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Motor City Blues: On the Trouble in Detroit

The wheels are close to falling off for the Pistons after lofty preseason expectations, writes Ben Dowsett.

Ben Dowsett

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You can hear a pin drop in the Detroit Pistons locker room 30 minutes after Friday night’s loss to the Utah Jazz. It’s the team’s third straight loss and second straight blowout in two nights, and their 11th defeat in their last 15 games overall. Coach Stan Van Gundy has just finished a brief, tense session with media. Point guard Reggie Jackson speaks in tones barely loud enough for recording equipment to pick up.

“It’s been a season from hell so far,” Jackson says. “It’s going to be a long-ass season if we don’t find a way to fix it.”

In this case, “it” refers to a precipitous slide from a group many considered a prime candidate to leap a few spots in the East and perhaps even compete for a home playoff seed in round one. The Pistons sit five full games back of that perch in the loss column, 11th in the conference and facing a serious uphill battle just to make it back to last year’s eight-seed and a likely rematch with the world champions.

Things didn’t start out this way. The Pistons were 4-2 out of the gate before a tough stretch of schedule in mid-November slid them back under .500, but the signs on the margins were mostly positive. Jackson had still yet to play a game with knee and thumb issues, and the slightly positive per-possession net figure the Pistons were posting at the end of November had to count as a small victory in this light – especially with 10 of those first 20 games coming against the Toronto Raptors, Los Angeles Clippers (twice), San Antonio Spurs, Cleveland Cavaliers, Oklahoma City Thunder (twice), Houston Rockets and Boston Celtics (twice).

“For the first 21 games, we were the second-best defensive team in the league,” Van Gundy said. He’s technically slightly off, but not enough for anyone to care – the Pistons were fifth in per-possession defense to this point, but not much separated the top five teams. Unfortunately, his follow up was just as close to accurate: “Now we’re one of the worst.”

Since that 22nd game – which, coincidentally, was the one where Jackson finally returned to the lineup – Detroit is 23rd in the league defensively. They’re even worse on offense in that stretch, and the league’s fifth-worst per-possession team.

“We can’t stop anybody. We just can’t,” said Van Gundy. “I’m frustrated – not with our players, I’m frustrated with myself that I can’t figure this out. We literally can’t stop anyone, ever.

“I think over [our last] 12 or 13 games, teams are shooting over 45 percent from three. I know all the numbers.”

Again, he’s virtually spot-on – teams are shooting a fairly insane 45.5 percent from deep in Detroit’s last 12 games, eight of them losses. They’re giving up over 36 points a night just from the long ball, a figure that would easily lead the league on the season.

In fairness, some of this has been outright bad luck. The Pistons are only giving up about an average number of open and wide open threes during that stretch, per SportVU data, but teams are nailing them at totally unsustainable rates over the last few weeks. In their last 12 games, teams have hit over 51 percent of their “open” threes (defender within 4-6 feet) against the Pistons – no other team is even allowing over 46 percent on these same shots, and there isn’t much you can do about that bit of variance.

Injuries have been an issue lately as well. The team’s best wing stopper, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, left Thursday’s game in Golden State and likely won’t return on the team’s current road trip. They’ve also missed Jon Leuer for a few games, and a few other guys have been in and out here or there. It’s tough to really chalk the issues up to these ultimately brief absences, though, especially after the team was .500 without Jackson for the first part of the year.

“It’s tough losing KCP. It’s tough losing Jon [Leuer],” said Jackson. At the same time, though, Jackson isn’t willing to use that as an excuse for the team’s defensive struggles, nor should he be. “I don’t think those two are – they’re great players, but I don’t think just those two make our defense. So all 15, we’ve just got to find a way to compete, find a way to come out and get stops.”

To hear it from Jackson, a big part of the issue is consistency in effort. He talks about how the team will play halves or stretches of the defense they expect, but can’t come close to sustaining it for 48 minutes.

There’s also a real chance their struggles on the other end are impacting things. The Pistons are just 25th in the league offensively since the start of December, and maintaining a high level of defense gets tougher without the adrenaline rush of made shots.

“Too many times, we’re letting our offense, and lack of making shots at times, really dictate how much effort we put out on defense,” Jackson said. “We’re not just playing simple basketball and understanding who we’re guarding, or where they want to be.”

The conversation surrounds the team and broad concepts, but at some point the whispers are going to shift to individuals. Those conversations will start with Jackson and Andre Drummond, the team’s ascendant would-be stars.

Detroit gave Drummond and Jackson over $200 million in future money over the last two summers, a huge investment in two guys who, to this point in the season, have been major on-court negatives. The Pistons are consistently destroyed with their preferred starters on the floor. Detroit would be the league’s best defense if they only counted the minutes when Drummond sits; they’d be a bottom-five unit if they only counted the minutes when he plays.

This isn’t even a staggering issue, either: The team is still better with neither key player on the floor than it is with just one. Van Gundy might consider trying a bit more staggering, since at least those units with one or the other are getting killed a bit less than while both play together, but that feels a lot like a Band-Aid on a fracture.

Both guys hold real responsibility. Jackson consistently struggles with lapses in focus and his ability to stay in front of guys at the point of attack, boasting the 69th-best Defensive RPM rating of 85 point guards in the NBA (RPM helps account for teammate and opponent context, among other things). He’s also having a down year efficiency-wise on the other end, though you wonder whether some of that is adjusting since his injury return.

Drummond is the largest point of concern, though. A guy some people had labeled as the next big thing down the middle has plateaued badly the last couple of years and has even regressed in some areas this season. Being the best rebounder in the league is great, but it only counts for so much when your value in nearly every other area of the game is limited or non-existent.

It starts with interior defense, where it’s legitimately tough to understand how a player with so much physical skill could be so incapable. Drummond has fluctuated between bad and horrible relative to league average among volume rim protectors over the last two seasons, per SportVU data. He currently ranks 106th of 125 players defending at least three shots at the rim per night, with a 55 percent figure allowed that’s nearly 15 full points higher than the game’s elite rim protectors.

“He’s got to get better in that area. He hasn’t been as good a basket protector as he probably should be,” Van Gundy said of his young big man. “For us to become a real good defensive team, he’s got to improve in that area.”

Watch tape of this Pistons team defensively, and you see a group that needs an anchor, even actively looking for one, and everyone knows where it should be coming from. The Pistons didn’t pay Drummond $127 million to rebound, dunk occasionally and do nothing else. They paid for the promise of a defensive centerpiece.

“I don’t think he’s established that, no. I don’t think he’s established that,” Van Gundy said. “It would certainly help us if he’d become a better rim protector.”

At this point, it’s fair to wonder if it’s possible. Drummond is 23 and is now in his fifth NBA season. There comes a point where guys are either going to get it or they aren’t. He clearly isn’t lacking any physical element, but is constantly out of position and seems allergic to the idea of verticality. He swipes with one hand at shots he’d destroy just by going up straight with both arms raised. It’s almost comical how little rim runners seem to fear him, even smaller guys who should be intimidated by one of the most athletic bigs in the league.

Couple that with some other issues and you worry whether Drummond is really the franchise player many were hoping for.

He’s always been good-to-great as the roll man in pick-and-roll sets, generating a per-possession point score in the high 1.1 range the last couple of years, per Synergy Sports. This is elite for a volume big man, so it begs a loud question: Why is Drummond finishing under half as many possessions in this role as he is from the post, where he’s among the two or three worst volume players in the league?

Drummond has shot a brutal 40 percent from the post the last two seasons, generating a per-possession scoring figure even the league-worst 76ers offense would laugh at. Every post possession he uses is one of the biggest wins possible for the defense, but he does this over twice as often as he finishes as a roll man.

Some of this might be on Van Gundy, but a big chunk is on Drummond himself. He sets lazy screens and is often totally unwilling to come back up and try again if the first attempt doesn’t work – he’ll often just lope down into the post on these occasions. Some of it falls on the ball-handlers as well. His turnovers have gone back up after a major effort to bring them down last year.

Put it all together, and don’t be surprised if whispers start to circulate about a big change in Detroit. This team had higher aspirations this year, but they’ve seemed to get worse as they’ve brought their whole squad together on the floor. Now they’re back to dealing with injuries and the locker room is fraying.

Drummond hasn’t gotten any better for at least two years, and while it sounds a bit rushed, his window for value in a potential move could shrink quickly once folks catch on. There will always be a spot for the best rebounder on earth, and someone out there would give a king’s ransom for a guy this young, assuming they could teach some of the finer points he’s clearly still missing.

It’s probably too early for those conversations. Van Gundy has been pleased with Drummond’s work ethic of late, particularly as a rim protector, and the Pistons still have a shot at a playoff spot and a matchup with someone other than Cleveland if they can get Caldwell-Pope back sooner rather than later.

Whether it’s personnel or more of a metaphorical thing, though, this team needs a shakeup. They look lifeless on the floor, and as Jackson notes, their window for the playoffs is shrinking. The answers aren’t going to just present themselves, though.

“I don’t know,” Van Gundy said when asked point blank what the issue was. “If I did, I would have done it already.”

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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NBA Daily: Troy Brown Poised To Bring Versatility To The Next Level

Coming into the NBA Draft with just one season of experience at the collegiate level, Troy Brown feels that his wide range of skills makes him a player who has a lot to offer.

Spencer Davies

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Coming into the NBA Draft with just one season of experience at the collegiate level, Troy Brown feels that his wide range of skills makes him a player who has a lot to offer.

Originally recruited as a point guard by Dana Altman at the University of Oregon, the 19-year-old naturally fell into the wing position as his body matured, but he wasn’t your average one trick pony.

“It wasn’t really an option,” Brown said of the transition at the Draft Combine in Chicago. “It was more so because I grew, just a lot of size and stuff like that and playing with a lot of smaller guards. It hasn’t really been a problem for me.”

In his freshman year with the Ducks, Brown filled the stat sheet. He averaged 11.3 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.2 assists in over 31 minutes per game and finished third in the Pac-12 with 55 total steals.

Among his class across the NCAA, Brown was one of four players to put forth those averages in scoring, crashing the boards and dishing out passes. If you can’t tell, there’s more than one strong suit in his game and he feels the same way.

“I would just say being able to rebound at my size,” Brown said of what he best brings to the floor. “I feel like being able to push it and not having to kick it up to a guard. Being able to create fast breaks for my teammates and stuff like that and get guys open really helps a lot.”

Brown measured in close to 6-foot-7 and 208 pounds on the dot with over a 6-foot-10 wingspan, which ideally will make slot him as a three at the professional ranks. He’s a solid defender as well, though he’ll definitely need to put on more weight to match up with the bigger wings in the league.

That being said, he is absolutely capable of playing point forward and already has modeled his game after a mix of different guys in the NBA, including veterans and rookies who impact their teams on a nightly basis.

“I definitely grew up and watched Penny Hardaway a lot,” Brown said. “Ben Simmons is a really big guard—triple-double type of player, that’s how I feel like I am.

“Even the role players like Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston. Just big guards. Jayson Tatum, even though he played at the wing a little more, just a great mid-range game and post game.”

Most of those talents he mentioned have the all-around game, including a reliable perimeter presence. That’s where the biggest knock on him comes into play.

On over three attempts per game beyond the arc, Brown shot just a hair over 29 percent from three. As the game has become more and more driven on stretching the floor, that won’t cut it in the constantly evolving pro environment.

The numbers aren’t in his favor, but Brown believes his performance wasn’t indicative of his true ability with his jumper.

“I never felt like I couldn’t shoot before and I still don’t feel that way now,” Brown said. “I’m still very confident in my jump shot. Right now it’s just getting adjusted to the new three-point line, the NBA line. Once I get that locked down, I feel like I’ll be really good.”

If you’re familiar with the Oregon basketball tree and the league itself, there were a number of players who made the most of their opportunities this past year.

Jordan Bell is a fast up-and-coming forward for the Golden State Warriors. The Memphis Grizzlies got a gem in Dillon Brooks. Even Tyler Dorsey got a shot at significant minutes late in the season with the Atlanta Hawks.

Brown didn’t play with any of them, but admits he’s had conversations with Brooks about the entire pre-draft process, receiving “words of wisdom” whenever they’ve gotten the chance to talk.

As for his own expectations for year one in the NBA, Brown agreed that those types of roles are a good starting point and hopes to follow that path before bigger things come his way.

“Of course I want to be the best I can,” Brown said when asked about his goals. “I want to be the best player, but coming in as a rookie you have to really stick with yourself and know what teams you’re coming in and playing with and your role on the team.

“I feel like the more you perfect your role, the more minutes you’ll have. By doing that, I feel like I can climb up the board and become a starter.”

In order to do that, he’ll have to improve his consistency from game-to-game.

But make no mistake about it—Brown has the tools, the work ethic and the personality to become a potential first-round steal outside of the lottery.

And with a toolbox as deep as his, there’s no reason to believe Brown won’t achieve his aspirations.

“Ultimately I feel like because of my versatility on the court, I can do a lot of different things,” Brown said.

“It’s just playing with the ball in my hands I feel a lot more comfortable making plays for my teammates and making the right plays and playing the right way.”

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NBA Daily: The Restricted Free Agency Crapshoot

With free agency money scarce, restricted free agents may be impacted the most this summer, writes Lange Greene.

Lang Greene

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The NBA playoffs are heating up as we approach the Finals, but there are other topics in the league simmering beneath the surface. The 2018 NBA Draft is less than a month away and the annual free agency period begins on July 1.

After rampant league wide spending the past two summers, free agency money won’t be as plentiful in 2018. The biggest group impacted will be players entering the land of restricted free agency. Extending an offer sheet to a restricted free agent is always tricky – especially at the beginning of the free agency period. In short, the offering team gives up their cap space while the player’s current team has time to decide whether or not to match the contract. If the current team does so, the offering team not only misses out on the player but also other free agents who are likely to come off the board during the waiting period.

For this reason most league executives are hesitant to dip their toes into the restricted free agency pond, especially if their cap space is limited in nature.

This summer there will be multiple players entering restricted free agency looking for significant pay bumps with an uncertain market for their respective skill set. The biggest question will be whether these guys ultimately find a deal to their liking or gamble on themselves and take the qualifying offer.

Taking the qualifying offer is a risky alternative. But it gives players an opportunity to showcase their skills in a contract year and enter unrestricted free agency the following summer.

Dallas Mavericks center Nerlens Noel is the most recent example. The former lottery pick reportedly turned down a four-year, $70 million deal last summer and signed a one-year contract worth $4.2 million. Fast forward, Noel played in just 30 games this season, was suspended for five games for a positive drug test and also tore a ligament in his left thumb. Noel is far from done as he is under 25 years of age, but the one year gamble did not work in his favor and he will enter free agency this summer looking for another prove it type of contract as a consequence.

Today we’ll take a look at some players who may face the same decision as Noel did last summer. With limited cap space, will these players take the one-year qualifying offer or be able to secure a mega deal in free agency? Please note, we are excluding guys almost guaranteed to receive substantial deals this summer (i.e. Zach LaVine, Clint Capela, Jusuf Nurkic, etc.)

Marcus Smart, Guard, Boston Celtics

After signing All-Stars Al Horford and Gordon Hayward in free agency the past two summers, the Celtics aren’t projected to have cap space. But the team can match any offer for Smart. The question is whether president of basketball operations Danny Ainge will proactively retain arguably the team’s toughest defender or allow the market to set itself. Smart is a tough as nails competitor, but the Celtics will have decisions coming up in the next couple of years on Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier. Not to mention Horford, who has a player option for the 2020 season, can also elect to enter free agency next summer. What exactly is the market for a sub 40 percent shooter from the field (sub 30 percent from three-point range) and a player who has only played more than 70 regular season games once in four years?

Rodney Hood, Guard-Forward, Cleveland Cavaliers

Hood was likely on his way to an eight figure per year salary, until he arrived in Cleveland. While with the Utah Jazz, Hood established himself as a double-digit scorer with high upside. However in 13 playoff games with the Cavaliers he is averaging 4.9 points on 42 percent shooting and 16 percent from three-point range. Hood has also been in and out of the rotation with an unfavorable plus-minus. Hood has upside but his market value has likely taken a hit entering free agency this summer.

Julius Randle, Forward, Los Angeles Lakers

Randle has increased his scoring and field goal percentage every season since entering the league. He is a traditional power forward and doesn’t shoot the three ball consistently, which limits his value in some circles. Randle is also seemingly the odd man out in Los Angeles if the team is able to secure two max level guys this summer with their cap space. This puts Randle in a holding pattern. But the second half of the regular season was very promisinmg as Randle put up 19.5 points and 9.4 rebounds per game after the All-Star break.

Jabari Parker, Forward, Milwaukee Bucks

Parker was once considered the Bucks’ foundational building block. Yes, even more so than Giannis Antetokounmpo. Funny how a span of less than five years can change career trajectories. Parker has played in just 183 out of 328 regular season games since entering the league. 56 percent availability. He has displayed a knack for scoring, when healthy, but his role during the team’s playoff run this season was wildly inconsistent. Parker’s injury history is a red flag for potential suitors and the Bucks may opt to let Parker’s market value play out before issuing a mega deal this summer.

Dante Exum, Guard, Utah Jazz

Exum flashes potential, but he has also missed plenty of time due to injuries. Exum has appeared in just 162 out of a possible 328 regular season games since entering the league. Young guys can only get better when playing and Exum just hasn’t had the court time to warrant a significant pay increase without leveraging the risk associated with his injury history.

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NBA Daily: Zhaire Smith ready to take the next step in the NBA

Zhaire Smith is ready to prove his worth and he seeks to transition to the NBA.

Simon Hannig

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Zhaire Smith out of Texas Tech is a name that rises up on a lot of people’s draft boards this season with his stellar play, especially on the defensive end.

This past season, Smith averaged 11.3 points, 5.0 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.1 blocks and 1.1 assists per game. He also shot 55.6 percent from the field and 45 percent from three point range. Despite a strong performance this season, though, Smith has not been consistently appearing in NBA Mock Drafts until at least 2019.

He addressed it at the NBA’s Draft Combine in Chicago.

“Yeah, I didn’t know that,” Smith said of his seemingly low perceived value. “I really don’t pay attention to all that, but it is what it is.”

One of Smith’s biggest strengths that makes him an intriguing prospect for an NBA team is defense.

“Just being a little physical,” Smith said. “Not too physical where they can draw a foul on me, but just playing. Getting low. Just playing. Moving my feet.”

Smith had a highlight reel dunk vs. S.F. Austin in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. It was one of those dunks you had to watch over and over again because you could not believe it. It came off of a pass from his teammate, Keenan Evans.

Although on play is rarely enough to get a player noticed, the play did exhibit Smith’s exceptional athleticism. Along with his defense, his ability to convert explosive finishes could also help his value among NBA teams and potentially help him end up in the league.

“Yeah. If it was a bad pass, I made it look good, but yeah,” Smith said of the dunk. “I just adjusted to it. It just happened. I didn’t even know that was what had happened.”

For players coming into the NBA, there is a bit of a learning curve—both with respect to surviving in the league and how to fit in with their particular team.

“I see myself fitting in probably rookie, first two years, just fitting in, doing good, being a solid role player,” Smith said. “And in a few years I can see myself as an All-Star.”

During his freshman year at Texas Tech, Smith played in all 37 games, including 21 starts. He holds a total points record as a freshman with 417 points. He also totaled 185 rebounds, 42 blocks and 42 steals. The 42 total blocks for a freshman were second in team history.

In terms of his numbers being more than “empty” production, on the season, Texas Tech was 19-8 when Smith scored 10 or more points. And during the team’s four-games March Madness run, he averaged 12.0 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.5 assists, one block and one steal per game.

Although it’s early, Smith could end up being an “under the radar” type of prospect, similar to the Jazz’s Donovan Mitchell. To this point, he has been mostly renowned for his excellent defensive game, but his offensive game is respectable, even if it is still considered a work-in-progress.

As for whether he can be the “next” Donovan Mitchell, Smith didn’t shy away from the prospect.

“I think so,” he said. “…If I put in the work.”

For him, the process is just beginning. Hopefully, for his sake, his NBA journey is far from over.

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