Monday, November 24, 2014

Set Plays: Leave your smoke and mirrors at home

From this point forward, it will be easy to tell a Pistons' player's shot chart by looking at the shot distribution. Above are the shot charts of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Caron Butler. You can probably tell which one is KCP's by the color, but the indicator is actually the number of shots each has taken from the respective corners: KCP has taken 16 shots in the left corner and only 6 in the right, while Butler has taken 16 shots from the right corner and only 1 from the left. Stan Van Gundy has structured his offense in line with modern offensive thinking: not only do you spread the floor consistently, but you do so while assigning specific corners to distinct perimeter players. Not only does this increase rhythm and comfort for those shooters, but it also allows your offense to implement counters to established plays.

This schematic design dawned on me while watching the Pistons lose yet another winnable game on Friday against the Atlanta Hawks. KCP had another terrible shooting game, proving he can't hit shots with defenders in his proximity. Brandon Jennings was injured during a decent, if lackluster, performance. And DJ Augustin almost sealed the loss when he came in for Jennings and shot 4-17 from the field while charting only 1 assist. In spite of all of this, it was foul trouble for Greg Monroe that illuminated the Pistons' best offensive sets of the season and showed why he was coming off the bench to begin the season.

Josh Smith led the team in assists, which was not a mistake. With Monroe on the bench for the majority of the first half, the Pistons were finally able to unleash an offensive structure that was sustainable and effective. The Pistons trailed by 19 in the third quarter but, by running nearly the same offensive set every time down the floor, they were able to tie the game early in the fourth quarter.

The set begins with KCP in the left corner and Butler in the right. Andre Drummond is positioned on the baseline near the basket, while Smith and Jennings (or as was the case for much of the fourth quarter, Augustin) run a high pick and roll.

When Jennings comes off the screen, he has a few options. If his defender goes under the screen and the power forward doesn't show hard, he is free to shoot a three pointer. If his defender follows him over the screen, he begins to probe the lane and looks for a pocket pass to Smith.

This is where Smith becomes a lethal offensive player. With the ball at the top of the key and his defender on his hip, he has free rein to attack the basket. But Smith's elite passing skills make him uniquely suited to run this play. Once he starts moving toward the basket, the defense is in a bind. The nearside perimeter defender has to decide either to stay on the shooter in the corner or cut off the lane (in this game, this defender usually crashed into the lane, which resulted in Smith leading the team in assists):

If the perimeter defender does stay in the corner, the next read for Smith is to see if the opposing center remains on Drummond or helps in the lane.

The most promising part of this offensive attack is that it's sustainable. It reliably garners inside shots for Detroit's frontcourt players and/or open looks for the shooters. SVG's insistence on signing a plethora of shooters makes more sense when you see plays like this run consistently. The problem becomes that this play is impossible with Drummond, Monroe, and Smith on the floor together. With Monroe on the bench with foul trouble, the Pistons ran scant few post ups, a play that has been only moderately effective this season, instead opting for a more modern pick-and-roll attack. The question now, as it was before the season began, is whether or not SVG will consistently bring Monroe off the bench. If the results from this game are any indication, he might have to.


Ignore the man behind the shot chart. OK, so the elephant in the room: the Pistons shot only 37.3% during this game, including an ugly 4-21 mark from beyond the arc.

Part of the shooting woes came from Augustin shooting 4-17 (excising his shots entirely improves the team's shooting percentage by 4%). KCP's 1-7 didn't help any, and his 0-2 from the left corner--which stand out like beacons on the shot chart--hindered the offense as well. But that shot distribution is spectacular. Those Xs in the paint will turn into makes as the team becomes more comfortable with the offense and when they're not playing a team with two bigs as skilled as Horford and Millsap. Generating that shot chart is not easy, but it was accomplished largely through the scheme above.

This is not 4-out, 1-in. The much ballyhooed offensive system that SVG ran in Orlando with Dwight Howard is dead in Detroit for now, as is the idea that Drummond is a reliable post option. It is no accident that Drummond had his best game of the season against the Hawks: 13 points on 5-12 shooting, 16 rebounds (7 offensive, see the scheme above), 1 steal, 1 block, and only 1 personal foul. While Drummond often gets into foul trouble because of shoddy defense, he also often picked up bad offensive fouls by being overly aggressive on the boards or in the post. When Drummond was asked to stand on the weakside and clean up open putbacks, his numbers looked like those that earned him a roster spot on Team USA.

More importantly, it appears that SVG has finally given up the idea that Drummond should be developed in-game. I have no doubt that posting Drummond will become a more prominent aspect of the offense next season, but for now, it appears as though SVG will run a perimeter-oriented, pick-and-roll offense.

SVG is smart. Josh Smith can be good. Van Gundy has always praised Josh Smith's passing ability, arguably his most effective offensive skill. Following the last game in which SVG and Smith had a verbal altercation prompting Smith's benching, Smith noted that he needed to find a way to integrate himself into the offense. SVG has developed a system that centers on Smith's passing ability, both getting him more involved in (and motivated by) the gameplan while taking advantage of his passing skills. There are few power forwards in the league that are able to make the accurate, correct kick out passes that Smith does. The other benefit of putting the ball in Smith's hands as he moves toward the basket is that it limits his midrange jumpers. Smith's inclination to shoot long 2s is nurtured by an offense that has him stand on the perimeter and catch the ball with his defender sagging. When he's given the ball with a head of steam, his offensive game expands and he becomes less of an offensive hazard.

Brandon Jennings is essential. I do not like DJ Augustin. He is a prototypical over-dribbling ball stopper. This play emphasizes what I dislike about his play. Augustin struggles getting into the lane with the purpose of creating for his teammates. As the fourth quarter progressed, it was clear that the Pistons were going to lose because he couldn't get Smith the ball in the correct position, ruining the spacing of the scheme. I have been critical of Jennings' pick-and-roll game in the past, specifically because I thought he over dribbled and failed to create for his teammates. But this season has seen a dramatic shift in his pick-and-roll proficiency. Part of this has to do with SVG's schemes; an underrated aspect of Van Gundy's talent is his point guard development. Anyone who can turn Rafer Alston and Jameer Nelson into every day starters has something going for him.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Set Plays: Shooting guard screens for low post position

To my eyes, the Pistons have run one set play more than any other this season. It is designed to get deep post position for one of the Pistons' frontcourt players, typically Greg Monroe, and while it usually accomplishes this, it puts other strains on the Pistons offense and emphasizes the personnel issues at play with Detroit's lineup.

The play happens almost exclusively on the right side of the floor. Brandon Jennings brings the ball up the court and stops at the the break on the right. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Greg Monroe are typically bunched together in the lane with KCP further from the basket. Drummond is positioned on the weakside of the court and Josh Smith is usually a floor spacer on the opposite wing.

The play begins with Monroe setting a down screen for KCP in the lane. KCP always uses the screen and dives to the basket before turning toward the right corner.

Rather than using this screen to any effect, KCP stops before leaving the paint and sets a screen on Monroe's defender while Monroe slides into deep post position.

Once Monroe is through the screen, KCP immediately runs to the weakside corner. Jennings now enters the ball into the post for Monroe who is free to attack as he sees fit. Jennings and Smith will occasionally dive through the lane, but Drummond stays planted to the weakside of the paint.

The theory behind this play is excellent:

  • achieve low post position for an excellent post player
  • potentially get a switch for said post player
  • space the floor with KCP
  • have Drummond available for offensive rebounds or outlet passes if a double team comes from the opposing center

In reality, this play presents the Pistons with far more problems that it does advantages.

The shot clock. The Pistons are one of the slowest teams in the NBA, which is not an inherently bad decision. They have an excellent post player in Monroe who, when given time to operate, is an exceptional passer for his position and can attack his defender with a number of post moves. A persistent problem with the Pistons' offense this season is that they don't actually get into these sets until only 10 seconds are left on the shot clock. By the time Jennings brings the ball beyond the timeline, there are typically only 17-20 seconds left on the shot clock. KCP and Monroe must then get into the proper position, and KCP is asked to set a solid screen on a player several inches taller and dozens of pounds heavier than him. He's rarely very effective for obvious reasons, so the painted area becomes a garbled mess of players that Jennings would be stupid to pass the ball into. It's only when Monroe is finally set that he can receive the ball. With the shot clock hovering around 10 seconds at this point, Monroe has to rush his offense and can't properly manipulate the defense.

The switch never happens. One of the potential benefits of this set play is to get a switch in the post. Having Monroe matched up with a shooting guard in the low post seems like a guaranteed basket or at least a way to force the defense to over help. The problem is, because of the aforementioned clogging of the lane and KCP's reasonable inability to set a solid pick on a power forward, the Pistons never get the ball to Monroe in time to force the defense to switch. In addition, KCP running to the weakside corner gives the shooting guard time to recover and doesn't stress the power forward. Having KCP run to the top of the key might be a good counter to this setup, and one that requires the opposing big man to follow a shooter to the perimeter.

The spacing doesn't really work. If the Pistons run this set with their starting five, the spacing doesn't work. It forces Smith to the perimeter where he has to act as an outside shooter. KCP in the weakside corner is cut off by Drummond's defender. Occasionally Drummond will drift to the top of the key in order to open a skip pass to KCP, but that's a dangerous pass for Monroe and makes Drummond's presence far less intimidating.

There's no other action. One of the problems with Loyer and Cheeks last year was that they didn't design enough action off the ball. This creates the same issue: the Pistons are running a play to isolate Monroe. Worse, they're isolating him with limited time on the shot clock. Once Monroe receives the ball, the Pistons stand and wait for him to make his move. Why not have Smith set a pin down screen for KCP to curl back into the lane? Why not have Drummond set screens at the top of the key for Smith or Jennings? There are plenty of options that aren't being executed right now. Perhaps Stan Van Gundy has these in his toolbox and is rolling them out slowly, but this play seems willfully prohibitive.


Van Gundy has brought precious little in the way of advanced schemes this season. What he has shown has been more coherent than anything the Pistons have run in the previous seasons, but whether the problem is that the players not executing or the schemes putting the team in bad positions, a problem still exists. I'm cautiously optimistic that SVG is slowly implementing his schemes and making sure that the Pistons can execute what they've been assigned, but after 12 games, the lack of schematic development has been alarming. Patience is afforded, but SVG needs to start showing something new in the coming stretch of games before eyebrows are raised.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

What did you expect?

I don't think you like Josh Smith. Most people who read Detroit Pistons blogs do not like Josh Smith. And it's difficult to blame them. For his career, Smith has been a complicated, everyman power forward. This year, you can add "mostly incompetent" to that string of adjectives.

My brother went to see the Pistons play the Bulls in Chicago this year. He sent me three text messages toward the end of the game:

The Pistons have been unexpectedly bad this season. Stan Van Gundy was supposed to save the team, and though a string of injuries has thrown the roster into question and Andre Drummond has looked like a shell of his former self, this Pistons team appears broken in my systematic ways. Much of this is being dumped on Josh Smith. It's probably Stan Van Gundy's fault.

What did we honestly expect when it was announced that SVG was going to start a frontcourt of Smith, Drummond, and Greg Monroe? Barring unforeseen improvement in his jump shot, the problems that plagued Smith last season were bound to return. Van Gundy does not have the panacea for a lineup with three players who probably shouldn't venture outside of 10 feet from the hoop. And trying to cram the three of them in the paint together is ripe for high comedy (see: last year).

Smith shot chart from '13-'14

Smith shot chart from '14-'15

Smith has been criticized once again for taking too many long jumpers, but take a look at his '14-'15 shot chart (right). Smith has taken only 20 three pointers through the first 11 games this season. His long 2s have even been reduced: he is taking 57.7% of his shots from inside of 10 feet according to And yet he's shooting only 42.6% from inside 10 feet this season.

Smith isn't entirely at fault for this awful shooting percentage. This season, Smith averages 5.3 FGA within 5 feet of the basket, and hits 50% of them. The only small forwards with more attempts within 5 feet of the basket than Smith this season are Tyreke Evans (9.6 FGA), Lebron James (8.2), Tobias Harris (6.9), and Giannis Antetokounmpo (5.4); Jimmy Butler is tied with Smith at 5.3 FGA. You may notice something with all of these players, with the exception of Lebron whose status as a small forward is questionable: all of them play with a big man who can reliably step away from the paint. Anthony Davis, Channing Frye, Ersan Ilyasova/Jabari Parker, and Pau Gasol are all players that can step away from the hoop and command respect from the defense.

Meanwhile, between 5-9 feet from the basket, only Joe Johnson averages as many FGA as Smith does amongst small forwards and power forwards (3.5). Smith is shooting a putrid 30.8%, incidentally the same shot percentage as Greg Monroe, who averages 2.9 FGA from that range (good for the 4th most attempts amongst forwards).

The point is this: despite changing his shot distribution for the better (last season, he took 55.5% of his shots from the free throw line in; this season he's taking 62.5%, in addition to significantly less three pointers), Smith is still struggling largely because it's difficult for small forwards to operate around the basket, especially with two traditional bigs. When Smith posts up, something that has become a staple of the Van Gundy offense, he's often surrounded by opposing bigs who aren't pulled away from the rim by Monroe or Drummond.

The counter argument here is that Smith isn't exclusively on the floor with Monroe and Drummond. The three have started the season together and typically close games, with the exception of the last two or three when Drummond has been benched in crunch time. However, Smith's shooting percentage by quarter reflects this: 37.9%, 37.5%, 41.5%, and 27.6% respectively. Those could be rose-colored glasses though. It's entirely possible that Smith is in the not-so-glamorous twilight of his career and doesn't have the legs to start or finish strong. (The reality probably falls somewhere between these ideas.) However, Smith looks more aggressive than ever, attacking the basket and using his athleticism to create for others.

The real secret is that the Pistons are actually not shooting terribly from outside this season.

While they're not shooting the lights out, that shot chart shows that the Pistons are hovering somewhere around league average in most outside zones. The problems that the team encounters are somewhere inside. So yeah, it's the spacing issue again.

I drive the Kentavious Caldwell-Pope bandwagon. And while he's been (generously called) inconsistent this season, his numbers are actually a lot more positive when you do a little digging. If you excise the first three games of the regular season, when KCP was recovering from a nasty knee strain, he starts looking like a more competent and viable go-to option. In those first three games, KCP shot 2-16 from outside and looked generally moribund on offense. But the follow 8 games, he's shooting 18-44 (40.9%). He still has stinkers too often--0-4 against Memphis, 1-6 against Oklahoma City--but generally speaking, KCP has been a threat from outside. Meanwhile, the rest of the team's outside shooting has been impressive: Brandon Jennings, 47.1%; Caron Butler, 40.5%; Jonas Jerebko, 36.8%; Kyle Singler, 40.6%. Only DJ Augustin, at 22.6%, has been a consistently poor shooter from the three point line.

With the Pistons playing exceptionally slow basketball (they are 25th in pace this season), Stan Van Gundy is generating most of these struggles himself. While issues abound with using Andre Drummond as a constant post player, the real trouble comes by shoehorning Smith into the same role he proved incapable of playing last season. When you watch the Pistons, they do so many things well but eventually fall apart, which typically happens when the opposition starts playing to the Pistons' self-made weaknesses. The issue is that Cartier Martin, Jodie Meeks, Jerebko, or Singler don't project as competent small forwards, a limitation of the Pistons' roster. If the Pistons ever do move toward a more coherent offensive lineup full time, that would require KCP to play small forward, a conceit that would sacrifice size on the defensive end. But at some point, Van Gundy needs to make a change. He's banging his head against a the same wall that Mo Cheeks and John Loyer did. What did he expect to happen?

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Resting bitchface

There was a moment in the third quarter of the Pistons' 102-90 loss to the depleted Brooklyn Nets that sticks out more than any of the more meaningful events of the game. Andre Drummond received the ball near the bucket and laid it in, as he's wont to do, drawing a foul in the process. He shrieked "And one" and generally looked angry. It was the first passion I've seen from a Pistons player all season and it dawned on me: this team doesn't like playing basketball.

A general lack of on-court passion stands as an inherent problem in developing a program based on hard-nosed Goin' To Work players. Ben Wallace was known to be one of the most quiet players in the NBA. Chauncey Billups was the consummate Professional, a term loaded with safe, white suburban fan favorite sentiment. It wasn't until the Pistons acquired the outlandish Rasheed Wallace that they finally reach the pinnacle of the league. It wasn't Rasheed's attitude that won the Pistons a title, but his presence was a constant on that team. He wanted to beat everyone and make them realize it was happening. The Pistons played differently when 'Sheed was on the floor.

This current Pistons iteration is lacking character. Josh Smith is outspoken, but his play fluctuates between high-energy impact plays and resting bitchface as he takes endless long jumpers. Greg Monroe's most prominent personality trait is complaining to the referees (a symptom that's infected far too much of the team). KCP and Kyle Singler might as well be cardboard cutouts. Only Brandon Jennings has any character and flair in his game, but that manifests itself as flashy passes, rather than anything a team can glom onto.

Worse still, this team doesn't look like it enjoys playing together. Monroe has been a curmudgeon since Smith arrived last year, and it's likely that his lack of interest has spread to other corners of the locker room. Drummond appears too nice for his own good. Though big men have a reputation for being gregarious, Drummond never looks interested in or motivated to take over a game. KCP has attempted to add some flair to the Pistons' offense this season and a passion for winning, but that generally ends in airballs and ill-advised shots. Once again, Jennings' character feels like the Pistons' rallying cry, but with SVG sitting the point guard for the majority of the first two games, the team has struggled behind the shoot-first mentality of DJ Augustin; if there's one thing you don't want with Smith and KCP on the roster it's a shoot-first mentality.

All of which might be a roundabout way of saying that the Pistons don't have a go-to player on either end of the floor. KCP is the only individual defender that would be considered NBA caliber, but his struggles on the offensive end render him a problematic player to keep on the floor. On offense, Greg Monroe is the closest thing the Pistons have to a go-to guy, but he needs to be set up in the post, something he's never been exceptional at. And so you have a basketball team without an identity, regardless of the schemes SVG is trying to implement. The Pistons mope around the court without any idea how they're supposed to act. This is often the problem with young teams: one of the inexperienced players becomes the model for the team's persona. The Pistons don't have anyone with the kind of spirit that you hope will lead a team, and so it has gravitated toward the soft-spoken demeanor of its biggest star.

Just once, I'd like to see someone during a game take accountability for how the team is playing. Much as Smith is maligned for taking too many (bad) shots, he's always being given the ball in these situations. It's not as if he's demanding the ball and then taking terrible shots. SVG is trying to force Drummond into this role, but that has resulted in the big man shooting the worst percentage of his career (48.5%) on the highest number of attempts in three seasons (11.0)--which says nothing about how poorly he plays on the defensive end. Andre Drummond is not going to be that guy.

Perhaps if the Pistons were winning, this wouldn't be a problem. But they haven't been winning for years, and their leaders have been: Drummond (2014), Drummond/Stuckey (2013), Stuckey/Calderon/Monroe? (2012), Ben Gordon/Monroe? (2011), and the list goes on. The closest thing the Pistons have to an alpha player is Smith, whose performance is cratering potential wins and who has never been a team leader in the first place (a major emphasis behind him coming to Detroit). Jennings stands as the Pistons' only driver of character, but with a rift between he and SVG, his style likely won't have the impact on the roster that it should.

The schemes and shooting will come around. The Pistons likely won't be a top-flight three-point shooting team, but they also won't finish the season shooting 21.9% from beyond the arc. But for this team to excel, they actually need to find an identity. Unless Drummond can continue to show some semblance of passion, it's unclear where that's going to come from.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Confirmation Bias

A mental exercise. Identify the player and season:

Player A: 34.1 MPG, 15.5 PPG, 37.3% FG (33.7% 3FG), 3.1 RPG, 7.6 APG, 2.7 TO

Player B: 30.5 MPG, 17.5 PPG, 39.3% FG (27.3% 3FG), 4.5 RPG, 4.5 APG, 2.5 TO

Player C: 17.5 MPG, 4.0 PPG, 50.0% FG (NA), 3.0 RPG, 4.0 APG, 2.5 TO

A lot has been made of DJ Augustin's play in this young season. Stan Van Gundy went as far as saying that Augustin was playing better than Jennings. I disagree, and believe that much of the fan/blog outcry about how good Augustin has been (and how bad Jennings and Smith have been) is pent up anger about last year and overwhelming confirmation bias. To wit:

'13-'14 Jennings: 34.1 MPG, 15.5 PPG, 37.3% FG (33.7% 3FG), 3.1 RPG, 7.6 APG, 2.7 TO

'14-'15 Augustin: 30.5 MPG, 17.5 PPG, 39.3% FG (27.3% 3FG), 4.5 RPG, 4.5 APG, 2.5 TO

'14-'15 Jennings: 17.5 MPG, 4.0 PPG, 50.0% FG (NA), 3.0 RPG, 4.0 APG, 2.5 TO

Augustin's performance this season is, by most objective measures, worse than Brandon Jennings' season last year. Further, Jennings has reduced his poor shot selection (through two games, he hasn't taken a single three pointer), is generating the same amount of offense via the pass in half the time (in 61 minutes, Augustin has accounted for 9 assists; Jennings has 8 assists in 35 minutes), and has not looked like a worse defender than Augustin, who, last night especially, was a turnstile. This is where three words matter: Small Sample Size. But regardless, it's hard to argue for Augustin right now as the superior point guard.

The Pistons' offense, which has stagnated through two games, is being run by a shoot-first point guard who has taken 20 of his 28 shots from beyond 10 feet. This is not how you win basketball games. The Pistons have not won basketball games.

Augustin is not solely to blame for the Pistons' disappointing start. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, long the favorite of this blog, has been terrible through two games. His defensive impact has been significant, especially above replacement--Caron Butler--which has been nonexistent on that end of the floor. But KCP's offense, something that's badly needed on this team, has been a detriment. Coming off of a knee strain can do that to players, especially athletic jump shooters, but KCP's issues around the basket persist and don't appear to be letting up. He's simply not very good at taking contact or finishing at the rim, a perplexing issue for a player who should be able to get there with regularity.

Meanwhile, the team's anchor, Andre Drummond, has been atrocious in his first two games. He's shooting a putrid 41.7% from the field. Worse, he's averaging one foul every 5.27 minutes. Drummond can't stay on the floor, is being bulldozed on the defensive end, and has been shooting 20% worse than any time in his career. Oh, and his free throw shooting hasn't improved.

And then there's Josh Smith, who looks like middle-of-the-road Josh Smith. He's the reason the Pistons weren't blown out in the first game, but pretty awful in game two. Smith is still a player capable of incredible highs and consistent disappointment. But if you buy into Kenneth Faried's antagonizing, you're probably looking for reasons to bury Smith in the first place.

This is not the team we were promised. Or perhaps it is with flawed personnel (for example, Joel Anthony cannot play professional basketball anymore). Greg Monroe will be a sight for sore eyes when he makes his debut tomorrow. But his presence won't fix all of the other glaring problems with this team. It takes time to implement a system. Players need to learn how to move off the ball. Defensive rotations take time to understand and feel intuitively. Andre Drummond can't play this poorly all season (Can he?). Many people, I first among them, expected big things from SVG and this season. But it was never going to be as easy as I hoped. Two games is not adequate time to fully understand a team, but this has been alarming.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Reclamation: The '14-'15 Season Preview

The dirty secret about the Pistons that no one seems willing to admit? The Pistons are young, especially relative to their experience (the average age is 26 years old, good for 14th in the NBA), and the amount of individual talent is off the charts. Brandon Jennings, a high school-to-pro draftee, enters his sixth NBA season having just turned 25 years old. Josh Smith, another player who skipped the college ranks, enters his 11th season without turning 30 years old. The team’s unquestioned star just turned legal drinking age and finished a tour with Team USA in the FIBA World Championship. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope will turn 22 during his sophomore year campaign and fifth-year power forward Greg Monroe won’t be 25 until after the season. The only three players that will end the season at least 30 years old are Caron Butler (role player), Cartier Martin (role player), and the recently acquired Joel Anthony. Reports of the Pistons’ demise have been greatly exaggerated.

Last season was an unmitigated disaster. It began with Maurice Cheeks and ended with a diaspora of 20-foot jump shots. But the motivations behind Joe Dumars’ roster molding weren’t malicious nor entirely ill-conceived. Dumars understood the current positional revolution happening in the NBA, and when he said “The primary reason for Josh being the No. 1 guy and a player that we wanted to pursue the most was because of his versatility,” and something to the extent of “get the best players on the floor and we’ll figure out the positions later,” he had the best intentions in mind. The biggest issue for the Pistons was that the players Dumars had assembled fundamentally eschewed this philosophical shift. Andre Drummond can’t play farther than 5 feet from the basket. Monroe is a prototypical back-to-the-basket power forward. Jennings could never fit into any role other than point guard. Fundamentally, Dumars understood the thematic shift of the NBA, but he had long-since stopped understanding players.

The ’13-’14 Pistons were a potentially good team executed in the worst possible manner, so with the introduction of Stan Van Gundy as the team’s new shepherd, it’s time to reconsider the Pistons' potential. Jennings, a ball-dominant passing wizard enters this season after setting his career high in assists per game, despite playing on a team that finished tied with Sacramento for 19th in offensive efficiency. Jennings averaged 1.1 more assists per game than his previous career high, while his 2.7 turnovers per game were only 0.2 higher than his career average. His 2.81 A/TO ratio on the season improved his career ratio to 2.44 A/TO (a number that bests Tony Parker’s career A/TO ratio).

What plagued Jennings last year was his shot selection and inability to finish at the rim, chronic problems throughout his career. But you could see it in his play: “If I can hit this three pointer in transition, we’ll get the deficit under 10 points.” It was a video game mentality, the kind of thing he can pull off in the Drew League. Jennings felt compelled to put the team on his back and carry them to victory, rather than understanding basketball as a game of attrition. And given the outfits he’s played on throughout his career, it’s hard to fault him. This preseason, while his shooting was problematic, his distribution was on full display: through six games, Jennings charted 44 assists to just 8 turnovers. Though he also went 7-23 from outside and struggled shooting the ball, it’s possible that he won’t be called on to take many shots this season, instead focusing on distribution and generating good shots for his teammates.

Josh Smith, too, has been written off and left for dead by fans, but remains a unique power forward everyman. Last season, Smith, forced to play on the perimeter as Drummond and Monroe consumed the paint, shot 3.4 three pointers per game, more than double his career average (1.6 3FGA/game). This preseason, Smith is 3-7 from outside through seven games. Also on display are all of the other aspects of Smith’s game that make him a terror: 45 rebounds (6.43 rebounds/game), 35 assists (5 assists/game), 6 blocks, and 4 steals. Unfortunately, Smith is shooting only 42% from the field and has amassed 21 turnovers. In spite of these problems, during the Pistons’ preseason finale, Smith was making a conscious effort to catch the ball high and drive into the lane, either finishing at the rim (7 of his 14 shots in this game came in the paint) or kicking the ball out to open shooters, something he’s remarkably adept at for a power forward.

And therein lies the promise of Josh Smith at power forward. His ability to run the floor, distribute to teammates, occasionally stretch the floor, and defend both bigger and smaller players is the versatility that Dumars was looking at when he signed the enigmatic big man. Because Smith can do these things better than most power forwards, teams have assumed that he is a multi-positional player, which he’s simply not. Smith is difficult to guard and an exceptional defender precisely because few power forwards in the league can match his skill set. Watching those highlights from the preseason finale, you see Smith drive hard into the lane, kick out passes to open three point shooters, and posterize Nerlens Noel, who dominated Andre Drummond throughout the game. It is easy—and probably wise—to remain skeptical of Smith, a mercurial player throughout his career, but with SVG at the helm, we can expect the best out of the Pistons’ wonky, talented makeup.

All of which is true before you get to the franchise’s centerpiece and running mate, Drummond and Monroe, respectively. Monroe stopped being an asset to the Pistons the moment he signed the qualifying offer. Trading him becomes nearly impossible, and, even if the Pistons are able to re-sign him following a successful season, they’d be doing so with an unrestricted free agent for market price. Regardless, Monroe is playing in a contract season, a phenomenon that almost universally sees NBA players outperform expectations. More importantly for Monroe—as long as he’s able to humble himself and accept the role—will be coming off the bench. Monroe and Drummond’s games do not complement one another, due to their mutual limitations. Monroe is yet to develop a consistent mid-range game, forcing him closer to the basket than a power forward would ideally play. Combine that with Drummond’s almost nonexistent offensive game through two seasons, and suddenly those devastating Monroe spin moves from the post are being greeted by the opposing center. Monroe’s saving grace is his excellent hands and passing ability, but those could be put to better use with more space.

Drummond and Smith present an athletic frontcourt unlike many in the NBA. Both run significantly better than replacements at their position, and are able to create havoc on the defensive end because of their mobility (think a poor man’s DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin on both ends of the floor). With Jennings’ flashy, consistent passing, dunks in transition and off of high pick and rolls should become a staple of an offense whose primary tenant will be stretching the floor. Monroe acts as a counterpunch to that attack. With a post-up game that has few contemporaries, playing Monroe with stretch power forwards like Jonas Jerebko will clear the lane for Monroe to attack defenses with ease.

This was always the strength of the frontcourt hodgepodge. In a league dominated by wings and point guards, the Pistons (like Memphis and pre-All Star Paul George before them) have the depth, variation, and skill to bully teams on the inside. What was missing was an ability to both manage those egos and punish opposing teams for focusing on the interior. The acquisitions of Jodie Meeks—whose contract will be a drop in the bucket when the salary cap expands—Caron Butler, and DJ Augustin, along with a sophomore leap from Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, will remedy this missing piece.

Defensively, the outlook isn’t as cheery. The Pistons will be a better team simply by having a consistent scheme that allows them to develop as a unit, but on a player-to-player basis, there are still some glaring issues. For proof of the Pistons’ coaching ineptitude last season, look no further than how they defended the pick and roll. With no communication between the on-ball and screen defender, ball carriers were often escorted to the basket. And while the preseason has shown some improvement in this area, allowing 103 points on 47% shooting to the 76ers, a team openly trying to lose, is startling.

Like the offense, Detroit’s defensive prowess will be heaped on the back of Andre Drummond, a sub-par on-ball defender who still hasn’t made his mark as someone who can alter a play from the weakside. Drummond rebounds as well as any player in the league, but his defensive impact lacks the effect of Dwight Howard, the player to whom most have compared Drummond following SVG’s arrival. Drummond is great at challenging shots, but to become an All Defensive Team member, he will need to become more adept at getting a hand on the ball. Where he struggles most is in one-on-one match ups, where he is frequently duped on the block and often beaten to the basket. This will hopefully develop with time, but '14-'15 is an important season in his development.

Besides Drummond, there is Smith, who is a great weakside defender and source of havoc, and KCP, the Pistons’ unquestioned perimeter defensive star. Short of that, the Pistons will struggle to keep teams in front of them. Jennings is abhorrent on the perimeter, often gambling for steals off the ball and playing olĂ© defense on the ball. Butler doesn’t have much left in the tank, so his impact on the defensive end will be minimal. DJ Augustin is known to be one of the worst defenders in the league, and Jodie Meeks has never excelled on that end. And players like Jerebko, Singler, or Cartier Martin don’t move the needle much. The Pistons’ best hope on this side of the ball is improvement from Drummond in the middle and an offense that forces the opposition to take the ball out of the basket more often than not.

The one true known is Stan Van Gundy, a proven coach unwilling to deal with the bullshit that surrounds this Pistons roster. This is the first time in well over a decade that the Pistons have had a coach this universally praised. Whether or not the oft-discussed 4-out, 1-in offensive scheme becomes a reality this season (which, for the record, I’m skeptical given Drummond’s still-shaky offensive game), SVG will have a scheme that is intelligible and puts players in their optimal position.

Perhaps most importantly, this Pistons team is going to be fun to watch. With loads of young talent and a rotation that makes sense, this is a proving ground year for most of these players. Jennings and Smith are undertaking reclamation projects. For Smith, he wants to prove that he can both help lead a young team (something he was accused of being unable to do in Atlanta) as well as recover from the worst season of his career. Jennings may finally be able to come through on his promise of becoming a more complete, effective player in Detroit; he finally has the teammates and will now have the scheme. Monroe wants a big contract. KCP wants a career. Meeks and Augustin want to prove that last year wasn’t a fluke. This is a blue collar team the way that Dumars imagined, but not for the reasons he hoped. The Pistons will pick themselves up and dust themselves off. This season will be the first step.

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