Depending on the car you have, every 3,000 to 10,000 miles your car needs an oil change. For a smooth ride, cars need oil. No oil equals friction and that means bad things can happen.
In basketball, the "oil" is ball movement. Without proper passing, the offense breaks down. The Pistons are not passing. The Pistons are broken.
Passing as a team
After Tuesday's game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Pistons are ranked seventh in the league in fewest passes (was fifth prior to the Cavaliers game). They also ranked fifth in the league in lowest assist to pass ratio. They have the seventh highest turnover to pass ratio. Maybe even more telling is that they are second to last in the league in number of potential assists and tied for the sixth fewest secondary assists (was third prior to the Cavaliers game).
A "potential assist" as defined by stats.nba.com:
Passes by a player to a teammate in which the teammate attempts a shot, and if made, would be an assist.
The Pistons have made 395 passes (361 prior to the Cavalaiers game) that could have resulted in an assist if the player made the shot. They and the Utah Jazz are the only teams with under 400 potential assists. The Washington Wizards, who have played two fewer games than the Pistons, have 17 more potential assists than the Pistons.
A secondary (hockey) assist is defined as:
The number of passes made by a player to the player who earned an assist on a made shot. Assister is required to have the ball for less than four seconds and less than two dribbles for the passer to earn a Secondary Assist.
The Pistons have 44 secondary assists. That is tied with Washington Wizards and only eight more than the Utah Jazz, who have the fewest in the league. Teams that move the ball around a lot earn a lot more secondary assists. Golden State leads the league with 117 secondary assists, followed by the Atlanta Hawks with 103 and the San Antonio Spurs with 83. These three teams are also in the top four in the league in field-goal percentage. That is not a coincidence.
All that is to say, the Pistons are not sharing the ball.
It could be due to lack of chemistry. Marcus Morris and Ersan Ilyasova are new to the team and to the starting lineup. Reggie Bullock,Steve Blake, Stanley Johnson and Aron Baynes are also new to the team. However, Stan Van Gundy has commented multiple times on the selfishness of the team.
Oct. 9 after a 10-point loss to the Brooklyn Nets:
"I put that on forcing plays," Van Gundy said. "I told them in there that we're not playing together at all. I thought it was a very selfish performance.
Nov. 4 after a 12-point loss to the then winless Indiana Pacers:
He also criticized the ball movement again, saying the Pistons "are not a good passing team, and that's going to have to change."
Nov. 11 after a nine-point loss to a 1-7 Sacramento Kings:
Yeah, we don't pass. Everyone wants to dribble it six times and looks for their shot before they pass the ball.
November 17th, prior to the home game against the Cavaliers:
"There’s two things. Number one, we’re not passing the ball well or enough," Stan Van Gundy said after Tuesday’s shootaround
Van Gundy sees that there are passing issues, but is he willing to do anything about it? Is there anything he can do about it right now? Blake has had his issues with shooting, but he has 3.1 assists per game to Jackson's 5.0 in less than half the minutes. Dinwiddie is barely dishing out more assists than he is turning the ball over. Will he bench Jackson after paying him $80 million over 5 years for Blake or Dinwiddie? Of course not. Van Gundy will likely try to ride this out until either the chemistry gets better, Brandon Jennings comes back from injury (and proves himself), or a trade comes up that he can't pass (pun intended).
San Antonio only shoots 46.7 percent of their shots with a player within four feet, and only 12.8 percent when the shot is further than 10 feet from the basket. Atlanta's splits are 50.5 percent and 12.6 percent. Golden States splits are 50.2 percent and 17.4-percent. The Pistons splits are 58.2 percent and 17.5 percent. Notice a trend?
If the Pistons passed the ball more, they would have more open shots. If they got more open shots, they would likely make more of them. If they made more of them, they would win more games.
Reggie Jackson in the Pick-and-Roll
When Stan Van Gundy remade the Pistons roster this offseason, everyone could see what he was doing. He was surrounding Andre Drummond with as many shooters as he could, specifically those who could be three-point threats. His plan was not to just dump the ball down low to Drummond and allow him to shoot or pass, but to build around the Drummond and Reggie Jackson pick-and-roll.
In his first three years, Drummond was one of the most efficient roll men in the game. His freakish athleticism allowed him to finish nearly any lob thrown in his direction. If Drummond did not receive a pass, he was also very good at cleaning up the miss and getting a putback. This year, he is having to do more cleaning the boards than catching lobs.
According to stats.nba.com, the Pistons have had 62 possessions (52 prior to the Cleveland game) where the roll man was given the opportunity to score. That is the third fewest in the NBA. Drummond only accounts for 28 of those attempts (21 prior to the Cleveland game). In terms of frequency, Drummond is the third lowest for all players with at least 20 possessions. The Pistons, as a team, average 1.13 points per possession (PPP) when the roll man gets a shot (1.08 prior to the Cleveland game), good for fourth in the league. Drummond accounts for 1.21 PPP as the roll man, good for sixth best (for all players with at least 20 possessions). He's second on that list in field-goal percentage, second in free throw frequency, and fourth in score frequency.
Marcus Morris is 1-for-6 on seven possessions as the roll man. Anthony Tolliver is 1-for-7 on eight possessions as the roll man. Stanley Johnson is 1-for-2 (on two possessions), Aron Baynes 2-for-3 (on five possessions), and Ersan Ilyasova 7-for-10 (on 12 possessions). Ilyasova has hit four triples as the roll man.
On the other side of the pick-and-roll we have the ball handler. The Pistons are second in the league with 277 ball handler possessions, first in frequency. Reggie Jackson accounts for 162 of those possessions, the most in the league. For players with at least 75 such possessions, he leads the league with a 62.5-percent frequency and most points scored (133), sixth in field-goal percentage (42.7) and score frequency, sixth in shooting foul and fifth in and-one frequency. He is even seventh on the list at 0.82 PPP.
Drummond's scoring 1.22 PPP as a roll man, and Reggie's scoring 0.82 PPP as the ballhander. Jackson has 134 more pick-and-roll scoring attempts than Drummond. The scoring discrepancy is seen elsewhere, but the discrepancy in attempts isn't.
The Phoenix Suns' Eric Bledsoe is second on the ballhandler list with 0.93 PPP and Brandon Knight is sixth at 0.82. Combined, they score 0.87 PPP. Tyson Chandler (19), Markieef Morris (25) and Jon Leuer (22) have 66 possessions as the roll man, more than the entire Pistons team. Additionally, Chandler, Morris and Leuer have a combined PPP of 1.21. Bledsoe and Knight have combined for 175 possessions, only 31 more than Jackson, but their roll men are getting a larger piece of the pie.
Oklahoma City Thunders' Russell Westbrook has 14 possessions at 0.86 PPP. Westbrook, however, is more willing to pass the ball. Kevin Durant has 16 roll man possessions with a 1.00 PPP. Seven Adams has 19 with a 1.05 PPP. Serge Ibaka has 45 possessions and a 1.02 PPP. And finally you have Enes Kanter with 29 possessions and a 0.97 PPP. Combined, they have a 1.01 PPP, a difference of 0.17.
Again, Jackson has 134 more pick-and-roll scoring attempts than Drummond. Bledsoe and Knight, combined, have 109 more pick-and-roll scoring attempts than their three big men. Westbrook has 32 more pick-and-roll scoring attempts than his four big men.
Andre getting more attempts as a roll man, and Reggie looking to pass more out of the pick-and-roll, would definitely make this team more dangerous offensively.
Win against Cleveland
You see all of the "prior to the Cleveland game" because that is when I did most of my stats gathering. However, after watching the game last night, it appeared that they passed much better. And they did: the eye test didn't lie.
As explained in this wonderful article, the passing helped get Ersan Ilyasova 20 points. Drummond had seven attempts as the roll man. That means a quarter of his attempts as the roll man this year came in the game against Cleveland. That is evident in his 10-for-15 shooting and 25 points.
It is also evident in the fact that Reggie Jackson got 12 assists on the evening. Yes, he still looked for his shot and got more off than his season average, but he used his other passes effectively. Jackson now has 62 assists on the season, almost 20-percent of them coming last night. And that all has to go to what SVG told him:
"His decision-making tonight was really good, finding the open people, when to shoot, when to pass," Van Gundy said. "It was good and he was more decisive. The two words he and I talked about today were aggressive and decisive. He’s actually the one who said decisive. Those were his two key words."
As stated earlier, it is not exactly the number of passes a team makes as it is the kind of passing and when those passes are made. The Pistons made 254 passes yesterday against the Cavaliers. With 14 teams playing, only the Charlotte Hornets had fewer passes. The next lowest above the Pistons was 274 passes by the Minnesota Timberwolves. They even had the third fewest potential assists, but tied for sixth most secondary assists. They moved the ball better yesterday than they did the rest of the season, but it still wasn't great.
Imagine what they will be like when they get to know each other better.