Around the season in eighty-two games. Some film-based observations about Pistons 2018/2019 season

I planned to do film-based analysis for the whole Pistons’ season, but won’t find time to complete it. So it’ll be detailed, embedded in clips discussion of the first quarter of Detroit’s last season with some general comments about the rest.

The first quarter of the season went quite well. Detroit was 13-7, sealing this successful start with win over defending champions, Golden State Warriors. The team was led by Blake Griffin, who thus made first steps on his season-long remarkable redemption of his superstar status in this league. They started with four wins in a raw. Then, in a game against the Celtics Brad Stevens ordered his players to beat down our boys and they did. The hangover lasted next five games. After that Pistons started to coming back to life. During that process, they presented Dwane Casey a coming back victory in Toronto. Next, they embarked on a five game winning streak to end the quarter.

What did we find out from this quarter of the season?

Never mind the bollocks, here’s Blake Griffin, a superstar

The twenty three in red, white and blue is heart and soul of current Pistons. Blake just finished the best individual season on our team record. His superstar stat line of 24.5 points per game, 7.5 rebounds and 5.4 assists is unprecedented in Detroit basketball. And it was evident from the beginning of the season that we’re dealing with exceptional player in franchise history.

However, Blake is a historical figure not only because of the stats. The thing is, and that makes him historical not only locally but globally, he is the best basketball mix of pure human force and virtuosity since… well, the Renaissance! Just look at these pretty bully moves: part 1; part 2; part 3; part 4. And these fake bully moves. Or these drives. Or these do it yourself (sometimes with a little help from screener) triples. It’s the same in point Blake plays, that include: kicks from the post and other forms of facilitation. As well as in this Terry Mills tribute. And in this cherry on pie.

You don’t see there any of procrastination presented in Jamesesque or Hardenesque parasitizing on phantom calls. You don’t see there any of artificial and awkward Antetokounmpoesque eurostepping (yes, there was a good reason that eurosteps were forbidden when this game had bigger regard for skills and beauty – eurosteps, especially repeated time after time, are ugly and boring! unless they are done from time to time with fineness specific to Blake).You don’t see there any flopping specific to some annoying Philly center. It’s a strong human effort based on accurately, wisely and nobly trained versatile skills and personal powers.

During the first quarter of the season, as befits a superstar player, Blake also showed that he is a great leader. And, as befits a man of the Renaissance, he did it in versatile ways.

Could we notice some negatives in Blake’s play in the first quarter of the season? Hmmm, I’d put it differently: there is one thing we can regret. Namely, Blake is a very skilled, intelligent and capable defender, as is shown by these examples. But, since he has to conserve himself for the offensive role he has in our team, sometimes he needed to let go on defense like this. Nevertheless, he make up this with vengeance by being second best in the league in taking charges and by his hustle plays (shown in a clip about Blake’s leadership).

Andre Drummond is a perfect sidekick for superstar Blake!?

Can Dre be a perfect fit with Blake? Some will say no, because he can’t shoot long ball thus strongly contributing to the packed paint effect that was so devastating for Blake play in his first month in Detroit. After re-watching first 20 games of Pistons’ 2018/19 season I can’t confirm this stance. Those games provide many instances proving something exactly opposite: Dre’s presence around and in the paint makes life easier for our superstar.

As is shown here and here, it’s not Andre’s man that doubles Blake; Andre’s man is occupied solely by Andre, because he’s such a threat on offensive glass (sometimes he’s even double teamed for that reason while Blake drives on the other side of the lane).

But it’s not only this. From the first game of the season, Blake and Dre had developed a great chemistry. It could be seen in numerous instances of their two-men game. One of them is sneaking Dre. Other is 4/5 pick and roll or taking advantage of switches. Yet another are high-low passes. Or tipping-in and putting back other’s misses. There’s also transition BlakeDre two-men game which includes: first, taking doubling big out of your way; second, allowing the other to run for an easy (with one exception) bucket in transition. Besides all this, Dre also delivers screens that cut off both opposing bigs permitting Blake to take uncontested jumpers; the two overpower opponents on offensive glass and they can be deadly in horn screens. And one last thing about this duo: sometimes to be effective, they need to play so close that one can get hit by the other and must somehow withstand the punch which for other players would easily be a knock down.

The first quarter of the season also showed that just because Dre can’t shoot threes, doesn’t mean he isn’t stretching the floor. As a screen setter, p&r machine and dribble hand-offer, he can be good floor stretcher.

Pistons number zero was also very active on the defensive end of the floor. Here we can see his very good defense against p&r. Here’s, his strong rim protection, and here’s his double effort to contest and rebound. Here’re examples of his good quality one on one defense. And, finally, here’s some of his other not bad defensive stuff.

It all doesn’t mean that Dre couldn’t be better in his sidekickness for superstar Blake. Our franchise player could use someone who could take the burden of creating offense off of his shoulders. In accordance, Dre showed some new moves. Namely, his own bully moves in the post and some nice drives. But he still waste some possessions with plays like these. Nevertheless, we have very good developmental staff, so maybe they can somehow resurrect this nice looking stroke, like this, as well as help him elaborate more reliable shots from the paint than the awkward layups we saw as well as turn these push shots into those.

Reggie Jackson – flashes of 2015/16 season try to illuminate shadows of two injury-filled years that followed

The first quarter of the season wasn’t too kind for Reggie. He scored 16,3 ppg but wasn’t particularly efficient (39,6 FG%, 34,4 3P%), he also had 4,2 assists with 1,9 turnovers (see here). But his play was undergoing a significant transformation. He was playing less with the ball and was making more catch and shoot threes. From time to time, especially in the second part of discussed quarter, he was ask to play-make more and, in most cases, he delivered. He could take his man off the dribble, make a decisive drive to the lane or even post up. He wasn’t making Ish Smith kind of havoc in the paint – sometimes he was point-blank pretty lackluster and, therefore, unable to score – but with not bad dribble he was able to deliver on most occasions.

Despite coming back after lost summer due to rehabbing his ankle, Reggie gave some effort on the defensive end of the floor. Although, not rarely he still could done better.

Wings – Houston, we have a problem!

The first thing that pops up about our wings is that they, all of them (except maybe Luke who didn’t play much due to injury and Bruce Brown who didn’t shoot many three pointers), missed a lot, I mean a looooot open and wide open triples. And this is really bad, for Blake and Dre gravity around the basket provide so many occasions for open shots from perimeter and, in turn, lack of efficiency in those shots, makes the power duo’s work around the rim much tougher. Pistons shoot 33% from three and it was inflated by Blake’s above average three ball. Our wings waste tons of double-teamed Blake’s kicks out from post and from his and PG’s drives.

The second problem with Pistons’ wings in discussed period was their lack of ball handling skills. Luke, the one who is quite good in that regard, was mostly injured. Langston somehow isn’t ball-handler in Pistons uniform, though he probably was brought here by previous regime to be at least third point guard. Glen Robinson III was supposed, if I’m not mistaken, made some strides in play-making. The film doesn’t confirm this. So, basically, we were left with Bullock. In his case, we could see that he was asked to play more with the ball. He was able to made some basics plays off the dribble. But he rather struggled with more advanced ones.

Nevertheless, there were also some bright spots in this department. Bruce Brown defense is top notch. He is great on ball defender. You can throw him on all Hardens and Currys of the world. He play defense not only with tremendous intensity, but also smartly. It can be seen in his off ball defense. He makes good reads and anticipate. He position himself good.

Dwane Casey – new philosophy on Detroit’s bench

There was some question marks about the arrival of 2018 Coach of the Year to Detroit. His reputation as players friendly coach awaken worries that it’ll result in him giving too much leash to players. In particular, some of us were worried that Dre, who last summer had been proclaiming that he’d be shooting threes, will be allowed to shoot them in bunches. But nothing like this took place. Dre was allowed to shoot some threes. But the experiment was carried out in a safe manner. He didn’t take many of them. As you can see, he did it in not too important parts of the game, when he was open and didn’t force the issue. And when it turned out that he made only few of them, the experiment was stopped and Andre followed.

Another thing is that as for a defense-oriented coach, DC was quite creative in offense. We already discussed the BlakeDre tandem, but our coach’s creativity was also shown in ball (and players) movement. Whether it was some "big three", whole unit or bench mob play, it was always nice for your eyes. And how about those after timeout (and other inbounds) plays. They’re simply fabulous, aren’t they.

As far as defense is considered, DC was able to transform Pistons’ defense philosophy in one summer. From the beginning of the season, our squad was very disciplined in fulfilling main assumptions of this new philosophy. They were quite good in performing "drop coverage" with "stay at home" against p&r and defending three point line with "stick arm" (for more detailed analysis of this concepts, see Mike Snyder here and here). As a result, in discussed quarter of the season, they were elite in opponents 3P%. However they still must do something to prevent it happening at the expense of porous anti-dribble penetration defense.

Also, to boost our defense, DC and his staff were eager to join players efforts, and in elegant suits played some great D on the sidelines.

And there was this developmental thing. Our new coach was advertised as someone who can develop young players. Accordingly, in spite of the fact that Stanley Johnson wasn’t able to learn to shoot on a decent clip and we needed to trade him, DC was able to squeeze out of him some things we’ll miss now that he’s gone.

The good developmental hand could also be seen in the case of BB. Our second round draft pick supplemented his great defense with smart plays on offense that betray good coaching job. With its help, like an old hand, he was able to make good reads and find holes in opponents’ defense to get o-board, make himself available around the basket, make a drive etc.

One thing in the development on which DC needs to work more is the development of officials. As for now, it seems that he isn’t even able to make them watch film

What was next?

So, after ending first quarter of the season with a win against the Warriors, Pistons’ power duo of Blake and Dre started to knock on the doors of silicon (analytical) basketball and sow panic among its inhabitants. They did it to such an extent that one of its prominent members, Kevin Durant, you know Kevin "who cares about Detroit" Durant, become really alarmed about this new incarnation of Detroit basketball: "It is so tough to play Andre, because when they get some penetration [like, say, Blake making his way inside], the bigs normally try to help, but if you take your body off him for a second, he’s going to get the rebound". And no one or not many of us suspected that we were at the doors of a quarter of season in the abyss.

To get things straight, in second part of the season, Motown club completely lost the ground under their wheels. We went 9-22 and fell out of the playoffs spot. In this quarter Ish played in only 6 games, and his absence was evident. In first quarter, DC used some two PG rotations. As a third string PG, Jose Calderon was useful in those rotations both on offense and, I know it’s sounds incredible but "film don’t lie", on defense. When Ish went down in the second quarter, Jose was employed as a full time backup PG and, apparently, it was too much for him at his age. In consequence he become, as Scott put it, tanking weapon and we went down.

Therefore, for the third time in a row, in the middle of the season, it looked like the season is over. It started to look like a curse: it didn’t count that we have a superstar around, it didn’t count that we had Coach of the Year, the middle of the season has arrived and we started to compete for the 12th-14th pick in the draft.

Meantime, after being unable to secure a victory for Blake in Detroit against his former team, Andre made a soul searching. Few games earlier, Reggie committed a blunder during Blake interview after a win that almost slipped out of Detroit’s hands in New Orleans. Thus we arrived at third quarter of Pistons’ 2018/2019 season. In this quarter, these two come to rescue our season. During this part of the schedule, Dre played best basketball of his career. Not by accident he did it while Reggie had his best stretch in three years if not in the whole life. Facing weaker opponents, having Ish (and Luke) back as well as some new players, they led Pistons to a 12-2 run.

However, since All Star break something was a little wrong with Blake. He wasn’t as dominant as he had been in the first half of the season. In the 21 games he played since this point, he average "only" 20,1 ppg and his FG% was 41 (see here). After the season, he said that he experienced some problems with his knee since game vs Orlando (which was 19 games after the ASB). But maybe it did bother him earlier. Or maybe he just wanted to give some space for maneuver to Dre and Reggie.

All in all, this "Blake thing" overshadowed the last quarter of our season. Pistons went 7-10, and started by losing in big way in big games against Brooklyn and Miami with whom they fought for the playoffs. As part of penance, they sentenced themselves to start their road to 2019 NBA Championship by facing the best team in the league, the Bucks, in the first round of the playoffs. Let me conclude this road to glory this way: this team needs to be smarter while choosing how to redeem its wrongdoings…

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