And just like that, the Detroit Pistons are sitting in the 6th seed…
After winning five in a row and eight of their last ten, the Pistons are also the hottest team in the Eastern Conference. Their surge includes an 8-1 record since the All-Star break, scoring an average of 118.3 points per game during that span.
The main reason? They have come out of the break absolutely scorching from deep, shooting 43 percent from downtown. Over the course of an entire season, those outputs would tie them with the Golden State Warriors as the league’s highest-scoring offense.
Yet, perhaps no addition to any roster has gone as overlooked as the signing of Wayne Ellington in Detroit. The Pistons are 9-2 since acquiring him, whom they snagged with the remaining amount of their Mid-Level Exception. By outbidding the competition after he was released by the Miami Heat (where he had fallen out of the rotation after a stellar 2017-18), the Pistons were able to add the missing piece and raise their offense out of the dumps.
Ellington’s raw stats won’t blow anyone away. Since joining the team, he’s put up 9.9 points per game on 40 percent shooting and 38 percent from three. The Pistons didn’t need him to come in and become a high-volume performer. There are plenty of finishers and creators with Griffin, Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson already on the roster.
Ellington provides the ultra-critical spacing, however, even if he is not taking a lot of shots. Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond, the team’s two top players, are a unique fit alongside each other. Drummond does not shoot the ball from outside fifteen feet (or at least effectively), and Griffin can dominate out of mismatch posts. Both love to have the ball in their hands near the top of the key as well. Griffin can do it all, while Drummond thrives from dribble handoffs that turn into hard rolls to the rim.
Prior to Ellington’s arrival, many of those actions were easy to snuff out and prevent. Defenses could pack the lane and prevent Griffin from easy one-on-one finishes, then prepare for the roll from Drummond. They would sag off those handoffs and dare Pistons guards to shoot, preferring that challenge to contesting a dunk attempt from one of their elite bigs. Frequently, the Pistons would settle for shots resulting from those handoffs that did not fit their personnel:
In comes proven veteran sniper Ellington, who led the entire league last season in points coming from handoffs with 281. Instantly, the offense has changed. Defenders must stick to Ellington like glue, chasing him around the floor and closing off any breathing room on catch-and-shoots. Few guys are better at getting their feet set and firing in such a short amount of time:
Because of that unique skill, the Pistons have designed their offense around those handoffs and screens for Ellington. Now teams cannot go underneath quick-developing actions and clog the lane off non-shooters.
The residual effects are noticeable.
The Pistons went with an offense-heavy lineup during the fourth quarter and overtime period of their 112-107 comeback victory over the Toronto Raptors on March 3rd. Griffin, Drummond, and Jackson were flanked by Ellington and Luke Kennard—another spacer who has also picked up his play big-time of late—giving the Pistons plenty of shooting, playmaking and scoring ability. Their strategy was simple: put the shooters in the corners, then let the three top scorers go to work in the middle of the floor.
Simple drag screens worked more effectively thanks to how tight the Raptors were hugging Ellington and the rookie Kennard in the corners.
Andre Drummond hasn’t gotten as comfortable of a finish off a standard pick-and-roll all season as he did with that lineup on the floor:
Jackson’s ability to score has skyrocketed since Ellington joined, for many of the same reasons. Extra attention on the perimeter means wider driving lanes and a little less attention on the now-healthy point guard. Reggie is a good shooter in his own right, so when the Pistons were short on spacing, they would take the ball out of his hands and utilize him as a somewhat miscast deep threat. With someone else more naturally filling that role, Jackson can revert to being primary creator within the Pistons offense.
Jackson is averaging 18.7 points per game since the All-Star break and has been clutch down the stretch. When defenders hug shooters in the corners as much as they do, Jackson’s creativity and pizazz truly shines:
The twin towers frontcourt benefits even more so from Ellington’s arrival. Both Drummond and Griffin are starting to find a feel for each other and are given quite the long leash to improvise plays. Since both can handle the ball, they will push in transition off defensive rebounds they secure.
Quick dribble handoffs in semi-transition formats are difficult to guard. Defenses are trained to protect the rim first, trying to match up while retreating to guarding position. Responsibilities on the team’s behalf can distract from sharp cuts or unpredictable movements by shooters.
The Pistons bigs can now found Ellington for early-in-the-clock handoffs thanks to their unorthodox forays as ball handlers:
In the half-court, Griffin and Drummond are equally great at creating contact on handoffs and playing above the rim on finishes. Combine them both and you’ll see why a brilliant shooter fits so well.
Contact on screens only causes issues for defenders if they fear what the man with the ball will do. The better the scorer coming off a screen, the more urgent a defense will react to him getting open. While Drummond and Griffin have consistently acted as battering rams to create separation, they previously lacked multiple consistent options that can score when open.
Ellington is such a perfect compliment here. Underutilized this season in Miami after Dwyane Wade returned from exile and Dion Waiters returned from injury—not to mention now-Sun Tyler Johnson, Rodney McGruder and Josh Richardson soaking up wing minutes—Ellington demands so much attention that two defenders will lunge towards him during handoffs. A solid screen at the point of the exchange forces the double team, and Ellington does a great job punishing defenders that hug him too tightly.
Griffin and Drummond have already soared above the rim with clean dunks thanks to the attention paid to their new teammate:
Blake always needs shooters surrounding him if he’s going to maximize his isolation and post-up opportunities. The Pistons usually have at least one non-shooter flanking him (Drummond), and sometimes even two with Bruce Brown or Ish Smith. They needed an elite threat if they were going to play through Griffin, who gets 27 percent of his scoring from post-ups.
Perhaps my favorite, and most unpredictable, method of fusing Ellington and Griffin together comes from fake-dribble handoffs. Similar to the normal flow of their offense, Griffin will catch the ball near the elbow and turn towards the sideline, where Ellington is the only teammate standing in the corner.
Normally, Ellington would dart over the top of Griffin and receive the handoff. As an occasional counter to teams that jam and try to deny the exchange, Ellington will instead ram into Blake’s defender, setting a de facto ball screen. The explosive Griffin doesn’t need much space to get to the rim off the borderline-illegal pick:
Yes, there’s still plenty of reason to be skeptical of the Pistons’ winning streak and recent offensive uptick.
They have shot way above their previous norms and will soon regress back to the league average. The Raptors, Indiana Pacers and San Antonio Spurs are the only playoff teams they’ve faced on their 8-1 streak. Remaining on their schedule are two games with the Pacers and Portland Trail Blazers, as well as road tilts against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Golden State Warriors and Denver Nuggets.
But regardless of whether those shots keep falling, the Pistons’ offense is running so much more smoothly of late.
Ellington’s presence is strong enough to make Detroit a near-lock for postseason play after that seemed unthinkable a few short weeks ago.
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are courtesy of Basketball-Reference, NBA.com stats, or Synergy Sports Tech, and are current as of March 10, 2019.
Adam is a TBW staff writer and college basketball coach at Dickinson College. He loves watching for offensive schemes while specializing in individual skill development, shooting technique and coach-speak. Born in New Hampshire, Adam grew up as a Celtics fan but now claims to just love “good basketball”, which does not include mid-range jumpers.