The calendar year has come to an end, and the 2013-14 Detroit Pistons are due for a report card. With 33 games behind them and 1,000+ minutes for most of the team's starters, it's a fair time to begin passing judgment on their performance to date. Who is succeeding? Who is failing? We're now armed with enough information to begin answering those questions.
So far this season, the Detroit Pistons have recorded a 14 - 19 record, good for a .424 win/loss record. They're currently tied for the 8th seed with the Chicago Bulls, but are within striking distance of the Boston Celtics and the Charlotte Bobcats. The last three games were especially damaging for the Pistons, as they are now only two wins above their .365 win/loss average from the last three seasons.
Consider that last line for a moment. Take two of Detroit's wins away, like the one-point victory over Boston a couple weeks ago, and Detroit's performance this season would have been identical to its three-year average for the John Kuester and Lawrence Frank years. If the last week has felt about as disappointing as Detroit has been for several years, that feeling is pretty accurate.
That said, those two extra wins were earned and can't be taken away. This team has shown improvement over the last three seasons, and if the Pistons had fared differently over the last three games, it'd provide a different context to how we view these grades. But it is pretty obvious that something is broken, and that some players are helping the team win while others are bringing it down. Let's sort out who-is-who.
2013-14 Detroit Pistons Year-End Grades
Brandon Jennings - PG - 1133 minutes played
With the exception of a nice improvement in assist rate (and the related increase in turnovers), Brandon Jennings the Detroit Piston is largely the same as Brandon Jennings the Milwaukee Buck. He's shooting a lot, scoring on less than 40% of those shots and effectively not-in-uniform when the other team runs pick-and-rolls. If Jennings were credited with assists when his defensive charge scores on a pick-and-roll, he'd lead the league in assists by the All Star Break.
Was volume-scoring, bad-defending Brandon Jennings a bad signing (and trading)? Personally, I think it's easier to make the case that adding Jennings was a solid move. He's a known commodity on both ends of the court, but at 24, there is potential for growth. He's also on an affordable deal, making around $8.5M a season for just three years. His improvement in the play-making department could point toward continued growth, suggesting that he could end this contract playing above its dollar value. And that is precisely the kind of asset Detroit should be in the habit of acquiring.
2013 Year End Grade: C
Josh Smith - SF - 1153 minutes played
On July 6th, the day Josh Smith signed with the Pistons, I wrote a couple thousand words calling the signing a failure, explaining why Smith would perform poorly in Detroit and effectively harm the team on court. Of the 1,300 pretty passionate responses, many agreed, many did not, and others thought we should let things play out before tossing the "f" word around. Now is as good a time as any to follow up on how things have played out.
In short, Smith has been even worse than I thought. He's playing the worst basketball of his entire career, and the way he's going about playing that horrible basketball is harming the production of the rest of the team on both ends of the court. It has taken him 496 shot attempts to produce 498 points, as he continues to consume possessions that would be better spent with more efficient offensive players. Of the players who have attempted more than 400 shots so far this season, no one has produced fewer points per shot attempt than Josh Smith. No one else in the league consumes so many shots to produce so little.
Naturally, this leads to a question about opportunity cost. Are there better, more efficient offensive players who would be better-suited to take some of Smith's 15 shots instead? Absolutely. Take at least five of Josh's shots and distribute them evenly between Greg Monroe, Andre Drummond and Kyle Singler, and this team becomes a markedly better offensive team-- from below the league average and into top-10 territory.
As for his defense, it has been terribly underwhelming on the perimeter, damaged by instincts that pull him toward the paint and off of his man. Instead of digging too deep into that here, you can just read my prediction about his defense in the above-linked article... or replay those Washington games.
2013 Year End Grade: F
Greg Monroe - PF - 1093 Minutes Played
Greg Monroe is averaging the lowest number of shot attempts and the lowest usage rate since his rookie season. He's a hair above Rodney Stuckey in per game shot attempts, barely making him the team's 3rd option on offense. After years of collective begging for the team to just simply Feed the Moose the ball, he's been starved this year, relegated to a support role behind a pair of guys who have no business leading their team in shot attempts. I spoke of this before the season began in my player preview of Greg Monroe:
Unfortunately, the addition of Josh Smith could de-emphasize Greg's offense and appear to justify the empty-minded calls for a trade.
It seems like a day doesn't go by without someone, from sports writer to casual fan, suggesting a new trade idea that brings back pennies on the dollar. Meanwhile, Monroe is playing efficiently despite fewer looks, having produced 21 points less than Smith has on 115 fewer shot attempts. In other words, with Josh's 496 attempts, Monroe would have produced 621 points to date at his current clip.
That aside, has it all been rosy for Greg? No. Despite continuing to improve at his ability to get to the line (a career high free throw attempt rate), he's barely above his rookie numbers in free throw efficiency. Monroe leads the team in free throw shot attempts, and he's failing the team by not converting those shots at his best (74% in his sophomore season, 62% now).
On defense, Monroe has been surprisingly capable at post defense against power forwards, but he's struggling in areas he's historically been average-- pick-and-rolls, spot-up and other areas that are in part a focus of team defense. I don't think his defensive struggles are any worse than those of Josh Smith on the perimeter and Andre Drummond at center, but Greg needs to improve here. However, before that happens, I feel that the first domino to fall has to happen up top with Cheeks improving team-wide defensive cohesion.
2013 Year End Grade: B
Andre Drummond - C - 1074 Minutes Played
If you ever begin to feel that Andre Drummond's sophomore season has been disappointing, take a deep breath. Head over to Basketball-Reference and look at the team stats. Look at two things-- his age and his averages. 20-year-old Andre Drummond is averaging 13 points, 12 rebounds, 2 steals and 2 blocks while shooting 61% from the field. Let me repeat that first part-- 20-year-old Andre Drummond.
Could Andre's defense use some work? Absolutely. He has the tools to be an incredible defender. In the mean time, we'll just have to settle with "incredible player". Nay, "incredible 20-year-old player". The young man has nearly doubled his production from his rookie season in about 12 more minutes per game. He hasn't just earned our patience while he works on improvement, the kid owns our patience. And if the above isn't enough to impress you, grab some lotion and some tissues and look at what Wins Produced says. Or maybe the team allocation of wins.
2013 Year End Grade: A
Kyle Singler - SF - 764 Minutes Played
The eye-tests hate Kyle Singler for his haircut, his awkward appearance on court and his apparent inability to do anything right. To date, however, Kyle Singler is a prime example for the miserable failure of the eye tests. Singler has been more than a revelation this season, it could be argued that Singler has been the team's second most effective player after Andre Drummond. You could argue against that, of course, but I challenge you to do so without using subjective statements or commentary about player reputations.
Why has Singler been so successful this season, despite the haircut? He leads the rotation in true-shooting percentage, and not just because of his slightly-improved perimeter performance. He's third in field goal percentage inside the long line, only behind Andre Drummond and Josh Harrellson. He's shooting 24% better than the guy ahead of him in the depth chart from 2-point range including the painted area. Additionally, Singler leads the team in free throw attempt rate per shot attempt, where he adds 1.8 additional points per game. He has a reputation for being little more than a 3-point shooter, but so far this season, he's been lights out from every inch of the floor.
Kyle, man, keep it up. You can cut your hair however the hell you want.
2013 Year End Grade: A
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope - SG - 730 Minutes Played
It's time for some tough love, some honest talk here, Kenny. When you were drafted, a prevailing thought was that you'd still add value to the team when your shots weren't falling from all the other things you do on court. Your stand-out rebounding and other box score stats suggested that you'd add a lot of little things to the equation, in addition to solid defense on your man. While we've seen hints at your defensive ability, and a few outside shots have fallen, your NBA career could go either way. You could turn out to be the ~30% 3-point shooter you were during your freshman year at Georgia. If that happens, and you can't do all those other little things you used to do, you may not wind up being a starter-caliber player.
This isn't me giving up on you by any means. This is me saying that you need to take advantage of your position as a starter right now, because if you don't, you may develop a reputation of a Ronnie Brewer off the bench-- and that might be a best-case scenario. I know my tough love here won't be popular, and people will jump to point out guys like Thabo Sefolosha, but I'll be quick to counter that Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings are not Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
In short, teams will start you if you can shoot the 3 and play D-- not 3 or D. A string of complete performances will earn you a higher grade by the season's end.
2013 Year End Grade: C-
Rodney Stuckey - SG - 711 Minutes Played
Streaky Stuckey struck a streak during a grading period. He'll be handsomely rewarded below.
In the mean time, I wrote a piece about why the team should make trading Stuckey by the deadline a top priority, and it comes from no disrespect or lack of appreciation for him. The opposite, in fact.
2013 Year End Grade: B+
Will Bynum - PG - 297 Minutes Played
Detroit's 31-year-old backup point guard has gotten off to a bad start this season, but it's not nearly as bad as it's made out to be. Read fan comments pretty much anywhere, and you'd think Bynum is the devil incarnate. Yes, he can be frustrating, but for the same reasons the team's starting point guard can be frustrating. Ultimately, on the laundry list of things wrong with the 2013-14 Detroit Pistons, Bynum is an afterthought, a footnote of little concern. It'd be nice if a few more of his shots started falling or if he rebounded to his team-leading assist rate from last season, and knowing Will, all it will take is a few games to return to the mean.
For now, has he disappointed? Only if you don't already have an unreasonably low expectation of him. For his low pay and limited role, I don't see why people lose their minds when he steps onto the court.
2013 Year End Grade: C-
Chauncey Billups - G - 271 Minutes Played
Seeing Chauncey Billups wearing Pistons red, white and royal blue is like re-living a dream. Watching him play, on the other hand...
Before the season started, I liked the idea of letting Chauncey play out his final two seasons before giving him the option to join the coaching staff. Today, and it pains me to say this, the roster spot and its potential for trades or developing a young player is more valuable than Chauncey has been on court. I'd suggest giving him an early option to join Cheeks' coaching staff this summer and ending the contract early.
2013 Year End Grade: D
Josh Harrellson - C - 245 Minutes Played
Joe Dumars' best move this summer didn't include the $80M he spent in free agency or the lottery pick he used in the draft. It was the veteran's minimum deal he gave to Josh Harrellson.
Harrellson is Detroit's rotation-best perimeter shooter, who also happens to be a solid rebounder and a capable defender. So far, he's doing what everyone had hoped Charlie Villanueva would have done but at only 10% of the cost. Let this be a lesson to Dumars next time he wants to splurge in free agency on a player with a bigger reputation. There is always value to be found, and this move of Dumars' is proof.
2013 Year End Grade: A
Jonas Jerebko - PF - 185 Minutes Played
I mentioned something in the comments in passing before this season started-- that Jonas Jerebko provides essentially 70% of what Josh Smith does at 30% of the cost. In incredibly
frustratingly limited playing time, Jerebko is doing everything that is asked of him. He's buried in the depth chart and there is little chance of that ever changing, but don't be surprised if other teams are curious about what he's capable of.
2013 Year End Grade: B-
Luigi Datome - SF - 148 Minutes Played
Italian Jesus has hit only 6 of 31 three-point attempts so far in his rookie season. If he keeps it up, this experiment will come to an end very quickly.
2013 Year End Grade: D
Charlie Villanueva - BBQ - 79 Minutes Played
The ultimate irony-- Villanueva signs a vet minimum contract with the Miami Heat this summer and gets a championship ring next season.
2013 Year End Grade: Dick -
Peyton Siva - PG - 76 Minutes Played
If only for DBB's own Kathy Clater, I had hoped Siva would succeed this season. He's got a bit of the Pistons DNA in him, but his game just doesn't seem to translate well at all. Hopefully the D-League will give him a fair shot at a role in the big league.
2013 Year End Grade: incomplete
Tony Mitchell - PF - 37 Minutes Played
The D-League will be great for him, since he is still incredibly raw, but he also has incredible promise for the league in the long term.
2013 Year End Grade: incomplete
Now, for the fun part:
2013-14 Detroit Pistons Management Year-End Grades
Maurice Cheeks - Head Coach
Even great chefs can't make good omelettes with bad eggs. Sure, Mo Cheeks is working with some pretty nice ingredients, but he's been given the wrong mix. With the wrong guy at small forward and two shot leaders who are amongst the league's most inefficient starters, things were destined to go bad no matter who the coach is. While you can begin to blame Cheeks for the fact that Smith and Jennings are leading the team in shot attempts, it is largely their nature given that they were at or near the top of the teams they came from for many years.
That aside, Mo is not perfect. He makes some boneheaded lineup decisions, he justifies them with mystifying statements to the press, and the team continues to flounder during the stretches where he should have the most impact on the team. In the 4th quarter chess match, Cheeks is playing checkers. And it can be maddeningly frustrating to watch.
Still, if I hand a Michelen-class chef two really nice eggs, a block of moldy cheese and a handful of broken glass and ask for an omelette, I shouldn't complain about the result. Who the hell is choosing these ingredients anyway? More on that in a minute.
2013 Year End Grade: C
Joe Dumars - General Manager
Last season, from the draft of Andre Drummond to the trade of Tayshaun Prince, Joe Dumars had his first good season as a GM in many years. With it came a moment of optimism that hey-- maybe Joe can turn it around? Before spending a dime in free agency, before using what might be his last lottery pick for several years, Joe had an incredibly promising foundation assembled in the draft. In Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe, Dumars had the most promising young frontcourt in the league, a duo with the potential to lead not just the Eastern Conference, but every frontcourt in the NBA. In time, of course. And with the right complimentary pieces around them.
In June of last summer, I personally felt something I hadn't felt in many, many years-- optimism. A sense that tomorrow would lead to a better day, one led by a truly dominant frontcourt, which has always been a key ingredient to an NBA championship. Things were finally about to get good.
Then Joe gives out the largest contract in franchise history to what has been the worst free agent acquisition of the summer. He gave $54 million dollars to a power forward, a duplication of one of Detroit's established strengths, and asked that player to focus on his weaknesses at the wrong position. While the sign-and-trade for Brandon Jennings was serviceable in a vacuum, it's damaging when the result shares the court with another horribly inefficient, high-volume player.
Joe's moves this summer have, to this date (bold-faced for those who might try to kick my statements upstairs), been worse than his moves of the Summer of 2009. Ben Gordon was more productive in his early days as a Piston than Josh Smith has been. And the difference is that this time, the team actually has something to lose. In 2009, the team sucked and that was that. But this time is different-- this team still has the most promising young frontcourt duo in the league. Adding Smith and Jennings to this equation, and making them the de-facto leaders of the team on both ends of the court, risks the very positive result of all the pain this team endured in recent years.
This team's ceiling will be capped as long as Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings are its shot leaders. Despite that, it still has an incredibly promising pair of big men who will continue to fight through the adversity on their own team. The best way this team can climb above this ceiling is to undo the mistake it made this summer in signing Josh Smith. The fan-favorite alternative, a move of Monroe, is a continued problem, not a solution.
For squandered potential, for historically-unparalleled waste, for the productivity cap he placed on a group with limitless promise, Joe Dumars failed this team yet again. He should be fired, but of course, that should have happened years ago.
2013 Year End Grade: F