It’s the offseason, which means there’s no NBA to watch. I am dying inside.
So, during the offseason, I spend a bunch of time watching games from last year and looking at last year’s numbers to remind myself of what this team accomplished - and what they didn’t accomplish. That, in turn, affects how I think about how Detroit projects in 2019-20.
After some film study and poring through Stats.NBA.com, here are the three numbers that will dictate the Pistons’ success (and I do think they will be successful) in 2019-20:
That’s the regular-season on-court NetRTG of the Reggie Jackson, Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond trio, in almost 1600 minutes of play. If you’re wondering why the Pistons “only” upgraded on the margins and didn’t pull off a trade for a Russell Westbrook or a Chris Paul this offseason, that number is a good place to start.
A little context: The Orlando Magic triumvirate of Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon, and D.J. Augustin had a +4.0 NetRTG. The Indiana Pacers’ trio of Victor Oladipo, Myles Turner, and Bojan Bogdanovic managed a +5.6 NetRTG. The Philadelphia 76ers three-man unit of Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and Jimmy Butler had a +6.8 NetRTG in half the minutes. The NBA champion Toronto Raptors’ three best players - Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam, and Kawhi Leonard - had a +9.0 on-court NetRTG together during the regular season.
The regular season is a grind, and the Pistons’ “Big Three” proved they could be successful together on the court for the long haul. That number includes Reggie Jackson not reaching the peak of his effectiveness until February and March, aka “50 games into an 82-game season.” When those three players are on the court, the Pistons are a solid playoff team in the Eastern Conference.
With that reality in mind, the Pistons made strides to improve on our next number:
That’s the percentage the Pistons, as a whole, shot on “Wide-Open” three-point attempts. As a team, the Pistons were able to generate the eighth-most open threes per game, but converted at the sixth-worst rate. If you watched this team night in and night out, you got used to this sight:
Langston Galloway was one of the worst offenders, shooting sub-35 percent on wide-open looks last year despite averaging two (!!) wide-open looks a game. Bruce Brown? 31 percent. Stanley Johnson? 31 percent. Glenn Robinson III? Sub-30 percent. Jose Calderon? 25 percent. Even Blake Griffin, for all the deserved accolades he got for his improvement as a perimeter shooter, quietly shot 33 percent on open threes.
Now, Bruce Brown still figures to factor into the rotation, and his ascension is presumably to Langston’s detriment. But most of those guys have been replaced with players who can hit open shots.
Tony Snell? 42 percent. Tim Frazier? 43 percent. Derrick Rose? 38 percent (however real that turns out to be). Svi Mykhailiuk? Eeeehhhhh, ok, Svi was a mere 34 percent last year but his consistent shooting, in college and in the G-League, points to future success with a more consistent role.
The story of the Pistons’ season was that they couldn’t knock down the open shots they generated. Now, they’re better-equipped to make the shots they take, and making shots is better than missing them, generally.
Speaking of missing shots:
That’s the Pistons’ average defensive rating over the last three years. Last year, the Pistons’ 12th-ranked DRTG was their lowest finish since 2015-16 (...weirdly, the last time they made the playoffs). Despite the lack of standout defenders on the roster, the Pistons have finished 12th, 10th, and 8th in DRTG the last three years.
Under Dwane Casey, the Pistons had success defensively by shutting down the three-point line (first in made threes allowed per game, second in attempted threes allowed per game) and looks at the rim (eighth in the league in FGA allowed at the rim per game). The strategy of coercing teams into playing Nega-MoreyBall is sound; the potential for the Pistons to make statistical strides defensively is there.
They can continue to limit three-point attempts and keep teams out of transition. They can keep playing at a bottom-10 pace in the league, limiting possessions for the other team. Bruce Brown getting more respect from the referees will enable him to be an impact defender without averaging four fouls per 36 minutes. Tony Snell offers more size than Wayne Ellington. Andre’s creeping, fitful progression defensively will continue to be there.
With a little more size on the perimeter compelling teams to take inefficient shots, the Pistons can be a team with a DRTG around 107 - which would’ve put them very close to the top five last season.
It’s the off-season. Everyone is optimistic about their team (well, maybe not Hornets fans). Until the season starts, all we’ve GOT is our optimism. However, there’s concrete, statistical reasons to believe that the Pistons, assuming even decent health, can be better than they were last year and MUCH better than where they are currently projected to be.
July 16, 2019
Don’t be afraid to dream a little bigger than the eighth seed, Pistons fans.