NBA Position Battles: Should the Detroit Pistons Start Tobias Harris or Jon Leuer at Power Forward?

Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy has gone back and forth all season between Harris and Leuer at power forward. Which player is the best fit?

The power forward position has been in flux for the Detroit Pistons all year long.

At the start of the year, Tobias Harris was coach Stan Van Gundy's four of choice, as he started the Pistons' first 31 contests at that position. For the 32nd game of the year, however, Jon Leuer took over, and Harris shifted to the bench. Leuer kept the job for the next 8 games, Harris reclaimed it for another 6, and finally Leuer took back over on January 23rd and has not budged from that spot over the last 16 games.

All in all, Harris has started 38 games for Detroit, while Leuer has gotten the nod in 24. According to the numbers, which player should Van Gundy choose going forward?

To most basketball fans, Harris seems like the obvious choice. He's the team's second-highest paid player behind Andre Drummond and currently leads the team in scoring at 16.2 points per game. Still, he and Leuer have incredibly similar per-36-minute averages.


Harris has the edge in scoring, but Leuer has Harris beat in rebounding. Other than that, they're pretty similar across the board. Even their shooting splits are eerily similar, with Harris registering a true shooting percentage (weighted field goal, three-point, and free throw percentages) of 57.3%, while Leuer's is nearly identical at 57.0%.

So, if it's not in raw averages, who has the edge in the advanced statistics?

Once again, nobody.

Harris and Leuer are second and third on the Pistons, respectively, in nERD (our proprietary metric that measures the total contribution of a player throughout the course of a season, based on efficiency), while also registering close to the same mark in almost every other common advanced statistic.

CategoryTobias HarrisJon Leuer
Offensive rating112115
Defensive rating108108
Player efficiency rating16.515.1
Win shares4.94.0
Win shares per 48 minutes.122.128
Box plus/minus0.81.1
Value over replacement player1.41.2

Harris has the edge in player efficiency rating, win shares, and value over replacement player, but Leuer has him beat in win shares per 48 minutes and box plus/minus. In each case, however, the difference is marginal. They even have the exact same defensive rating, although it's worth noting that Leuer has the better offensive rating by 3 points per 100 possessions.

Well, if it's not raw averages or advanced stats that'll settle this debate, how about rim protection? The Pistons are seventh in the NBA in defensive efficiency, so having a solid defensive power forward to pair with Andre Drummond would be important.

Tobias Harris2.03.558.4%
Jon Leuer2.64.557.9%

Once again, there's little difference between these two players. They are both decidedly terrible at protecting the rim, as they each allow opponents to shoot approximately 58% from within five feet of the tin.

So, if neither player is giving the Pistons an advantage in terms of averages, advanced stats, or rim protection, how are we supposed to make a choice here?

How about we look at how the team performs when each of them is lined up with Detroit's four entrenched starters at the other positions (Reggie Jackson, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Marcus Morris, and Andre Drummond):

5-Man LineupMINOff RtgDef RtgNet RtgAST/TO RatioREB%eFG%
Including Harris286102.4117.9-15.51.6249.8%51.4%
Including Leuer354103.9111.1-7.22.0050.0%48.9%

Finally, a difference.

The Pistons are currently the 8 seed in the Eastern Conference with a record of 29-32, but two of their most-used lineups have horrible net ratings (points scored minus points allowed per 100 possessions).

But while both lineups have worse numbers than you'd want from a group of starters on a playoff-bound team, the iteration with Harris has been the worst of the two. Their 117.9 defensive rating is a full 7.2 points per 100 possessions worse than that of the Denver Nuggets, the Association's 30th-ranked defense. The offensive ratings have been similar between the two lineups, but Leuer's even gets the slight edge on that end, as well.

Tobias Harris might be the team's leading scorer, but he and Jon Leuer are incredibly similar players by the numbers. They both have similar per-36 averages, advanced statistics, and rim protection marks. The only place where they differ is in the lineup data, and that might be important for a team with a mere one-game lead on the ninth-place Miami Heat for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

We give the Pistons a 63.2% chance of making the postseason, and sticking with Leuer as the team's starting power forward seems like the best way to achieve that goal.