Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Joe Dumars wants a new point guard; may not understand basketball

DeAndre Jordan did something filthy to Brandon Knight last year, and even he thinks that Joe Dumars' crusade to find a point guard is unnecessarily gory. Through two years of playing with mostly terrible teammates, Brandon Knight has not developed the way that most had hoped he would. He's seen more as a tweener suited to stretching the floor than running an offense, but even his scoring has been mediocre. Given this and Tom Gores' apparent philosophy that spending money = winning, the Pistons have been linked to countless point guard free agents, most recently Rajon Rondo and Brandon Jennings.

When the Pistons signed Josh Smith, I suspected that it was motivated by Gores' desire to turn the franchise around immediately. The signing's lack of basketball insight and forethought hinted at a decision maker basing his motivations on traditional box scores rather than basketball logic. Couple that with Dumars' "I didn't do all of my homework" line at the Smith press conference and you have the makings of an owner forcing the hand of his GM. Dumars has made terrible decisions in the past (hai Ben Gordon), but this is the same GM who orchestrated a championship caliber team by fitting together assorted pieces to create a coherent whole. Gordon was Dumars' pet project, a player he had wanted since he entered the league and who Dumars was willing to overpay for, but someone whose skills ostensibly fit into the Pistons lineup. This free agency period has been marked by rampant spending--or at least attempted spending--on players who philosophically fill the Pistons' team model (defensive-first grinders) but are likely to be Xs and Os enigmas.

Enter Rajon Rondo, who, other than Doc Rivers, benefitted more from Boston's Big Three than anyone else. Rondo is a point guard's point guard. He plays pass-first offense, pushes the pace after defensive rebounds, and is a solid on-ball defender. So if you're a NBA owner who talks about a player's "will to win" or "winner's mentality", Rondo is probably your catnip. But seeing Boston's success as Rondo's is missing the forest for the trees.

Rondo's numbers skyrocketed during his third season, and second with Boston's Big Three, indicating that his development wasn't entirely due to playing with three first-ballot hall of famers. But it is no coincidence that most of Rondo's assists went to perhaps the greatest mid-range shooting power forward of all time and a career 45% FG/37% 3FG small forward:

Rondo is as much a product of his environment as he is of his own development. And what of the Pistons' environment? As I said after the Josh Smith signing, kind of ugly:
The Pistons' frontcourt currently projects to have zero shooting outside of the paint. Then what's the logic of bringing in a point guard who is already unguarded by defenders because of his inability to shoot? Surprisingly, after looking at Rondo's shot chart from last season, he has drastically improved his midrange game. Most of this development likely comes off of pick and rolls with Garnett, where teams are willing to let Rondo beat them by taking a long two pointer. To his credit, Rajon has developed that aspect of his game, but without that kind of respect for his teammates, he may find it difficult to get those same looks.

Moreover, without the ability to stretch the floor beyond the three point line, Greg Monroe and Co. will find exponentially less space near the basket. In Smith, Drummond, and Monroe, the Pistons have the makings of a team that emphasizes inside scoring, while drafting KCP only emphasizes this plan of attack. Signing Rondo, a player who is most efficient with the ball in pick-and-roll situations, would indicate a complete schematic shift from the composition of the current roster. The motivation to acquire Rondo is then either a fundamental misunderstanding of personnel or influenced by someone lacking in basketball understanding (Gores). I prefer to assume the latter.

If the Pistons can't land Rondo, they may turn their attention toward Brandon Jennings, who is a more interesting case. Tom Ziller on Jennings' current situation:
Brandon Jennings isn't happy. The point guard is reportedly becoming increasingly agitated with the lack of action from the Bucks or other teams as he twists in the wind of restricted free agency. Jeff Teague, who suddenly seems inextricably entwined with Jennings, got a decent offer sheet with the Bucks late last week; the Hawks matched. The Bucks also reacquired Jennings' old partner Luke Ridnour last week, and let Monta Ellis barrel down to Dallas.

Jennings is apparently waiting for Milwaukee to make a fat offer that apparently isn't coming. Meanwhile, teams are running out of salary cap space. Atlanta and Dallas were the spots that made the most sense, and they went other directions. (It must really chafe Jennings to see Teague preferred by two teams, the Bucks and the Hawks.)
Jennings is a high-volume scorer who, through four years in the league, has remained a remarkably consistent just-above-average point guard. He gets labeled as a teammate who is difficult to play with, but that's exaggerated. Players who take a lot of shots and aren't incredibly efficient often get this label, regardless of its basis in reality. But what makes Jennings interesting is that he's basically a super charged Brandon Knight who didn't really take off until his--you guessed it--third year in the league.

Through two years, Jennings' statistical profile looked a lot like Knight's. To wit, the two players' per-40 numbers during their sophomore campaigns:

PointsAssistsReboundsTrue Shooting%Assist RateTO rateUsage
Brandon Jennings18.85.64.349.320.59.824.3
Brandon Knight16.

The primary differences here are usage rate and turnover percentage. Jennings scores more per 40 minutes despite shooting worse primarily because he uses more possessions and turns the ball over less. If Knight can become more secure with the basketball, it's reasonable to project Jennings' production for Knight this season, the kind of numbers the Pistons had hoped for when they drafted him in the lottery.

The Pistons don't have the cap space to acquire Jennings outright who is a restricted free agent. A sign-and-trade would necessitate parting ways with Knight, a move that would be prudent for a contender but not a team still building around a young core. Jennings and Knight have the same ceiling, with Jennings more of a known entity coming closer to his potential, but there is precedent for point guards having breakout junior campaigns (as both Rondo and Jennings did recently).

At the end of the season, Knight's rookie contract expires with a team option for 2014-2015. Keeping Knight around this year, a season in which the team doesn't project to anything more than making the playoffs, has no downsides: at best, he develops into a Jennings-like score-first point guard; at worst he either comes off the books if the Pistons don't re-sign him or his expiring contract becomes a valuable trade piece. Knight isn't guaranteed to have a breakout season, but losing him now in favor of overpaying more free agents could continue to undo a Pistons roster that appears to be finally coming into its own.

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