It’s been a tumultuous and rather disappointing first half of the season so far for the Detroit Pistons. As the season reaches the halfway point, we’ve seen what’s been working, and more importantly, what’s not.
Overall, we can say pretty definitely that the defensive scheme has been a success while the offense needs some major work - perhaps even an overhaul.
Let’s start with the good news. Since Stan Van Gundy has taken the helm in Detroit, the defense has improved markedly. The team has gone from 25th in the league in defensive rating in 2013-14 to 19th in Stan Van Gundy’s first season then 12th last year. They’ve continued the progress to eighth in the league this season.
It’s a somewhat uplifting fact that the Pistons remain a top-10 defensive squad despite recent defensive struggles. Much of that success can be attributed to the scheme.
Van Gundy’s defense emphasizes minimizing offensive rebounding, defending without fouling, and forcing teams to take midrange shots. So far this season, the Pistons lead the league in defensive rebounding percentage, led by the league’s best defensive rebounder Andre Drummond.
Though there have been games where it’s seemed like the opposing team has lived at the line, the Pistons are actually eighth in the league in limiting opponent free-throw attempts per game. They’ve also forced the fourth most mid-range shots in the league. Yes, they are 27th in percentage allowed on those shots, but even that number is an inefficient 42 percent.
However the Pistons are running into a problem in that opposing teams are shooting a strong effective field goal percentage against (which accounts for the increased value of a 3-point field goal) the defense at 51.3 percent, only 19th in the league. Defended field goal percentage suggests that Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond have been the team’s biggest culprits on this front.
Particularly since Jackson’s return in December, the defense has suffered. During that stretch, the Pistons have allowed 48.6 percent shooting from their opponent including 40 percent from 3-point range. On 3s, Jackson allows opponents to shoot 46.8 percent on more than 4 attempts per game, by far the worst mark on the team for major rotation players. That’s not to suggest that the blame is solely Jackson’s to bear, as the entire team has seen a drop across the board since Jackson’s return.
In the first 21 games (sans Jackson), Detroit had a defensive efficiency of 101.1 (5th in the league). In the 22 games since (with Jackson), Detroit has a defensive efficiency of 108.5 (22nd).
Yes, Jackson had to get up to game speed after his injury and their are multiple guilty parties on the defensive end, but the Pistons need to figure out if they can be the team of the first quarter or are stuck being team of the second quarter. If it’s the latter, changes need to be made.
So we’ve concluded the problem isn’t scheme, but the players executing that scheme. One player that agrees with that assessment — Reggie Jackson himself.
"Hell, naw; y'all watching," Jackson said when asked if the defensive struggles were schematic. "It's beyond schematic. People just walk into the paint. People are literally shooting warmup shots that's like drill work. It's a joke. It's something that we gotta do. Coach can't do nothing about it. It don't matter if he has a scheme or not or not a scheme. If we were to play pick-up (basketball), I would hope so somebody would kick us out the gym."
Whether Jackson has been able to put his words into action is one thing, but his words do seem to be entirely accurate. If the team is unable to get back to reducing their opposing team’s shooting percentages, the second half will continue to see that defensive rating decline.
There’s not much good news to start with for the offense.
The Pistons are 22nd in offensive rating and it only gets uglier from there. 26th in true shooting percentage, 27th in assist percentage, 29th in field goal attempts per game, 27th in 3-point attempts per game. Even the formerly reliable spot among the league leaders in offensive rebounds has vanished, as the Pistons are 20th in offensive rebounding percentage this season.
The two I’ll focus on are true shooting percentage and assist percentage, as these have been ongoing problems for Detroit the past three seasons.
Pistons assist percentage
Pistons true shooting percentage
Last season the Pistons had the seventh highest frequency of post up attempts, despite the ninth worst points per possession on the play. This season post ups constitute an even higher percentage of their overall plays, the fourth highest in the league. But they’ve been even less effective, the sixth worst in the league in points per possession.
The Pistons also have the 14th highest frequency of isolation attempts and had the same mark last season. Running lots of post ups and isolations, it only stands to reason that the team’s assist percentage is going to be in the tank.
Meanwhile plays that indicate a high level of ball movement, spot ups and cuts, the Pistons are 24th and 27th, respectively.
This offense isn’t working.
And no, it’s not Reggie Jackson’s fault. The team was 27th in assist percentage and 24th in true shooting percentage prior to Jackson’s return, 25th in assist percentage and 28th in true shooting percentage since. The numbers have held steady with or without Jackson.
The problem seems to be schematic. Prodigious pick-and-roll teams also tend to have the lowest assist percentages in the league, however it doesn’t mean they’re stuck having an inefficient offense. The Pistons have still been running a considerable amount of pick and roll, fifth highest frequency in the league for pick and roll ball handler possessions, but outside of that they seem to resort to going one-on-one - whether in the post (where they rank 25th in the league in points per possession) or in isolation on the perimeter (16th).
The shots this style generates aren’t where the team wants to be. The Pistons are averaging the third fewest shots in the restricted area per game and the fifth most mid-range shots. Add to it their league bottom free-throw rate, and their offense looks an awful lot like what their defensive scheme tries to force their opponents into.
Without wholesale changes to their offense, it’s tough to see where the improvement is going to happen.
There’s still a lot of the season left to play and though the record is disappointing, they’re not alone among their Eastern Conference counterparts with that sentiment.
Stan Van Gundy says the Pistons can still turn around their season, but it’ll take changes. Which changes are you looking for, DBB?