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The Close Out: A season’s worth of negative Pistons trends (Ch. 1)

Visiting the why and how of the Pistons’ 43 losses.

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Detroit Pistons Leon Halip-USA TODAY Sports

We took a look at all (“all” being a generous term) the positives here, so let’s get to the fun stuff!

I’m a bit higher than most when it comes to the foreseeable future regarding the Detroit Pistons, but make no mistake, I’ve got some Doom Squad in me that loves a chance to get some run.

If we’re being honest, though, I’m kinda stuck in Pistons’ forecasting purgatory. I totally understand both points of view. A lot of what each side says in reference to the team, or as individuals, is completely true.

Can Blake Griffin be an offensive monster? I truly believe so.

Can we bank on Griffin playing 70 games? I’ll make that bet with Laz’s money, certainly not mine. (Editor’s note: “What money?”)

We can go on and on and raise multiple questions for everyone in the organization - except for Reggie Bullock, Anthony Tolliver and maybe the Dancing Usher, those guys seem to be universally loved - but the bottom line is this franchise has been on the wrong side of .500 for nine of the past ten seasons. Even as a cock-eyed optimist, I must admit the Doom Squad seems to be in the right until the Pistons prove otherwise.

Below, we’ll re-run some of the reasons that caused Detroit to lose 43 games. Since the list is rather extensive, it’s going to be a two-parter, with Chapter Two due out shortly.

Warning: some of this is hard to watch. If you’re overly sensitive to bad basketball, it might be wise to simply skim or forfeit reading all together. I won’t judge.

In no particular order.....

Reggie Jackson’s ankle injury

27-18 with Jackson; 12-25 without him.

52 and 45 - those are the games played total registered by Reggie Jackson in the past two seasons. The only silver-lining my brain could conjure up is the Grade 3 sprained ankle had nothing to do with the knee issues that’s been a talking point with Jackson since his Boston College days.

Although he only has a few days’ experience as a 28-year-old, the athleticism seems to be waning. This Jackson ain’t walking thru that Little Caesars’ door:

Jackson’s absence meant Ish Smith assumed the starting job. We all, for the most part, enjoy Ish Smith as a Detroiter, but a starting point guard he is not. Furthermore, Dwight Buycks and Jameer Nelson both logged meaningful minutes at the back-up slot and the Langston Galloway point guard experiment failed miserably.

For as much as Jackson’s injury hindered the starting unit, it decimated the bench.

Avery Bradley’s tenure in Detroit

I’ll never forget Avery Bradley.

Not for anything he did particularly well, no, not at all. I’ll never forget Avery Bradley because he forced me to take analytics seriously. As a stubborn eye-test guy, I scoffed at the poor defensive metrics which, I thought, miscast Bradley as minus defender.

In my defense, I didn’t watch Bradley with the same enthusiasm and detail when he was in Boston Celtics’ green as I did in Detroit Pistons’ blue. I completely bought into the defensive hype and highlights hook, line and sinker. For that, Avery Bradley, I thank you. In the long run, it will make me a better basketball person.

It took me about three games before I realized what’s what.

Bradley was an absolute ball hawk, which I cannot take away from him. In today’s game, there are three or four players in the entire league who are elite on-ball defenders, and Bradley is in that conversation. Unfortunately for Bradley, his team defense leaves a lot to be desired.

Either he didn’t believe in helping on screens or, more likely, he couldn’t comprehend real time action until it was too late:

He left his teammates high and dry on way too many occasions.

He was a communication nightmare:

It’s hard to determine who’s at fault when it comes to communication - BUT if the same guy is continually mixed up in these types of letdowns, all the arrows start pointing in the same direction.

Who the hell taught this man to closeout?

Most NBA defenses are coached to run guys off the three-point line (while another player rotates to block off the paint) which encourages a mid-range attempt.

I have no idea what to call or classify Bradley’s closeout; it’s not actually a closeout if the offense simply side-steps only to reload and launch the three-ball.

I’ll review his offensive play with fewer words and only one video:

Bradley’s night-to-night offensive load was far larger than his talents demanded. To be fair, that seemed to be more a coaching issue than a Bradley critique.

I’m squarely on Team Blake, but I hated watching Tobias Harris leave. Oddly, Bradley’s departure didn’t make me think twice, however, everything happens for a reason. If Avery Bradley spending time in Detroit was because of some higher-power’s plan to get me to appreciate the role analytics can play, mission accomplished. I’m just sorry I had to drag you along for the ride.

Stanley Johnson’s stagnant career trajectory

So, is this going to happen or what? Is Stanley Johnson going to be a legit two-way player or is this another high-end draft pick turned sour?

Season three of Stanley Johnson’s career refused to answer those questions. Consistency - in all aspects of the game - remains elusive for Johnson with each step forward followed by, at least, one step backward.

Johnson was in the starting lineup for 50 of the 69 games he participated in this year, but being a Pistons’ starter is not on the table if he can’t find a way to hit a shot. Detroit, especially with Jackson at the helm, rely primarily on variations of a drive-and-kick offense. If Johnson can’t hit this shot with any type of regularity, he shouldn’t be out there with the starters:

He was a 30 percent three-point shooter from the corners in 2017-18 (28 percent on total three-point attempts).

It’s not just the long-ball that have Pistons’ fans worried. It’s pretty much everything else on offense too. Per Cleaning the Glass, Johnson scored 95.7 points per 100 shot attempts, ranking him in the 13th percentile among all wings (for reference, Reggie Bullock scored 122 points per 100 shot attempts, 93rd percentile among wings).

Fast-breaks or secondary breaks were more of an adventure than anything else:

These could be the worst selected shots in Detroit’s professional basketball history:

In the positives, we praised Luke Kennard’s ability to make the right decision in these scenarios, and Johnson’s instinct seems to be the exact opposite.

Instead of easy points, it’s Celtics’ ball:

The drop-off to Andre Drummond is an absolute no-brainer. I wish these examples were cherry-picked, but similar decision-making gaffes are plentiful in each game.

Detroit will soon have a decision to make on Stanley Johnson and I have no idea where their collective heads are at. At just 21, his best days are, seemingly, still ahead of him: Does he ever take hold of his career? I’d be happy to throw down some of u/buzzardbeater’s money and take that bet, but in no way, shape or form am I using my own loot.

Rotations

If I had to guess, I’d say 70-80 percent of all NBA playbooks and principles are nearly identical. The Brad Stevens’ of the world surely stand out, but, by-and-large, Xs and Os from team to team are just about the same. The obvious difference is talent. Is LeBron James running the pick-and-roll or is DeMarre Carroll? Outcomes vary because of personnel.

What differentiates coaches is their capacity to maximize talent and consistently put players in a position to succeed. Baked into that capacity is how they handle player rotations.

Guys like Stan Van Gundy have forgotten more than I’ll ever know about basketball, which always makes me hesitate to criticize. However, the rotations this year were awkward at best and abysmal at worst. Injuries and the acquisition of Blake Griffin made rotation-life rough, but there isn’t an NBA team who doesn’t go through the exact same thing.

Wings Luke Kennard and Stanley Johnson took turns in and out of favor with Van Gundy; combo guard Langston Galloway never held onto anything permanent; the backup center role was awarded to Eric Moreland only after Boban Marjanovic was sent to Los Angeles; when Jackson was out, the team flip-flopped his backup role between Jameer Nelson and Dwight Buycks; James Ennis played 27 games with Detroit and randomly started eight of those, and Reggie Bullock didn’t become a full-time starter until mid-December (after not playing - at all - in the previous seven games).

Long story short, that doesn’t work.

Part two due out soon.