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NBA Daily: Fixing the Detroit Pistons

Zach Dupont continues Basketball Insiders’ “Fixing” series, taking a closer look at the Detroit Pistons.

Zach Dupont

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The Detroit Pistons were one of the NBA’s most competitive franchises at the turn of the century, appearing in six straight Eastern Conference Finals between 2002-2008 and winning the NBA Finals in 2004. But, since that run, the Pistons have been one of the least relevant teams in the league, having not won a playoff game since 2008.

This season has gone about as well as the last few have, with the Pistons sitting last in the Eastern Conference with a 2-8 record. But what led Detroit to this point? And what needs to change for them to regain their status as one of the NBA’s best franchises?

What is Working? 

Not a whole lot, that’s for sure. That said, there have been a few positives to see in an otherwise tough start to the year. 

Offseason acquisition Jermai Grant has been a pleasant surprise for the Pistons, starting the season off with some outrageous scoring stats. Through 10 games Grant is averaging a career-high 36.8 minutes, 25.1 points and 6.2 rebounds per game on an impressive true shooting percentage of 59.4 percent. Josh Jackson has been another pleasant surprise coming from free agency, as he has managed to turn his career around in the early stages of the season. Jackson is averaging 12.5 points and 3.9 rebounds per game and has even started six games so far.

The Pistons do have some promising young prospects on the books as well. The team has three first-round picks from the 2020 draft on the roster, with Saddiq Bey being the best of the three early on despite being chosen last. Bey is averaging 10.6 points per game while shooting 44 percent from three-point range. Seventh and 16th picks Killian Hayes and Isaiah Stewart have had tough starts to the season, while Hayes is now out indefinitely with a right labral tear. But, with no Summer League and only a few weeks between the draft and the beginning of the season, it would be foolish to write either of them off yet.

Detroit’s 2019 first-round selection Sekou Doumbouya has also shown a lot of promise early on his second NBA season, showing improved shooting as he’s hit 44 percent of his three-pointers and 89 percent of his free throws. Granted, Doumbouya is only playing 11.4 minutes per game, but at only 20-years old – third youngest on the roster – he still has plenty of time to figure it out. Svi Mykhailiuk has shown himself to be a reliable three-point specialist.

Yes, the Pistons have struggled immensely early on in the 2020-21 season. But, with some promising young players on the roster, the future isn’t all doom and gloom.

What Isn’t Working?  

That said, there is certainly a fair share of that doom and gloom going around the organization.

Grant’s start to the season has been encouraging, but it’s not translating to wins. Grant owns the 41st highest usage rate in the NBA and, despite that, he is averaging just 1.9 assists per game. So while Grant is scoring a lot, something the Pistons desperately need to be fair, it’s not making anyone on the team any better and not leading to a good team offense.

A significant reason the Pistons need so much scoring from Grant is because of the play and health of their star forward Blake Griffin. In seven games so far Griffin is averaging just 13.9 points per game, the lowest mark of his entire career. Griffin is obviously not entirely healthy, but, at 31-years-old, it’s not a given that Griffin will ever regain his All-NBA form, which is bad news for Detroit for more than a few reasons. While the Pistons would understandably be happy to have Griffin playing better just because it would make the team better, his poor play also hurts his trade value.

Griffin has one more year on his contract, assuming he accepts his $39 million player option for the 2021-22 season, but his underwhelming play and questions surrounding his health mean that Detroit can’t shop him to other contenders for future assets — more likely, they may even have to attach assets to get rid of him. Of course, the Pistons could just ride out the next two years of his contract, as it’s a safe bet that Griffin will pick up his pricey player option while his career is on a downward trajectory.

Without Griffin playing to his full potential, the Pistons are unsurprisingly bad on both ends of the floor. Detroit owns the seventh-worst defensive rating in the NBA of 112.8 and the sixth-worst offensive rating of 106.4. If it wasn’t obvious, bad offense and bad defense combine to form the worst teams, which is reflected in the Pistons’ net rating of -6.4, the third-worst net rating in the league.

The Pistons likely lack anyone that could become an All-NBA level player and, in the modern NBA, teams need at least one if not two of those types to become serious contenders. Guys like Hayes and Doumbouya are still early on in their careers and time will tell if they can reach those heights, but early indications aren’t promising. Detroit will have to look elsewhere for the top-end talent needed to be competitive in this league.  

There is no quick way out of this hole in Detroit, and the current roster won’t be capable of being a real playoff contender without a massive overhaul, so what needs to be done in Detroit?

Focus Area: Free Agency

The Pistons are currently under their first season with new general manager Troy Weaver and it’s still too early to tell what the direction of the franchise will be moving forward. However, Detroit’s free-agency will be less about who they should sign and more about not making poor free agency decisions. 

In years past, the Pistons have had a bad habit of signing up players to improve the team to the fringes of the playoffs, but never pushing them over the edge. This habit could be seen again this past offseason, with the acquisitions of Grant and Mason Plumlee on deals that were, at least initially, thought to be over-pays.

Detroit’s plan in the coming offseason needs to be not to lock themselves into more long-term money while remaining uncompetitive. Unless the Pistons miraculously find themselves in the running for Kawhi Leonard, it’s best for them to look towards the future and keep their money in the short-term rather than the long-term. 

If the luck out and, for some reason, Griffin decides to decline his lucrative player option for 2021-22, he will be the team’s top outgoing free agent. If not, that role falls to Derrick Rose. Entering his age 32 season, Rose has revived his career as a sixth man and has some value for the Pistons both as a player and a potential trade asset. Rose is averaging 13.9 points per game off the bench this year, but he has also missed time due to injury.

Even if he’s still on the team come the end of the season, it’s likely Rose won’t be coming back. The only other unrestricted free agents on the team for 2021 are Frank Jackson and Wayne Ellington, so there aren’t many pressing internal decisions to be made by Detroit in the coming offseason.  

The best way for Detroit to improve their roster in the 2021 offseason is with more low-risk, high reward contracts — like the one they gave Jackson this offseason — and by moving Rose and Griffin before the deadline for any value the team might be able to get.

Focus Area: Draft

There aren’t many ways for Detroit to rapidly improve its team in free agency, but there are ways they can in the draft.

If the season ended today, the Pistons would be tied for the best odds in the lottery at the first overall pick and would at least be drafting in the top six. The Houston Rockets technically own the Pistons pick if it isn’t in the lottery but, barring a significant turnaround, it’s safe to assume that Detroit will keep its first-round pick.

So, with the Pistons sure to be in for an excellent draft pick in the upcoming 2021 NBA Draft, they need to capitalize on a loaded group of prospects. The 2021 draft looks like it may have some of the best top-end talents to choose from in recent years, with guys like Cade Cunningham, Evan Mobley, Jalen Green and Jalen Suggs all having the potential to be some of the best players in the NBA. Detroit will have the benefit of being able to take the best player available wherever they draft, but they can’t afford to swing and miss as management has in the past with selections such as Stanley Johnson, Brandon Knight, Austin Daye and, of course, Darko Miličić.

The Pistons don’t own their second-round selection as they traded it to the 76ers before eventually becoming the property of the New York Knicks, but they do have the Toronto Raptors second-round pick via the Luke Kennard trade earlier in the offseason. In fact, if the down season in Toronto continues, Detroit might earn a solid, early second rounder. And, if they ever want to see the lofty heights of the Bad Boys era or the early 2000s teams again, the Pistons will seriously have to take advantage of those high picks.

We are only a few months into Weaver’s tenure with the team and it’s far too early to judge the roster moves he’s made thus far. That said, it’s rather bleak in Detroit right now and, with no immediate help on the way, it may be time for the Pistons to fully commit to the rebuild they’ve been avoiding for years.

Zach Dupont is a staff writer with Basketball Insiders currently living in Chicago. Zach's work has been previously featured in The Boston Globe, Boston.com and The Basketball Tournament.

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NBA Daily: What We Forgot

With the NBA season now a month old, Matt John looks into no what we have learned, but we had previously forgotten.

Matt John

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With every new NBA season, we tend to forget a few things here and there; players or teams that go through a down year are often, warranted or not, cast aside for the next best thing, only to resurface in the NBA’s collective conscience later on.

Like last season, for example, Dwight Howard was regarded as a nothing-addition for the Los Angeles Lakers, a gamble that they may have been better off not taking. However, Howard played an integral role in the Lakers’ run to the NBA title and reminded everyone that, when he plays without distractions, he’s one of the league’s fiercest around the basket.

But that’s just one example. So, who or what has been re-discovered this season? Let’s take a look.

Stephen Curry: Still Phenomenal

Nobody’s forgotten that entirely. It’s just been a while since people have seen Curry at the peak of his powers.

Sure, it was easy to be skeptical of what he was capable of coming into this season. But, with Kevin Durant gone, Curry had free reign to score and shoot as much as he desired. And, with that freedom, Curry’s put up his best numbers since 2016, his second MVP season. In 15 games, Curry’s averaged 28.2 points 5.5 rebounds and 6.1 assists and shot 45 percent from the field, 37 percent from three and 93 percent from the line. He’s reminded everyone why he’s one of the games best and that he can accomplish anything or score on anyone on any given night.

Of course, the absence of Durant, as well as the loss of Klay Thompson and others, has led to another atypical season for the Warriors. Their 8-7 has them tied for seventh in the Western Conference and, while they have certainly improved on how they looked to start the season, they have a long way to go before they’re back in title contention.

The Warriors may never again reach the heights they once knew, either before or with Durant. But, until Father Time dictates otherwise, Curry should long remain a nightmare for the opposition.

Tom Thibodeau Can Get It Done

What can you say about the New York Knicks? Unironically, a lot.

Not only have they shown themselves to no longer be the butt of the NBA’s jokes, but, compared to the last decade-plus of Knicks’ basketball, the 2020-21 season might be their brightest yet.

Julius Randle’s transition into more of a point forward-type has generated a career-year and All-Star buzz. RJ Barrett has continued to improve rapidly, while rookie Immanuel Quickley has “quickley” become a fan favorite. Most impressive of all, however, is that New York has allowed the fewest points per game (102.7) and the fourth-fewest points per 100 possessions (106.8) in the NBA.

In other words, they finally look like a competent basketball team. But what’s changed? Two words: Tom Thibodeau.

The players have bought in to Thibodeau’s scheme and, clearly, it’s had a positive effect. Of course, the disaster that was his Minnesota Timberwolves tenure made us forget just what a proven head coach Thibodeau could be, but he’s put it all together in the past and, in New York, he would seem to be doing so once again.

Of course, there is plenty left to do. The Knicks’ spacing is a joke — and a bad one at that. In fact, their entire offense could stand to see some of that energy they bring on defense; the Knicks are dead last in the NBA at 101.3 points per game.

Still, at 8-8, New York is no longer a doormat and, given the last few seasons, that’s probably the best they could’ve hoped for. Rome wasn’t built in a day and the Knicks won’t be either, but the franchise looks like they may have finally turned a corner toward relevance.

Maturity Issues Loom Large

Like the Knicks, the Cleveland Cavaliers have been another NBA-darling this season. And again, like New York, their players have bought in; head coach J.B. Bickerstaff has everyone playing with energy on defense and, while their offense hasn’t quite reached the same level, they’re competing to the best of their ability.

Of course, the progress of Kevin Porter Jr. could have been the cherry on top of it all. But that ship has sailed.

After an outburst directed toward general manager Koby Altman, Cleveland has since moved on from the young forward. Of course, the Cavaliers knew Porter came with baggage when they selected him with the last pick of the first round in the 2019 NBA Draft, but his potential was salivating and Cleveland had hoped they could help him grow — not only as an NBA player, but as a person. There have been success stories in the past, troubled players that have come in and shut out the noise and become both respectable characters and NBA players. DeAndre Jordan, a former lottery talent, dropped in his own draft due to similar concerns, but overcame those issues and has since gone on to play a long career.

Unfortunately, it just hadn’t gone that way with Porter and the Cavaliers, as the noise became too much to bear for a team with a long road back to relevancy. It’s reminded everyone just how hard it can be, both as a player and as their team, to deal with those issues and, regardless of the talent or potential, the headache sometimes just isn’t worth the risk.

Luckily for Porter, it’s not too late; a fresh start with the Houston Rockets should do him wonders. And, hopefully, the Rockets can help him overcome that baggage, his maturity issues and whatever else he may be dealing with.

But even if they don’t or can’t, Porter must wake up and seize his opportunity while he still can; if he sees another falling out in Houston, there’s no telling if he’ll ever get another chance elsewhere.

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NBA Daily: Three Trade Targets for the New York Knicks

Drew Maresca explores three restricted free agents-to-be who the Knicks should explore adding via trade before the March 25 trade deadline.

Drew Maresca

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Often the NBA’s biggest flop, the New York Knicks have been significantly better-than-expected to start the 2020-21 season. They’ve won eight of their first 16 games and have surrendered the fewest points per game on the season, placing them squarely in the Eastern Conference playoff picture.

That said, they’re not out of the woods yet; with much of the season left to play, the Knicks are devoid of any meaningful offensive weapons. Additionally, the roster features a number of high-quality veterans whose deals are set to expire, the kind of players that contenders like to fill out their rotations with down the stretch, so the roster could look much different at the end of the year than it does now.

So, the Knicks are expected to be active on the trade front, again – no surprise there. But this year could be among the last in which the Knicks are sellers at the deadline. And, while moving some of those veterans for future assets is smart, the Knicks may also want to look at players they can add to bolster that future further.

Of course, New York shouldn’t go all-in for Bradley Beal — they’re not there yet — but there are a number of restricted free agents to-be that would fit both their roster and timeline nicely.

But why give away assets to acquire someone that the team could sign outright in just a few months? It may sound counterintuitive to add a player that’s about to hit free agency, restricted or otherwise, but procuring that player’s Bird rights, an exception in the NBA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement that allows teams to go over the salary cap to re-sign their own players (not to mention offer them an extra contract year and bigger raises), can be key to securing a player’s services and building a long-term contender.

Further, the 2021 free agent market isn’t might not live up to expectation, with many presumed free agents already agreed to extensions. So, with that in mind, which players should the Knicks pursue via trade prior to the March 25 trade deadline?

John Collins, Atlanta Hawks

Collins’ production is down this season, but that has nothing to do with his ability. A 23-year-old stretch-four who’s shooting 35% on three-point attempts, Collins is big, athletic, can score the ball (16.7 points per game this season) and is a great rebounder (7.5 per game). He also connects on 80% of his free-throw attempts.

Despite those impressive stats, Collins was even more productive last season, averaging 21.6 points on better than 40% three-point shooting and collecting 10.1 rebounds per game.

But the Hawks rotation has become increasingly crowded this year. They added Danilo Gallinari and rookie big man Oneyeka Okongwu, the sixth overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, to the frontcourt this offseason, while Collins was already vying for minutes with Clint Capella, who Atlanta added via trade last season. Cam Reddish, a second-year wing who is versatile enough to play some power forward, has also stolen some of Collins’ potential minutes.

So, as much as the Hawks seem to like Collins, he may be a luxury they can do without. He’ll obviously demand a relatively high-priced contract. The fact that Atlanta and Collins failed to reach an extension last summer would also seem to make a reunion less likely; would the Hawks invest so heavily in him now that they have three players at the position signed through at least the 2022-23 season? Further, could they invest even if they wanted to at this point? The Hawks are already committed to more than $100 million next season and, with Trae Young and Kevin Huerter extensions on the horizon, they might be hard-pressed to scrounge for the cash Collins would want in a new deal.

He won’t come cheap, for sure. But, while Julius Randle fans may not love the idea of bringing in his replacement, Collins is simply a better long-term solution.

Lonzo Ball, New Orleans Pelicans

The point guard position has been a sore spot for the Knicks for some time. And while Ball might not be the franchise cornerstone that many hoped he’d become, adding a young player with his upside is clearly a positive move.

Granted, Ball is inherently flawed. His jump shot appeared to be much improved last season and he’s showcased a significantly improved shooting form from years past. But he’s struggled in the new season, shooting only 28% on three-point attempts (down from 37.5% last season). In fact, he’s struggled on the whole on the offensive side of the ball, posting just 11.9 points and 4.4 assists per game (a career-low). He’s also missed some time with knee soreness and moved to more of an off-the-ball role as new head coach Stan Van Gundy has put the ball in the hands of Brandon Ingram more and more.

But, with New York, Ball would step into a significant role immediately. For his career, Ball is a net-positive player and, despite his shooting woes, has posted a positive VORP every year he’s been in the league, save for this season. He’s an above-average defender and, while he does need to ball in his hands, he doesn’t necessarily need to take shots to be effective.

Ball may never become the All-World caliber guard many pegged him as before the 2017 NBA Draft, but he’s better than any other option currently at the Knicks disposal. And, best of all, his trade value is arguably as low as it’s ever been. So, while the Pelicans won’t just give him away, New York should do what they can to acquire him for a reasonable price.

Devonte’ Graham, Charlotte Hornets

Last but not least, the surprise from the 2018-19 rookie class. Graham is possibly the hardest sell on this list, but it’s not for a lack of talent.

Graham burst onto the scene last season, posting an impressive sophomore campaign of 18.2 points and 6.4 assists per game. Unfortunately, those numbers have taken a drastic dip this season with the arrival of Gordon Hayward and the highly-touted rookie LaMelo Ball in Charlotte. Likewise, Graham’s struggles through the Hornets’ first 10 games limited his opportunities further.

That said, he would appear to be done slumping, as he’s connected on 43% of his attempts from deep in the team’s last two games.

But his efficiency wouldn’t be the main challenge when constructing a Graham trade. Instead, some in New York could be concerned with lack of size – Graham is only 6-foot-1 – and his inability to act as a facilitator at the guard spot.

But Graham is talented, plain and simple. In fact, he’s the exact kind of talent the Knicks should be looking to add right now. More specifically, Graham shot 37.3% on three-point attempts last season; the Knicks rank 21st in three-point percentage so far this season.

The Knicks could ultimately sit tight, swap a few veterans for future draft picks and rest assured that they’ve made enough progress by simply adding coach Tom Thibodeau. But they could and should be aggressive while they can. If New York can add one or more the players mentioned, they may not only build a brighter future, but improve on what the team could do this season. Either way, the Knicks look to be on a good trajectory, but every move they make from here on out can and will affect how quickly they make the leap from laughingstock to respectable contender.

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NBA AM: The Utah Jazz Are Showing Continuity Is Key

Is Utah’s early success an indicator of things to come? Between Donavon Mitchell, a stingy defense and hot three-point shooting, they may just be the real deal.

Ariel Pacheco

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The Utah Jazz are riding high on a seven-game winning streak, hotter, at this point, than all hell. 15 games into the season, the Jazz have been the third-best team in the Western Conference. The key for them has been continuity as they have 11 guys who were on last year’s team. The only addition they made to their rotation this offseason was Derrick Favors, who was with the team for nine seasons before a one-year departure. 

Quinn Snyder is widely regarded as one of the best coaches in the league, and he’s showing why this season. The Jazz are currently in 7th in both offensive and defensive rating. Beyond that, there are only three teams who can say they are top 10 in both: The Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Lakers and the Phoenix Suns. Often, teams that finish in this select category are historically serious contenders. 

Moreover, the Jazz have been on a shooting tear. Using Gobert’s rolling ability to collapse opposing defenses and find open shooters, Utah’s offense is clicking right now. It’s worked tremendously too, considering the Jazz have attempted and made the most three-pointers of any team this season – and hitting on 40.3 percent as a team. Royce O’Neale, Donovan Mitchell, Jordan Clarkson, Joe Ingles and Mike Conley are all shooting above 40 percent; while Bojan Bogdanovic is almost there at 37.8.

Basically, the Jazz are just shooting the ball at a ridiculously well rate right now and good ball movement has propelled them. 

Mitchell seems to have taken another jump in his development, although it is subtle, and his growth as a playmaker has benefitted everyone. He’s made teams pay for overhelping, often initiating the ball movement that has led to open looks. He’s also taking fewer mid-range jumpers, converting those attempts into three-pointers. The budding star’s play has been more consistent overall, and he’s been effective out of the pick-and-roll. 

Mike Conley’s improved play this season has been needed – now he’s settled and red-hot. Coming off a disappointing season last year, there were questions as to whether he was declining. While it’s safe to say he’s no longer the guy he was in Memphis, this version of Conley is still a good one. He looks a lot more comfortable in his role and the Jazz are reaping the benefits. In a contract year, Conley is averaging 16.3 points and 6.3 assists per game while shooting 41 percent from three.

Jordan Clarkson is a strong candidate for Sixth Man of the Year, fitting in perfectly as the Jazz need his scoring and creation off the bench – even leading the league in such scorers from there. But the Jazz’s bench is more than just Clarkson though, as they’ve gotten strong minutes from Joe Ingles, Georges Niang and Derrick Favors too. They’re a solid group that plays both ends of the court, and all fit in nicely with the starters as well. 

Sorely needed, however, Bojan Bogdanovic’s return has helped tremendously. He gives them another big wing who can shoot and is a scoring threat, and before he got hurt last season, he was averaging 20 PPG. While he isn’t at that level this season, he gives them another reliable scoring option that they badly need. Better, it also allows Ingles to remain on the bench, where his playmaking ability can really thrive.

The Jazz have been playing stylistically a little bit different this year and it has worked. They don’t run often but when they do, they have been potent. Playing at the same pace as last season, Utah is scoring almost five more points per game in transition. Additionally, they are taking six more threes a game too. This all amounts to a 6.1 net rating, which is good for fourth-best in the NBA. 

Lastly, their defense has been impossible for teams to penetrate, inviting opponents to try and finish over Rudy Gobert in the paint. Gobert is a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate for a reason – his presence alone almost assuredly guarantees his team will be a top 10 defense, which the Jazz are. Favors’ addition has helped stabilize the defense when Gobert sits, which was a major issue last season. Overall, they are just a very disciplined defense that makes teams earn their points, rarely committing cheap fouls.

As it stands today, the Utah Jazz are solidifying themselves as one of the best teams in the Western Conference. It remains to be seen if the hot shooting is sustainable, but the way they are generating those open looks seems to be. The defense is legit, and if they can remain healthy there’s reason to believe that this team can continue to compete at this level. The Utah starting lineup has outscored opponents by 58 points, but they’ve also had one of the best benches in the league – needless to say, the Jazz’s continuity has been a big part of their early success.

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