Monday, January 18, 2016

Pistons at the Mid-Point

Just one game shy of the true halfway mark in the season, the Pistons have themselves in good position for a playoff berth, sitting at 6th in the Eastern Conference.  The season hasn't lacked big moments, both good and bad.  From Reggie Jackson's scorched earth fourth quarter in Portland, to Matt Barnes' heave, to the 4 OT triumph in Chicago, to another Memphis blunder, to Big Ben's inspiration of a beatdown of the reigning champs in front of a packed Palace, the Pistons have been both better and more entertaining in 2015-16 than in years prior.  Stan Van Gundy's vision is starting to become a bit clearer for the rest of us, and with that being said, let's check in on what's went well, what hasn't, and who's earning their keep so far.

* All stats via Basketball-Reference unless otherwise noted

The Good

We'll start with a big picture item: the Pistons have been a borderline elite defensive squad this season.  As of games completed on 1/17, Detroit boasts the league's 5th-best Defensive Efficiency, allowing only 102.1 points per 100 possessions.  Detroit's dominance on the defensive glass has been a key factor, as the Pistons also rank 5th in the league in defensive rebounding.  Andre Drummond's biggest impact on the defensive end of the floor can be found here, but it's also nice to have competent to above average rebounders at each of their remaining positions.  Also of note in this regard, Stanley Johnson has been beyond satisfactory on the defensive glass.  He ranks 10th among all qualified rookies in DReb% and 15th among SFs who have played at least 700 minutes this season.  Another thing that makes the Pistons a great defense is their ability to defend without fouling.  The Pistons allow the sixth-lowest opponent Free Throw Rate in the league.  Not giving up extra possessions and freebies is a good place to start when building a high-level defense.

Offensively, two strong components are keeping the Pistons, who have really struggled to shoot the ball in all phases (more on that in a bit), around the league average in Offensive Efficiency.  First, the Pistons are the league's second-best offensive rebounding team in the league.  Credit for that mainly goes to Andre Drummond, who ranks first in the league in OReb%, a country mile ahead of anybody else not named Enes Kanter.  While Drummond deserves the lion's share of the credit here, Aron Baynes is no slouch.  Baynes 12.7 OReb% is higher than the numbers posted by Hassan Whiteside, DeAndre Jordan and Dwight Howard this season.  Baynes ranks as the league's 13th-best offensive rebounder among players who have seen at least 500 minutes this year.  In other words, both the Pistons' first and second units get ample second and third chances.  That's huge for an offense that struggles to shoot the ball.

The other main component of the Pistons' offense that allows them to survive below average shooting in all three phases is their ability to take care of the basketball.  The Pistons rank third in the league in Turnover Rate.  Taking care of the ball and making sure every possession ends in a shot is important when a lot of your shots don't go in.

The Bad

The Pistons just flat out haven't shot the ball very well.  Their 48.1 eFG% is good for 24th in the league.  Detroit sits at dead last in the NBA in FT%, 26th in 2P% and 22nd in 3P%.  There's no sugar-coating it either, unless you feel like writing off the effect that Andre Drummond has on the team's FT%.  Even with that being said, the Pistons would still only rank 14th in the league in FT% if you took Drummond's makes and attempts away.  The biggest component of the Pistons struggles beyond the arc have been below-average performances from KCP and Marcus Morris.  The two have combined for over 30% of the team's outside attempts, but are shooting 1.5 and 4.6 points below their career averages, respectively.  Inside the arc, the continued drive to develop Andre Drummond's post game, and Stanley Johnson's rookie struggles have contributed to the ugly shooting numbers.

This isn't a statistical thing, but one of the worst things about this season has been the Pistons' inability to seize opportunities.  The Pistons have one loss each to the 11-30 Nets and the 9-34 Lakers, and handed away wins they really could/should have had against Memphis (x2), the Clippers (x2) and Wizards.  You can trade three of those for games that the Pistons won, but had no business winning, in Portland and Phoenix (x2) and the four extra wins would be good enough to vault the Pistons into 2nd in the Eastern Conference.  Obviously things like what happened at home against Memphis (the Barnes heave) are going to happen over the course of an 82 game season.  My bigger problem is with games like the two losses to LAC, where the Pistons just couldn't close the game out after holding a lead late.  I'm hoping to see less of that in the second half.

Andre Drummond (Average Game Score: 2.50)

It's hard to deny that Andre Drummond's been the Pistons' best player when you're looking at his numbers.  It's true on an individual game basis, and it's true over the course of the season too.  He's the Pistons' second-leading scorer, by far the league's best rebounder, and he's still just scratching the surface of how good he can be.  That last part is what has made him so frustrating at times this season.  His post game has made some progress and he's still dominant on the glass, but the problem comes in getting him to play defense consistently and not rush possessions on the block.  He's still only 22 years old, so we could still see him fix his energy issues and establish himself among the league's elite players.  He's earned a spot on the All-Star team, specifically as the Eastern Conference's starting C, but there's still work that can be done.

Reggie Jackson (Average Game Score: 3.33)

The other member of this Pistons squad who deserves an All-Star bid, admittedly as a reserve, has also had some consistency issues this season.  Jackson's ten worst Game Scores (B-R) of the year have all resulted in a Pistons loss.  Two of his worst three led to the aforementioned losses to the sorry Nets and Lakers, where Jackson scored a combined 17 points on 31 shots.  That's the bad side: when Jackson is off, the Pistons just aren't going to win.  The good side is, Jackson's been superstar quality at times this season, and the time in between has been filled with play that warrants the contract he signed this summer.  He played the best individual quarter of basketball I've ever seen in Portland, scoring 26 points and pulling the Pistons from the fire.  He also similarly bashed in the Suns' collective faces at The Palace in a comeback that was just as emblematic of this team's desire to keep fighting.  Jackson's leadership and play have been great this season, when looking at the total picture, and I think it would be a travesty if he isn't rewarded with an All-Star bid.

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (Average Game Score: 3.63)

I called this a make-or-break year for KCP before the season, due to his major inconsistencies last year, and he's making it so far.  Yes, he's struggled to shoot the three ball, but he's made enough strides overall offensively to make that a minor issue.  He's getting to the free throw line more reliably (.240 this year vs. .163 last year), is much better inside the arc (48.0 2P% vs. 44.9% last year) and has looked more confident handling the ball.  He's also been much better on the road this season, after having some horrifying splits last year.  On top of that, he's got a good case for a spot on one of the league's All-Defense teams and a similar case for being one of the the league's best perimeter defenders.  He still has games where he just doesn't show up on the offensive end of the floor, but they've become more rare, and the high end of the scale has bumped up.  KCP looks like the long-term answer at SG to this point in the year.

Marcus Morris (Average Game Score: 4.21)

Despite some struggles over the last two or three weeks, Morris has still been a major upgrade for the Pistons at the SF position.  The main issue for most of the year has been his uncharacteristic struggle from beyond the arc.  A career 35.6% three point shooter, Morris sits at just 31% this year.  If that part of his game comes around, then the Pistons should have zero complaints about Morris.  He's been above average defensively, a source of go-to offense when nothing else is working, and his toughness is much appreciated.  He's not a superstar, but the Pistons don't need him to be.  Prior to the last few weeks, I'd been very satisfied with Morris' game, and I think he'll return to a solid level going forward.

Brandon Jennings (Average Game Score: 5.13)

Not really enough data on Jennings yet to say much, although it is nice to have him back.  His defense is still a major concern, but so is Steve Blake's.  Jennings and Blake have probably produced pretty similar overall results, but the upside is much better with Jennings.  I expect him to remain in Detroit through the deadline.

Ersan Ilyasova (Average Game Score: 5.48)

I'll admit up front that there's probably some negative bias built into Ersan's game score average.  He's my least favorite Piston among those who see regular minutes, for a variety of reasons.  Chief among them: the pump fakes.  So many pump fakes.  That being said, I think Ilyasova's had a generally positive effect on this team with his outside shooting, toughness and ability to take charges.  Still, I'd like him much more coming off the bench.

Aron Baynes (Average Game Score: 5.55)

Baynes had his best performance of the season on Saturday night against the Warriors, putting all of his skills on display.  At his best, Baynes is a tough scorer at the rim who can step out to 15 feet, make some nice passes from the elbow and be a physical defender.  Sounds pretty good, right?  The Pistons just need him to be at his best more often, because when he's bad, he's really bad.  Overall, on his average night, you can't ask for much more from your backup C.

Stanley Johnson (Average Game Score: 5.97)


The rookie has had a few bright spots that have shown us the potential that made him a lottery pick, but for me, I've seen more negatives than positives so far.  His shot selection has been poor, as it seems like at least once a game he'll chuck up an ill-advised three with 10+ seconds left on the shot clock.  He also seems to try and do too much at times, catching himself going into the lane out of control, or getting stuck in the air with nowhere to go with the ball.  These are rookie mistakes, and Johnson hasn't been immune to them.  Negatives aside, I've been pleased with his defense, and think he has a high upside when the mental part of the game gets easier for him.

Steve Blake (Average Game Score: 6.13)

Things looked bleak early in the year with Blake manning the backup PG spot.  He was so inconsistent that Spencer Dinwiddie got a shot to run the show.  Eventually Blake won the job back, and didn't relinquish it again until Brandon Jennings got healthy.  Acquiring Blake in the offseason turned out to be a smart move by SVG, because he provided fairly stable value for the Pistons after the first 8-10 games.  He's a defensive liability, and was really rough early, but I'm glad the Pistons had Blake and weren't forced to lean heavily on Spencer Dinwiddie.

Anthony Tolliver (Average Game Score: 6.54)

Tolliver also struggled to start the season but has played better of late.  His outside shooting has approached his career average thanks to hot shooting in the month of January, and he's not a clear liability when he's on the floor lately.  I still think the backup PF spot is a position the Pistons should look into upgrading.

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