Monday, February 17, 2014

Post-ups and back cuts

Following John Loyer's head coaching debut, expectations were high. Not only did the Pistons knock off a Western Conference powerhouse, they did so in convincing fashion, led by the schematic overhaul of Loyer's schemes. His second outing--against the Cavaliers--was less promising. Loyer allowed the team to freelance more, choosing not to call the offense as rigidly as he did against the Spurs. This ended predictably: the offense inevitably hit a wall and the team ran into the same problems it has grappled with all season, namely stagnating movement, contested two pointers, and a lack of open looks.

Even in the less structured offense, there were moments of brightness. This season, Brandon Jennings ranks fourth in the league in time of possession. One of the reasons is because of the difficulty the team has had entering the ball into the offensive post, resulting in a lot of standing around while Jennings fakes passes to (usually) Greg Monroe. The Pistons were no better against the Cavs in this regard, but they did show a motion that remedied the problem.

This particular instance happened early in the third quarter. After some superficial movement, the Pistons are aligned in an umbrella formation with Josh Smith, Kyle Singler, and Jennings at the top of the key. Jennings has the ball and is trying to get it into the post to Monroe. Drummond is stationed on the weakside of the basket per usual.

With Monroe being fronted and Jennings struggling to enter the ball, Drummond makes a quick cut to the foul line.

When Drummond gets to the stripe, Jennings immediately passes him the ball. As the pass is entered into the high post, Monroe spins off of his defender and makes a back cut to the basket.

Monroe beats his defender and Drummond dumps a pass inside to Monroe for an easy bucket.

That's how the play is supposed to work and how it had once or twice previous. In this instance, Monroe didn't cut hard enough and Drummond had to hold the ball for an extra beat before passing over the top. The play ended with a shooting foul that sent Monroe to the free throw line.

The Pistons ran this set a few different times in the game, but I didn't think to make a note of it until I saw it again in the third quarter. Drummond has spent most of his NBA career on the weakside of the basket lurking for offensive rebounds and putbacks, but this is one of the first times we've seen a coach utilize his presence there as a schematic advantage. Loyer--and even Cheeks this season--starts most offensive sets with shooters in the corners, but their absence on this play (specifically Singler's off-ball movement to the top of the arch) indicates that this is exactly how the play is drawn up: if Jennings struggles to enter the ball into the post, Drummond needs to recognize this and cut to the foul line.

In spite of the stagnating offense and Loyer's resistance to calling set plays against the Cavs, his integration of these more fluid plays into his scheme shows foresight and an understanding of both the roster and the players' strongest assets. The Pistons may have stumbled into the All-Star break, but the future is still bright with Loyer at the helm.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Instant impact

Allen Einstein/NBAE via Getty Images

For months, I've been mentally writing a column about Mo Cheeks. I planned on titling it "Mo Cheeks is a bozo" or something similarly dismissive and flippant. I'd address his nonsense rotation, inability to manage games, poor understanding of his roster, lack of an offensive system, and failure to control his team. Serious doubts started with soundbites about not running plays for his rookie shooting guard, despite playing him significant minutes. It came to a head when he didn't call a late-game timeout to advance the ball in a one-possession game. A courtside fan had it right: "You're a fucking idiot".

In lieu of his firing, that column seems pedantic and childish. Besides, the greatest referendum against Cheeks came last night during a 109-100 win against the San Antonio Spurs, a game in which Pistons interim coach John Loyer's schemes were a revelation. Despite having only a day to prepare the team and install his system, Loyer was able to get more production and cohesion out of the disjointed roster than Cheeks managed all season.

The Pistons' offensive improvement was visible from the tip. Despite early turnovers, the off-ball movement was a designed function of the offense, rather than random freelancing, and produced open looks while forcing the Spurs into poor defensive positions.

One play in particular stood out. The Pistons showed a horns set--a common NBA offensive look in which the PF and C begin at the elbows, SF and SG sit in the short corners, and the PG holds the ball at the top of the key. Josh Smith set a pick on the Spurs point guard (Tony Parker). At the same time, Greg Monroe cut hard to the basket, both drawing Tim Duncan with him and forcing the Spurs small forward (Danny Green) to rotate over.

Jennings turned the corner and was staring at Boris Diaw. Parker had been caught up on the Smith screen and was trailing Jennings. Smith then made a soft roll into the lane and Jennings dumped a pass off to him at the free throw line, forcing Green to come completely off of Singler in the corner. Smith quickly snapped the ball into the short corner for a wide open Singler three.

In this scenario, Green had to make a choice: either rotate into the lane to cover Smith or stay on Singler in the corner, opening up a clear driving lane to the rim. This is how, I imagine, Joe Dumars expected the team to run with Drummond, Monroe, and Josh Smith. With two or three dangerous big men on the court, a set like horns will force opposing defenses into difficult positions, often opening looks for shooters on the outside.

It's no surprise that the Pistons rank 24th in three pointers attempted this season: this kind of action never existed under Cheeks. In one day, Loyer implemented not only this set, but countless others that made an appearance early in the game. Cheeks insisted that KCP (and in reality all of the team's three point shooters) would get his looks off of ball movement, but the Pistons struggled to find any such movement during the season. Brandon Jennings is tied for the fourth-highest time of possession in the NBA (7.3 minutes per game) and tied for fifth in frontcourt touches per game (77.8). Many of the Pistons' offensive possessions this season featured Jennings dribbling the ball and taking ball screens, but without the coherence that would generate these kinds of open looks.

During the fourth quarter, the Pistons offense predictably bogged down, but not for the same reasons it has all season. Under Cheeks, the Pistons' fourth-quarter woes were a combination of turnovers and lackadaisical defense. With a new coach and little prep time, it was expected that the Spurs would eventually react to what the Pistons were running. With more time, Loyer will be able to implement counters off of these plays and consistently keep defenses on their toes.

All of which is to say nothing of the Pistons defense. Though Josh Smith still wandered a bit, the Pistons finally had a defensive scheme that was sustainable. The on-ball defender fought over every screen and the screen defender would show a soft hedge. Though this defensive scheme won't work in every game, the consistency with which they defended allowed logical rotations and strong, on-time help defense.

I lived in Cleveland for Lebron James' final two years with the Cavaliers and watched nearly every game the team played. Since then, I was convinced that I would never see coaching as poor as Mike Brown displayed. Though Cheeks disabused me of that belief, Loyer's immediate impact on the Pistons was a turnaround few could have predicted. Though I'd still like to see the Pistons bring on Lionel Hollins full-time, after this Spurs game, I'm willing to forestall that decision and see what Loyer can do with this roster.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Midseason Grades at PistonPowered

Because writing on other blogs is basically like writing on this blog, I contributed to a 3-on-3 Midseason Grades post on PistonPowered. For example:
Bynum is suffering through a post-contract-signing lull. Shooting .040 worse than last season and averaging almost a full assist and point less in the same time on the floor, the Pistons’ bench spark plug hasn’t shown the consistency or explosiveness that garnered him a $5 million paycheck. A recent few impressive games playing significant minutes may see him get more burn off the bench, however. GRADE: C
Check it out.

Friday, December 27, 2013

The sluggish development of KCP

With the reassignment of Tony Mitchell and Peyton Siva* to the D-League it's worth looking at the development (or lack thereof) of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. The return of Trey Burke from injury and his occasionally fantastic play, coupled with KCP's perpetually underwhelming performances, have prompted another round of cries for Joe Dumars' head and disappointment in the Pistons' first-round pick. KCP has not lived up to my expectations and has shown molasses slow improvement, but there exists hope and tangible development.

The start of the season was not kind to KCP. He struggled with the speed of the game and seemed uncomfortable on the court. Some of that comes from being a rarely used backup, but as a top-10 pick, you expect him to at least be a functional player. His second month in the league, however, has been a significant improvement:

Points FG% 3FG% FT Reb Steals TOs
November 7.1 34.0% 27.5% 13-14 2.0 1.0 0.2
December 6.7 40.0% 38.5% 7-11 2.6 0.9 0.4

The field-goal and three-point shooting percentages are the most obvious standouts from November to December. Watching KCP shoot corner three pointers was a frustrating affair during his debut month. A piece of scouting information I learned long ago was that when a shot bounces straight off of the back of the rim, a player's mechanics are true. Early in the season, KCP's shots were wildly inaccurate, clanging off the side of the rim even on catch-and-shoot threes. He remedied that issue and now, KCP's misses look true, which gives hope for his continued development. He still struggles to shoot threes above the break (see below) and he often rushes shots--I am worried about his inability to take shots under duress--which clang helplessly off the rim if they even make it there. But his overall improvement from beyond the arc cannot be denied.

The same cannot be said for all of his shots. The team has begun running off-the-ball curl screens for KCP. His mechanical issues on these quick-release jumpers abound, as is evidenced by the results. His biggest issue on these two-point attempts is his inability to square his body before rising for the shot. He powers over the screen and cannot properly set his feet and square his body before shooting, resulting in a lot of wild heaves at the basket. He similarly struggles at the rim, where the speed of the game forces him to miss a remarkably high amount of layups in transition. KCP also avoids contact at all times when attacking the basket, which results in a lot of acrobatic misses as he weaves through defenders' arms.

In spite of that shoot chart, KCP is improving. Month-to-month trends are nothing to get too excited about, but the development of his mechanics and increased jump shooting percentages point to a player slowly adapting to the NBA game. His defense has made him an indispensable part of the team and barring a setback, he should continue to develop into a consistent threat on both ends of the court. That was my expectation before the season began, and while it hasn't gone as smoothly as expected, KCP is still on track to be a valuable piece on this Pistons roster.

*Siva currently has an amazing -4.46 PER, a number that I didn't think was possible with that statistic. Though his offensive skills in college were subpar, it appears he's incapable of playing NBA basketball. He is not long for this league, but sending him to the D-League to improve his shot and decision making remains his only chance.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Monroe for Faried: A win for everyone

For a few weeks now, the Denver Nuggets have been shopping power forward Kenneth Faried. Faried is a hyper athletic, undersized power forward who specializes in finishing at the rim and rebounding. He's the kind of grind-it-out player that Joe Dumars has made a priority in Detroit, but he doesn't fit the triangle offense that Denver Nuggets head coach Brian Shaw wants to run. Enter Greg Monroe, a proficient post player having a career year despite the Pistons' revamped frontcourt struggling.

Though they're rounding into shape from where they started the season, the Pistons' ultra-big frontcourt still boasts a net rating of -3.1 and fails to deliver the rim-protecting defensive-mindedness that was promised when the team was assembled. The Pistons' starting frontcourt current has a 105.1 defensive rating, which is shocking given the their size and individual defensive prowess (Monroe notwithstanding). One reason for the subpar defensive rating may be Mo Cheeks' agenda to jump passing lanes and generate steals, a high-risk/high-reward defensive strategy that doesn't seem suited for a team with such defensive potential, but regardless, this experiment has shown more flaws than solutions. Regardless, there are as many problems as potential solutions right now and when Monroe's contract is up at the end of the year, losing him without getting anything in return would be devastating.

My desire to trade Monroe has been a talking point for this blog this season. If the Pistons were able to get a young small forward or draft pick in return for Monroe's soon-to-be max contract, that would be a huge win for a team that both can't afford the likes of Monroe, Smith, Jennings, and Drummond's salaries once Andre needs to re-sign, as well as a team that doesn't work schematically in a league increasingly moving toward outside shooting. Though the trade for Faried wouldn't solve all of the team's schematic problems, using him as a bench forward could give the Pistons significantly more flexibility and depth.

The core of the deal is Monroe for Faried and the New York Knicks' unprotected 2014 first-round pick that the Nuggets acquired in the Carmelo Anthony deal. The rest of it is just window dressing to make the numbers work, but this seems like a fair deal:

Monroe's contract is too large to take on only Faried, so throwing in rarely used Anthony Randolph would balance the deal. In order to make the numbers work, the Pistons would need to send back another player. Tony Mitchell's contract doesn't make any difference in the trade and would entice the Nuggets to part ways with their raw, athletic power forward if they were getting another one in return.

There are complications with this trade other than 2014 first round picks being the hottest commodity in the NBA. The Nuggets are currently owed two first round picks in the 2014 draft: their own and the Knicks' unprotected pick. However, the least favorable of those two picks is already due to the Orlando Magic. Trading away the other would remove the Nuggets from the first round entirely, a harrowing prospect in a draft this deep. To sweeten the deal, the Pistons could throw in their second-round pick in addition to Mitchell and Monroe.

That may sound unlikely, but if any team were interested in overpaying for a polished post scorer, it would be Brian Shaw's Nuggets. It's not secret that Shaw has been disappointed by his team's post play. For the triangle offense to work at peak efficiency, that post player becomes a necessity. Monroe presents a prime opportunity for Shaw's team: rarely will they find another player as polished in the post with the upside and years left in his career as Monroe. The Nuggets could try to hold out until the season is over and make a run at Monroe as a free agent, but the Pistons hold the edge in that pursuit (he is a restricted free agent) and Dumars has made no indications that he is willing to let Monroe leave. Without Monroe, the Nuggets are left to find a post player in the draft or make a run at someone like Pau Gasol.

For the Pistons, Faried doesn't solve the spacing problems presented by the Monroe/Drummond/Smith frontcourt, but that can be accomplished by moving Faried to the bench. Doing so would give the Pistons another quality veteran to play with the second unit and offers the flexibility to go big or small. A tentative depth chart would be:
Jennings KCP Singler Smith Drummond
Bynum Stuckey Anthony Randolph Faried Harrellson
Siva Billups Datome Villanueva/Jerebko

Faried could easily slide to center alonside Smith in the second unit, creating an undersized, athletic frontcourt or play alongside Drummond with the second unit and wreak havoc on the offensive glass. Most importantly for the Pistons, however, would be the acquisition of a (likely) lottery pick in 2014. Even late in the lottery, players like Kentucky's James Young or Florida's yet-to-play Chris Walker should be available, filling the sorely lacking small forward position.

The likelihood of this trade (or any variation of it) going through approaches zero. Dumars doesn't seem interested in trading anyone from the current roster and the Nuggets won't want to remove themselves entirely from the first round. But Brian Shaw needs Monroe and the Pistons need to find a long-term answer for their small forward and future assets issues.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

A hailstorm of threes

Detroit 103 - Portland 109 (2-4)
Detroit 95 - Golden State 113 (2-5)

The Pistons starting five now has a -37.9 net rating. Their offensive rating stands at a (predictable) 93.2, the kind of sluggish offense that many expected when the team committed to the revamped frontcourt. But we were sold a bill of goods when Josh Smith was brought aboard: a dominant, imposing front line that wouldn't let anyone near the basket. And yet after five games playing together, the team's starting rotation has a 131.1 defensive rating, a number that would sprint past the league worst Utah Jazz's team defensive rating of 110.99.

Something is broken here, the root of which becomes increasingly apparent as the season wears on. It could be that the Pistons schedule presents problems for a collection of players trying to feel one another out; after wins over bottom feeders Boston and Washington, the Pistons have lost to five playoff teams (Memphis, Indiana, OKC, Portland, Golden State), many of which have legitimate title aspirations. Or it could be that the starting five is still finding a way to gel with newcomer Brandon Jennings. The team had a net rating of 6.1 in the first three games when Will Bynum was running the team rather than Jennings. But those arguments are too easy for a team being outrebounded by their opponents despite playing Josh Smith, Greg Monroe, and Andre Drummond together for 20 minutes a game.

Two nights ago, the defensive rotations from the Pistons' starting five were some of the worst you'll ever see. The Trailblazers shot 11-23 from outside, most of which were corner or elbow threes without a defender in sight. Following that game with a back-to-back against one of the league's best three-point shooting teams always spelled trouble, and yet it was the 54 points in the paint that the Pistons allowed that marked their demise last night.

Almost all of the problems can be attributed to coaching, either rotationally or schematically. Last night, Chauncey Billups only saw 6 minutes of action, perhaps a sign that Mo Cheeks realizes his foolhardy reliance on veterans is problematic. Billups has not-so-quietly replicated his 2012 playoff performance, where he was unable to be a functional spot-up shooting guard despite playing alongside the league's best point guard and distributor. And I don't doubt that his insistence on having the ball in his hands this year is damaging Jennings' distribution, effectively splitting Jennings' on-court time between point guard and shooting guard, and encouraging more jumpers because of the latter.

But schematically, the offense looks broken. Against Golden State, the Pistons shot 3-18 from outside, which would be a surprising number if the distribution of shots wasn't so troubling: Smith 0-2, Jennings 0-4, Jerebko 0-2, Stuckey 0-2. The players that can be considered outside threats made 3 of 8 outside shots: Singler 0-1, Luigi Datome 2-4, KCP 1-3. When you allow players without an outside shooting acumen to take the bulk of the team's looks--and further when you construct an offense that encourages these players to take low-percentage shots--you need to reassess how you're running the team.

Assorted Thoughts
Brandon Jennings/Will Bynum defense. Bynum's defense is usually something you can ignore. He takes some risks on defense, but overall, he's a consistent if unexceptional defender. But Damian Lillard absolutely torched Bynum in the pick-and-roll. Bynum wasn't able to stay in front of Lillard and was responsible for a lot of the open three-pointers as the Pistons' frontcourt was forced to rotate. Against Golden State, Jennings' defense was the sore thumb, often being caught off guard and showing a lack of consistent effort in both transition and the halfcourt.

#FreeKCP. Caldwell-Pope finally got significant minutes against Golden State, both because it was the second night of a back-to-back and Billups was run off the court by the Warriors' talented backcourt. He acquitted himself as well as you'd expect: 9 points on 4-11 shooting, 3 rebounds (1 offensive), 1 assist, and two steals in 24 minutes. If he doesn't miss a fast-break dunk early in the second quarter, he suddenly has one of the most productive box scores on the team. And that box score doesn't show the multiple times KCP made great defensive plays in transition to save the Pistons multiple points. This Billups charade needs to end.

Whither Josh Smith. Smith played only 19 minutes against Golden State and took only 6 shots, making one. The Pistons went small during the end of the first half and beginning of the second, giving KCP and Kyle Singler minutes alongside Drummond and Monroe. This sparked a minor comeback by the Pistons, but Smith was probably help out a little too long. After cutting the deficit to 15 early in the third quarter, Golden State pushed it back to 19. Smith likely should have returned then, but sat for another two minutes. This seems like a locker-room/effort problem that Cheeks identified.

Next up
The Pistons continue their West Coast trip with games at Sacramento and the Lakers on Friday and Sunday, respectively. Both teams are Western Conference bottom feeders and represent must-wins for a sliding Pistons squad.