Hey there, I’m Mike. You can catch me running the streets of Clawson, Michigan watching syndicated ‘Big Bang Theory’ on a nightly basis. More pertinent to you clicking on this story, though, I put together DBB’s The Close Out.
For the handful of people in the world unfamiliar with The Close Out, it’s a weekly look into the Detroit Pistons’ progress, playbook, and trends - both positive and negative.
The Pistons are a little over halfway through the season and below is a compilation of everything you need to know moving forward. If you’ve followed the team closely, this isn’t for you. Instead, I’d advise to skim lightly and checkout DBB’s latest Pistons’ podcast.
No, this is aimed at the guy or gal who doesn’t recognize basketball season until football season is over. Depending on how fast you read, you’ll catch up on 40+ Pistons’ games in around 15 minutes.
Before we begin, I’m assuming you know some things. Specifically, stuff like you know who Andre Drummond is; you could pick Tobias Harris out of a one-person lineup; you’re aware of Reggie Jackson’s injury history and that Stanley Johnson has underwhelmed during his tenure in Detroit.
If you don’t know the basics, this probably isn’t for you either. May I recommend Big Bang Theory instead?
A few quick bullet points:
- Reggie Jackson has a severely sprained ankle that may force him to miss the remainder of the season.
- Andre Drummond better be an All-Star and he’s fixed his problematic free throw shooting. Tobias Harris is playing like an All-Star but in all likelihood, he won’t be chosen.
- With the trade deadline looming, Detroit has been very active in the search for additional shooting or a healthy and functional point guard.
Tweet-sized summary of the Pistons to date:
Despite being plagued by injuries, the Pistons are a .500 club while jostling with a four or five teams for playoff seeding.
*All stats are at the time of writing—within the last couple days— so stuff your “actually(s)” in a sack.
Inside the Pistons’ playbook
Like any team, the Pistons have a go-to collection of sets and play types. Here we’ll break down the plays used often by the Pistons, along with variations and break down the process and the results.
Stan Van Gundy —who in the past has been unduly reliant on the 1-5 pick-and-roll— shuffled his offensive cards a bit last off-season and headed into the 2017-18 campaign with motion-based attack predicated on player movement.
“Motion” soon became a catchy buzzword in Pistons’ circles and was often credited for the early success of the team. Unfortunate injuries mingling with teams adjusting, however, have brought the Pistons descending rapidly back down to earth.
Of all the SVG modifications, none were as noticeable as relieving Andre Drummond of his post-up duties and reassigning him away from the basket to be used as a facilitator. I certainly had my doubts but as the season has progressed, the big fella has mostly delivered with only OTJ training to prepare.
Think about that - Andre Drummond basically went from a classic, five-step drop-back quarterback to a triple option quarterback with only (a shorten) training camp to get ready for an 82 game season. Even as lead prosecutor of the Fans v. Drummond civil case currently taking place in nerdy message boards across the 313, I find it pretty impressive.
But I digress.
No motion offense has a set of hard-and-fast rules, rather they deeply depend on principles and if/then scenarios: “IF defender X does this THEN we do that” - there should be an offensive reaction to every defensive action.
As with everything Xs and Os related, nothing discussed below is unique to Motown as most teams run similar sets only the terminology may differ.
Detroit’s Snap Series is easily detectable; as soon as the ball crosses the timeline, there is a pass back-and-forth between the one (Reggie Jackson, Ish Smith) and four (Tobias Harris, Anthony Tolliver). From there, though, similar actions lead to different results.
Snap Fist is simply a pick-and-roll between the point guard and big. As with everything motion, if the defense cheats or takes away the ball-handler’s path to the hoop, there is always a plan B (C, D, E and so on).
What makes Detroit a tad different from some teams derives from Tobias Harris’ ability to initiate the Snap PNR as well:
Harris can put the ball in the basket in way possible except from the free throw line. He’s averaging under three FT attempts per game which is painfully low for the team’s go-to scorer.
Jackson (or Smith) enters the ball to Drummond (or Moreland) and then sets a screen for Harris who collects a hand-off from the big. As exampled above, if teams cheat the hand-off, the backdoor has a tendency to be open for service.
Jackson (or Smith) enters the ball to Drummond or if he’s not open, to Harris (or Tolliver) and then cuts through the paint to ignite the sequence.
Again, every team has a Snap Series but Detroit’s use is probably higher than most.
In other half-court action, the Pistons will turn to the ram screen to free up the entry pass by one big screening for the other:
This forces the defense to play catch-up from the start of the possession.
Van Gundy is a big fan of the Horns double screen:
A rolling big is usually paired up with a shooting big to sandwich the point guard’s on-ball defender.
When things bog down, Drummond will flash to the top-of-the-key to create instant offense:
Hand-offs account for nearly 13 percent of all Pistons’ possessions (almost triple the use from last year).
The flair screen is used by design or out of necessity to free up shooters:
Every motion offense has a Flex package and Detroit is no different. Flex screens are typically put into play on the baseline:
Every high school in America knows Flex.
Detroit’s Floppy action generates space to free up shooters/scorers on the wing:
The Pistons’ Hawk sets start with a back-screen around the slot area. It’s sparingly used but owns a high success rate:
Hawk and UCLA are arguably indifferent, however some say the dribble entry by the ball-handler to the wing makes it “Hawk.” I mean, I don’t, but some do. Hoops terminology is funny like that.
On many occasions, Drummond will be the last to cross half court because of his thankless defensive rebounding duties. On these possessions, Detroit will run the trailing Drummond in a drag screen:
Make no mistake and despite everything depicted above, the PNR never left Detroit as SVG just camouflaged the look. When Jackson was healthy, the standard pick-and-roll was the staple of the team and especially when Detroit needed a bucket.
This Year’s Trends and Dead Ends
A closer look at the habits —both good and bad—of players, coaches, and maybe even DBB commentators. Discover what the Pistons are doing really well, and understand what to look out for going forward.
You know what ground-breaking tactic makes an offense instantly look better?
Making jump shots. What a cRazY concept?!
Last year’s squad connected on a cringey 33 percent of three-point attempts finishing 28th in the league while the current version sits at 38 percent (ranked third). Per Synergy, Detroit scored .916 PPP in overall spot-up opportunities last year. In contrast, they’re currently logging 1.07 for 2017-18.
It’s a vast difference in knock-down efficiency and it sure makes Jackson’s PNR more aesthetically pleasing and lethal:
Good stuff, right Stan?
Maybe next time.
Andre Drummond remains a box of chocolates on defense, but when he’s on, holy shit is he on.
In Detroit’s 93-79 win over the San Antonio Spurs, Dre utterly dominated and owned the defensive paint. He regularly challenged ball-handlers and played the role of a smug bouncer to the restricted area by refusing access to everyone:
Oh, and he had 21 rebounds and three steals if you’re into the box score thing.
He’s recognizing play types and patterns at a much higher rate:
Negating the Curry cut, diagnosing the top shot threat and playing safe iso defense with a winding-down clock may seem like mundane plays for the DeAndre Jordans of the world but for us Pistons’ fans? It’s a borderline miracle.
Consistency, however, is still an issue. Look at the different outcomes of defending the same flair screen:
It’s known that an “engaged” Drummond is a defensive force but until “engaged” is baked into his every-game effort level, he remains an average defender with promise.
Any thoughts, Dre?
As basketball continues to morph into a position-less product, the nimbleness to switch on defense becomes priceless. When Detroit encounters a big-small offensive mismatch, one thing is 99 percent certain: the perimeter playing is taking the shot.
In theory, this gives the Pistons two chances to score - on the initial shot, and via Drummond’s one man wrecking crew on the offensive boards:
Every ounce of my 36 years on this planet says to dump the ball to Dre in these situations:
If you’re taken aback by not rewarding the big man, just know Drummond isn’t exactly Mr. Automatic during a big-small mismatch:
For Ish Smith, the opportunity to attack a slower-footed big happens multiple times per game. Smith lets these bigs off the hook when he settles for his already shaky jumper compared to when he unleashes his fast-twitch fibers:
Similarly, if Smith can lure a block-happy big out of the paint, it’s an uncredited assist:
Detroit has been decimated by injuries yet still remains in the playoff chase - albeit for the lower seeding. Starter Avery Bradley and pseudo-starter Stanley Johnson have both missed multiple games while starter Reggie Jackson and rotational forward Jon Leuer have seen extended time away from game action.
For those of you just tuning in, put your hand up if you’re familiar with the services of Dwight Buycks. Well, he’s your backup point guard. And you know what? All things considered, he’s not doing too bad.
Depending on situational gameplay, Eric Moreland is the backup to Drummond when defense matters and Boban Marjanovic checks in if Detroit needs a bucket.
On more than one occasion, Anthony Tolliver has saved the day. Tolliver is your starter when the opposition starts two legit bigs. Against the Knicks, AT lined up with Kristaps Porzingis and while Zinger scored 29 points, it took him 28 shots to do so:
Maybe no Pistons’ player has seen his stock rise faster among fans than rookie Luke Kennard. The 2017 lottery pick has steadily climbed Detroit’s pecking order, and, hopefully, he’s not looking back. Kennard is connecting on nearly 43 percent of his three-point attempts but that comes a distant second to my favorite part of his game: his off-hand:
Nothing makes me giddier than when the lefty goes righty.
Know what’s boring and played out? The Splash Brothers - yawn. Give me Eric Moreland and Anthony Tolliver—The Charge Brothers—everyday of the week:
Now that’s entertainment! The Pistons take the fourth most charges in the league. That’s something, right?
Live ball push
Detroit is one of the better teams at pushing the ball after a defensive rebound or steal:
I can faintly hear SVG all the way from my comfy over-sized couch in Clawson imploring his team to push the ball in these cases and it’s paying off.
“go Go GO!!”
Van Gundy gets increasingly louder after every defensive rebound. Per Cleaning the Glass, Detroit is a top five team in scoring directly after a miss or steal.
Avery Bradley’s team defense
Did you buy into the Avery Bradley defensive hype before the season started? If you’re guilty (as I was), you’re gonna need to temper those expectations.
Bradley is a phenomenal isolation defender and it would be difficult to argue otherwise. The problem, though, is that isolation is far from a contemporary offensive style.
To put into perspective - 12 percent of all Houston Rockets’ offensive possessions end in some form of isolation play. In regards to frequency, 12 percent is the highest in the league. If Detroit is playing Houston, Bradley is lost the remaining 88.
It’s impossible to assign blame on communication breakdowns without being on the floor but when the same player is involved in a disproportionate amount of mishaps, the arrow starts to point one way:
I’d also like a word with the middle school coach that taught him to run people off the line like this:
It’s not “running guys off the line” if you don’t actually run guys off the line. He takes himself out of the play far too many times.
The Avery Bradley hand-off
While we’re talking about Bradley....
As discussed, the motion-based offense saw the end of the Andre Drummond post-up experiment with absolutely no one shedding a tear. The .750ish PPP from a Dre post was the equivalent of continuously punting on 2nd down, it wasn’t going to win many games.
Enter the Avery Bradley hand-off.
Take a look at this NSFW DHO brick-fest from a recent game in New Orleans:
Yuck. I’ll give you a minute to collect your thoughts.
A Bradley hand-off registers .709 PPP and gobbles up 32 percent of his total offensive possessions. As a whole, Bradley’s USG rate of 25 percent is the highest of his career (not including a 31 game rookie season) and while it’s clear he brings certain intangibles to the table, he’s in over his head as a main offensive cog.
Detroit employs an aggressive hard hedge when either Tobias Harris or Anthony Tolliver’s man is the screener in a pick-and-roll. The hard hedge is used to negate a shooting or penetrating ball-handler but it’s been the screener who’s been deflating the Pistons defense all season.
A recent game in Miami in which Kelly Olynyk and James Johnson had their way:
The open looks are not solely the fault of Harris and Tolliver as it’s very much a team concept; the hedge is the first defensive domino to fall and the slightest rotation hesitation is certain bucket-allowing death.
Detroit falls into a hedge hardship when they show before the screen has actually been set:
High IQ fours simply slip and play four-on-three.
Allowing the ball-handler to turn the corner before the on-ball defender recovers is also a heavy-duty no-no:
By and large, though, Detroit has done a decent job on corralling ball-handlers.
Needless to say, it’s a work in progress.
Defending the three-pointer
Pistons’ opponents are shooting 37 percent from beyond the arc.
In the biz, we say that’s “not good”.
It didn’t take long into the season before this was a noticeable negative trend as I bitched about this exact topic after the loss to Philadelphia in game four. Nothing is worse than cherry-picked highlights to try and prove a point but sloppy and/or non-existent rotations can be found in every game:
Communication and recognition go hand-in-hand with the top defenses of the league and if I was playing the ‘Blame Game,’ I’d start there.
At times, SVG willingly throws Ish Smith on a perceived mismatch —a move I happily co-sign—when Bradley is hounding the opposite point guard. Laugh if you want but Smith is a decent mismatch defender. The strategy, however, goes to shit when there are long-ball communication/recognition letdowns:
Stan and I then look like idiots and Pistons Twitter is screaming for our heads on a platter.
Lack of offensive modification
Defenses around the league have adjusted to Detroit’s “new” offense and it’s on the Pistons to continue to tinker and modify. You can only run the ‘Wildcat’ so many times before the defensive coordinator catches on.
One of the simplest ways to do so is by slipping the off-ball switch:
- Reggie Bullock sets a screen for Harris and the Spurs off-ball switch. There is a clear lane for Bullock to cut to the hoop.
- Orlando’s Jonathon Simmons jumps Bullock’s route. There is a clear lane for Stanley Johnson to cut to the hoop.
- Again, the Spurs off-ball switch onto Kennard. There is a clear lane for Harris to cut to the hoop.
Rinse and repeat for multiple possessions every game. I’ve yet to see a Pistons’ player take up the defense on their invitation to cut to the hoop in this situation. Whether on an impending hand-off or coming off a screen, teams ballsy enough to off-ball switch MUST pay.
Peering into the Crystal Ball
What to look for the remainder of the year.
Moving forward, you should be able to hold your own during any water-cooler Pistons conversation, which by the way, is my dream. I’ve touched on it before but the Pistons returning as a non-forced topic in awkward small talk at the gym, check-out line, water-cooler is an obtainable goal. Red Wings, Tigers and Lions - this is the competition for local attention? C’mon.
It may sound like excuse making but in general and considering the injury to Jackson, I’m content with the how the team has been playing. Sure, there has been some bad losses while effort, at times, has been questioned but overall, this is pretty much where I saw them heading into the season.
A .500 team.
It boils down to expectations. I don’t get mad when I get laughed out of Renshaw Lounge in record time trying to confidently pick-up a women who is clearly out-of-my league and I no longer get mad at the one step forward, one-and-a-half step back Pistons. I expect it.
The Eastern Conference is no longer a complete laughing stock and I’d say there are six teams that are a lock to make the playoffs.
Detroit is not one of them.
I don’t want the team to make a trade sacrificing the future just to try and squeeze into the seventh or eighth seed. I am fine with kicking tires around the league, however, to gauge the Avery Bradley interest.
As DBB’s writer/editor/podcaster five-tool star Laz Jackson recently reminded me, Bradley’s iso defense is out of style but only until the playoffs. At that point, iso defense becomes priceless in those closing minutes as offenses comes to grinding halt.
How do you determine a price point for that? I have no idea and I don’t want to explore that rabbit hole.
Bradley is on the last year of a pretty team friendly contract and I’d like to avoid re-signing him to an unfriendly team contract this summer. Ship him out and get something (anything) for him while giving Kennard his minutes for the remainder of the season. Yeah, I’m cool with that.
Andre Drummond remains a polarizing figure in the Detroit sport’s scene. He’s grown on me this year but has yet to fulfill his full potential. At this point, I can’t imagine Dre being involved in any trade deadline or off-season deal. Teams lowballed Detroit last year in trade inquiries and probably regret doing so. He made real progress this year after being such a disaster the season before.
For as much rightful criticism Reggie Jackson soaks up, they’re a totally different team if he’s at full strength. Whether he can get back to that point is another story.
Gun to my head, I say Detroit makes the playoffs and becomes an annoyingly tough headache for whoever they draw.
Wait, did you hear that? Shhhhhhhh. Baw Gawd, that’s Kemba Walker’s music!
See ya next Monday unless, of course, there is a Big Bang Theory marathon.