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NBA Saturday: What Happened to the Detroit Pistons?

The Detroit Pistons have had a disappointing season thus far and right now are their own worst enemies.

Jesse Blancarte

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The Detroit Pistons have lost seven of their last 10 games, are currently 17-21 and are ranked 11th in the Eastern Conference playoff race. The Pistons went 44-38 last season and managed to take the eighth seed. With an assortment of young, talented players, the hope was that the team would show significant internal development and would be ready to take a major step forward this season. That has not happened thus far for an assortment of reasons.

The recent trend has been to blame point guard Reggie Jackson, who made his season debut on December 4, 2016, after taking time off to rehab his knee. It’s not hard to understand why Jackson has been at the center of the blame for Detroit’s struggles. Before Jackson returned to the court, the Pistons were 11-10, ranked 16th in offensive efficiency and sixth in defensive efficiency. Since Jackson’s return, the Pistons have gone 6-11, and, throughout that same period, have been 26th in offensive efficiency and the 20th in defensive efficiency.

It’s fair to point the blame Jackson’s way considering how much the Pistons have slipped on both ends of the court since his return. However, Jackson hasn’t been the only reason that the Pistons have struggled so much since early December. Before Jackson’s return, the Pistons were surviving, and at times thriving, with their defense. The main criticism of Jackson has been his shot selection, domination over the ball and his failure to get the ball to open teammates several times each game. These issues all could at least partially explain the Pistons’ offensive struggles, but shouldn’t have much, if any bearing on their defensive performance. Jackson isn’t exactly a lockdown defender, but he is not solely to blame for their defensive woes.

“Our offensive frustration is affecting us at the defensive end and we’re losing heart a little bit,” Pistons’ head coach Stan Van Gundy said after losing to the Washington Wizards. “That’s concerning. The offense has not been moving the way it should. The ball is not moving. I got to look at play calls and the whole thing.

“We went through stretches where Reggie (Jackson) made some plays in the third quarter and we were scoring, but again, what happens is, we’re scoring, but we’re trading baskets. Part of it is, we got guys upset they’re not touching the ball and everything else so they’re not as engaged in the game on the defensive end of the floor.”

Unfortunately, it appears that Van Gundy was right about his team’s lack of engagement on the defensive end. Throughout the game, the Pistons’ collective body language was easy to read and showed significant frustration with what was happening on the offensive end of the court. The team’s lack of engagement carried over to their next game, where they lost to the Indiana Pacers by 15 points.

Plays like this were all too common and have been a nightly occurrence for the Pistons over the last few weeks.

The Pistons had a player only meeting after the game to address the underlying issues with the team.

“I did a lot of the talking, I said at the end of the meeting that we have to make a decision,” Marcus Morris said. “Everybody go home tonight and decide on what you want to do. Do you want to be a winning team or do you want to continue to get embarrassed? Are you going to play for the next man beside you or are you going to play for yourself?”

“If you have a guy wide open, he has to get the ball. It builds guys’ confidence. It makes the game funner. That’s just how it is. Of course some dudes are going to get more shots than other dudes. That’s how the game goes,” Morris said. “Guys are not going to respond well when they don’t get the ball when they’re open. That’s just basketball. That’s just the right way. The Spurs, Golden State, Cleveland, the top tier teams play the right way. You never win if you don’t play the right way. That’s just the bottom line.”

Jackson, seemingly upset over the team’s criticism of his play, staged an in-game protest against the Chicago Bulls. He was not aggressive, passed up scoring opportunities and frequently passed the ball to a teammate early in a possession and subsequently camped out at the corner of the floor. The play below was arguably the most egregious example of Jackson’s protest.

Jackson made just two of his five shots from the field against the Bulls and did little else in 23 minutes of action. This response was immature and costly for a team that is trying to fight its way back into the playoff race.

“I tried to move the ball,” Jackson said. “We had a meeting and hopefully ball movement was the topic. … I just tried to help with ball movement.”

Moving the ball to facilitate the offense is one thing. However, dumping the ball off and not participating in the offense afterward cannot be considered helpful in any meaningful way.

“Anytime a point guard’s not attacking and playing to his instincts, you don’t play real well,” Van Gundy said. “And [against the Bulls], I think he consciously was going to make sure he passed the ball on every possession because we’ve had some guys upset over the number of shots and things like that. So he basically didn’t shoot the ball at all. Well, that’s not it. Come off hard, attack and if there’s people open, throw them the ball. If you have a chance to score, score.”

Jackson needs to understand that he is very ball-dominant, which can cause some friction amongst his teammates. There are other ball-dominant players in the league, such as Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, James Harden and John Wall, who, for the most part, are able to balance between holding the ball and distributing it to their respective teammates. There are times when these players’ preferred style of play can rub their teammates the wrong way, but ultimately they have earned the respect and trust of their teammates to make the right play on any given possession. It seems like Jackson hasn’t earned that trust with his teammates. That has created an atmosphere of discontent, which has spilled over into every aspect of the Pistons’ on-court performance.

“Hell, naw; y’all watching,” Jackson said recently when asked if the defensive struggles were schematic. “It’s beyond schematic. People just walk into the paint. People are literally shooting warmup shots that’s like drill work. It’s a joke. It’s something that we gotta do. Coach can’t do nothing about it. It don’t matter if he has a scheme or not or not a scheme. If we were to play pick-up (basketball), I would hope so somebody would kick us out the gym.”

It should be noted that individual players are making strong efforts to lock down their assigned opponent frequently each game. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has been a very solid defender again this season and Stanley Johnson has been working hard on defense recently as well. However, once the team is forced to rotate, send help, or communicate and coordinate their defense on the fly to guard against a secondary action, their defense falls apart.

“We’re in jeopardy right now — that’s certainly not out of it by any means, but every loss puts you in more jeopardy, especially when you’re losing at home like we are,” Van Gundy said. “There’s no question that you have to understand that. You can’t run from the fact that all those losses are putting you in jeopardy.”

The Pistons still have time to turn things around and climb their way back into the playoff picture. They have the talent and the coaching to be one of top eight teams in the Eastern Conference. However, for that to happen, they need to stop pouting, bickering and failing to communicate on defense. Until that happens, this team’s season will continue to be in jeopardy.

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA

Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 11/17/17

Spencer Davies updates the list of names to keep an eye on and who’s in contention for DPOY.

Spencer Davies

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We’re exactly one month into the season now, as the NBA standings have started to take shape headed into winter.

A couple of weeks ago, Basketball Insiders released its first Defensive Player of the Year Watch article to go in-depth on players that could compete for the prestigious award. Since then, there have been injuries keeping most of the household names out of the picture.

Guys like Rudy Gobert (knee) and Al-Farouq Aminu (ankle) have been or will be sidelined for weeks. Kawhi Leonard has yet to make his season debut recovering from a bothersome right quad.

While that isn’t the best news for fans and the league at the moment, it’s likely that those players will be just fine and return with the same impact they’ve always made. In the meantime, there are opportunities for others to throw their names in the hat as elite defenders. With new names and mainstays, here’s a look at six healthy candidates.

6) Joel Embiid

Trusting the Process in Philadelphia was worth the wait. As polished as the seven-footer is with the ball in his hands on offense, he might be even more dangerous as an interior defensive presence.

One of ten players in the NBA averaging at least a block and a steal per game, Embiid makes a world of a difference for in limiting opponents. Through 14 games, the Philadelphia 76ers are allowing just 96.4 points per 100 possessions with him playing. Furthering that, he’s the only one on the floor who dips the team’s defensive rating below 100 and has the second-highest Defensive Real Plus-Minus rating (3.03) in the NBA.

5) Kristaps Porzingis

Like Embiid, it’s been an incredible season for the one called The Unicorn. Before the season started, Porzingis stated it was a goal of his to accomplish three things—an All-Star game appearance, Most Improved Player, and Defensive Player of the Year.

So far, he’s on the right track. Outside of being the league’s third-highest scorer (28.9 points per game), the Latvian big man is hounding and deterring shot attempts nearly every time inside. According to SportVU data, Porzingis is allowing his opponents to only convert 35.1 percent of their attempts at the rim, which is the lowest by far among his peers seeing at least four tries per game. Oh, and when he’s off the floor, the Knicks have a 112.4 defensive rating, which is 9.3 more points per 100 possessions than with him on.

4) Nikola Jokic

At the beginning of the season, it looked like the same old story with the Denver Nuggets defense, but their intensity has stepped up on that end of the floor for the past couple of weeks. Playing next to new running mate Paul Millsap has taken some getting used to, but it seems like the two frontcourt partners have started to mesh well.

Though it might not have been the case a season ago, the Denver Nuggets are a net -12.4 per 100 possessions defensively without Jokic on the court as opposed to a team-best 100.1 defensive rating with him on. A huge knock on the Serbian sensation last year and before then was his inability to defend. He’s still got things to work on as a rim protector with his timing, but the progress is coming. He’s seventh in the league in total contested shots (168) and has been forcing turnovers like a madman. Averaging 1.6 steals per game, Jokic has recorded at least one takeaway in all but two games.

3) Draymond Green

In the first DPOY watch article, the Golden State Warriors had been better off defensively with Green sitting. That right there should tell you how much we can really put into data in small sample sizes. It’s changed dramatically since that point in time.

Without Green playing, the Golden State Warriors have a defensive rating of 105.4 as opposed to 98.4 on the same scale with him on the floor. His matchups are starting to grow weary of driving on him again, as he’s seen less than four attempts at the basket. Currently, in DRPM, he ranks eighth with a 2.60 rating.

2) Al Horford

The Boston Celtics are still the number one team in the NBA in defensive rating. Horford is still the straw that stirs the drink for Brad Stevens. If you didn’t see that watching that knockdown, drag-it-out game against the Warriors on Thursday, go back and watch it.

He has the highest net rating on the team among starters and is leading the team by altering shots and grabbing rebounds with aggressiveness we haven’t seen since he played for the Atlanta Hawks. Ranking fourth in Defensive Box Plus-Minus and in DRPM, Horford is continuing to make his presence felt.

1) DeMarcus Cousins

Dominance is the word to describe Cousins’ game. With a month-long absence of Gobert, he has a real chance to show fans and voters that his defensive side of him is no façade.

Next to his partner Anthony Davis, Boogie has kept up the physicality and technique of locking up assignments. The third and final member of this list averaging at least a block and steal per game, Cousins is at the top of the mountain in DRPM with a 3.13 rating.

The New Orleans Pelicans significantly benefit with him on the hardwood (102.3 DRTG) as opposed to him on the bench (112.7 DTRG). He’s one of six players in the league seeing more than six attempts at the rim, and he’s allowed the lowest success percentage among that group. He’s also contested 193 shots, which is the second-most in the NBA.

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Gregg Popovich Continues To Be The Gold Standard For Leadership

There are three guarantees in life: death, taxes and Gregg Popovich.

Moke Hamilton

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There are three guarantees in life: death, taxes and the San Antonio Spurs.

Okay, let’s be honest, it’s probably not the first time that you’ve heard that one, but it also won’t be the last.

Behind the genius of Gregg Popovich, the Spurs have qualified for the NBA Playoffs 20 consecutive years. In hindsight, they appear to have been the only team to legitimately frighten the Golden State Warriors during their 16-1 playoff run last year, and this season, well, they’ve been the same old Spurs.

That’s been especially amazing considering the fact that the team has been without Kawhi Leonard. Although Popovich recently said that Leonard would return “sooner rather than later,” he himself admitted to not being certain as to what that meant.

Best guess from here is that Leonard will return within the next few weeks, but at this point, it’s entirely fair to wonder whether or not it even matters.

Of course, the Spurs don’t stand much of a chance to win the Western Conference without Leonard thriving at or near 100 percent, but even without him, the Spurs look every bit like a playoff team, and in the Western Conference, that’s fairly remarkable.

“A team just has to play in a sense like he doesn’t exist,” Popovich was quoted as saying by Tom Osborn of the San Antonio Express-News.

“Nobody cares if you lost a good player, right? Everybody wants to whip you. So it doesn’t do much good to do the poor me thing or to keep wondering when he is going to be back or what are we going to do. We have to play now, and other people have to take up those minutes and we have to figure out who to go to when in a different way, and you just move on.”

In a nutshell, that’s Popovich.

What most people don’t understand about Popovich is what makes him a truly great coach is his humility. He is never afraid to second-guess himself and reconsider the way that he’s accustomed to doing things. Since he’s been the head coach of the Spurs, he’s built and rebuilt offenses around not only different players, but also different philosophies.

From the inside-out attack that was his bread and butter with David Robinson and Tim Duncan to the motion and movement system that he built around Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, the latest incarnation of Popovich’s genius isn’t only the fact that he has survived without Kawhi Leonard, it’s what could fairly be considered the major catalyst of it.

There are many head coaches around the league that take their roles as authority figures quite seriously, and that’s why a fair number would have been threatened by one of their star players requesting that things be rebuilt in a way to maximize his potential.

So when LaMarcus Aldridge proactively sat down with his coach to discuss the ways that he felt he was being misused in the team’s schemes, it wouldn’t have come as a shock for Popovich to meet him with resistance.

Instead, he did the opposite.

“We have talked about what we can do to make him more comfortable, and to make our team better,” Popovich acknowledged during Spurs training camp.

“But having said that, I think we are mostly talking about offense. Defense, he was fantastic for us. Now, we have got to help him a little bit more so that he is comfortable in his own space offensively, and I haven’t done a very good job of that.”

Just 11 days after those comments were printed, the Spurs announced that they had signed Aldridge to a three-year, $72 million extension.

Considering that Aldridge’s first two years as a member of the Spurs yielded some poor efforts and relatively low output, the extension seemed curious and was met with ridicule.

Yet, one month later and 15 games into the season, the Spurs sit at 9-6. They’ve survived the absence of Kawhi Leonard and the loss of Jonathon Simmons.

Behind an offensive system tweaked to take advantage of his gifts, in the early goings, Aldridge is averaging 22 points per game, a far cry above the 17.7 points per game he averaged during his first two years in San Antonio.

Coincidence?

I think not.

Death, taxes and the Spurs.

So long as Gregg Popovich is at the helm, exhibiting strong leadership while remaining amazingly humble, the Spurs will be the Spurs.

Sure, Kawhi Leonard will be back—at some point.

But until then, the Spurs will be just fine.

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NBA AM: Atlanta’s Dewayne Dedmon Is Letting Shots — And Jokes — Fly

Dewayne Dedmon’s emergence has been an unexpected positive for the rebuilding Atlanta Hawks.

Buddy Grizzard

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It’s been a brutal season for the Atlanta Hawks, they’re just already 3-12 with the worst record in the Eastern Conference.

Wednesday’s franchise-record 46-point win over the visiting Sacramento Kings was a rare chance for Atlanta to have a laugh in the postgame locker room and reflect on things that have gone well, including hot shooting for the team and a potential breakout season for center Dewayne Dedmon.

The Hawks trail only the Golden State Warriors in three-point shooting at just over 40 percent. Prior to joining the Hawks, Dedmon had attempted only one three-pointer in 224 career games. As a Hawk, though, Dedmon is shooting 42 percent on 19 attempts. Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer explained after Wednesday’s game how his staff decided to encourage Dedmon to extend his range.

“You do your research and you talk to friends around the league, you talk to people who have worked with him and you watch him during warmups,” said Budenholzer. “We had a belief, an idea, that he could shoot, he could make shots. We’re kind of always pushing that envelope with the three-point line. He’s embraced it.”

Dedmon is currently averaging career-highs in points, rebounds, blocks and minutes, and set season-highs in points (20), rebounds (14) and assists (five) against the Kings. He’s also brought an offbeat sense of humor that has helped keep the locker room loose despite the struggles. It became apparent early on that Dedmon was a different type of dude.

At Media Day, when nobody approached Dedmon’s table and reporters instead flocked to interview rookie John Collins at the next table, Dedmon joined the scrum, holding his phone out as if to capture a few quotes.

“This guy’s going to be a character,” said a passing Hawks staffer.

Those words proved prophetic, as Coach Bud confirmed after Wednesday’s win.

“He brings a lot of personality to our team, really from almost the day he got here,” said Budenholzer. “I think he’s getting more and more comfortable and can help the young guys and help everybody.”

Dedmon took an unconventional path to the NBA. Growing up, his mother — a Jehovah’s Witness — forbade him to play organized sports. Once he turned 18, Dedmon began making his own decisions. He walked on to the team at Antelope Valley College, a two-year school in Lancaster, Ca., before transferring to USC and eventually making it to the league.

His personality, which formed while Dedmon forged his own path, shone through in the locker room after the Sacramento win. Asked about conversations he’s had with Budenholzer about shot selection, Dedmon turned to teammate Kent Bazemore at the adjacent locker.

“What’s the phrase, Baze? LTMF?”

“Yep,” Bazemore replied.

“Yeah, LTMF,” Dedmon continued. “Let it fly. So he told me to shoot … let it go. I’m not going to say what the M means.”

Amidst laughter from the assembled media, he explained that ‘LTMF’ is Budenholzer’s philosophy for the whole team, not just part of an effort to expand Dedmon’s game.

“Everybody has the same freedom,” said Dedmon. “So it definitely gives everybody confidence to shoot their shots when they’re open and just play basketball.”

With the injury bug thus far robbing Atlanta of its stated ambition to overachieve this season, Dedmon’s career year and team success from three-point range are two big positives.

Rebuilding or retooling can be a painful process. But with a unique personality like Dedmon helping keep things light in the locker room, Atlanta should make it through.

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