Sunday, July 5, 2015

Pistons Summer League: Games 1 and 2


The playoffs are over and the draft has come and gone, which means NBA Summer League is here, the time for wild exaggerations and unbridled expectations. Having been terrible for approaching a decade, the Pistons have used Summer League to display their lottery picks' potential. Andre Drummond dominated the glass and threw down monstrous dunks in his stint in Orlando. KCP scored at will last year. This season, the Pistons have draft picks Stanley Johnson and Darrun Hilliard, as well as last year's second round pick Spencer Dinwiddie on display.

The caveat that always accompanies Summer League columns is not to read too much into performances, but I find that to be reductive. Raw numbers won't tell you much about how a player will perform when the regular season begins, but watching individual players reveals clear strengths and weaknesses that will display themselves throughout the season. Ignoring what happens in Summer League is willfully ignorant. But because you (understandably) don't want to watch Summer League, I do. Here are some observations.

Stanley Johnson

The Pistons' first-round selection has performed up to or above all expectations. Through two games, Johnson looks like one of the better players in the league. Johnson is averaging 18.5 points per game, but more impressive is his efficiency. In his first game, coming off the bench, he tallied 13 points on 5-8 shooting. In today's tilt, he scored 24 points on 10-14 shooting. He has shot 2-5 from outside and a disappointing 5-10 from the free throw line, but as aforementioned, raw numbers don't mean much in Summer League.

Here is a real caveat: Johnson was  destined to look like a men amongst boys in Summer League. Because of his superior physique, his ability to bully smaller players and sub-NBA talent is unsurprising. But the way Johnson has scored his points is impressive. Though lacking in elite athleticism, Johnson has taken contact well and scored at the rim on countless possessions. He has also displayed a consistent and nuanced inbetween game, using both hard jump stops and floaters to score on a variety of drives.

Johnson's greatest strength is his spatial and physical awareness. He understands his superior physique and finds avenues to use it on the court. He is adept at shielding defenders around the basket with his body, as well as using his size to brush off help defenders on drives. Johnson shows a savvy indicative of players with far more experience and age. That his understanding of the game and his physicality are already at this level means good things for his future.

The biggest positive surprises have been his passing and offensive rebounding. Given how Johnson excels at getting into the lane, his ability to find cutters and spot-up shooters is a major asset. Johnson has shown the ability to pass off the dribble and see the floor in traffic, and while Reggie Jackson projects to be the primary ball handler, when Johnson drives off of close-outs this season, his passing will prove a major asset. The other surprise has been his nose for offensive rebounds. Johnson has pulled down 5 offensive rebounds in two games, a skill that looks somewhat replicable in the NBA. He'll never dominate the glass, but he could be an exceptional rebounding shooting guard/small forward.

Not all has been positive for Johnson, however. Notably, his handle looks barely functional. Because he uses his strength to attack defenders, his need for effective moves has escaped him. His go-to move appears to be an in-out dribble with his right hand that no defender is fooled by. Compounding issues is his balance while dribbling. Johnson plays too much on the insides of his feet rather than the balls of his feet, causing him to slip frequently while trying to break down defenders. The other notable negative in Johnson's game is his lateral defensive foot speed. It may be a small sample size issue, but several times, the man that Johnson is defending will blow by him from the perimeter for an easy shot at the rim. With the replacement of Greg Monroe with Ersan Ilyasova, and Drummond's continuing struggles as a rim defender, Johnson will need to be sharper on the perimeter if he is going to earn significant minutes.

Spencer Dinwiddie

Dinwiddie was Detroit's only draft pick last season and was a potential draft steal as a lottery talent that dropped to the second round because of a college knee injury. Last season, Dinwiddie fluctuated between overwhelmed rookie and promising future contributor. This Summer League, Dinwiddie has been atrocious. He is 5-16 from the floor, has 9 assists to 12 turnovers, and allowed Nate Wolters to shoot 7-12 and Keith Appling shoot 4-7 (scoring 17 points, mostly on Dinwiddie fouls). On both ends of the floor, Dinwiddie has looked unprepared for competition, especially troubling since he is a second-year player. This was Dinwiddie's time to show his improvement and ability to contribute in the NBA. His utter regression has been the worst part of the Summer League.

There may be a reason why Dinwiddie has performed so poorly. Without actual insider knowledge, my guess is that the coaches have tasked Dinwiddie with getting to the rim. He turns down open three pointers, the kind that he took with abandon last season. Instead, he opts to attack the rim and drive into traffic. This has produced the results you see above. Dinwiddie is another player who relies on his physical attributes to get his points. Unlike Johnson, however, Dinwiddie utilizes his superior size (he is a 6'6" point guard) to score. Asking him to work between the tackles (as it were) has shown his limitations, both in his dribble moves as well as his ability to take contact and finish.

How this translates to the season is unclear. What is clear is his total inability to finish at the rim. He expects more foul calls than he receives (though he's shot 12 free throw attempts in the two games) and hasn't changed his attack plan to compensate for this. Dinwiddie lacks the inbetween game that makes Johnson so effective; he's a straight line runner. Seeing over the defense and spot up shooting are his two most marketable skills. His Summer League marching orders have stripped him of those benefits and it shows.

Darrun Hilliard
The Pistons drafted Hilliard, a four-year point guard with Villanova, 38th overall in this draft. There's little to discuss with Hilliard, who looks like a prototypical four-year, second-round draft pick. Overwhelmed athletically but crafty, Hilliard doesn't project for a long NBA life. He is 5-20 from the field (2-5 from 3) and doesn't offer any skill that can't be found elsewhere. Expect him to spend this season with the Pistons but not to be re-signed in 2016 as the team tries to make some splashy moves in free agency.

Next Up
The Pistons are 1-1 after their first two games and play the Miami Heat tomorrow. If you're going to watch any game of the Summer League, tomorrow's is the one to watch. Johnson takes on Justise Winslow, the SG/SF that was available to the Pistons and who many talking heads believe will be a better player. Watching the two of them play head-to-head will be exciting, putting on display two of the better wing prospects from the draft. Aside from feeling better (or worse) about who the Pistons drafted, seeing how Johnson stacks up against elite-level talent (of which he hasn't seen in the first two games) should tell a lot about how his strengths and weaknesses will translate to the regular season.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Let's talk about it: Jennings for Hardaway trade


An interesting rumor has hit the internet that the Pistons are engaged in talks with the New York Knicks to trade Brandon Jennings for Tim Hardaway Jr. Since the rumor is coming from someone other than Frank Isola, you can feel confident that it has at least some veracity. There's a lot going on here that should be worked out, though. So let's talk about it.

Preamble
Brandon Jennings will not finish the season in a Pistons uniform. In fact, it's likely that he won't even start the season in a Pistons jersey. This much was obvious the moment the Pistons traded for Reggie Jackson. People have forgotten just how little Stan Van Gundy trusts or likes Jennings' playstyle. Lost in the trove of horrible games this season was SVG regularly sitting Jennings in the fourth quarter in favor of DJ Augustin. Jennings and SVG butted heads regularly throughout the season and, despite Jennings' improved play before his injury, his time with the Pistons was nearing its end.

This is only emphasized by the play of Spencer Dinwiddie, who wavered between overwhelmed rookie and the lottery pick he was supposed to be before his knee injury at Colorado. Not only does Dinwiddie project to be a notable role player off the Pistons bench next season, but he fits the SVG point guard mold: long, athletic, high basketball IQ. Dinwiddie has far more in common physically with Jackson than he does Jennings, and it's clear what type of team SVG is constructing.

Hardaway for Jennings swap
A one-for-one swap between the Knicks and Pistons is technically possible although highly improbable. Jennings is entering the third year of the contract he signed with the Pistons, earning $8M this season. Hardaway, meanwhile, is still on his rookie contract and making only $1.25M. However, despite the disparity in contracts, the trade can still work if the Knicks utilize a few of their trade exceptions, notably the nearly $6M exception they gained from trading JR Smith to the Cavaliers this season.

From the Pistons' perspective, this is an awful trade. Though Jennings is returning from a knee injury, he had perhaps the best stretch of his career last season and is on an affordable contract. Jennings is the Pistons' best trade chip. Exchanging that for a middling 3-point specialist with upside would be a waste of Jennings' value. Meanwhile, the Knicks have Jose Calderon on the books for two more seasons at $7M each and no other shooting guard prospects beyond Hardaway. Jennings would be a big improvement over Calderon, and the Knicks will probably make a run at Aaron Afflalo who recently opted out of the final year of his contract, as well as other free agents. Overall, this trade benefits the Knicks more than the Pistons (New York is getting a better player for no cost, essentially), and doesn't make a lot of sense for Detroit to pursue.

Trade includes a pick swap as well

There are rumblings that the Pistons and Knicks might swap draft picks in addition to exchanging Hardaway and Jennings. This is really the only way that this deal makes sense for Detroit. The Pistons hold the 8th pick in the draft this year which puts them in line to take an impactful player. By my estimation, of the players that the Pistons can realistically draft, they should value in order: Justise Winslow/Mario Hezonja, Kelly Oubre, and Stanley Johnson. The falloff from Winslow and Hezonja to Oubre and Johnson feels stark, however, and the likelihood of the Pistons being able to draft one of the former drops notably with the 8th pick.

Getting the 4th pick gives the Pistons free rein. With Karl-Anthony Towns and Jahlil Okafor essentially locked into the top two positions, the 76ers, selecting 3rd, would be all that stands between the Pistons and their pick of the litter. With major needs at point guard--and an overload in the frontcourt making Kristaps Porzingis redundant--Russell and Mudiay seem like the most likely selections for Philadelphia. That Porzingis, who many project as a top-flight NBA player, might be available to the Pistons in the 4th position makes the trade even more enticing.

But why would the Knicks trade down for a player of Jennings' mercurial ilk in a draft with these players? Does the Knicks front office really expect Jennings and Carmelo to co-exist with only one ball on the court? New York has needs at almost every position. Jennings could help shore up the backcourt, making the need for Russell or Mudiay less immediate. And if Phil Jackson's comments on three-point shooting and his desire to run the triangle in perpetuity are to be believed, Porzingis is not a player they'd consider even if he were still available.

And herein lies why the Knicks might be willing to trade down: most of the elite players available in this draft are small forwards, of which the Knicks have a pretty good one. The only player anyone consistently projects in the top prospects who could fall to 8th is Willie Cauley-Stein. With the Magic, Kings, and Nuggets drafting in front of the Knicks now, they could upgrade at point guard with Jennings while still getting the kind of prospect that they value and would fit into their system (even Frank Kaminsky or Myles Turner, both of whom the Knicks have worked out, could fit their needs and will be available at 8).

If this trade is going to happen, the pick swap will make it work, barring an unforeseen third team that gets involved.

What does Hardaway do for the Pistons?

In Hardaway, SVG is trading for a three-point specialist, the likes of which he went after last offseason by acquiring Jodie Meeks and Cartier Martin. I have been firmly in favor of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope being the Pistons' shooting guard of the future, and acquiring THJ doesn't necessarily put that in jeopardy. The Pistons are actually thin at all of the wing positions, shooting guard included. KCP, Meeks, and Martin are the only wing players that the Pistons have on the roster for 2015-2016. With the expectation that they draft a small forward, that still leaves the team bereft of wing depth. KCP, Meeks, THJ, and [hypothetical draft pick] is a fine four-man rotation in theory, but an injury to any one of them creates a major gap in the depth chart. Meanwhile, losing Jennings forces Dinwiddie into a major role backing up Reggie Jackson. An injury to either of them could be a major problem, but SVG seems far more willing to play unassuming veteran point guards than sacrifice his wing shooting depth.

But Hardaway would be more than an insurance policy. Hardaway is an exceptional spot-up three-point shooter. His rookie season, he shot 36% from outside. A dip to 34% in his sophomore campaign (slightly worse than KCP in the same season) is troubling, but THJ was asked to do quite a bit more during his second year in the league. For the Pistons, he would be a constant threat to knock down threes from the corner. In other words, the exact kind of player the Pistons need on their roster, his defensive deficiencies notwithstanding.

Does this trade happen?
This seems like a fever dream trade. Trading up to the 4th pick in this draft would be ideal for the Pistons, while having a clear path to that reality seems hard to believe. This draft and the Knicks' investment in Carmelo put the Pistons in a unique situation this year, but you can be sure other teams will be clamoring for the Knicks pick if it really is up for grabs. It has been rumored for weeks that if Okafor and Towns are off the board by the time the Knicks pick, they'll look to trade it. But good things happening for the Pistons in the draft is fantasy. While this seems entirely plausible, this trade exists in a I'll Believe It When I See It state.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Reggie Jackson and Greg Monroe's injury


Reggie Jackson's short stint with the Pistons had an inauspicious start. The team began 1-10 in Jackson's first 11 games and the Internet promptly lost its marbles. I preferred tempered optimism, citing Brandon Jennings' and DJ Augustin's turbulent beginnings under Stan Van Gundy, overall personnel concerns, and Jackson's notoriously poor previous coaching situation as reasons to extinguish the fires exploding from everyone's ears. The one notable cause for concern was Jackson's perimeter shooting paired with Detroit's deployment of Monroe and Drummond:
It should be noted, however, that Jackson's lack of shooting and SVG's allegiance to him may spell the end of Monroe in Detroit... Jackson's a point guard with limited range, and given the effect that a non-shooting lineup has had on this team and on Jackson himself, replacing Monroe with a stretch threat might be essential. (Jackson's numbers are almost universally better with only one of the two bigs on the floor than with both according to NBAwowy.com. His numbers are better with Monroe than with Drummond, for what it's worth.) Monroe's future notwithstanding, putting Jackson on the floor with two conventional bigs may not be the best move.
A week later, Monroe strained his knee and we've been given a petri dish of Life Without Monroe from the lab of Small Sample Size Science & Partners. All of the following should be taken with a grain of salt; correlation is not causation. With that in mind, the very real trends that the Pistons have displayed since the loss of Monroe are not encouraging for his future with the team or, perhaps more accurately, the franchise's success if he remains with the Pistons.

The Raw

Jackson's first 11 games with Detroit put on display many of his negative tendencies. He took irresponsible shots, was unable to get to the rim and draw fouls, missed far too open looks, and struggled to make his teammates better. To wit, Jackson's first 11 games:

PPG FG% 3FG% FTM FTA RPG APG TO SPG
14.3 37.1 27.0 1.9 2.0 4.3 6.6 3.3 0.6

Those numbers do not inspire confidence. SVG requires that his point guards be ball dominant. To have a ball handler produce these numbers will destroy the offense and submarine the team's chance to win.

Jackson has been on a tear since those first 11 games, producing some of the best numbers of his career. This began happening the moment that Monroe was removed from the lineup, and SVG began playing more lineups featuring a stretch power forward. It should be noted that both Jennings and Augustin before him struggled to adapt to SVG's offense early in their tenure with the team. The following numbers may reflect Jackson's similar rise because of an offensive understanding, not because Monroe was suddenly absent from the lineup. However, that these events coincide should not be disregarded entirely. Whatever the true explanation for the improvement, Jackson's production through the last five games is impressive:

PPG FG% 3FG% FTM FTA RPG APG TO SPG
20.2 46.3 35.3 3.8 4.4 6.0 12.2 2.4 0.6

Some of these are to be expected. That his steals per game remains unchanged is a good indicator that he may not be playing above his head across the board, and that something more systemic has caused this shift. Additionally, the increase in rebounding feels obvious. Monroe is an excellent rebounder, and his absence--especially when being replaced by Tayshaun Prince and Anthony Tolliver--creates many more rebounding opportunities for the team. Jackson's length for his position would allow him to capitalize on many of those chances. The rest are eye opening.

Most notably are the free throw attempts, which skyrocket from 2.0 per game to 4.4. Jackson's inability to stretch the floor clogged the paint for drives and made drawing fouls difficult. With Monroe's minutes replaced by players who attack from beyond 10 feet, Jackson has had less difficulty getting into the lane and catching helping defenders off guard. In his first 11 games with the team, Jackson took 22 free throws. He matched that total in the ensuing 5 games. This improvement appears more significant than learning the offensive system. Looking at Jennings' and Augustin's production from their first 11 games and after, both saw their FTAs drop slightly on a per-game basis. Learning SVG's system doesn't necessarily produce more free throw attempts for point guards. If it did, we would expect that the prior two players would see similar increases. Jackson's improvement implies that Monroe's absence is a major factor.

(A caveat: Jennings and Augustin are both undersized and notoriously bad around the rim. If SVG's offense does create more driving lanes and FTAs for point guards, those two would be poor control cases for the theory. They are the most up-to-date examples we have to benchmark Jackson against, though.)

The shooting percentage increases likely have the same genesis. Without Monroe's defender available to help in the lane, Jackson has increased his shooting percentage to a number more representative of his production in Oklahoma City. His outside shooting, while significantly better than his career performance, is indicative of what SVG's system can do for shooting guards. Jennings shot far better from outside than he had for most of his career, and Augustin's time as a starter saw him shoot nearly a career best. This scheme affords quality looks for point guards.

Where are the shots going?

Another shift since Monroe's absence has been the distribution of shots for the team and who Jackson is giving assists to. On the season, the Pistons were averaging 25.1 3FGA per game, good for 10th in the league in attempts. Over the last five games, the Pistons have been averaging 28.0 3FGA, which if they averaged this for the entire season, would make them second only to Houston. Some of this is to be expected: Monroe doesn't take three pointers and replacing him with Tolliver and Prince will naturally generate more outside looks. But given that SVG's system is designed to generate these outside shots, any structural change that does so is probably a good one.

Jackson's presence in this stat is important. Prior to the Monroe injury, the Pistons attempted only 6.8 3FGA per game from Jackson passes. Following the injury, the team has attempted 11.0 3FGA per game from Jackson passes. Most of those looks are coming from Tolliver, but KCP takes 0.5 more 3FGA per game from Jackson passes, while Jodie Meeks and Caron Butler also saw increases in attempts (the latter because of more playing time).

Jennings' assist distribution over this time span is also telling. He averaged only 1.7 assists to KCP per game with Monroe, and 3.6 APG to Kentavious without Monroe. Drummond, meanwhile, sees only a 0.5 APG increase since the Monroe injury. Jackson has nearly doubled his assists per game since the Monroe injury, but his assists to Drummond have remained nearly stagnant, illustrating his preference for driving and kicking to perimeter players.

So... ?

As aforementioned, take this with a grain of salt. Five games do not supply proof that these increases are anything more than statistical variance. But in Monroe's first game out, Jackson had 23-20, only the second such game in the NBA this season (the other was produced by Brandon Jennings). Strength of schedule concerns can be tossed aside, though. The Pistons played Memphis, Chicago, and Toronto in this span, in addition to Boston and Philadelphia.

What this means for Monroe is just as unclear. Monroe is a valuable player in the league, but his ability to co-exist with Jackson could determine whether or not the Pistons try to bring him back in the offseason. Van Gundy has to make nice for the cameras and say how important Monroe is, but given how Jackson performs without him and the looming presence of Draymond Green on the free agent market, you have to assume that the Monroe will be a fall-back option. SVG has stocked the Pistons with stretch power forwards: Tolliver, Shawn Williams, even Tayshaun and Cartier Martin have been playing minutes at the power forward lately. Drummond is critical to the Pistons' nucleus, and Jackson appears to be a priority for the team. Monroe is the odd man out. Unless he wants to play a backup role to Drummond and be a change of pace against teams like Memphis, Monroe doesn't make sense from a personnel standpoint. When he signed the qualify offer, he ceased being an asset for the Pistons. Though it seemed that he may be willing to return, the team's performance without him indicates he may not be worth the it.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Reggie Jackson caused the Cuban Missile Crisis


Reggie Jackson is not playing good basketball. Full stop. Since coming to the Pistons, Jackson has struggled to find his rhythm, shooting the Pistons out of games and lacking the offensive understanding that DJ Augustin and Brandon Jennings used to lead the Pistons into playoff contention. Some of this was expected. Jackson comes from a notoriously poor coaching situation into one that is heavily guided and requires a high-level understanding of the scheme. Some of it, like the shooting, is troubling. But trying to extrapolate anything more than "Reggie Jackson is not playing good basketball" from his first eight games with the Pistons is on some Stephen A. Smith #hottake shit.

With Stan Van Gundy all but admitting that the trade-deadline moves made the Pistons worse (intentionally so) it becomes important to look at what Jackson stepped into with the Pistons and look for a reason why he has played so poorly.

Spacing

Given the Pistons' recent history, it seems ridiculous that spacing needs to be considered. Josh Smith spent the first 28 games of the season clogging up the Piston offense and heaving ill-advised three pointers. And yet, following the trade deadline, complaints about Jackson's play have centered on his inability to play at a high level, not the fact that the Pistons' spacing may be worse than it was during any time with Smith on the roster. Consider, please the Pistons' current starting five:

PG: Reggie Jackson (career 29% 3-point shooter)
SG: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (experiencing an 0-for 18 streak from outside that ended yesterday)
SF: Tayshaun Prince (2015 Tayshaun Prince)
PF: Greg Monroe
C: Andre Drummond

Monroe and Drummond are obvious. Monroe possesses no consistency beyond 10 feet and Drummond can't shoot at all. But replacing Kyle Singler with Tayshaun is notable. In fact, replacing a three point shooter with Prince has happened before:
The [Memphis Grizzlies]’s second-most common lineup includes four starters, with Prince sliding in to replace Lee. This group has been much less effective, with opponents actually outscoring it by two points per 100 possessions.

Replacing Lee with Prince may seem minor on the surface, but it greatly reduces the team’s spacing. It’s a throwback to the pre-Lee days, with Allen and Prince on the wings. These guys don’t exactly strike fear into opponents’ perimeter defenders.


Ruining the Pistons' spacing will implicitly limit what Jackson can do. As a player who excels at getting into the lane, playing with three other players who can't play beyond 10 feet will hinder Jackson's productivity. The effect of having Tayshaun on the court instead of Singler (or another true floor spacer) cannot be overstated.

This leads us to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Last night, after KCP missed his first three pointer of the game, the Lakers TV announcers noted that he was in the midst of an 0-19 streak from outside (in reality, it was 0-18, but this doesn't make things any better). It seemed unbelievable, but I looked up the stats: KCP hadn't hit a three pointer since February 28th, a game in which he hit his first but finished 1-5 from outside. He had played 115 game minutes over 4 games (and the start of last night's game) without hitting a three. He wouldn't hit one until late in the first half.

Whatever your thoughts on KCP may be, he shot 40.3% from outside in the month of February. Through three games in March, he was 0-13 before going 4-10 from outside last night. Prior to this drought, KCP hadn't gone more than a single game without hitting a three pointer. In fact, he only had 10 such games this season before this shooting drought. Why was he suddenly struggling so badly from outside? With four starters unable to threaten defenses from beyond the arc, KCP became the sole focus of defenses looking to limit outside shots. This is more than coincidence.

The System

You would expect that SVG has earned the benefit of the doubt when it comes to point guards. An abbreviated list of point guards that he has developed into quality-to-good starters: Rafer Alston, Jameer Nelson, Brandon Jennings, DJ Augustin. So maybe cut the guy a little slack. But for giggles, a blind comparison:


Player A: 15.3 PPG (35.9% FG; 24.1% 3FG), 4.8 RPG, 6.8 APG, 3.3 TO, 0.9 SPG

Player B: 12.4 PPG (40.6% FG; 43.5% 3FG), 2.7 RPG, 5.9 APG, 2.3 TO, 0.9 SPG

Player C: 12.4 PPG (38.1% FG; 25.0% 3FG), 2.3 RPG, 3.0 APG, 1.9 TO, 0.4 SPG


It may be easy to discern who is who in this, but perhaps not. Player A is Jackson's stint as the Pistons' point guard. Player B is the criminally underrated first 8 games of Brandon Jennings' tenure as a SVG product. And Player C is DJ Augustin's first 8 games this season. By the end of his season, Jennings was widely considered a high-level player. He was scoring 20 points per game, averaging 7.2 assist per game, and shooting 43.5% from the field in his final month. But before the calendar year turned, Jennings had an awful December:

Jennings' December: 9.3 PPG (32.4% FG; 27.3% 3FG), 2.8 RPG, 6.9 APG, 2.4 TO, 0.6 SPG

Jennings' struggles were largely attributed to the existence of Josh Smith and the Pistons' persistent spacing issues. It wasn't until after Christmas--and the release of Smith--that Jennings exploded, turning in potentially the best month of his career before the injury that sidelined him. Not only was Jennings set free by the new construction of the team, but he became notably more comfortable in SVG's system, one that asks quite a bit from the point guard.

A similar meteoric rise from Jackson should not be anticipated, but it also shouldn't be ruled out. SVG puts the ball in the hands of his point guard as much or more than any coach in the league. Reggie Jackson currently handles the ball for 8 minutes per game, 4th most in the league. Jennings held the ball for 7 minutes (14th most in the league) and Augustin 5.9 as a Piston (31st most in the league despite being a bench player for the better part of the season). It takes time to implement the offense, understand your teammates, and work within the structure of the team. Given that Jackson has hardly been asked to function within a coherent offensive scheme, the learning curve may be greater than usual, but his struggles were not be unexpected.

Now What?

First, your chill: find it. This season is over, and hoping for anything other than losses like last night's to the Lakers ignores the most prudent course of action for the Pistons. Van Gundy made these moves for the future and with the full expectation that the team was going to be worse (emphasis added):
We knew as far as for this year that it was a gamble. Just because of continuity, we would've been better off not making moves. We knew that. We thought we could make those moves and still stay right in the playoff race and we were willing to take that gamble because of what we thought it did for the future.
Make no mistake, SVG knew that these trades would tank the season and he did so anyway because that's how you build a good franchise. Anything else he says is the window dressing that coaches/GMs have to say to appease people who bought tickets for that game two weeks from now. SVG has been adamant that Jackson is the point guard of the future, and I think he deserves a little slack and leniency. He turned Brandon Jennings into a crucial player to a streaking team on a playoff run. Give him--and Jackson--time to come to terms with this new situation and find the right pieces.

It should be noted, however, that Jackson's lack of shooting and SVG's allegiance to him may spell the end of Monroe in Detroit. Prior to the season, conventional wisdom said that Monroe was gone, but as the Pistons turned the corner and the team was developing together, rumors arose that Monroe might consider a return next season. Jackson's a point guard with limited range, and given the effect that a non-shooting lineup has had on this team and on Jackson himself, replacing Monroe with a stretch threat might be essential. (Jackson's numbers are almost universally better with only one of the two bigs on the floor than with both according to NBAwowy.com. His numbers are better with Monroe than with Drummond, for what it's worth.) Monroe's future notwithstanding, putting Jackson on the floor with two conventional bigs may not be the best move.

The positive side of Jackson's poor play is that re-signing him this offseason may be easier. A rough, troubled stint in Oklahoma City already brought his market value down, but if he underachieves in a new situation, it may make him more affordable. Because this is still the player that turned down $48 million/4 years from a perennial contender. Jackson doesn't think that he should sign a small contract, but if the league does, that will work to the Pistons' benefit.

In the short term, the Pistons are going to struggle to finish the season. But these losses do not fall entirely on Jackson, despite how poorly he's played. The composition of this roster doesn't make sense anymore, and the resources and flexibility that SVG had at the start of the season have been expelled. Jackson's development over the next few games will be important, regardless, but this is a feeling-out process, not something that will come together immediately. Even if he doesn't make the turn that Jennings and Augustin did earlier in the season, that may be beneficial for the Pistons' salary negotiations this summer. Jackson remains a talented, young point guard who the team's coach and GM is committed to. So pump the breaks on the doom and gloom.

Monday, March 9, 2015

The tank is real


The Pistons are now on a six-game losing streak. They are just 2-6 since the trade deadline and only 1-6 since inserting the new additions into the starting lineup. It seemed obvious at the time what was happening:
An important question is whether or not the Pistons are low-key tanking now. Without making any moves, the Pistons could have snuck into the playoffs. Instead, SVG gutted the frontcourt depth, exchanged a deficient small forward for one that hasn't been a viable starter in years, and gambled on a high-risk, high-reward point guard. Meanwhile, the Pistons' primary playoff competition (Miami, Boston, and Brooklyn) all improved, which says nothing about Paul George's imminent return to the Pacers, who are also vying for a playoff spot. If SVG wanted plausible deniability for a tank campaign, today may prove pivotal.
Most notably, Stan Van Gundy exchanged Kyle Singler, a functional albeit lacking spot-up shooting small forward, for Tayshaun Prince, a player who hasn't taken more than 1.8 three-point field goal attempts per game since '06-'07. Now the team faces self-acknowledged spacing issues, made worse because the team's primary ball handler (Reggie Jackson) is a career 29% three-point shooter. And yet as the Pistons stumble to the end of the season, people seem disappointed with the team. Please hear this: Every time the Pistons lose a game, it is a good outcome.

Aside from acquiring Jackson, a high-ceiling point guard with athleticism to burn and a high pick-and-roll IQ, every move that the Pistons made at the trade deadline was designed to improve draft stock by ditching resources that were not in the team's long-term plans. Even with Singler on the roster, the team's top priority remained finding a top-flight small forward. He was expendable. Jonas Jerebko found his rhythm but was far more valuable as a trade asset than a role player on a team in the midst of a rebuild. DJ Augustin is a career backup and could be dealt without serious reservations given Brandon Jennings' contract status.

The Pistons are now 5 games out of the Eastern Conference playoff picture with three teams between them and the 8 seed. They currently sit with the 8th worst record (23-39), with Denver (22-41), Sacramento (21-40), and Orlando (21-43) all capable of overtaking them. The difference between where the Pistons are now and where they would be if they made the playoffs is the difference between players like D'Angelo Russell and Willie Cauley-Stein and players like Jerian Grant and Malik Pope. The former are potential franchise centerpieces. The latter are NBA players.

Since the trade deadline, I've been mumbling about #lowkeytank, but the Pistons' current trajectory is overt. The Pistons need better players and the best way to acquire them is via the draft. Adding Kristaps Porzingis or Stanley Johnson to the Pistons' core of Jackson, KCP, and Andre Drummond would give them another top-flight player on a cheap contract. When you consider that the Pistons will have ~$30 million to play with in free agency, the addition of a lottery-level prospect that can contribute immediately will allow the team to pursue max deal for someone like Draymond Green or acquire a Wes Matthews-caliber talent (or more accurately, both). What the Pistons will lack in feel-goodness and modest playoff ticket sales for the next month, they will make up in the coming years with a functional (dare I say good) basketball team.

What we learned this year, aside from SVG's brilliance, is that the Pistons are closer to viability than was thought prior to the start of the season. But pushing for the playoffs when there are still notable holes in the roster is a fool's errand, the type of thing perpetually terrible franchises do. And while SVG didn't want an anchor on the team (Josh Smith), he realizes that long-term success in a small market starts with wins in the draft, not at the end of a lost season. With 12 of the Pistons' final 20 games on the road, and 11 against playoff teams, the lottery should be assured for this squad. '15-'16 will be a fresh slate, clear of 5-18 starts and incoherent lineups. You should be rooting for losses. Stan Van Gundy is.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Pistons acquire Reggie Jackson, Tayshaun Prince at the trade deadline


The two hours leading up to the NBA trade deadline forced even Adrian Wojnarowski to capitulate. The ever-present NBA behind-closed-doors, front-office prophet was so flabbergasted by the flurry of activity that even he was speechless. Twitter teemed with excitement and shock at the barrage of trades that were being made. Contenders and tankers alike were jockeying for prime contending/tanking position. The 76ers traded away found money in second-round pick KJ McDaniels, sending him to the Rockets for pennies on the dollar. The Bucks blew up their successful season by trading for one of the least efficient players in the NBA (Michael Carter-Williams). Phoenix made a complete roster overhaul. And Detroit shuffled its lineup without sacrificing any essential pieces.

Stan Van Gundy’s refrain for the previous month remained staunch: the Pistons will not sacrifice long-term goals for short-term gains. The team would not make a panic trade to get into the playoffs this season, nor would they sacrifice any young assets without receiving similar compensation. Despite the laughable Joe Johnson trade rumors, SVG approached the trade deadline with the intention of keeping Drummond, Monroe, KCP, and Dinwiddie together. He accomplished that while adding one intriguing piece and clearing space for the coming free agency period, in which the Pistons look to be a major factor.

Gone are Kyle Singler, DJ Augustin, Jonas Jerebko, and Gigi Datome. In their stead come troubled Oklahoma City guard Reggie Jackson and living dinosaur Tayshaun Prince. The Pistons traded away flotsam that didn’t factor into the future for an upgrade at point guard and a stand-in small forward. The team may have gotten worse in the interim, but these moves create new opportunities for the free agency push this summer.


Basketball Things

The on-court impact of these trades will probably be negative unless Reggie Jackson turns out to be a revelation. The depth chart:

PG SG SF PF C
Reggie Jackson KCP Caron Butler Monroe Drummond
John Lucas III Jodie Meeks Tayshaun Tolliver Joel Anthony
Spencer Dinwiddie Cartier Martin
(Brandon Jennings) Quincy Miller


The most glaring weakness remains small forward. The acquisition of Tayshaun Prince does little to fix the problems that the Pistons face at the position. Singler admirably filled a role he was unable to, and held off Butler, who had played his way out of the rotation, and Cartier Martin who has seen only spot duties since the beginning of the season. Tayshau--or more accurately, his expiring contract--is a cog in a greater scheme, about which more later.

The loss of Datome will have a negligible impact on the team, but Jerebko's departure holds much more weight. The Pistons now only have four frontcourt players. Jerebko gave the Pistons flexibility and a consistent insurance policy. Drummond, prone to foul trouble, could be replaced by Monroe at center. Jerebko and Tolliver would platoon the power forward position and give SVG minutes from the bench that should be otherwise handled by Drummond. Without Jerebko, Tolliver and Joel Anthony will see more playing time. The former has acquitted himself this season as a floor spacer and reliable spot-up shooter. Anthony, however, appears barely functional at an NBA level. Foul trouble for Drummond--a certainty at this point--will force Anthony into major minutes.

Jackson, the centerpiece of these trades, boasts a mercurial history. He has struggled to find a rhythm this year with injuries to Westbrook and Durant, and has been a not-so-quiet malcontent who wanted out of OKC. He comes to Detroit with significant upside but also questions about his ability to lead a team. Prone to taking ill-advised shots, Jackson's considerable talents were squandered by a coach that refused to understand them. Jackson possesses athleticism that the Pistons haven't had at the point guard position in a long time. He has scored the 20th most points this season on drives and averages 8.3 points per 48 minutes on drives. For reference, Augustin averages 7.7 points per 48 minutes on drives and Jennings averaged 7.2.

Jackson's (left) and Augustin's (right) shot charts

The Pistons' offense has turned two different hit-or-miss point guards into terrors this season, and there's little reason to think Jackson won't see a notable bump in his production once he integrates into the offense. With his athleticism and pick-and-roll proficiency (he boasts a 50.6% eFG%, one spot ahead of James Harden, and has a low TO% in pick-and-roll situations), SVG's system may unleash his potential. Jackson going supernova stands as the Pistons' clearest path to the playoffs, something which is inadvisable at this junction, though.

Free Agency

What these trades garner for the Pistons is flexibility in the coming free agency period. At the end of the season, the Pistons will have just over $36 million on the books for '15-'16. The team may try to re-sign Monroe, who will require $15 million annually to stay in Detroit, or pursue Draymond Green, who would be an apt, SVG-approved replacement. Handing out a max deal to Monroe or Green would leave the Pistons with ~$15 million to fill out the rest of the roster. Bookmark $2-3 million for Detroit's first-round pick (with any luck, a small forward), and the Pistons would only need to shore up frontcourt depth. Of note, as well, is the $4.5 million team option on Caron Butler that may not be exercised depending on the team's draft haul and free agent moves.

The Pistons will encounter some difficulty re-signing Jackson. Currently in the final year of his contract, Jackson has notoriously declined a $48M/4 year offer from the Thunder, a deal that comes in at the top of his market. Jackson is a restricted free agent, which allows the Pistons to match any offer, but he may not be worth matching. Jackson's worth hovers somewhere between $8-12 million annually, but if he's seeking significantly more than that, parting ways would be prudent. SVG will cross that bridge when he comes to it. Regardless of Jackson's free agency, Brandon Jennings remains on the roster for an affordable $8 million next season.

The Pistons can't go crazy in free agency, however. Drummond will require a max extension following next season. Fortunately, only KCP, Dinwiddie, and Meeks are on the books for '16-'17. This summer will go a long way toward shaping the future of this franchise. I'd expect one or two splashy moves that position the team to contend for home-court advantage in the playoffs.

Tanking?

An important question is whether or not the Pistons are low-key tanking now. Without making any moves, the Pistons could have snuck into the playoffs. Instead, SVG gutted the frontcourt depth, exchanged a deficient small forward for one that hasn't been a viable starter in years, and gambled on a high-risk, high-reward point guard. Meanwhile, the Pistons' primary playoff competition (Miami, Boston, and Brooklyn) all improved, which says nothing about Paul George's imminent return to the Pacers, who are also vying for a playoff spot. If SVG wanted plausible deniability for a tank campaign, today may prove pivotal.

If the season ended today, the Pistons would hold the #10 pick barring some luck (good or bad). Indiana could overtake the Pistons with a successful return from George, and the Sacramento Kings could find cohesion under new head coach George Karl, bumping the Pistons further up the lottery draft board. The moves that SVG made today feel like a franchise willing to take some gambles now that, even if they fail, could pay dividends this summer. And for a team nowhere near contending, these are smart moves to make.

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With news that the Pistons just signed Quincy Miller to a 10-day contract, it's clear that the team will scrapbook its way to the end of the season and reassess later. Jackson could prove to be an excellent leader stuck in a previously crummy situation. He could also be a shoot-first hindrance that fractures the offensive system. SVG has earned the benefit of the doubt, and it will be exciting to see if Jackson can run this offense and whether or not he can be convinced to stay. Despite the hope instilled following the un-Smithening, the Pistons always needed a few more years to develop young talent and craft a roster that can compete nightly. Today's moves don't make them into that team, but they do lay the groundwork for the years ahead.

Monday, January 26, 2015

On Brandon Jennings and hope


I was watching the Orlando Magic play the Indiana Pacers over the weekend and thought to myself, "What if Victor Oladipo just becomes the new Rodney Stuckey." On paper, it makes sense: an explosive shooting guard drafted by a sub-par team to take over point guard duties. An organization wallowing in anonymity because of poor coaching and free agent moves ultimately shoves a talented player into a role he's uncomfortable with. Then I kept watching the game and Oladipo reminded me that he's more Dwayne Wade than Stuckey, that the Magic drafted Elfrid Payton whose ceiling is barely visible, and that Aaron Gordon just started his first game.

Before the season, I lamented all of the stars (potential or otherwise) that currently reside in the Central division: Lebon, Love, Kyrie, George, Hibbert, David West, Rose, Wiggins, Jabari. And that's being cautious. Pau Gasol, Noah, and Jimmy Butler could also be thrown in the mix. Brandon Knight isn't terrible anymore. And then there's the Pistons. Andre Drummond made Team USA, which means something to some people. But Drummond hasn't played in the fourth quarter of the Pistons' last few games because he can't make free throws. The future looked hazy for the Pistons.

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I didn't see the Brandon Jennings injury. In basketball terms, it means that DJ Augustin and Spencer Dinwiddie take over the point guard duties, the former a shoot-first microwave, the latter a rookie. What it means for the Pistons zeitgeist is more damaging. Jennings has been maligned and miscast throughout his career as a selfish, shoot-first point guard. Only one year in Jennings' career (his second) did he drop below the top 16 players in assists per game, this season coming in at 12th. His assist/turnover ratio is at 3.02, ninth in the league among qualified players, and behind the likes of JJ Barea and Andre Miller who play half of the minutes that he does. Jennings promised to live up to the lofty Natural Point Guard expectations when he came to Detroit, saying that a better group of teammates would allow him to blossom as a passer. Despite a horrible season for the franchise, Jennings posted career highs in assists per game (7.6) and assist rate (29.0) last season.

Jennings' issues have always been his shot selection, finishing, and defense. The latter isn't changing, but Stan Van Gundy became his shepherd. Jennings is ball dominant, which is one of the reasons he's often thought of as being shoot-first. He sharpened his teeth in the Drew League after eschewing college for a short stint overseas. These pro-am leagues are notorious for shoddy defense and flashy offense, the kind of setting Jennings thrives in. Without an offense that could take advantage of Jennings' considerable talent, he struggled to find a niche in the NBA as a consistent player and winner, one of those nebulous terms like "grit" in football that people use to describe why a player performs as he does without the backing of any objective data. Van Gundy (and the loss of Josh Smith cannot be overstated) set Jennings free, putting the ball in his hands and allowing him to do his thing inside the structure of the offense. When Jennings wasn't screaming the ball up court, he was usually dribbling through walls of defenders and collapsing the defense, opening lanes for the Pistons' barrage of outside gunners. If he didn't have the ball in his hands, it was usually because it was floating softly toward the rim for a Drummond alley oop.


Since the Great De-Smithening, Jennings had developed into the visage that he promised and that his game always alluded to. It was clear watching Jennings--and to a greater extent, the Pistons--that this is not the same team that has been crumbling since 2008. Jennings became a whirlwind, Drummond has a baby hook that works 100% of the time 38% of the time, the bench is filled with players that you'd see spelling starters on contenders, Greg Monroe emerged from his cocoon as a stumpy-armed butterfly. In essence, not another Rodney Stuckey.

I realized while exhaustively live-Tweeting another Pistons game that this is why I bring up Kentavious Caldwell-Pope so often (sorry about that by the way). Detroit pre-Jennings injury was a good team and would have pushed for the 6th playoff spot in the East down the stretch, but to become anything more than what they are, KCP needs to turn into whatever demigod I've envisioned him to be. With Jennings firing on all cylinders and Drummond being Drummond, the Pistons needed a consistent outside threat that could also make up for some of the defensive inefficiencies in the lineup. Because for as good as Drummond is, barring huge improvements in his post-up game, it's hard to pinpoint where his ceiling might be. It's possible he's already there. It's equally likely that he develops into more of a terror. But KCP stands as a known entity, at least in regards to his ceiling.

Losing Jennings changes all of that. Augustin, despite his ability to score in bunches, has proven incapable of running this offense at a consistent, high level. Dinwiddie is a wild card, but tellingly, is a second-round pick. Losing Jennings for the rest of the season doesn't derail everything the team had going, but the hope that was building is stalled.

The Pistons' January 10th win over the Brooklyn Nets was the most important game this season. The team had just won seven straight games, a streak that was broken by the Atlanta Hawks. Smart people on the internet preached caution about swelling hope in the fanbase: Meeks won't continue shooting this well, Jennings will revert to the mean, the strength of schedule was low. Losing to a bad Nets team would seem to prove much of this right and swing the tide of momentum away from the Pistons. But that win, however meaningless, proved that this wasn't a fluke. Losing Jennings feels like that Nets game in perpetuity. How much of what we saw was real? Will the Pistons rise to those levels again? What does next season bring? And when Jennings returns, will a lower leg injury change how he plays the game?

I've always been sympathetic toward Jennings. I don't have a reason to be, but his game is visually pleasing: ball fakes, quick trigger dribbling, flashy passing, hot streaks (oh, the hot streaks). His development stood as the Pistons' fastest way to relevance. He looked comfortable for the first time on an NBA court, which was heartwarming. And while nine months is a long time to wait for an answer to whether or not Detroit will remain an up-and-coming franchise, it's difficult not to anticipate that they will following this last month.