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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 Sunday: Kristaps Porzingis Sure Looks Ready To Be The Franchise

The Knicks hope Kristaps Porzingis can become their franchise. Thus far, he seems up to the challenge.

Moke Hamilton

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He stood in front of his mentor, isolated, just like they used to do in practice.

He’d seen the jab steps before and the head fakes—they were nothing new. And when Carmelo Anthony mustered the acceleration he still has in his 33-year-old legs to drive around Kristaps Porzingis, Anthony knew he had the 7-foot-3 Latvian big man beat.

Anthony triumphantly rose to the basket and delicately attempted his right-handed layup. Before he knew what hit him, though, Anthony’s shot had been sent to the free throw line.

The message was clear—Kristaps had taken the torch.

“It was fun,” Porzingis said about his confrontation with Anthony. “We went at it in practices a lot and one-on-one after practices.

“It was a lot of fun knowing what he was going to do and try to stop him.”

The Oklahoma City Thunder were much closer to the NBA Finals than the Knicks were last season, and removing Anthony from the Knicks and pairing him with Russell Westbrook and Paul George gives the Thunder a triumvirate that can at least conceivably challenge the Golden State Warriors. They are perhaps the only team in the entire league with enough firepower and defensive pieces.

So no, the Knicks may not be hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy anytime soon, but at the very least, the franchise seems to be in good hands—the big, soft hands of Porzingis.

As young NBA players come into their own and attempt to fulfill the lofty expectations that everyone has of them, the third year is the charm, almost invariably. And in that that year, a young player can’t control the other pieces that are around him—that’s why they shouldn’t be judged by their team’s wins and losses.

In that third year, a young player also can’t really control the frequency of his injuries. The simple truth is that many 21 or 22-year-old players simply lack the hardened bones of a fully grown adult that most men become after the age of 25.

But what the young player can prove is that he is prepared to shoulder the burden and take the fight to anyone who stands before him. Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks epitomizes this ideal better than any other young player in the league. He is absolutely fearless and it’s a pleasure to watch.

So is Porzingis.

Since the influx of European-born players began about 20 years ago, we have seen our fair share of “soft” European players. His talent aside (which is considerable), Porzingis has proven to be anything but, and that by itself can help players go a very long way.

In what must have felt like the longest summer ever, Porzingis saw the franchise that drafted him undergo an overhaul that resulted in a light beaming so brightly on him, you would have thought the third-year forward was starring in a Broadway musical.

Say what you want about Porzingis, but he has already done all that he can to notify everyone that have anything to do with the Knicks that his bony shoulders aren’t indicative of the weight he’s capable of carrying.

And in Oklahoma City, against his mentor, Porzingis did the heavy lifting.

“I saw energy,” head coach Jeff Hornacek said after his team’s opening night loss.

“He was great moving. He played 38 minutes, and maybe last year that would be a struggle. He would maybe get tired, and get some silly fouls, but even toward the end on that 37th or 38th minute, he was still up hollering, moving, blocking shots and getting rebounds, so he had a great game and we expect a lot more of that from him.”

Being a Knicks fan is something that nobody should wish on their worst enemy. The franchise has made scores of maneuvers that lacked wisdom and seemingly gone out of its way to alienate people beloved by the franchise. On top of it all, Knicks tickets are among the highest in the entire league.

Fans as passionate and dedicated as Knicks fans deserve a team they can be proud of and a front office that dedicates itself to putting winning ahead of petty feuds and politics.

The hiring of Scott Perry may signify just that.

So when the Knicks traded Carmelo Anthony and ended up getting back 10 cents on the dollar for his value, everyone should have prepared for a long season in New York City.

Coming in, Knicks fans once again found themselves in the unenviable predicament of having to talk themselves into believing that Ramon Session, Michael Beasley and Tim Hardaway were capable of giving this team feel good moments. And while they certainly are, they will surely pale in comparison to the amount of losses that the club accrues along the way.

If there’s one thing the Philadelphia 76ers have taught everyone, however, it’s that the losses don’t necessarily need to be in vain.

So heading into this season, what Knicks fans should have been looking forward to and hoping for is nothing more than the installation of a culture that’s marked by effort, communication and selfless basketball—the hallmarks of the Golden State Warriors.

Aside from that, yes, they should have also come in with the hope that Kristaps Porzingis would take an appreciable step forward and prove himself to truly be a capable franchise cornerstone.

To this point, from the way he holds his head highly, despite a win or a loss, and the way he competes to the best of his abilities, despite his limitations. For now, it’s really all that could reasonably be asked of him.

When it was all said and done—when Porzingis looked the Knicks’ past in the eyes after the Thunder had soundly defeated his New York Knicks—Carmelo Anthony probably told him that he was proud of him and that he wished him all the luck in the world.

He probably told him to continue to work on his game and hone his craft and to block out the background noise.

And above all else, Carmelo probably told Kristaps that he believes he is capable of being his successor.

With his nodding head and serious demeanor, Porzingis, in all his glory, listened intently. Even more so, he believed every word. 

It doesn’t take all day to figure out whether the sun is shining—it’s an adage that remains as true in basketball as it does on a May Day in New York.

For Porzinigis, the bright sky and the beaming sunlight—he’s basking in it all. Not only has he becomes the Knicks’ franchise by default, he believes he’s capable of shouldering the burden.

In this town, that’s more than half the battle.

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Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal

The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.

Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.

There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.

Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.

Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.

That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.

Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.

At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.

It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.

One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.

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NBA Saturday: Jabari Bird Experiences The NBA Whirlwind

Jabari Bird entered a hostile environment Friday night after being on his couch just three days before.

Dennis Chambers

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When Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury six minutes into the Boston Celtics’ season on Wednesday, he wasn’t the only player who saw his season changed in the blink of an eye.

“I was at home in California watching the game as a fan,” Jabari Bird said.

Bird was the 56th overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. After playing his college ball at the University of California, the Celtics gave the 6-foot-6 swingman a shot to continue his career. After impressing throughout the preseason, Bird was signed to a two-way contract with Boston and returned home to the west coast.

That didn’t last long.

“After the game was over my phone was going off that I had to get on the quickest flight to Boston,” Bird said about opening night. “Got in 7:30 the next morning, suited up against Milwaukee, now I’m here in Philly.”

With the massive hole Hayward left in Boston’s roster due to his injury, the Celtics are going to have to turn to some unlikely performers throughout the season to pick up the slack. Bird didn’t light up the scoreboard or stuff his stat sheet, posting just three points and one rebound in 13 minutes of play. But down the stretch in a close game against the Philadelphia 76ers Friday night, Bird came up big on defense.

As the Celtics trailed the Sixers 61-53 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bird subbed in for Jaylen Brown and was tasked with guarding J.J. Redick, who was in the midst of carrying Philadelphia with his lights out shooting.

After wiping away the Sixers lead and gaining an 86-84 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had Bird sticking Redick. The Sixers’ shooting guard — and highest paid player — rose up for another three-point attempt which would’ve given Philadelphia a late lead and a momentum shift at home with a raucous crowd behind them. Only this time, Bird’s hand was in his face and the shot attempt didn’t find the back of the net.

In a big-time moment on the road, for a team facing a potential three-game losing streak to start the season, the unlikely rookie answered the call.

“Like I said before, he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA, really good perimeter scorer,” Bird said of Redick. “For the team to trust me with that responsibility, with us being down on the road needing to get a win, I was hyped up and ready to go. I was ready for the challenge.”

Placing such a responsibility like guarding Redick on a night where it seemed like the Sixers marksman couldn’t miss on a player who was sitting on his couch three nights ago seems like a bold strategy. Head coach Brad Stevens, however, knew what he was doing.

“All the way through preseason and training camp I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “I think he has huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in preseason practices. His ability to guard off the ball, especially shooters coming off screens is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he’d step up.”

Going from the couch to a red-eye flight from California to Boston, to the bench in Milwaukee, to the court in Philadelphia is nothing short of a whirlwind experience. With such a series of events, it’s hard to be coached into that moment. As a player, sometimes you have to just go out and play.

“I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight. Mentally I just had to lock into the game,” Bird said. “Coach just looked at me and said ‘Bird get Jaylen.’ ‘Alright.’ So that’s what I did.”

After signing Hayward to $127 million contract this summer, the Celtics were expecting the small forward to provide an elite scoring 1-2 scoring punch with Kyrie Irving. Obviously, at least for this season, Boston will need to move forward without that possibility. An opening night loss, followed by another defeat to Milwaukee the following night, had the Celtics 0-2 heading into Philadelphia and searching for answers a lot sooner than they may have anticipated just a week ago.

Bird’s journey during his first week in professional basketball represents how quickly things can change, and how the ripple effects of injuries and other moves have far outreaching waves.

“I was already packed, I was ready to go to the G-League,” Bird said. “We had training camp coming up. My bags were already packed, I was ready to get out the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like alright I’m ready to go, just gimmie a flight. And that’s what happened.”

All-star point guard, and Bird’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving doesn’t foresee the rookie leaving the clubhouse anytime soon. With the adversity the Boston Celtics have felt in the first week of the 2017-18 season, Bird’s addition and impact are a prime example of being ready when your number is called, and the culture this team is looking to create.

“Jabari is now probably gonna be on every trip with us,” Irving said. “Guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play. We just have to have that expectation that when we come into the game we’re gonna be able to play, and we trust one another and have each other’s backs.”

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