The Detroit Pistons have a talented collection of individual players, but they are a bad team -- that much should be apparent by now. After beating the Indiana Pacers and Boston Celtics in back-to-back games to come within one win of a .500 record, the Pistons have lost five of six while notching losses against the likes of the Bobcats, Rockets, Magic and Wizards (twice).
The sad part is, all things being equal, the Pistons are a decent team (maybe even good) for three quarters. Then in comes the fourth quarter and out goes any sense of offensive flow, sanity or logic. The latest evidence of fourth-quarter futility came Monday night against the Wizards when a 10-point lead suddenly became a five point deficit and the Pistons eventually fell 106-99.
But why do they become such a horror show? The answers are numerous but what it boils down to is this -- when your offensive game plan is based on Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings (oh, so much Brandon Jennings), you will lose. The Pistons have been doing it for 33 games and are the worst fourth-quarter team in the NBA.
The Pistons' offense completely moves away from what works for them. Some of that, naturally, has to do with the opponent. Especially because Detroit relies on the kinds of things that become harder to come by as the game goes on -- steals, fastbreak points, and second-chance opportunities. And these are exactly the areas where Jennings and Smith excel the most. Jennings on the break makes good things happen. Jennings running a halfcourt set where he is apparently the first and second offensive option makes terrible, horrible, no good, very bad things happen.
Their opponents tighten things up -- being more careful on offense and more aggressive on defense -- and it has spelled doom for Detroit. Their offense often looks completely different in the fourth than what they did for the three quarters prior. Namely, they mysteriously de-emphasize the one thing they are good at -- working the ball into the painted area.
Let's look at some numbers, though if you plan on enjoying your New Year's Eve you might want to save it for a rainy day.
The Pistons are a net-plus through three quarters but get outscored by an average of 2.8 points in the fourth (worst in the NBA). Their defense is bad in the fourth but really no worse than it is in the first three quarters. The real culprit is their woeful offense.
Their points per quarter goes from above average to the fourth-worst in the NBA.
Their field goal percentage goes from good (46.5 percent) to the second-worst in the NBA (39.8 percent).
Field Goal Percentage by Quarter (NBA Rank)
1: 47.7 (7)
2: 47.0 (5)
3: 44.9 (13)
4: 39.8 (29)
Their assists per quarter goes from average (5.4) to the worst in the NBA (3.8).
Assists by Quarter
1: 5.9 (16)
2: 5.3 (15)
3: 5.0 (17)
4: 3.8 (30)
The Pistons rank No. 1 in the NBA in points in the paint through three quarters but slide to sixth in the fourth quarter, scoring more than 100 less points in the paint in the fourth quarter than their next worst quarter.
The same story plays out in fast break points and second-chance points.
Fast Break Totals
1: 155 (2)
2: 129 (6)
3: 146 (2)
4: 107 (9)
2nd-Chance Points Totals
1: 109 (8)
2: 131 (2)
3: 146 (2)
4: 113 (11)
But it's not just what kind of shots the team takes, it is who is shooting those shots.
The Pistons have two offensive players that shoot over 50 percent Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe. In an ideal world, those two would lead the Pistons in shot attempts every quarter, every game. We all know that's not the case. Instead, the team is led by the much less efficient Smith and Jennings. But nowhere is the disparity as alarming as in the final frame, also known as the quarter when the team completely forgets about Greg Monroe.
The Pistons as a team average 19.7 shots in the fourth quarter, but the duo of Monroe and Drummond combine to take just 3.4 shot attempts in the fourth quarter. 3.4! The pair of Jennings and Smith, however, take 7.6 shots. Of the team's six major contributors in the fourth quarter (the starters plus Kyle Singler), Monroe ranks fifth in shot attempts and has just two more than rookie Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Jennings has almost 50 more shot attempts in the fourth quarter than anyone else and has more 3-point attempts (49) than Monroe has total shot attempts (48).
And while it's true that Monroe's efficiency takes a dive in the fourth quarter (just 43.8 percent), it still ranks second of the team's six main fourth-quarter players behind only Drummond. Jennings, meanwhile, shoots just 39.6 percent while Smith shoots an eye-gouging 31.4 percent. And remember, Smith and his 31.4 percent shooting have taken 86 fourth-quarter shots (nearly double the 98 taken by Drummond and Monroe combined). Chauncey Billups has played just 53 fourth-quarter minutes and attempted just 12 shots, nine of them 3-pointers ... and he has one less make from deep than Smith (five to six) despite 20 less attempts.
If the Pistons want to
keep start winning, they need to dance with the players that brought them there -- Monroe and Drummond. There is no reason this team, when forced to run a set offense in the fourth quarter, shouldn't be feeding the Moose on every possession. He's their most consistent and reliable offensive weapon, and while that might be damning him with faint praise considering the competition, it remains the truth.
If Jennings wants to be anything more than a mediocre point guard he needs to look to create easy opportunities for his teammates instead of just relying on his shot. Yes, it's easier to throw a lob in transition in the first quarter than it is to pick apart a defense in the fourth, but that's what it takes to win in the NBA.
Likewise, Smith needs to be smarter with the ball. He's unstoppable at the basket but teams protect the paint at the end of games. In response Smith has been settling for jumpers and low-percentage runners. Instead, he needs to learn when not to shoot. Play smart and try and create opportunities for Monroe, Drummond and others.
It's time for Greg Monroe to take this team back.
The math is simple:
Monroe x 2 + More Drummond - Smith - (Jennings / Swag) = Wins.
Let's hope the new year brings a new formula for success to the Pistons in the fourth quarter.