Pistons can't shoot, but that's OK.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
The Detroit Pistons entered the 2013-14 NBA season as a potential breakout team. With Josh Smith, Brandon Jennings, Chauncey Billups and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope joining Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond, the talent ante in Detroit was upped considerably over the summer, and despite concerns about fit, our statistical models reacted accordingly.
The Pistons have played better than their 2-5 record. Detroit has faced one of the league's tougher schedules, with home games against Indiana and Oklahoma City plus road tests at Memphis, Portland and Golden State. The point differential suggests the Pistons should have won another game, and the road loss to the Grizzlies came in overtime. It's too early to get worked up about the Pistons' record, particularly given the degree of change in the roster and on the bench from last season. Give them time.
The intriguing thing about the Pistons' makeover was Joe Dumars' decision to add Smith to his young front line, ostensibly moving the longtime Hawks power forward to the quick forward position and creating a full-time big lineup. In doing so, Dumars was swimming upstream against NBA trends toward smaller lineups and offenses that emphasize spacing and floor balance while de-emphasizing offensive rebounding.
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images
With Andre Drummond in the middle, the Pistons can score in the paint, but they need shooters.
Those trends are holding up this season for the league as a whole. The average number of 3-point attempts is up again, reaching an all-time high of 20.9 per game. Teams have grabbed 26 percent of their own misses, a rate that would be the lowest since the league started tracking offensive rebounds in 1973-74.
The Pistons, on the other hand, feature a lineup that harkens the bruising 1990s New York Knicks and are at the opposite ends of those trends. Because of the assumed lack of spacing on offense, Detroit figured to be stronger in preventing points than producing them.
To say that hasn't happened would be a gross understatement; the Pistons rank last in defensive efficiency. Detroit is 29th in both defensive rebound percentage and 2-point percentage allowed. How a team that starts three defensively capable bigs can put up those metrics is a mystery, one that coach Maurice Cheeks is going to have to solve if his team is going to live up to its analytical expectations.
However, the early results on the offensive end are much more promising, and it says something important about the virtues of traditional lineups. Detroit ranks ninth in offensive efficiency, which is about where we projected the Pistons, even though the early schedule has brought them up against some of the league's top defensive clubs. The Pistons rank 28th in 3-point percentage and 23rd in attempts from behind the arc, fashioning their efficient attack without the benefit of the deep shooters who are all the rage.
Questions on perimeter
How is Detroit doing it? It's no great mystery. The Pistons rank second in the league in offensive rebound percentage, 10th in foul drawing rate and fifth in lowest turnover percentage. The formula has been to pound the ball inside and go after missed shots, most of which come courtesy of Jennings (only a slight exaggeration). According to NBA.com/stats
, Detroit leads the league by averaging 52 points in the paint per game.
AP Photo/Paul Sancya
Brandon Jennings' numbers look fine, but he's been killing the Pistons with massive usage and terrible shooting.
There are lingering questions about the Pistons' attack. Detroit has gotten drilled with Jennings on the court, to the tune of 16.5 more points per 100 possessions. Jennings' individual numbers look OK; his PER is 20.5, which would easily be a career best. However, his ball-dominant style of play has been killing Detroit. Drummond, Monroe and Smith all have positive offensive on-off indicators when they aren't playing alongside Jennings. However, when they are teamed with the mercurial point guard, the offense grinds to a halt. Jennings, who crowed about being more of a facilitator this season, has a usage rate over 30 percent, about 7 or 8 percentage points higher than it should be. The offense has been a plus without Jennings even with Smith struggling mightily when he plays the 3.
Let's hope Cheeks will recognize what has been working for his squad and will encourage his team to play to its strengths. Jennings told reporters earlier this week that he plans to be aggressive with his shot going forward after "trying to make sure I was being a pass-first point guard" in the early going. Self-awareness goes a long way in the NBA, and if Jennings is in earnest with his comments, Cheeks will have to bite the bullet and show him the end of the bench. Detroit has been a top-five offense with Jennings off the floor; it's been as bad as any attack with him playing. Jennings has enough talent to adapt, if he so chooses.
For an example of how an offense can thrive without 3-point shooting, Cheeks needs to look back no further than last season. The 2012-13 Denver Nuggets ranked fifth in offensive efficiency despite finishing 26th in 3-point percentage. George Karl didn't have the post players that Cheeks has either; his squad functioned off fast breaks, persistent dribble penetration and offensive rebounding.
This season, Detroit leads the league in points off turnovers, a trait the Pistons also have in common with last season's Nuggets. It's counterintuitive that a big team would feed off turnovers to this extent, and the shooting percentages Detroit has allowed suggest a defense that has been gambling too much. However, selective transition play can bolster the efficiency of a team that lacks jump shooters, as it has for Detroit.
The trend toward floor spacing is in many ways a product of the increased interest in analytics. Smart coaches have always known that long 2-point jumpers are a bad offensive option when there is an extra point to be had behind the line, just a couple of more feet from the basket. The attention analysts have paid to this issue, and the success of teams like Miami and San Antonio, has led to smarter basketball league-wide.
It's also possible that this season's sudden leap in overall tempo is a residual of Miami/San Antonio copycatting. Mike D'Antoni, Erik Spoelstra and Gregg Popovich have shown that one way to beat elite defenses formulated by guys like Tom Thibodeau is to get shots up before that defense gets set, especially if you have athletic shooters who can run to their sweet spots behind the arc. Teams have seen the virtues of this style of player, and the result has been an annual summer rush to collect 3-and-defense types.
Who Else Shoots Less?
Team Off. Efficiency (rank in NBA) Rate of 3PA
MIN 5 14
OKC 10 20
NOR 13 30
However, when everyone is fighting to do the same thing, there is a lot that can be gained by recognizing new inefficiencies in the marketplace. In this case, Dumars decided that talent trumps style, so he put together a roster that wouldn't look out of place in 1978. The Pistons aren't the only team that has shrugged off current trends. See the chart at the right.
The Los Angeles Lakers are the counterexample. The Lakers rank seventh in 3-point frequency and have played faster than any other team. However, Los Angeles has been the fourth-worst offensive team in the league. It doesn't matter how efficient your shot selection is if you don't make them.
None of this is to say that small lineups or floor spacing are bad ideas. But they aren't the only ways to go about things. As the Pistons' season unfolds, and theoretically some of the defensive issues are corrected, Cheeks' task is to identify what it is his talented and ill-fitting lineup does well and not sweat the stuff it does poorly.
Even as the league becomes a more free-flowing, floor-spacing circuit, with 3-point shots raining from all around the arc, it's still possible to play good offense the old-fashioned way, even if it is often a little bit ugly.
What top rookies should work on.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Why is it that the best way for a young player to get better is by getting more playing time? The answer is simple. The more a player gets into games, the more he will fail.
Missing defensive assignments that result in wide-open corner 3s for Ray Allen. Losing sight of their man while staring at a Chris Paul-Blake Griffin ball screen and getting beat on a basket cut. Throwing a lazy "guard to wing" pass to the man Corey Brewer is defending, thus giving Brewer the easy steal in the passing lane. Or just being a step slow on either end of the floor, hurting their team's possession.
These mistakes are made by everyone in the league, of course -- just far more often by rookies in most cases. (If the mistakes continued at the same pace beyond their rookie season, the player would not be in the NBA much longer.)
So for the rookies who are getting playing time now, not only do they have the opportunity to work on how to be more effective at what they're already good at, they also can fix what's missing in their games more quickly. Here's a look at what our new top 10 must focus on right away.
1. Michael Carter-Williams, Philadelphia 76ers
No player in this class benefits more from his situation than Williams, because he has the perfect trifecta when it comes to learning the NBA game: (1) he's getting tons of playing time; (2) he's getting lots of touches; and (3) he's on a team that embraces mistakes so it can try to earn the best draft pick possible. That is the holy grail for an NBA rookie with loads of talent.
Therefore, there are a lot of errors for him to learn from. One thing stands out more than the rest: As a primary ball handler who is a good driver but not a good perimeter shooter, why does he take so many jump shots off the dribble? Yes, he can learn to make these shots, and that no doubt will come in time. But he should at least learn to stop taking dribble jumpers so early in possessions.
It's one thing to take quick shots as part of a strategy to better enable the team's rebounders to crash the offensive glass, as Denver did last season -- taking a bad shot at least removes the chances for a turnover, while still giving the team a chance to score on the shot or off the glass. But Philly is not last season's Denver squad.
So, yes, it makes sense to let MCW continue to launch quick and long 2-point jumpers off the dribble, if you are trying to lose. But he will be a much more effective player when he learns that those are typically low percentage shots.
2. Steven Adams, Oklahoma City Thunder
Adams has been a huge and pleasant surprise for the Thunder, who need to move away from Kendrick Perkins by this postseason. Adams, though, has a long way to go as a defensive rebounder. Not for him to be playable, mind you, just to be excellent in this area.
He is active and interested in handling his block-out responsibilities. And he is an eager help defender who understands that after he shows on the perimeter he must race back to the paint. The next step for him is to "go get it." His initial reaction, after he sees the ball coming off the rim, is to read the situation, checking to see if a teammate is going to get it. But watch guys like Reggie Evans and Kevin Love; their first impulse is to move quickly toward the ball.
Adams is a good "in-area" rebounder, but to be effective on "out of area" shots, he needs to think as if he's the only Thunder player on the court who can get the ball off the glass. Better to have him fight his own man for the rebound than to have him not go get it in the first place.
3. Nate Wolters, Milwaukee Bucks
Wolters has been an impressive find for the Bucks. His assist rate is the best among rookies (and ranks well among all players) and he rarely turns the ball over. He is an excellent ball handler with full command of his dribble moves. But he'll have more success creating open shots for himself if he uses that dribble more effectively with screens.
Rookies fresh from college typically have built up the habit of not relentlessly pursuing the best angles when using screens. It's a remnant of their high school days (no shot clock) and college days (35-second clock), which sucks much of the urgency from ball handlers looking to create the best shot. The NBA is so different, and Wolters will find the game opening up much better for him if he puts his defender into tougher positions when he properly uses those screens.
4. Ben McLemore, Sacramento Kings
There is a lot to like about McLemore. His talent on offense can be special one day. But this is a team game, and it is a game of scoring, defending and rebounding above all else.
McLemore has the length and size to help his team on the glass right now, especially on long rebounds. That means he has to either box out his man if he is on the perimeter and looking to crash the boards, or when that man begins rotating back for transition defense, McLemore can go to the middle of the floor near the free throw line. This puts him in good position to chase down any long rebound on either side or rush in from the top when there is a rebounding angle.
Right now though, McLemore just hangs around on the perimeter after an opponent's shot, unaware of how much he can help his team gain the rebound.
5. Gal Mekel, Dallas Mavericks
Mekel gets consistent minutes each game in Dallas thanks to his ability to find open shooters. He has a special knack for seeing teammates far from him and is strong enough to quickly get the ball to an open shooter via a fast-moving pass. But if he only looks to pass when he is using ball screens, the men defending those shooters won't leave, and Mekel will be left with no option but to score. And scoring is tough to do when you are thinking "pass."
The proper mindset is to think aggressively about scoring, then make the proper read based on what the defense is doing. Mekel has struggled with his floater/midrange game, which likely makes him look to pass even more. That plays right into the strategies of a smart defense.
6. Vitor Faverani, Boston Celtics
Faverani has been a pleasant addition to the Celtics, as noted here previously. But his turnover rate (20.0) is far too high for a veteran player. This is somewhat explainable because of the difference between what an illegal screen is in Europe (where they basically allow clipping) compared to the tightly called NBA game. Approximately a third of his turnovers have come from screening actions.
But he also has made too many mindless passes (meaning he is not paying any attention to what he is doing) or passes from a weak base. And even though he has good hands, he somehow just drops a ball thrown right to him. Better focus and a better understanding of what an illegal screen is in the NBA will help clean this part of his game up quickly.
7. Victor Oladipo, Orlando Magic
You are only considered an elite athlete if you play like one. Showing off athleticism in predraft combines are of no consequence if not repeated in game play. Oladipo does plenty of athletic things, but there is more for him to do if only he would read situations better. When four or five defenders are back and set, it is rarely wise to drive into the teeth of that defense and try to score. Yet that is what he is doing too often, a common mistake for young players.
But when there is only a man or two back and Oladipo is pushing the ball in transition, then it is time to use those athletic gifts and blow hard to the rim -- yet Oladipo is prone to try a pull-up jumper in those situations. Russell Westbrook does that too often, too, but we know Westbrook is the most athletic point guard in the game because he shows it on drives to the basket. Oladipo can do similar things if he chooses.
8. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Detroit Pistons
KCP has a nice-looking shot, has a pretty tight handle and is quick and athletic with the ball. So why has he attempted just six free throws thus far? The league values good shooters, we know, but it values scorers more.
For KCP to reach the level of a scorer, which seems to be in his range, he needs to be someone who slashes with the ball, cuts without it, and knocks down open jumpers. That is the recipe for earning free throws, something that would help him and his team going forward. As of now, he's just a guard who catches and shoots or shoots off a dribble or two. This type of player can easily be found in the second round or cheaply in free agency.
9. Cody Zeller, Charlotte Bobcats
Skilled and athletic, Zeller should become a consistent scorer in this league. He just has to slow down a bit. Right now, almost all of his shots are coming just a little too fast, except when he shoots out of his triple-threat series. We're talking milliseconds, but they add up.
When Zeller rushes his shot, he often ends up missing a jumper, or driving into traffic if he was more open on the catch. He also tends to "split his feet" after a shot fake, where his pivot foot moves forward just as his lead foot goes backward before it heads back toward his line of attack. Not only is this a travel (that is not always called), it's a slower move that allows his defender to recover from the shot fake in time to contest Zeller's drive or shot.
10. Kelly Olynyk, Boston Celtics
Olynyk had one of the best summer league runs in this class, looking sharp and skilled in Orlando. But study his turnovers in the regular season, and you'll see a completely different player. Here's a sample: Traveling at the point of attack (splitting his feet); making passes that miss their target by a wide margin; dropping passes that are easily catchable; setting illegal screens; pushing or extending his arms during sloppy post-ups that draw offensive foul calls; and committing absolutely inexplicable charges (someone moving slowly should not just run over a stationary defender).
These turnovers, though, are mostly the result of Olynyk having so many things to read and react to simultaneously, far more than what he is used to. The fact that he's averaging more than 20 minutes per contest means the entire game should slow down for him relatively soon, and many of his turnovers should simply disappear.