Monday, December 15, 2014

Set Plays: Back screen from horns set

In spite of the Pistons' considerable issues this season, Stan Van Gundy has been living up to expectations. Some of that is evident: the Pistons are tied for 18th in defensive efficiency this season, allowing 104.2 points per 100 possessions, up from 25th and 107.3, respectively, last season. The gains on defense are a direct result of SVG's defensive schemes and coherence. The offense, while it has performed worse than last season--some of which is SVG's fault (using Andre Drummond as a post player), though most of which is the fault of abhorrent shooting around the basket--has been expertly designed and tweaked.

Earlier this season, I diagrammed a play that the Pistons were overusing, a screen set by the shooting guard on the block to get one of the post players deep position. The play was conceptually sound but not effective in practice. I concluded
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.
As the season has progressed, that patience has proven well-founded. SVG has continued to develop his early-season schemes and the offense has started to grow because of it. In Saturday's win against the Kings, the Pistons utilized the concepts of the above play in a more constructive method to generate easy looks at the rim.

Brandon Jennings brings the ball up the floor and the Pistons align in the horns set. Greg Monroe, Josh Smith, KCP, and Kyle Singler are on the floor for this instance, but the play will work with any two-big lineup.


Jennings immediately enters the ball to Monroe on the elbow and runs into the corner to screen KCP's defender.


KCP curls from the corner and into the lane. In the future, Monroe may have the option to pass it to KCP in the lane, but that wasn't built into the play design in this game.


Rather than cutting to the basket and looking for a pass from Monroe, KCP's job is to set a back screen on Smith's defender while Smith cuts through the lane.


Monroe now makes an entry pass to Smith who is on the move toward the rim and whose defender is in a trail position.


Smith's defender has to come from the opposite side of the paint. On this play, Smith pump faked to get his defender in the air to get an easy layup.

Building blocks. Having KCP set screens on power forwards early in the season always seemed like a fool's errand. He doesn't have the size or strength to set a quality screen on big men, and the play itself failed to produce consistent (or even above average results). In the resulting weeks, SVG has shifted the Pistons' offense from a post-centric outfit to a perimeter-oriented, pick-and-roll scheme. But having perimeter players set screens for the team's bigs will remain a feature of the offense, however, and it's encouraging to see SVG utilize these fundamentals in more effective ways.

More Smith. I've written before about Josh Smith's versatility and SVG's decision to center the offense's pick and roll on him. The primary tenet of these schemes is to get Smith on the move rather than standing on the perimeter and taking shots. Though this play can be run with Drummond receiving the ball (and was a number of times in this game), Smith's skillset makes him dangerous in this scenario. If either corner defender leaves his man to help in the paint, Smith has the vision to find open shooters in the respective corner. Whether or not Smith becomes a consistently functional player on this roster or ends up traded, SVG will make lemonade when he has to.

Systems take time. Most consider the Pistons better than their record. The early parts of this season were a disaster, in large part because SVG's schemes are complex and take a long time to implement. Putting plays onto the court without establishing the baseline of their effectiveness is a recipe for incoherence. This is why SVG says things like, "I want to get them to run back on defense tomorrow in a scrimmage", you can be sure that's not just coachspeak. SVG is actually starting from the baseline with this team. Growing pains are to be expected, but as the season wears on, the team will have a better grasp on and more intuitive understanding of the schemes.

---

The Pistons cannot replay the first 24 games of this season in their current form. If they could, they would have more than 5 wins, of that I'm certain. The Vegas line before the season was 36.5 wins in a weak Eastern Conference. To hit the over, the Pistons would have to finish the season 32-26, a tall task but not out of the picture in the Eastern Conference. The Kings were without Demarcus Cousins, so take the last two wins with a grain of salt, but this may be the turn that the Pistons were bound to make. Salvaging this season carries the side effect of losing a high draft pick, but we'll cross that bridge if we come to it. For now, the Pistons are starting to develop into the team everyone expected at the beginning of the season. Anyway you look at it, that's a good thing.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Why Monroe and Drummond together isn't a long-term solution

Ed. note: All numbers in this post are according to NBAwowy.com.

I have been strident that Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe can't play together. The Pistons do not necessarily play worse when the pairing shares the court. Piston Powered's Dan Feldman and I discussed this on Twitter yesterday: the Pistons have actually outscored opponents this season with Drummond and Monroe on the floor together without Josh Smith, albeit by a slim margin (prior to last night's game, the duo outscored opponents 118 to 101 through 109 possessions when on the floor together this season). The problem stands as a structural one, borne of the players' respective inability to step away from the basket on the offensive end of the floor.

The picture above is a moment from the Pistons' most recent thwacking at the hands of the Portland Trailblazers. It is a common scene: Greg Monroe has the ball on the right post while Brandon Jennings, KCP, and Caron Butler space the floor around the perimeter. Standing on the opposite side of the paint is Andre Drummond. This example is actually one of the more pedestrian occurrences of this issue. Drummond stands at the free throw line, a location at which he is ineffective. Chris Kaman only has to play token defense on Drummond, and can dedicate most of his attention to Monroe. After a baseline spin move, Monroe moves to the basket and is greeted by Kaman, who forces a difficult attempt:


Monroe makes this shot, the kind of circus layup that has sent his field goal percentage at the rim careening to the 48.9% that it stands at today. Monroe has never been an efficient finisher at the rim, but the level he's performing at currently is untenable and a function of Drummond's inability to step away from the rim. When Monroe is on the court without Drummond, his effective field goal percentage is at 52.6%. When the two are on the court together, Monroe's effective field goal percentage plummets to 42%.

The issue extends further than contested shots at the rim. Not only is Monroe taking worse shots when Drummond is on the court, he's taking different shots. Without Drummond on the court, Monroe takes 64% of his shots between 0-3 feet from the basket, and only 32.5% of his shots from 4-9 feet from the basket. With Drummond on the floor, Monroe's shot distribution becomes less effective: only 47.7% of Monroe's shots come from 0-3 feet, while 44.3% of his shots are taken from 4-9 feet.

The screenshots above illustrate why. Monroe understands that help defense will come from the opposing frontcourt players when Drummond is on the floor. The layup that he makes above is not a high-percentage attempt, but is the kind of shot that Monroe can generate when the two play together. Perhaps more telling is Drummond's effective field goal percentage when the two play together. Without Monroe on the floor, Drummond posts a 43.4% eFG% this season. However, when they're in the frontcourt together, Drummond's effective field goal percentage rises to 50%.

These shooting percentages are low for any big man in the league, but that's the status of the Pistons in 2014. What the numbers do show is a distinct picture of how these two play together. Drummond has always feasted off of missed shots and putbacks. With Monroe on the floor, Drummond has ample opportunity for these easy baskets. Since Monroe's shot selection rarely extends beyond 10 feet, rebounds likely won't bounce further than Drummond can reach and return to the rim quickly. Meanwhile, Drummond's mere presence forces Monroe into worse shots. They're magnets being pressed together, like poles repelling one other.

Though problems with his game abound, Josh Smith stands as an integral part of Stan Van Gundy's schemes. Smith's dreaded mid-range shots are a necessary evil of the Pistons' post-up offense. The issue is not the shot, it's that Smith isn't Kevin Garnett. SVG's schemes require a stretch power forward for the reasons outlined above. Without the ability to extend the defense between them, Monroe and Drummond will occupy the same court space and find success from the failures that they're causing in one another. I am not advocating that Smith takes more midrange shots--I'm excited by the shift to a high pick-and-roll offense SVG uses with Smith as the roll man--and get just as frustrated when Smith heaves ill-fated long jumpers. But Monroe and Drummond together detract from one another, causing the Pistons to run in place rather than develop as a young, talented group should.

SVG seems to have noticed the same phenomenon. This is the reason Monroe comes off the bench to start games and why Monroe replaces Drummond rather than Smith at the first substitution. In recent weeks, SVG has worked to keep Monroe and Drummond separated, only playing the two together when the team's regular rotation struggles to generate any offense. This Pistons roster is broken, but Stan Van Gundy capitol-G, capitol-I Gets It.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Player rotations are hard


The last two games have seen the Pistons' biggest rotation changes that Stan Van Gundy has shown this season. They've also been outright disasters, but for different reasons and only occasionally because of the roster changes. Before the season began, SVG planned to bring Greg Monroe off the bench, but injuries to Jodie Meeks and Cartier Martin forced Josh Smith into the small forward position. Several moderately successful schematic changes later, the Pistons are still only 3-14 and stuck in a rut.

On Friday, the Pistons played the Bucks. Seven minutes into the first quarter, SVG pulled Andre Drummond, who has been sat that early in games before, but never without significant foul trouble. Something was afoot:


What followed was one of the Pistons' worst performances to date. Brandon Jennings' absence due to a dislocated thumb should not be understated, but the Pistons' second unit was one of the worst groupings the team has ever put on the floor. Detroit actually won the 1st and 3rd quarters, the two in which the starting rotation played primarily. But the 2nd and 4th quarters, each which opened with the Drummond-led second unit, were devastating. The Pistons lost the 2nd quarter 16-28, and the 4th quarter 19-30. The highest plus-minus of any bench player was -14. The lowest of any starter was -2. Things were so bad with the second unit--one issue was the Bucks playing Giannis Antetokounmpo at center, something Detroit's bigs were ill-equipped to deal with--that SVG chose a frontcourt of Smith and Jonas Jerebko, a pairing that, to my knowledge, hasn't played together this year.

It's not often that I feel compelled to turn off a Pistons game, but watching the team against the Bucks nearly forced me to. The team looked so dysfunctional on the defensive end of the floor that it was hard to believe 15 games had already passed this season. I believe that the Pistons are starting to put things together. SVG has solved the Josh Smith problem, using him as the roll man in pick-and-roll situations and generating open shots. He has also improved Drummond's off-ball defense and rediscovered what made the big man so effective the previous two seasons (playing as a weakside offensive rebounder). Things aren't going well, but SVG shows high-level tactical thinking and, once he has the team that he had a hand in building (Jodie Meeks' return looms large, as does Cartier Martin's continued health and improvement), this season's outlook should revert to the preseason mean.

Last night's game against the Warriors was a case of a good team playing a bad team. Despite shooting 36.3% from the field against the Warriors, the Pistons hung in the game throughout. The most important development of the game was SVG learning from his mistake against the Bucks and changing the lineup back to the preseason intention: Josh Smith and Andre Drummond in the frontcourt with KCP, Jennings, and Singler; bringing Monroe off the bench as a go-to scorer for the second unit. This rotation makes the most sense for this roster. Drummond and Smith complement each other well, able to inhabit different areas of the court both offensively and defensively. Monroe, meanwhile, is best offensively when he can be featured on the block, something that is problematic with Drummond unable to stretch the floor at all. Unfortunately, this happened:


That performance around the rim happened in part because Andrew Bogut is an exceptional rim protector, but it points to an ongoing issue with the Pistons' bigs: they're terrible around the rim. My least favorite thing that happens on any basketball court is players complaining to the refs for a foul call. It's something that Monroe does dozens of times per game. Drummond and Smith have begun doing so as well. The team believes they deserve more calls than they're getting, and they might, but this team appears to have a reputation among refs. They're not going to get calls. So when the team gets a 12-32 performance from their big men (Smith 6-18, Drummond 1-8, Monroe, 5-12), it may be because they're not getting enough calls. More likely, it's because they're bad at finishing around the rim.

Smith is struggling because he has lost a step offensively. He looks slower than he did in the prime of his career, and that's to be expected. Drummond has been terrible this season for reasons unknown, but has shown improvement in the last few weeks. Monroe, however, has been awful around the rim for most of his career. In Monroe's entire career, he's never shot better than 58.9% around the rim. According to NBA.com, that mark was only marginally higher than league average that season (his rookie year):


Monroe's inability to finish at the rim remains the worst aspect of his game. Having a traditional post-up big man that's not efficient or even notably above league average at the rim is the surest way to drive an offense into the ground. Monroe never developed a reliable face-up game, and his finishing ability remains problematic for a player of his skill. I am not implying that Monroe is responsible for that Warriors game shot chart, nor that he's the culprit for the Pistons' long-term problems, but he's a major factor and contributed to the team's issues around the rim.

The consistency issues that the Pistons face do not lie solely on Smith or (unfairly this season) on Jennings. The team has problems almost across the board, with only KCP proving to be the team's consistent performer. In spite of his 2-16 start from behind the arc, KCP has improved his outside shooting percentage to 36.4% (40.9% if you excise his first three, knee-recovery games)*. In addition to his NBA Defensive Team-caliber defense, KCP has quietly become a consistent threat on the offensive end.

Consistency is an expected problem on a team this young, though, and it's SVG's job to both coach the players on mechanical problems and develop systems that they feel comfortable in. The Bucks game notwithstanding--and it should hardly count against Detroit; few opponents will be able to play a 6'11" small forward at center--SVG has shown a willingness to experiment with what brings an individual's skillset in line with how the team performs. Having already solved two of the most difficult roster pieces, it should not take much more time before he has a playbook that works for the entire team. At this point, the losses are as beneficial as the (hypothetical) wins. The Pistons are learning and SVG is learning with them. It is only a matter of time before they figure it out.

* A note about KCP's play that I think is important to watch: where he catches the ball on catch-and-shoot attempts. I struggled to find what was wrong with his shooting stroke for most of this season, but it dawned on me during the Bucks game that he needs to receive the ball high in his shooting stance to hit outside shots with consistency. When he has to reach down to grab the ball and begin his shot from a crouched position, he invariably misses. But if he receives the ball near his chest, his shot is much more effective. With Smith as the roll man who usually makes passes to the perimeter, this can be a problem. In spite of Smith's exceptional passing acumen, he's still prone to throwing low passes. He will need to improve the accuracy of those driving kick outs for KCP to take the next step.

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 NBA.com. 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?