Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Pistons fall to Pacers; frontcourt proves to be huge problem

Pacers 99 - Pistons 91 (2-2)

The Indiana Pacers are what the Pistons franchise aspires to be: an inside-out scoring group of blue collar grinders that intimidates opposing offenses and imposes its will when it has the ball. Last night's matchup was predictably chippy, even without Lance Stephenson playing like Lance Stephenson. Andre Drummond and Roy Hibbert is going to be a grudge match for years to come. And watching Josh Smith guard budding superstar Paul George should be replete with fantastic battles.

The Pistons spent the offseason constructing a similar group of individually talented stars, but what last night proved was the lack of coherency in Detroit's current makeup. Much has been made of how the Pistons' revamped frontcourt would perform. The common belief was that, though it may struggle on offense, the defense should be as stout as any frontcourt in the league. Unfortunately, that's not really how things have gone.

To start the game last night, the big frontcourt lineup dug the Pistons into a 29-14 hole in the first quarter. When the second quarter opened and the second unit hit the floor, the team roared back, allowing the Pacers to score only 9 points in the second quarter while putting up 27 of their own. You may be saying to yourself, "But one bad quarter does not indicate a long-term trend." And I'll counter with the Pacers regaining and pushing out their lead with a 36-22 third quarter when the Pistons' frontcourt returned intact. The Pacers present a unique challenge, the kind of team that can go blow-for-blow with an overpowering front line that of the Pistons, so it's possible that this was simply a poor matchup for a team trying to find its footing.

Unfortunately, the Monroe/Drummond/Smith frontcourt has been very bad through four games this season. According to 3-man rotation metrics, per 100 possessions that trio has a -17.3 rating. In other words, the Pistons find themselves in a 17-point deficit for every 100 possessions that the starting frontcourt is together. If you were wondering, that's the 104th best three-man lineup the team has deployed this season. The abysmal 97.7 offensive rating and 115.0 defensive rating are both some of the worst three-man lineups the team has played this season. With caveats about small sample sizes and the need to further gel noted, there is something broken here, and Mo Cheeks is going to need to figure out what it is before things go awry quickly.

Assorted thoughts

Jennings and Smith. Josh Smith took 16 shots and Brandon Jennings took 20. Combined, the other three starters took only 20 shots. The efficiency is about what you'd expect: Jennings and Smith were a combined 11-36 (2-12 on three pointers) while the other starters went 10-20. I'm OK with this shot distribution in general. Jennings took 8 shots in the fourth quarter, many of which were desperation heaves as the Pistons tried to get out of a hole. But Josh Smith took another 6 three pointers in this game with predictable results. Not unassociated with the frontcourt trio's poor net efficiency, Smith's tendency to take outside shots is exactly as problematic as everyone feared before the season.

KCP/Datome sightings. Gigi Datome got into the action early last night, earning non-garbage time minutes and turning in a garbage time performance: 1-7 (0-4 3FG) and some of the worst defense the team has displayed all year. Datome is clearly not ready for the speed and physicality of the American game yet, and if he can't start connecting on some of the wide-open shots he's given, his value to the team will quickly fall to zero. KCP, meanwhile, saw his first action since Rodney Stuckey returned and dropped in 5 points on two shots, and displayed the same tenacious defense he had become known for. He was a major part of the fourth quarter near-comeback and allowed the Pistons to open up the floor on the offensive end. He needs more minutes in this offense.

Rodney Stuckey is the ghost of Corey Maggette. Rodney Stuckey is not a bad basketball player. His ability to get to the rim and draw fouls makes him a valuable asset for a lot of teams. Just not the Pistons, whose spacing requires a lot more than a slashing combo guard. What Stuckey offers the team, even with one of the big-three frontcourt players on the bench, doesn't gel with the composition of the offense. KCP needs minutes and the Pistons need floor spacers. I hope/assume that in coming games, Stuckey will find his minutes diminishing as KCP takes a bigger role on the team.

Next up
The Pistons welcome Kevin Durant and the Thunder to the Palace on Friday. If the Thunder play a small lineup (with Durant at the power forward position), it will be interesting to see how Mo Cheeks counters. I imagine he starts with Andre Drummond on the bench, but I'd much rather see Drummond go against Serge Ibaka to start the game and bring Monroe off the bench for an offensive boost.

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