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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: Is Stephen Curry the MVP?

Given the prolific season Stephen Curry is having, despite the Golden State Warriors being ninth in the Western Conference, does his impact make him the Most Valuable Player in the NBA this season?

Bobby Krivitsky

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In the aftermath of Klay Thompson suffering an Achilles tear that ended his season before it began, no one would have blamed Stephen Curry for prioritizing his preservation through the 2020-21 campaign.

Instead, despite the Golden State Warriors lacking the necessary talent to become a title contender, Curry’s doing everything in his power to get them into the playoffs.

The two-time league MVP is on pace to win the scoring title for the second time in his career. In a recent road loss against the Boston Celtics, Curry put up 47 points, becoming the second player in Warriors history to score 30 or more points in 10-straight games, joining Wilt Chamberlain. 

In his last 11 contests, Curry’s averaging 40 points on shooting splits that aren’t supposed to be possible at the game’s highest level. Even though he’s hoisting 14.3 attempts from beyond the arc per game, he’s making them at a 49.7 percent clip. He’s taking 23.4 shots from the field but still seeing the ball go through the hoop 54.1 percent of the time.

The context of how Curry’s producing those prodigious numbers makes them even more impressive. He is the only scoring threat on Golden State who defenses need to concern themselves with — stop Curry, win the game; it’s that simple, at least in theory it is.

 

Another layer of what makes Curry’s prolific scoring so impressive is the energy he’s exerting to do so. According to NBA.com’s tracking data, Curry’s running 1.43 miles per game on offense, which is the sixth-most league-wide. And what that figure doesn’t fully capture is that while Curry has a lightning-quick release and is masterful at creating the sliver of daylight he needs to get his shot off, it takes a significant amount of energy to do that once, let alone throughout a game.

Even though Curry’s already the greatest shooter of all time, he’s taken the most lethal part of his game to new heights. From 2015 when the Warriors won their first NBA championship to 2019, a stretch in which they reached the finals every year, step-back threes accounted for just eight percent of Curry’s shooting profile from beyond the arc. But this season, Curry knew it would be more challenging to create shots for himself, which is why he’s doubled that figure to 16 percent and he’s knocking down 51.5 percent of his step-back threes, per NBA.com.

Curry’s also putting more pressure on opponents from further away from the hoop than he has in years past. According to NBA.com, from 2015 through 2019, five percent of his threes came from 30 to 40 feet. This season, shots from that distance account for 10 percent of his three-point attempts. Just like when defenses double team him out of a pick-and-roll, Curry forcing teams to defend him from further out is another way for him to create 4-3 opportunities for his teammates.

 

After that loss against the Celtics, Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said Curry’s “at the peak of his powers.” Though he’s not just putting his talents towards individual production, he is the primary reason Golden State’s firmly in the play-in tournament. The Warriors currently reside ninth in the Western Conference. They’re one game behind the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies and two back of the seventh-ranked Dallas Mavericks. 

As impressive an individual season as Curry’s having and as vital as he’s been to his team’s success this season, the reality is the Warriors haven’t won at a high enough level for him to win Most Valuable Player honors for the third time in his career. Currently, Nikola Jokic is the leading MVP candidate. While it’s fair to point out the Denver Nuggets aren’t even in the top three in the Western Conference, Jokic ranks first in player efficiency rating, win shares, box plus/minus and value over replacement player. He’s averaging 26.4 points, 11.1 rebounds, 8.8 assists and 1.4 steals per game. 

If Jokic misses enough of Denver’s remaining games, someone could usurp him for the right to win MVP. In that scenario, Curry would have a chance to become the NBA’s Most Valuable Player for a third time, but he’d have to sway voters from giving it to Joel Embiid. Embiid’s in the midst of a career season, ranking second in player efficiency rating, eighth in win shares and fourth in box plus/minus. He’s averaging 29.9 points, 11.2 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game while leading the Philadelphia 76ers to the best record in the Eastern Conference.

Curry ranks sixth in player efficiency rating, seventh in win shares and is second in both box plus/minus and value over replacement player. He has a case for MVP, but Jokic and Embiid are capping off career seasons while leading their respective teams to a higher level of success. Yes, their teams are more talented and there probably isn’t enough weight put on how valuable an individual is to his team, but the reality is the MVP typically goes to the best player on a top team. Furthermore, that argument also applies to Jokic, who’s the lone All-Star on a team with a better record.

Not naming Curry this season’s Most Valuable Player doesn’t mean his prolific production isn’t appreciated. Nor should it get taken as a sign elevating his team, somehow finding ways to become a more dangerous shooter and investing as much energy as he has into a season that won’t end with a championship isn’t garnering respect from the NBA community. That includes fans whose favorite team doesn’t reside in the Bay Area.

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NBA Daily: The Lakers’ Path Back to the NBA Finals

In the wake of Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Bobby Krivitsky examines the Los Angeles Lakers’ path back to the NBA Finals.

Bobby Krivitsky

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It’s been 15 games since a high ankle sprain sidelined LeBron James. 

With the Western Conference standings congested and Anthony Davis already out due to a right calf strain and a re-aggravation of his right Achilles tendinosis, the Los Angeles Lakers faced the threat of a fall that would require their participation in the play-in tournament.

However, the Lakers have fought admirably in the absence of their two stars, going seven and eight. As a result, their fall in the standings has been painless, going from third at the time of James’ injury to now occupying fifth place in the West.

The primary reason the Lakers have been able to tread water without their two stars is they’ve remained stingy on defense. Since James’ injury, they have the fourth-best defensive rating in the league. That’s despite facing four teams who rank in the top five in offensive rating and six of the categories’ top-10 members.

Right now, the Lakers are 2.5 games ahead of the sixth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers, with a 4.5-game cushion between them and the Dallas Mavericks, who are seventh in the conference. That should be a large enough gap to keep Los Angeles out of the play-in tournament, but the two teams are going to converge for a two-game series starting Thursday. For the Lakers, getting swept would re-open the possibility of having to compete in the play-in tournament.

Fortunately for them, even splitting that series would make it unlikely the Mavericks finish ahead of the Lakers in the standings. And help might be on the way for the Lakers: Davis may soon rejoin the lineup, per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, meaning there’s a distinct possibility he’s active for at least one of those two matchups. As for James, he’s on track to return in three weeks.

While Los Angeles’ stars are getting closer to making their returns, the Denver Nuggets got dealt a more severe blow when Jamal Murray tore his ACL in a recent game against the Golden State Warriors. Denver is 10-2 since acquiring Aaron Gordon at the trade deadline and looked the part of a legitimate title contender prior to Murray’s injury. 

Denver is fourth in the West, 1.5 games ahead of Los Angeles. But even if the Nuggets have home-court advantage, they’re the preferable opening-round opponent, not just for Los Angeles, but any team with a legitimate chance at the fourth or fifth seed.

Fortunately for the Lakers, that’s the place in the Western Conference pecking order where they’re most likely to finish this season. So long as the Nuggets don’t freefall in Murray’s absence, Los Angeles will likely start the playoffs against an opponent that’s gone from having the potential to present the greatest challenge to the defending champions’ quest to get back to the Finals to becoming a desirable first-round matchup.

After that, the Lakers may have to get past the Utah Jazz and or the Los Angeles Clippers to make a return trip to the NBA Finals. The former has the best record in the league this season, but locking horns with the defending champions in a best of seven series is a far more challenging and potentially rewarding proving ground.

The Jazz have a deep, reliable rotation, they have the best net rating in the NBA, they’re in the top five in points for and against per 100 possessions, and they’re attempting the most threes per game, but also rank in the top five in three-point shooting percentage. However, the Lakers would have the two best players in a series against Utah. Usually, an opponent doesn’t overcome that disadvantage.  

As for the Clippers, Rajon Rondo has quickly proven to be an impactful acquisition. Los Angeles is seven and one with him in the lineup, generating the highest net rating in the league during that span. Last season, the Lakers saw first-hand how impactful playoff Rondo can be. Now, the Clippers are hoping he can bring structure to their offense, something they sorely lacked last postseason and was at the forefront of them blowing a 3-1 series lead over the Nuggets. Doing so would go a long way towards maximizing the production of a team that has the talent to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy for the first time in franchise history.

If this is the year the battle of LA takes place in the postseason, it figures to be a slugfest. Still, the Clippers have their doubters after last year’s meltdown in the playoffs. There’s also a large contingency who are skeptical about how far the Jazz can go in the postseason, given their lack of a top-tier superstar. Despite the validity of those concerns, both teams can beat the Lakers in a best of seven series. That no longer appears to be the case for the Nuggets, which is a shame for them and people who want to see the best possible matchups in the playoffs. But Murray’s injury, as unfortunate an occurrence as it is, makes it easier for the Lakers to get through the gauntlet that is the Western Conference and have a chance to claim an 18th championship, which would break their tie with the Boston Celtics for the most titles in NBA history.

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NBA AM: The Play-In Game – West

With the season winding down, Ariel Pacheco takes a look at how the play-in tournament is shaping up in the Western Conference.

Ariel Pacheco

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With the regular season’s end in sight, teams are making their last push to make the playoffs in what has been a condensed season. But the new play-in tournament is providing more teams than ever a chance at a coveted playoff spot.

Here is what the new play-in tournament will look like: Teams that finish with the Nos 7 and 8 seeds will face off against each other. The winner of this game will be No. 7. The Nos. 9 and 10 seeds will also play and the winner will play the loser of the first game. The winner of this game will be the No. 8 seed. 

The play-in tournament provides intrigue and adds pressure on teams in both conferences to finish in the top six and avoid the play-in altogether. The Western Conference, in particular, is shaping up to have a rather exciting finish. There are a number of teams who could find themselves fighting for their playoff lives in this year’s tournament – all below in tiers.

Teams Likely To Avoid Play-In

Portland Trail Blazers (32-24)
Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: 8
Games Against Teams Over .500: 12
Games Against West: 11

The Trail Blazers are currently the sixth seed in the West meaning, for now, they are safe from the play-in tournament. However, they are just two games above the Mavericks from possibly dropping down a place. They’re the team most likely to secure that sixth seed because they have more talent than the teams below them – hello, Dame – and they also have an elite offense. However, the defensive concerns are very real and if they were to slip, it would likely be because of their struggles on that side of the ball.

Likely Play-In Teams

Dallas Mavericks

Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: 9
Games Against Teams Over .500: 5
Games Against West: 8

On paper, the Mavs have a really easy schedule as the season winds down. They have just five games against teams over .500 and two against the Los Angeles Lakers, who may be without their two stars for those games. However, they are just 10-12 this season against sub .500 teams and are coming off a disappointing loss to the Sacramento Kings. There’s still a pretty good chance they get the sixth seed and avoid the play-in, but it also wouldn’t be surprising to see them in it as well.

Memphis Grizzlies
Games Left: 17
Home Games Left: 7
Games Against Teams Over .500: 8
Games Against West: 12

The Grizzlies are often overlooked, but they are about as well-coached as any other team in the NBA. It is likely they will be in the play-in game, but don’t be surprised if they are able to sneak into the sixth seed. They lost last year’s play-in game in the Bubble to the Blazers, so they do have experience in this type of setting. They may be getting Jaren Jackson Jr. back soon which should help. 

Golden State Warriors
Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: 9
Games Against Teams Over .500: 6
Games Against West: 13

The Warriors are getting just other-worldly performances from Stephen Curry on an almost nightly basis at this point. However, they continue to struggle to win games, in large part due to the struggles when he sits on the bench. Their schedule is pretty light to close the season, which bolsters their chances. The talent on this team isn’t great, but Curry’s play should be enough to get them in the play-in tournament. 

San Antonio Spurs
Games Left: 17
Home Games Left: 6
Games Against Teams Over .500: 12
Games Against West: 7

The Spurs have struggled of late, especially after the All-Star break. Their defense has dropped off badly, but if there’s any reason to be positive, it’s that they are still coached by Gregg Popovich and their young guys continue to show improvement. They have been really good on the road this season and a majority of their games are on the road. It won’t be easy, but the Spurs should find themselves in the play-in tournament.

Outside Looking In

New Orleans Pelicans
Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: 6
Games Against Teams Over .500: 9
Games Against West: 11

The Pelicans have been hit with the injury bug of late, but their inconsistent play this season continues to be a huge problem. Their defense continues to bleed three-pointers and while point Zion Williamson has worked, there just isn’t enough shooting to maximize him just yet. It seems unlikely the Pelicans make a late-season run to the play-in game.

Sacramento Kings

Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: 8
Games Against Teams Over .500: 8
Games Against West: 14

The Kings are the least likely team to make the play-in tournament. Their defense is still problematic and they just recently ended their 9-game losing streak. It’ll take a huge late-season push and the Kings just haven’t shown that they are capable of putting it all together for a long enough stretch. 

The play-in tournament adds a new layer of competition that will bring excitement at the end of the season. Be sure to check out how the play-in tournament is shaping up in the Eastern Conference.

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