Detroit’s Hot Start Disguises Shooting Dearth

At 11-7, the Detroit Pistons are an upstart in the Eastern Conference.

New head coach Dwane Casey has revitalized Blake Griffin’s career, who is putting up All-Star caliber numbers among the league leaders in offensive output. The Pistons took a road win over the East-leading Toronto Raptors while claiming early-season wins over the Houston Rockets and Philadelphia 76ers. They’ve won seven of their last nine, scoring over 115 in five of those contests.

A deeper dive into Detroit’s start should raise some red flags, though.

The Pistons are last in strength of schedule thus far, according to Basketball-Reference. Their top-ten defense—likely more than due to their schedule—is primed for a regression: teams are only shooting 32 percent from deep against them, and that number could drastically swing their defensive efficiencies. Detroit must improve on the offensive side, which will help them keep pace with the aforementioned numbers jumping closer to normal.

More specifically, Detroit needs outside shooting.

They’re in the league’s bottom-five in three-point percentage, aren’t taking a heavy volume of attempts and have struggled late in games to produce quality looks when defenses hone in on twin bigs Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond.

The early-season injury to Luke Kennard hurt a Pistons squad already thin on the wings. Reggie Bullock, their other anticipated starter , is third on the team in minutes per game—ahead of Reggie Jackson!

How bad is their shooting epidemic? So far, there are 43 players in the league who have taken more than 3.5 three-point attempts per game and are hitting on less than 33 percent of them. The Pistons claim three players on that list: Reggie Jackson, Ish Smith and Stanley Johnson. No other team claims more.

Of course, Dwane Casey isn’t shying away from telling his players to shoot these perimeter jumpers; He recognizes their necessity as part of the game plan. He’s even addressed their shooting woes at times and the need to keep taking them:

“My last team (Toronto), we went through the same thing, ‘Why are you shooting so many threes? You’re not making any threes.’ Once they start falling, it’s like, ‘Wow, you’re running this great, new offense.’

There’s some 3-point shots we got to take out of our repertoire. In dribble-up threes, we were 1 for 14 (in a Nov. 3 loss at Philadelphia). But the ones you’re open and nobody is within six feet, those are the ones we got to continue to take.”

-Dwane Casey, Nov. 4th

The Pistons are getting plenty of open “unguarded” three-point attempts. Synergy Sports indicates they’ve taken 210 unguarded jump shots through 18 games, almost 14 per game. They’re 24th in shooting percentage on those looks, at only 36.2 percent. The league average is just above 40 percent in similar scenarios.

There’s another layer to peel back here: a psychological one. How many of those unguarded looks are by design of the defense, not of the offense?

Obviously, Casey is constructing an offense that leads to the highest amount of quality looks for his players and gets them frequent unguarded looks. But defenses will also ignore poor shooters from the perimeter, instead opting to clog the paint and force jumpers from worse shooters.

Have you ever dared someone to shoot in a pick-up game and lived with the result? The optics are the same in the NBA. While Casey is right to continue encouraging his players to take unguarded shots with the hopes of three-point percentages rising, that doesn’t guarantee these are the shots defenses don’t want. Such a phenomenon would indicate it’s the personnel, not the scheme, that needs changing in Motown.

Rookie swingman Bruce Brown has given Detroit some positive minutes off the bench as a defensive maestro and active facilitator. Playing nearly 15 minutes per game, Brown’s sample size is starting to say a lot about who he is. For example, going 1-of-11 from three and only 1-of-6 on unguarded catch-and-shoot opportunities isn’t exactly helping their spacing issue.

When Brown has been on the court during the fourth quarter, teams dare him to shoot:

Having one non-shooter on the floor during crunch time is acceptable. Even two is doable with the right schemes. Assuming Andre Drummond is always one player Casey will want in the lineup, there isn’t room for two non-shooters in the backcourt.

The worst part of playing a spacing-challenged lineup? It negates any Blake Griffin post-ups or isolations.

Late in close games, Casey dials up some creative entries to Griffin isolations or two-man actions between him and Andre. These isolations are scorching opponents because Griffin is off to such a torrid start. Casey needs another weapon at his disposal to alleviate the pressure on Griffin to create, and that stems from a shooter to draw attention away weak-side.

Defenses have started to key in on those two-man actions and simply switch them, forcing Griffin to hit difficult pull-ups.

The lack of movement is staggering:

Griffin is shredding teams in ball screens as a ball handler and in isolations. Smaller defenders get bullied to the rim, and bigger ones daring him to shoot are losing that bet.

It won’t take long before teams start putting longer wings on Griffin and hide their next-biggest player on a non-shooter in the corner because the spacing around Griffin post-ups isn’t great when Drummond is on the floor.

NBA.com’s stats department indicates that when Griffin shares the floor with Drummond, he’s shooting only 27.8 percent in the paint (outside the restricted area) and 31.8 percent in the mid-range. Griffin, shooting only 47 percent on post-ups and earning an inefficient 0.869 points per possession in those situations, is not the threat out of post-ups that he should be. Teams can get away with putting a smaller defender on him in preparation for those ball screens because they know they can easily load towards the ball if he gets the ball thrown to him inside:

Teams frequently double Griffin off of Drummond, knowing the Pistons put at least one non-shooter on the weak side behind him.

Routinely either Ish Smith or Glenn Robinson III—below-average shooters struggling from behind the line right now—will see their defender roam onto Drummond, smothering upon him while his man goes to double Blake in the post. (Houston even switches off-ball between James Ennis and Eric Gordon in the clip below so that Ennis becomes that smother guy, allowing him to more easily chip down on Drummond on the glass.)

Of course, rebounding doesn’t matter if the defense can force a turnover out of the action:

Blake’s turnover rate is the highest on the team, though it’s hard to place blame highly on his shoulders.

Remove his three-point shooting from the Pistons, and they’re shooting a putrid 31 percent from the floor. For such a high-volume playmaker, that poor level of floor spacing limits the space he has to be creative.

Beyond the Griffin post-ups and scoring, Andre Drummond’s playmaking from the high post is neutralized when defenses can clog the lane elsewhere. Drummond’s primary defender rarely leaves the paint or strays beyond fifteen feet from the basket. Last season, that helped make Drummond a great playmaker through dribble hand-offs and passes at or above the elbows. He would routinely spring players free because he had time to pick defenses apart, and nobody would be able to help on contact made in a dribble hand-off.

Now, with a lack of shooting elsewhere, teams keep all cutters and movement in front of them. Tuesday against the New York Knicks, coach Dwane Casey dialed up a backdoor cut set which features Drummond as the primary playmaker. Two attempts resulted in nearly identical turnovers, thanks to the clogging of the paint the Knicks were able to achieve:

Drummond has nowhere to go with these passes sans shooters that draw defenses towards them cutting away from the ball, and defenses can too easily key in on Blake. The frontcourt marriage between those two won’t work without that spacing.

General Manager Ed Stefanski has a unique tool at his disposal to address their shooting woes: a sizable trade exception from the Blake Griffin deal last year that would allow them to absorb up to $7 million in salary. That could swing the Pistons an immediate-impact, veteran wing shooter. Justin Holiday of the Chicago Bulls is cheap and readily available. Bigger splashes like Wayne Ellington would require some form of draft picks involved, highly unlikely but somewhat possible.

Of course, using most of the exception vaults Detroit closer to luxury tax territory, a judgment call for ownership to make later in the winter based on their record and ability. Reality will come hard and fast for the Pistons once the calendar flips to December. Their first eleven games are against teams currently with ten or more wins, including jaunts with Golden State, Boston, Oklahoma City, Philadelphia and two against Milwaukee.

Stefanski, Casey and the whole organization will have a much better feel for their needs by Christmas once they get through this grueling stretch of play. Hopefully, Luke Kennard will be back and providing a spacing leap, and the shooting of Stanley Johnson will continue to heat up.

Nonetheless, Detroit’s offense is slightly too static late in games and when playing through Blake.

One more scoring threat on the perimeter that allows the team to thrive with both Griffin and Drummond on the floor will help the offense take the next step forward.

 

Unless otherwise noted, all stats are current as of November 28, 2018 and are courtesy of basketball-reference, NBA.com stats or Synergy Sports Tech.

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