Let's get this first part out of the way: on paper and record, the 2015-16 Detroit Pistons have improved over the team that came before. You won't struggle to find glowing press reports about their performance out of the gate, but those first 5 wins have since been matched by 5 losses, and it's time to take a look at the other side of the coin. What, if anything, is truly ailing these Pistons, and what should be done to address it?
The Background: Stan Van Gundy Reshapes the New Pistons in His Image
I've lost count of how many media parallels were drawn between the 2015-16 Detroit Pistons and Stan Van Gundy's late-aughts Orlando Magic. In the summer of 2015, President Van Gundy and GM Jeff Bower added perimeter-oriented forwards by trades and the draft, while keeping Reggie Jackson and parting with Greg Monroe. By building around Andre Drummond and four outside players around him, Van Gundy had replicated the 1-in/4-out recipe that had been successful in Orlando.
The personnel selections Van Gundy and Bower made this summer were admirable. In the context of the "4-out" perimeter, three new players arrived in Detroit having shot 36% or better from outside with their previous team: Ersan Ilyasova, Marcus Morris and Stanley Johnson. While the guards and center were carry-overs from 2014-15, the new forward rotation appeared to be a better fit with Stan Van Gundy's signature approach.
That said, Van Gundy's 1-in/4-out signature isn't a slam dunk. Even at its best, with ideal personnel at each position, his system was exposed as a bit of a gimmick in the playoffs. Great teams like Detroit and San Antonio showed just how flimsy the 1-in/4-out could be with Dwight Howard at its center. I talked about this in May of 2014 shortly after Stan Van Gundy arrived:
The question here, however, has less to do with Andre Drummond than it does the 1-in/4-out philosophy as a whole. Power forward was the weakest link in Dwight Howard's Orlando Magic, and when the 3-point shots weren't falling, Howard didn't have the offensive game to put the team on his back and score with possession of the ball. Conversely, when Orlando's competition had a big body with a low center of gravity at the 5, keeping Howard away from the basket made the Magic rely on jump shots to win games. Again, Howard didn't have the offensive game to isolate or post-up around interior defenders, so the offense fell to jump shots from the other four.
The traditional recipe for championship contenders sticks to the 2-in/3-out formula that represents just about every winner in recent NBA history. The "2-in" usually includes a defensive specialist and a scorer, from Gasol to Bynum, Garnett to Perkins, Wallace to Wallace. Every once in a while, you get that one special player who can do both -- guys like Shaq and Duncan. Around these guys, however, their frontcourt counterparts were largely traditional. Is there any good reason to try the 1-in/4-out in Detroit, given the outcome in Orlando and the traditional recipe for froncourt success?
The Stan Van Gundy signature may not be a slam dunk, but that doesn't mean it cannot be useful. This context is important when we begin to consider the personnel Van Gundy is using to execute this blueprint.
Problem Number One: Andre Drummond is Probably Not a 1-in Type of Center
Andre Drummond is the most statistically dominant center in this young season. He's a shoo-in for his first All Star appearance, and he'll likely be the first to represent the Pistons in many years. He is a rebounding force, and it's hard to put a price on just how valuable that is for a team. However, his rebounding and scoring averages overshadow just how heavily he's being used, and how much he's struggling to shoulder his responsibilities as the team's centerpiece. It doesn't matter how you shake it -- 19 points and 19 rebounds is an incredible achievement -- but he's miles away from what Stan Van Gundy had at center in Orlando. Not worse, just different.
"2007 Dwight Howard is the only player to average 20 points on less than 12 field goald attempts." -- via Reddit.
Compared to Andre Drummond, Dwight Howard was a far more efficient scorer from the field, also adding more than twice the number of points per game at the charity stripe. While a Howard-centric offense was easy for teams like Detroit and San Antonio to expose, it was still a success. This success was reliant on maximum efficiency from Dwight Howard. This is a level of efficiency we just haven't seen out of Drummond under Stan Van Gundy. And it ain't even close.
What's driving these numbers? Andre Drummond has been forced to shoulder a heavier scoring load than even Dwight Howard did under Van Gundy. He's attempting more shots and converting fewer, while less of Dre's possessions end at the free throw line. Drummond also has the rare ability to make Dwight Howard look like Steve Nash at the charity stripe, with a dismal 40% of his total free throws making it through the hoop. In short, Drummond just isn't as efficient as Howard was by a long shot, and that makes it really difficult to run a 4-out/1-in offense.
So who is to blame? Not Andre Drummond. Drummond has proven that he can convert with the best when he's used as a catch-and-dunk glass cleaner. In his first two years in the league, Drummond was producing a higher efficiency level than Howard did over the same timeline.
The problem with Drummond's offensive efficiency is his usage. He's been handed too large a role in the offense, and the team is making poor use of possessions as a result. Sure, you can bemoan the shooting struggles of role players like Marcus Morris, but Andre Drummond certainly isn't helping this team to wins on the offensive end. His inability to convert efficiently could make it that much harder for the pieces around him to do the same.
In short, Andre Drummond doesn't appear to fit the role that Stan Van Gundy has set out for him. That might change. But all of the evidence to date suggests that Drummond is at his most efficient when he plays a reduced role on offense. Which calls the 1-in/4-out blueprint into question. In short, it's either Dre or Van Gundy's game plan that needs to change over the long term. I think the easy option is behind door number two.
There's really only one way to change this, of course. Reduce the number of shots Dre attempts and give them to someone else, with an emphasis on post scoring ability. Whether or not you can do that with this roster is up for debate. Personally, I wouldn't mind trying a handful of possessions per game with Aron Baynes alongside Andre Drummond, not just behind him. If Reggie Jackson can continue to hit 3-pointers effectively, there's no reason not to try 2-in/3-out with this group of players.
Problem Number Two: Detroit's Starting Shooting Guard Still Cannot Shoot
Here's a thought exercise. Let's say all 30 teams are starting over today, re-drafting every player in the league. GMs don't get to see player names, only statistics. Would any of them or any of you identify a player like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope as a sufficient starting 2-guard? We can talk about potential and character and hope, or we can have a real conversation without our home town bias. For all intents and purposes, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope just can't do the part of his job description that is actually in his job title.
Shooting poorly isn't a problem for every shooting guard. Some players make up for a bad shot with great defense, and that's one place where KCP has really taken a stride this year. The problem is that most of these defensive twos take very few shots. The Tony Allens and Thabo Sefalosha's of the world sport career averages of 6.5 and 5 shots per game, respectively. Comparably, KCP is approaching 13 this season with a lower career true shooting clip. KCP makes the second Detroit Pistons starter that is attempting far more shots than they have any business shooting.
There's really only two ways to change this, of course. One involves reducing the number of shots KCP attempts and give them to someone else. The other involves acquiring another shooting guard to replace him in the starting lineup, and that's a can of worms to discuss another time.
Noticing a Pattern?
Drummond is being overused on offense. KCP is being overused on offense, grossly. Reggie Jackson should not be relied upon any further. Marcus Morris is a story unto himself. There's really no one on this current roster that Detroit can effectively rely on for an increased scoring load. The team can begin to offset some of these problems by finding more 3-point shots for Ersan Ilyasova and finding more burn in the rotation for Aron Baynes. What Detroit really needs, however, is a wing player that they can rely on. Sadly, that player just isn't on the team unless Stanley Johnson ultimately fulfills our hopes in him. In the mean time, however, a split record is a very fortunate place to be.
Problem Number Three: As Reggie Jackson Goes, So Does Detroit
In five wins, Reggie Jackson averaged 47% from the field and 3.4 turnovers. In five losses, Reggie tallied 39% from the field and 4.6 turnovers. Those numbers aren't glaringly disparate, but they do reinforce a concern I've had about Reggie since the day the trade happened last season. Jackson can be a dangerously inconsistent player, and it's something we didn't see a lot of in his last quarter of a season.
While I wouldn't change the method behind my analysis of Reggie last spring, I was clearly wrong about him in comparison to DJ Augustin. Jackson flourished over the remainder of the season in Detroit, but chief among my concerns was that Detroit would make a long, costly decision based on a short run. That's how it played out, and I'm not going to waste any time disputing it now. Instead, I'd like to focus on what we've already seen as a problem with Reggie this season, and how it's something the team must figure out how to solve.
It's a disastrous strategy to hand team leadership over to a player who shows up half the time. That's what we've seen out of Jackson this season. If you break it down by quarter, we've probably seen more bad Jackson than good, and for good or ill, those good quarters barely saved the team from a losing record.
Last March, I said I'd be looking for 4 things out of Jackson to determine if he could be a leading man going forward. So far this season, he's got a mixed report card:
1) Consistency, first and foremost. He’s a very volatile player, and you can’t win a playoff series when your floor general has such up and down performances.
2) The ability to effectively run a 5-man game. Not just hero ball, pick-and-holds and dishes off penetration. That’ll get assists, but it’s still hero ball.
3) Actual use of his physical gifts on defense. He’s been a disappointment on that end since entering the league, and was in the dog house with Coach Brooks for it. I’d like to see him make effective, consistent use of his gifts as a defender. I want to see the same out of Drummond.
4) 3-point shooting. If he can even sniff the league average, that’d be huge.
As of writing, Jackson is shooting 34% from three, and his sustained improvement since joining Detroit is reason for optimism. The concerns about consistency, however, should be on top of everyone's mind as the Pistons enter what could be a return to playoff basketball.
- - - - -
In total, Detroit has an inconsistent offensive leader, a miscast centerpiece and a pair of overused wing players that both probably belong on the bench. A change in personnel is easy to think about, but complicated to execute. Something has to give, or else the team's record will be dependent on hero ball and never, ever letting the other guy get any rebounds. Hey, that might be enough to make the playoffs in the East.
You probably shouldn't be content with that, either.