Motown's New Big Man
Who has been the best rebounder in Detroit these past few years? Conventional wisdom says it's 4-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year Ben Wallace, but Pistons General Manager Joe Dumars is making a case of his own. 24 hours after Big Ben celebrated Independence Day weekend by exercising his inalienable right to sell his services to the highest bidder on the free market, taking his show to the Chicago Bulls for the next four years, Joe D rebounded by signing away Nazr Mohammed from the San Antonio Spurs - giving him a center to replace his departed all-star at half of the cost. A cursory look at their statistics and accomplishments over the past few years would lead you to believe that at half of Wallace's salary, the Pistons are getting half the player. However, examining their numbers more in-depth, we see that Detroit should be in good shape for the next few years.
It is difficult to compare their statistics straight up, since Wallace has been the unquestioned starter in Detroit for years, playing at least 34 minutes a game in every season that he's been with the Pistons (since 2000-01), while in his nine NBA seasons, Mohammed has never cracked the 30 minute per game mark. Whether you view this as a positive (he's relatively fresh for a 29-year old big man) or negative (he's never established himself as a full-time player) depends on your perspective. As we'll see shortly, his per minute numbers are strong for a player at his position, so I'm inclined to think this is a positive thing.
Looking at John Hollinger's Player Efficiency Ratings, we see that their contributions, at least statistically, are closer than we think.
In 2004-05, Wallace had a PER figure of 17.52, while Mohammed posted a number of 16.42. In 2003-04, they posted similar scores, with Wallace outpacing Nazr 17.40 to 16.26. While I couldn't find the numbers for 2005-06, it appears that both players have plateaued, or if anything, Nazr is making incremental gains while Wallace is beginning to decline slightly. Going back a few more years, we see that this trend continues, as Wallace posted scores of 17.32 in '02-'03, and 18.75 in '01-'02. I couldn't' find Nazr's score from '02-'03, but the year prior, he had posted a score of 14.01. (Thanks to Hollinger's site for this info).
Using another set of number, the per 40 minute statistics from Basketball-Reference.com, we see that Mohammed again matches up, or exceeds Wallace in most offensive categories. Better yet, Mohammed is a respectable free throw shooter for a center (66% for his career), meaning he won't be an offensive liability on the floor in the final minutes of a game.
Am I saying that Mohammed will completely replace, or even potentially be an upgrade over Big Ben? I don't think so. While he's clearly a better offensive player (though, really, who isn't?), his defense is clearly inferior. Furthermore, Mohammed has more of a tendency to get into foul trouble (he averaged over 6 per 40 minutes this past year), which is another reason he plays less minutes than the man he's replacing. There are also things that Wallace brings to the table that we can't really measure, such as leadership on and off the court, and how his presence affects the way that other teams attack the basket. Unlike when Big Ben patrolled the lane, the Pistons' opponents this season won't be afraid of going to the basket against Mohammed. What this does is change the nature of the Pistons. While they have carved out their identity as a physical, defensive team, inserting Mohammed into the lineup makes them less of a defensive menace, but more of an offensive threat.
Nazr by himself won't replace Ben Wallace. Of the 34 minutes a game that Big Ben played, expect to see Nazr take up 25-30 of them. The remaining minutes (and some of 'Sheed's as well) should be taken up through increased roles for 6th man Antonio McDeyss (assuming he stays healthy), and 2005's first round pick, Jason Maxiell, who looks like a keeper in this league. They may not win 64 games again, but I don't think we can write the Pistons off yet. Assuming they can find a way to add a backup guard, they should have a solid 8-9 man rotation that could easily win 50-55 games and be a threat to make the NBA finals.
Nazr Mohammed may not be an all-star, but at $6 million, compared to the $14 that Wallace now makes, he is certainly a bargain. Not only is he a much better player than we think, but he's playing in Detroit for much less than many other starting centers in the league, most of whom are overpaid and underachieving (see Dampier, Erick). With limited cap room and tradeable assets, Joe Dumars found a way to add one of the best centers on the market, and keep his team in contention for at least a couple of more years. At half the salary, he got much more than half the player. Piston fans should feel good about their chances as long as he's running the show.
And since I promised more on the NBA off-season, here are a few other thoughts:
People are buzzing about the New Orleans Hornets' signing of Peja Stojakovic and Bobby Jackson (get it? Hornets? Buzzing? Nevermind, let's move on). In adding two key players from the Sacramento Kings teams of earlier this decade, it appears that owner George Shinn is attempting to build a team that can easily win 50-55 games in the regular season, then disappear come playoff time. Adding injury-prone Chicago big man Tyson Chandler should also help with that.
On another Hornets note, what was the point of drafting two energetic, defensive-minded yet offensively-challenged big men in the draft if you were just going to trade for another one a week later? Oh yeah, and the one you traded for (Chandler) has a history of injuries, and will cost you about $7 million more than the other two combined. Either they really blew the trade, the draft (by passing on a swingman who could have helped them, such as Ronnie Brewer or Rodney Carney), or both. I'm inclined to think both.
I love the rumored Marquis Daniels for Austin Croshere deal that Dallas and Indiana have apparently agreed on. This is a win-win for both sides.
Al Harrington appears to be on his way to Indiana or Golden State. If the Hawks don't take Jamaal Tinsely back, I can't see who else would work in a sign and trade with the Pacers. As for Golden State, I don't know where they'd play him if they don't give up either Troy Murphy or Mike Dunleavy. The Hawks don't need (or probably want) Junior Dunleavy, so I have to think that if this is going to work, the Hawks are taking on Troy Murphy's salary - which would actually be a great move for the Warriors if they could make it happen. As for Atlanta, I don't know how well Murph would fit in, but if they could expand this to swap him to Cleveland for Drew Gooden in another sign and trade, that would be a good fit for both teams. Now, if only Cleveland could dump Ilgauskas and find a point guard, they'd be set. A starting five of Anderson Varejao, Troy Murphy, LeBron, Larry Hughes, and (insert point guard here) could keep up with anyone in the East.
The most underrated move of the off-season thus far has to be Miami's signing of undrafted free agent Mike Gansey. Gansey, who played college ball at West Virginia, was considered a sleeper going into the draft by pretty much everyone (including myself). Well, he could have just slept through the whole thing himself, because somehow, he went undrafted. Unbelievable. Now, after four years of college, he's probably going to be one of the most NBA-ready rookies this season. He won't get the minutes to make a huge impact, but he could be a difference-maker off the bench for the Heat. He's a great shooter, great character guy, and getting him on the cheap is an absolutely great move by the Heat.