Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Pistons' New Offensive Philosophy

Much was made about Stan Van Gundy's 4-out, 1-in offensive scheme prior to the season, what with Andre Drummond passing as a young Dwight Howard and the Pistons' influx of shooting in free agency. But simply posting up Drummond every time down the floor is unsustainable, and generating good outside looks requires off-ball movement and a team passing quickly around the floor. Play design dictates this movement, which was woefully lacking last year (hence the 19.3 3FGA/game in the '13-'14 season). In the first half of yesterday's game, the Pistons ran an unusual offensive set that takes advantage of many of the en vogue trends in NBA offenses today.

With Brandon Jennings bringing the ball up the right side of the floor, the most obvious (and unusual) formation on the floor was Caron Butler and Jonas Jerebko standing next to one another on the left wing. In addition, Jodie Meeks is standing on the baseline behind Drummond, who is in the post.

When Jennings gets to the right wing, Drummond sets a pin down screen on the block, allowing Meeks to curl out from the baseline and flash through the lane. This is Jennings' first read. If Meeks gets open in the lane, Jennings can quickly pass him the ball for a layup. (Meeks also has the option to drop a pocket pass to Drummond who would roll to the basket if Jennings throws the ball inside, but that never happened in this game.) If Meeks doesn't get open, he runs directly to the opposite short corner.

With Meeks in the opposite corner, Drummond now rolls up to the right wing to play a two-man game with Jennings. Drummond sets a pick freeing Jennings to attack the outside of the formation. In addition, Butler moves from his spot on the wing to the top of the key, giving the Pistons three-point shooters spaced evenly around the weakside of the court.

As Jennings turns the corner of the Drummond screen, he has five potential options. Other than taking a shot or attacking the rim, Jennings has a clear view of the court and can potentially see all four of his teammates. If Jennings can put the defending point guard on his hip, that forces the center to defend Jennings, opening a dive for Drummond (hence all of the alley oops in the first game). If the opposing shooting guard, power forward, or small forward collapse on Drummond, Jennings will have an open three point shooter. Commence swinging the ball around the perimeter to generate an open three pointer.

This play is little more than a high pick and roll between Jennings and Drummond, but it's the off-ball movement and eventual spacing that make it such an effective set. One of the problems with the Pistons offense last year was the lack of options. Often, the team would run a similar pick and roll from the wing but would have a shooter in the playside corner or Monroe/Smith on the weakside block, constricting floorspace for Jennings or Drummond, respectively. With this alignment, if the first few reads aren't available, it's because the defense is helping off of a shooter, leaving him open for a three pointer.

This play has some restrictions. The Pistons can only reliably run it with Jerebko at power forward because of the necessity to have a stretch-4 to put pressure on the defense. A Drummond/Monroe frontcourt could not run this set, and putting Josh Smith out as one of the floor spacers is begging for a missed jumper. However, given the space on the inside, even a Smith brick could end up as an easy Drummond putback.

The Pistons ran similar schemes, playing a two-man game on one side of the court while shooters set screens on the weakside of the play. But this kind of pick and roll scheme has dominated the league in recent years: Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, Tony Parker and anyone, Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love, Lebron and Lebron, etc. What SVG brings that the Pistons' coaching casualties never did is the foresight to diagram the spacing and potential options for the ballcarrier rather than just the initial action. #SVG4President

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Preseason Game 1 Snap Reactions

Bulls 109 - Pistons 111 (OT)

Let us take a minute to rejoice that the NBA season is finally back. The past year in sports has been traumatic, so it's nice to have some on-court gameplay to absorb. Last night's overtime win against the division rival Bulls was an encouraging glimpse into what the future could hold with Stan Van Gundy. The team was as advertised: a coherent, spacing-centered offense featuring Andre Drummond in the middle and a consistent defensive scheme that will only improve as players get more time in the system. Not everything went swimmingly, but it's hard to picture a more promising start to the '14-'15 season. Without further ado, snap reactions with grossly oversimplified conclusions!


  • Van Gundy opened the game with a lineup of Jennings-Meeks-Butler-Smith-Drummond, choosing to bring Greg Monroe off the bench. SVG eschewed the mistake that the Pistons' coaches made last year by allowing Smith to play his natural position at power forward. The Pistons started fast and aggressive, getting out in transition, spacing the floor, and finding Drummond inside without any defenders in sight. 
  • Josh Smith was somewhere between Josh Smith and Josh Smith+. There were moments of clarity for Smith in this game. He opened with two long jumpers that both went in, but followed that up with miss after miss from the same, inefficient spot. On the first offensive possession of the second half, Smith received the ball just inside the three point line and, rather than throwing up a late-contested jumper, he dished the ball inside to Drummond who was able to lay it in through traffic. It seemed that someone on the coaching staff had a word with Smith during halftime about his shot selection, but after this moment of foresight, Smith went back to unparalleled heaver, ending the game 4-11 from the field for 9 points.
  • Jodie Meeks and DJ Augustin are hard to defend. Off-ball movement was rarely seen last year but is crucial in SVG's offensive system. Meeks and Augustin were constantly running off of pin down screens and flashing into the lane. Both showed quickness off the ball and were able to get to open spots, both in the lane and on the three-point line. This will stress defenses throughout the season and is one reason why Drummond found so many open looks inside.
  • Drummond's post play needs a lot of work. Dwight Howard was the focal point of SVG's most effective offense. Defenses had to commit at least 1.5 defenders to Howard on the post, allowing shooters to find openings. Though Howard's post proficiency never reached elite levels, he was still able to manipulate defenses and find open shooters because of what he had the potential to do. Drummond is a long way from becoming a dominant force inside. His post moves consist of backing his defender down and throwing up a contested baby hook. It rarely ended well in this game, but it's clearly an element of the offense that will be stressed throughout the season. Drummond will need to show significant improvement for this to become an effective dimension.
  • The Pistons took a lot of three pointers. The current wisdom states that three-point defense is not about limiting 3FG%, which is a number that is highly variable and difficult to control. Effective three-point defense is about limiting the number of 3FG attempts a team takes. The same goes for a team's offensive strategy. In recent years, NBA teams have designed offenses around corner three-point attempts (the Spurs most notably), while last year's Pistons averaged only 19.3 outside shots per game. In the first half of yesterday's win, the Pistons attempted 17 three pointers, ending the game with 32 attempts and connecting on 11 of them. The team's effective field goal percentage was still a shallow 47.3%, but don't expect Singler, Butler, and Meeks to go a combined 3-14 from outside every game. What's important is that the offense generated three pointers at a high rate.
  • One bright spot from the behind the arc was Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. KCP went 4-8 from outside, connecting on shots off the bounce and in catch-and-shoot situations. KCP struggled with consistency last year, stemming from mechanics in his shooting motion. Often, his shots would miss wildly left or right, a sign that the player's form was off. In this game, KCP's misses were uniformly off the front iron but on line. Most promisingly, he was able to catch and rise up over defenders to make a few of his threes. If he can continue that success, in combination with his defense which was on full display against Jimmy Butler, KCP could quickly surpass Meeks as the starting shooting guard.
  • Greg Monroe is the same guy as last year. Despite coming off the bench, Monroe evoked the full range of emotions. When he and Jonas Jerebko entered the game in the first quarter, the Pistons immediately went on a skid, spearheaded by Monroe's lazy defense and rebounding. (Watching Derrick Rose come from out of bounds to tip an offensive rebound to himself as Monroe stood idly by was especially egregious.) He olĂ©'d his defensive assignment multiple times and was summarily beaten by Pau Gasol on both ends of the floor. But his box score is filled: 24 points on 9-14 shooting, 9 rebounds (5 offensive), 2 assists, and 1 steal. This performance epitomizes my problem with Monroe's game. On a play-to-play basis, Monroe is lazy and dismissive, but his stat sheet is usually filled with above-average numbers. It will be interesting to see if SVG's defensive focus can help Monroe develop into a more complete, every-possession kind of player.
  • Brandon Jennings is still fun. Jennings got a bad rep last season as a score-first point guard without much regard for moving the ball. Much of that was warranted, but he made a career of being a low turnover, flashy distributor. Jennings finished with 10 assists and 0 turnovers by finding the Pistons bigs inside and properly moving the ball around the offense. Though he still finished 3-12 from the field for 10 points, his ability to run the offense and stress the defense was something that the Pistons will need this season if the shooting bogs down.

The team also did some interesting things schematically in this game that I'll talk about in the coming days. What you need to know is that SVG is the real deal. Adjust expectations accordingly, but fringe playoff team that gets blown out by the Cavs in the first round is definitely within reach. We made it, you guys.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Pistons sign Jodie Meeks

The assumption since the Pistons hired Stan Van Gundy was that he took the job to implement his 4-out, 1-in offensive system centered on Andre Drummond. To do so, the team would need spot up shooters, of which the roster was bereft of last season. With the exception of Kyle Singler, who according to Synergy Sports shot 41.7% in spot-up situations, the team had very few options on the outside. You all know what happened with Josh Smith, KCP struggled with consistency, and Brandon Jennings dominated the ball too much to function as a spot-up sniper.

Enter Jodie Meeks, the Lakers' erstwhile shooting guard who saw career numbers across the board last season playing in Mike D'Antoni's wide-open offensive system. With the Pistons, there will be less running and gunning, but if SVG's prior offenses are any indication, there will be plenty of opportunities for Meeks to get looks. Meeks took 404 three pointers last season (tied for 20th most taken) and shot 40.1% on those attempts. On his spot up looks (203 in total from beyond the arc), Meeks shot 44.3% from outside. The point is, Meeks knows his role on this team.

However, this brings a few roster issues to light (what's new?). As the roster currently sits, the depth chart would look something approximating:

Jennings Meeks Smith Monroe Drummond
Bynum Singler Datome Jerebko Harrellson
Dinwiddie KCP Cartier Martin Mitchell

In other words, it looks almost identical to how it did last year with a few upgrades to the role players. Including Chauncey Billups, the Pistons currently have 16 men on their roster (following the signing of Cartier Martin). I don't believe there's any way Billups sticks around for the final year of his contract. If he does, it likely won't be with the Pistons, as I assume SVG doesn't feel any loyalty to a player he's never coached. Still, if Billups does remain with the team, Siva seems like the player most likely not to make the cut. The Pistons' best case scenario for fixing this roster is via trade.

The rumblings lately have been that the Pistons are making a play for Sacramento's Isaiah Thomas. Signing him outright as a free agent doesn't make much sense, but trades have been wistfully floated. The key trade piece mentioned has been Josh Smith (this is cobbled together from rumors of the Kings' interest in Smith and the Pistons' interest in Thomas). Smith isn't as bad as he performed last season, but either he or Monroe needs to find a new home. While I would be upset paying Monroe $15 million a year, his upside trumps Smith's at this point of their respective careers.

The Kings are in need of a power forward and Smith is in need of a roster that allows him to play power forward, which on paper seems great. In reality, playing Smith, Rudy Gay, and DeMarcus Cousins together is probably unwise. That's for another front office to figure out. Hypothetically, if the Pistons are able to move Smith for Thomas, the depth chart suddenly makes a lot more sense:

Jennings Meeks Singler Monroe Drummond
Thomas KCP Datome Jerebko Harrellson
Martin Mitchell


The key to the Meeks signing, in my opinion, is KCP's ability to play small forward when Singler needs a rest. Gigi Datome proved last year that he's not ready significant minutes in an NBA uniform, least of all guard some of the wing players in the league. Meanwhile, with KCP's athleticism and speed, he's able to go toe-to-toe with many of the small forwards around the league (I'm thinking specifically of when he shut down Paul George for an entire game, prior to the All Star break when the Pacers summarily imploded).

Meeks' experience and consistency will likely earn him the starting nod at shooting guard barring a massive improvement from KCP this summer. Moving Smith allows Singler to slide into his natural position at small forward. Meanwhile, Thomas, KCP, and Dinwiddie could provide a much-needed punch off the bench.

Smith's contract could be hard to move, however. If he remains on the roster, SVG seems smart enough to move him to the bench behind Greg Monroe at PF and deal with the ego explosion that comes. Even without Thomas, Singler moving to SF with Meeks at SG will give the Pistons ample offensive firepower and properly stretch the floor for Monroe and Drummond to work inside. If Meeks proves to be too significant of a defensive downgrade, KCP can slot into the starting role.

The lynchpin of that 2009 Orlando Magic team--SVG's most famous and successful--was the duo of 6'10" forwards Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis, stretching the floor while also defending with length. The Magic were able to surround Howard with size and shooting, something the Pistons can't do. Meeks is a defensive liability and at 6'5" doesn't have a ton of upside. However, SVG has been able to coax the best out of role players, and Meeks could find his niche on the defensive end. However, playing alongside Brandon Jennings will do him no favors.

Jennings, Meeks, Singler, and Monroe could prove hazardous for the Pistons' starting rotation. All are subpar individual defenders and, much as he's a budding star, Drummond is nowhere near the defensive player that Howard was/is. The starting shooting guard and small forward roles will be occupied by some combination of KCP, Meeks, and Singler, only one of whom is a good defender, and none of whom have ideal NBA size for their natural position. With few small forward free agents on the market with interest in Detroit, best case scenario here remains SVG's ability to cobble together a defensive system that can make up for weak individual perimeter defense.

The Meeks signing is not without problems: his defense, prior to last season he never shot over 40% from outside--though he came close a few times--and even with a career season, his PER didn't reach 15. Paying him almost $7 million a year is a reach, especially with the current composition of the Pistons' roster. But SVG needs shooting and Meeks should be able to provide that. With the salary cap ballooning and shooting becoming a premium, if the Pistons can snag a young SG with upside now, it could prove to offer significant savings down the line. Besides, the Pistons won't hit a real salary crunch for quite a while. When Drummond is up for an extension, Billups, Datome, and Jerebko will be off the books, and Brandon Jennings will be on the last year of his contract and a highly valuable trade asset. Potentially dumping Smith for a cheaper contract in Thomas would further alleviate costs. If Meeks can shoot at least 40% from downtown throughout his contract, he'll prove to be a valuable addition to the team.

New Motors: Spencer Dinwiddie

Spencer Dinwiddie | Junior SG | Colorado
6'6”, 205lbs 6'8.25” wingspan 8'7” standing reach
3.6-7.7 FG (46.6%) 1.5-3.7 3FG (41.3%) 6.0-7.0 FT (85.7%)

The Pistons may have lost their first-round pick in this year’s draft, but at least they were able to snag the best mustache in the bunch by taking Colorado junior guard Spencer Dinwiddie with the 38th overall pick.

Though potentially great players were all over the board late into the first round, the Pistons still found significant value by taking a player who suffered an ACL injury this year and fell down draft boards because of it. Dinwiddie is a PG/SG tweener with the size to play the latter but the mindset of the former. I know, I know, Rodney Stuckey, but Dinwiddie is not Stuckey, nor will he be relied up as the future centerpiece of the franchise.

There’s just one issue with his drafting:

I charted many combinations of attributes, and free throw rate was the only statistic that was demonstrably different from Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s sophomore year production. Not only that, but their measurables are near identical coming out of college:

Height Weight Wingspan Standing Reach
Dinwiddie 6'6” 205lbs 6'8.25” 8'7”
KCP 6'6” 204lbs 6'8” 6'4.5”

This is not to imply that they’re they same player—they’re not—but it’s clear that this selection was more about value than fit.

Dinwiddie plays more like a point guard than a shooting guard, and while he excels at distributing the ball, he’s much more of a scoring guard than a true point guard. Dinwiddie is not a Michael Carter-Williams clone; he showed serious NBA range during college. Though his sophomore season saw a dip in his outside shooting (his 3FG% dropped exactly 10% from his freshman year), his abbreviated junior season saw a return to form, shooting 41.3% in 17 games beyond the arc.

Caveats do apply here: as a major-conference school, the early parts of the schedule are loaded with body bag games. Against the better teams in that stretch (Baylor, Kansas, Oklahoma St., and Oregon) he looked more like he did during his sophomore year. In those four games, Dinwiddie went 9-24 from inside the arc and 7-19 from outside. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of middle-ground teams on his junior-year resume to evaluate. Dinwiddie went 4-5 against Georgia, including 2-3 from outside; and 5-9 against Harvard, including 4-7 from outside. Other than that, it’s cupcake after cupcake.

The offense that the Pistons will get from Dinwiddie may be in question. One thing remains for certain: the kid can catch and shoot better than anyone not he roster other than Jodie Meeks, a skill that will be crucial if Stan Van Gundy is going to implement his Andre Drummond-led 4-in, 1-out offense.

His defensive potential is high but not elite. Lacking true NBA athleticism will hinder his ability to guard quicker players, especially if he’s tasked with staying in front of smaller point guards. However, his length and ability to anticipate passing lanes make him a fast break waiting to happen.

Where Dinwiddie projects on this roster is tough. He’s unlikely to see much time at shooting guard with Meeks and KCP already on the roster. Brandon Jennings (and possibly Isaiah Thomas, if a deal is made between the Pistons and Kings) has the point guard position pretty well locked up. And Dinwiddie may struggle to defend NBA small forwards. At this point, he’s simply another bullet in SVG’s chamber. Dinwiddie was a smart draft pick with a lot of upside, and with SVG’s track record of making players realize their potential, he could quickly turn into a valuable player and asset for the franchise.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Pistons lose draft pick; Cavs win lottery

My first inclination when something terrible happens to a sports team I care about is to write about it. It's a cathartic way to work through my emotions and realize there's better things ahead. But it struck me that no amount of elegant prose will return the Pistons' first-round draft pick. This is a crippling moment for the franchise. Tonight could not have gone worse. Not only did the Pistons lose their pick but the Cavaliers and Bucks won the top two selections in the draft. You can add Wiggins and Parker/Embiid to the list of superstars in the Central division: George, Hibbert, Rose, Irving, Wiggins, Parker. None of them on the Pistons roster

July 8, 2009 now stands as the worst day in franchise history. Joe Dumars the architect of the organization's destruction. This has been emotionally distressing in a way I did not anticipate. I'll be off the grid for a while.

Monday, May 19, 2014

The 2014 NBA Draft Lottery cometh

Tomorrow's NBA Draft Lottery will go a long way toward determining the future of the Pistons. Not that anyone should expect the team to win the lottery or select a franchise player--the Pistons probably already have one of those in Andre Drummond--but adding another quality piece to the Motor City Puzzle may be all that's necessary to build a long-term contender. Or not adding that piece if the fates conspire against the Pistons.

Just as important will be how the Milwaukee Bucks fare, who are currently in the pole position to win the lottery with a 25% chance of receiving the #1 overall pick. The Bucks were terrible this season and could use the help that Andrew Wiggins (or someone else if they're not smart enough to take him) could supply, but their winning the lottery would be yet another bullet in the chamber against the Pistons.

Since 2003, a team in the Central division has won the draft lottery five times. None of those players have worn a Pistons jersey. Lebron James (Cleveland), Andrew Bogut (Milwaukee), Derrick Rose (Chicago), Kyrie Irving (Cleveland), and Anthony Bennett (Cleveland) all went as the top pick in their respective drafts, and with the exception of Bennett, all have become significant factors in the NBA. James single-handedly ended the Pistons' title hopes when they had a potential dynasty. Rose won an MVP and when healthy runs roughshod over the league. Kyrie is still developing into a top-flight point guard and potential franchise player. And Bogut has been a defensive force for his entire career. Adding Andrew Wiggins into that pantheon only exasperates this hellacious decade for the Pistons.

In that same time span, no other division has won the lottery more than twice. Dwight Howard and John Wall found their way into the same division in 2010, but only shared the spotlight for two season before Howard bolted for Los Angeles. Meanwhile, Lebron, Bogut, and Rose had a two-year span in the Central, and the Pistons are still dealing with Rose (kind of), Irving, and Bennett. If Milwaukee wins the lottery this season, the Central will have four #1 overalls in play for at least a year, and likely more if the Cavaliers are able to re-sign Kyrie at the end of the season.

The only other team in the Central not to win the lottery over this time span is the Indiana Pacers. In 2008, the Pacers were gifted Roy Hibbert from bumbling GM Bryan Colangelo as a throw-in piece of a trade centered on Jermaine O'Neal and TJ Ford. They then drafted Paul George in 2010 when the Pistons took Greg Monroe. Though Detroit didn't fare poorly here, in retrospect that George dropped to #10 in the draft while Wesley Johnson and Evan Turner were taken in the top 5 was a stroke of luck for the Pacers.

Meanwhile, the Pistons could very easily lose their pick tomorrow. Though not innocent in this potential loss, missing out on a top-10 pick in this draft will be significant. A rundown the potential draft picks available at #8 makes the mouth water: Noah Vonleh, Nik Stauskas, Julius Randle, Marcus Smart, James Young, Aaron Gordon. Though not all of these player are suitable for the Pistons' roster, missing the opportunity to add any of these players to your team could be devastating to a franchise consistently digging its way out of a hole. The Pistons' roster with any of these players could catapult them back to the playoffs and more importantly into contention in the Eastern Conference while missing out entirely might stifle the franchise's momentum. Tomorrow will tell. Cross all fingers. Knock on all wood.