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NBA Saturday: What Happened to the Detroit Pistons?

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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.

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About Jesse Blancarte

Jesse Blancarte

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