Thursday, August 1, 2013

How bad are the future Pistons' spacing issues?

With the acquisition of high-usage, low-efficiency Brandon Jennings and ongoing concerns about floor spacing, I determined to do the obvious: visually display how bad the Pistons' offensive spacing might be during the upcoming season. The shot chart above combines Jennings, Josh Smith, Greg Monroe, and Andre Drummond's '12-'13 regular season shot charts into a depressing red (below league average) and yellow (comparable to league average) mess.

For a point of reference, the following is the Pistons' '12-'13 shot chart as a team:

So at first blush, things look bad. But it's not as dire as these shot charts may imply.

The New Pistons shot chart includes only one perimeter-oriented player (Jennings), which assumes that shooting averages outside of the paint will be diminished. And the presence of Jennings, a notoriously bad finisher, brings down the average around the basket. Looking at the individual shot charts is more promising with regards to averages. The shot distribution, however, is what remains most troubling:

56% of the shots these four took in '12-'13 were around the basket. Last season, when the Pistons faced similar spacing issues, the team took 51% of their shots around the basket, a remarkably high number bolstered by Greg Monroe's ability to get to the rim (he took more shots near the rim than any other player in the league). But no other inside-out NBA offense was close to the Pistons' tendency to take shots at the rim:
  • Indiana Pacers: 42.18%
  • Los Angeles Lakers: 42.37%
  • Memphis Grizzlies: 45.59%
  • Miami Heat: 38.83%
  • Atlanta Hawks: 40.43%
Make no mistake: Monroe is a statistical outlier in this sample size and skews any analysis, but it's not like the Pistons will be without him next season. That 56% number will presumably drop to something approaching the 51% the Pistons put up last season; with Monroe, Drummond, and Smith consuming most of the frontcourt minutes, the remaining shot distribution from the fifth starter and bench players will be perimeter-focused. But the question remains: even with improved personnel, can the Pistons win with a shot distribution weighed this heavily toward inside shots?

For historical precedent, I trolled the Stats archives and performed a spot check of the available seasons (dating back to '96-'97). Only the '96-'97 and '97-'98 Lakers--the first two years with Shaq--came close to the current Pistons' shot distribution. In Shaq's first season with the Lakers, the team took 51% of their shots around the basket, and the following year, took 55% of their shots at the rim. After those two seasons, the Lakers' at-the-rim attempts dropped every year--falling as low as 39%--until Shaq's final season, during which they rose to 42%.

Not Hakeem Olajuwon's or Yao Ming's Rockets, Shaq's or Dwight Howard's Magic squads, nor Tim Duncan and David Robinson's Spurs achieved the imbalance of inside shots that the Pistons took last season. The Spurs came closest, shooting 49% of their attempts near the basket in Duncan's rookie year, a number that dropped in subsequent seasons. But neither Shaq, nor Duncan, nor Robinson are walking through those doors and the NBA is a very different place than it was in 1996.

The Pistons aren't going to be on the level of any of the aforementioned teams regardless of shot distribution, so comparing them is a mostly fruitless affair, but the projected shot distribution appears problematic. Teams with similar spacing issues (last year's Memphis squad, for example) and dominant big men still managed to stay well below the Pistons' output. Perhaps Brandon Jennings' ball domination and high-usage may help to balance this, but is that any better than the flawed skillset he showed in Milwaukee?

All of this points toward an increasingly likely Greg Monroe trade--either that or Monroe/Drummond's minutes will be significantly reduced, putting only one of them on the floor at a time--especially if the Pistons struggle early in the season. With Tom Gores' desire to make the playoffs this season, a string of early losses could force Joe Dumars' hand, which might not be the worst outcome for the Pistons. Regardless, job one for Mo Cheeks during training camp will be figuring out how to get quality looks out of this frontcourt without having Smith take endless mid-range jumpers.

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