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.

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