noting that “a bickering group of Hawks…blamed the majority of their problems on one player: Reggie Theus.”  The Hawks left him unprotected in the expansion draft and he was taken quickly by Orlando.  Thereafter, Theus and the Hawks professed to have no hard feelings.  That might’ve been untrue.

The funny postscript came a year or so later in the 1991 Rotisserie League Basketball book when the writers (most of whom worked for Sports Illustrated) asked Kasten to assess their respective fantasy teams in February 1990.  Kasten took it very seriously: “I actually made up depth charts for all [the fantasy] teams.  See, my problem is I can’t do anything half way.”   Kasten was “loathe to make specific comments about specific players on the record” but then Theus’ name came up.  Kasten called him one of a few “big number” players but noted that “I always did overvalue Reggie, didn’t I?”

The End: Running It Back Without Reggie in 1989-90

The Hawks kept essentially the same team the next season except Kevin Willis came back from injury and they tried Battle in Theus’ slot.  The result was a 41-41 team that missed the playoffs.  Theus wasn’t a huge loss (he scored a lot but was not efficient for Orlando) and the Hawks were fourth in offense without him.  The problem was defense, which cratered to 25th.  The main issue was an injury to Rivers.  The Hawks started 13-6 and were 17-11 when he went down on January 4, 1990.  He tried to come back briefly, on January 19, 1990, but was essentially out until March 16, 1990.  The Hawks went 12-22 in that stretch before rallying to a 13-8 finish. 

In addition to the Rivers injury, the Willis-Moses front court rated as pretty bad defensively (-1.8 DBPM for Willis and -2.4 DBPM for Moses).  Willis had missed all of 1988-89 with injury and it seemed that: (a) Moses meshed better defensively with Koncak and (b) the aging Moses was regressing defensively regardless of who he played with.  Fratello was canned and the Hawks remained a middling squad for the next few years before a resurgence in 1993-94 but that’s a story for another day.

Recapping It Up

Let’s answer the burning questions to sum it up:

Were the 1988-89 Hawks a super team?

Not quite but a Nique, Moses, Doc core was pretty close.  Moses ranked about fourth in center VORP when Atlanta got him and he fell to seventh on the Hawks.  A nice player but not quite the same as adding a Durant or even Paul George.  Again, 1988 Moses was right on the border but not quite.  Theus, for his part, showed he could be useful on a good team but was more role player than star.

Were the 1988-89 Hawks a failure?

Yes, they failed but the blame on Reggie was silly.  The Hawks loaded up to take a shot but they just weren’t good enough in a stacked East and Theus wasn’t the reason.  It was disappointing that the Hawks didn’t emerge as the Pistons’ main antagonist but you Kasten did all he could to try and see.  In that sense, those Hawks really do feel like the modern Clippers.  The Clipps have a couple of aging stars and just don’t quite have the horses to be a true contender.  The Hawks didn’t ever tear it down (probably because the payroll structure let them lock in Wilkins well through his prime) but Atlanta, like these Clipps, grew overripe and died on the vine.  Both were noble efforts but most title runs don’t really come close in retrospect.