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Misfiring Piston: When Brandon Jennings can’t make shots, Detroit can’t win

A 22-30 record cannot be blamed on only one culprit, but the inconsistent play of their point guard correlates closely to the Pistons’ wins and losses.

Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

What are the key factors contributing to Detroit’s disappointing season thus far? Frequent defensive lapses are certainly a cause. When you have the 18th rated defense, and give up more points per game (102.6) than all but five teams, it’s not easy to win half your games. When opposing teams make .466 percent of their shots (29th), you’re seldom getting stops when you need them.

On offense, the Pistons are also rated 18th. While they have been outstanding at getting points in the paint (51.9 per game) and off the fast-break (18.2 ppg), they are the league’s worst at both three-point shooting (.309 percent) and free throw shooting (.667 percent), and are 24th in turnovers (15.5 per game).

Anyone who has watched this team repeatedly lose games in the final stanza will not be surprised that Detroit is the worst in the NBA in fourth quarter points scored (22.3) and ranks 23rd in fourth quarter points allowed (25.5). The stats bear out what the eyes have seen – the Pistons have often folded when the game was on the line.

Basketball is a team game, so no one player can be faulted for all of these problems. But a strong case can be made that Brandon Jennings carries much of the onus for these failures on his shoulders. When we win, he is often a key contributor. When we lose, his play is usually a big part of the problem.

When he moved to Motown, Jennings’ strengths and weaknesses were not a mystery to anyone who had watched him. He had a reputation for looking for his own offense too much, frequently taking ill-advised shots, and defending ineffectually. A quick glance at his stats this year, however, shows a couple areas of improvement. He is averaging 8.1 assists per game – a solid gain over his career mark of 6.1. Jennings is also getting to the line more (4.7 attempts versus 3.7). The obvious area of concern is his shooting accuracy, where his percentages are down on all field goals (38 percent) and on threes (34 percent).

But even those figures do not tell the whole story. A look at the splits is very revealing – especially when we examine his shooting efficiency in games the Pistons have won versus games they have lost:

Wins (21) 14.1 .404 8.6 .381 5.5 .440 5.0 .830 .551 18.0
Losses (29) 16.8 .366 10.8 .413 6.0 .280 4.4 .744 .461 17.3

As we can see, Jennings averages almost as many points win or lose, but he has to take nearly three more shots to do so. He actually has been slightly more accurate on his two pointers in the defeats. The greatest contrast we see is from the three-point line. In losses, Jennings has averaged six three attempts, but has made only 1.7 per game. In wins, he has made 2.4 of 5.5 shots. No wonder that his True Shooting Percentage is 46 percent when Detroit loses, but 55 percent when they triumph.

The significance of these figures becomes even clearer when we compare them with the shooting efficiency of another player – Josh Smith. In Pistons victories, Smith shoots 44.9 percent on 16.1 attempts. In losing efforts, he shoots 39.7 percent on 14.9 attempts. In other words, when he is shooting worse, on average Smith shoots less.

For Jennings, the reverse is true. The worse he shoots, the more he shoots! Historically, the number of his shot attempts in both wins and losses has been nearly the same, even though his shooting percentages have been worse in his team’s defeats. So his record this season of taking significantly more shots in spite of decreased accuracy is a new (lower) level of efficiency. Not surprisingly, he also has more assists in the wins (8.9 apg) than in the losses (7.5 apg).

Why this unwelcome change in Jennings’ performance? We can propose several possible reasons: adjusting to a new team, a dearth of quality shooters, selfishness, and taking more "desperation" shots in losing contests. Perhaps each of these factors is a contributing cause.

With a front line that invites opponents to pack the paint on defense, it does not help that the Pistons are the NBA’s worst at making threes. So it’s easy to see how Jennings’ 44 percent three-point shooting in 21 of the team’s 22 wins has contributed mightily (e.g. 6-for-11 versus Denver; 5-for-7 versus Brooklyn). A potent inside-outside threat would make Detroit one of the most feared offenses in the NBA.

But this weapon needs to be more consistent to be credible. When Jennings misfires at an alarming rate (e.g. 3-for-11 versus Cleveland; 2-for-10 versus Orlando), Detroit almost always loses. More often than not, his errant shots have been the "dagger" that has doomed his team. We can hope that he will work on improving his shot in the offseason. In the meantime, Coach John Loyer needs to encourage Jennings to make better decisions when the ball is in his hands. The Pistons will seldom win when his approach is "shoot first, asks questions later."