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Slashers vs. dribble penetrators, shooters vs. scorers. A quest for logics in Pistons offseason roster overhaul

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What might look like a chaotic fling about on surface, may hide consistent commitment to promising basketball philosophy.

New York Knicks v Detroit Pistons Photo by Dave Reginek/Getty Images

We don’t know if Troy Weaver’s radical roster transformation trying so hard to compete only to realize that you’re… bad all over again, or if it was a successful attempt at building a culture. While we wait for the verdict on his overarching plan, we can examine the moves, Dwane Casey’s offensive philosophy and check whether we at least have people at the helm committed to a similar vision, and able to execute that vision.

Coach Casey’s offensive philosophy relies on four rules. Those are: lots of motion (ball and players movement); freedom within broadly-sketched schemes (a premium putted on creativity that is committed to certain rules); shot chart (only high efficient shots are welcomed); .5 mentality (premium put on ability to analyzing the defensive reactions and making quick decisions that take advantage of holes).

Prima facie, those rules point to enjoyable basketball that also should be effective. We might not be familiar with this kind of basketball because during his brief tenure to this point the team hasn’t had personnel to fit the scheme. But the roster transforms made by Troy this offseason might change that.

Untying the awkward knot of freedom and determinism, or why we needed to let Bruce Brown, Khyri Thomas and Jordan Bone

While agreeing with those of you who think that losing Bruce Brown is a heavy blow, and that we should have received more in that trade, I see reasons for letting Bruce go. Bruce’s game relies on a quick first step.

As soon as he makes that step, he goes like a speeding train to the basket. But also like a train, he can move only on predetermined tracks. You can be a successful playmaker in the NBA even then. And Bruce definitely was successful when he played like this at the University of Miami or in last Summer League. But Casey needs his ball handlers to keep open as many options as possible and be able to make quick and correct decisions at all times. We tried to play Bruce in this system, but its freedom was too much for him.

And no, Bruce couldn’t stay as a slasher either. To be thriving slasher, you need to have a well-functioning offense around you. So, although Bruce could score quite a handful of points on slashes within structured Pistons offensive system from two seasons ago, he suffocated within a shambolic offense last season, and faced even longer odds on a team about to embark on a rebuild.

Bruce slashing with good spacing and open teammates to bail him if needed

Bruce slashing with lack of spacing and open teammates

In other words, we’re not a good fit for Bruce right now. And it shows in his disappointing 54.4 FG% at the rim. Thankfully, now he seems to find himself in a place where his ability to quickly attack the rim will be right on cue: “I’m a slasher, a spot-up shooter; [Kyrie Irving is] more on-ball, […] so we’ll fit perfectly together.”

Another young player who wasn’t ready to meet the challenge of Coach Casey’s system of freedom and quick decisions was Khyri Thomas. The former Bluejay came to the league with concerns about his ball handling. He could do set plays, but needed to learn to do more.

And despite nagging injuries, he was learning. His ball handling in P&Rs was firm. But he still needed to learn making proper reads coming off of this play. Again, a rebuilding team isn’t a best place to do this. So Khyri is gone.

Jordan Bone in his rookie campaign in G-League showed that he’s intelligent, skillful and versatile guard. As such, he was able to make good reads and quick, proper decisions as the play unfolded.

But he had some problems with finishing around the rim (50 FG% in restricted area) and drawing fouls there (.129 FTr).

So, despite being an above average 3-point shooter, he had rather pedestrian overall efficiency (54.5 TS%, which situates him deep in the bottom half of G League players). So you can’t tell that he could use the freedom of Casey’s system to the fullest.

Enter Killian Hayes, Delon Wright and Saben Lee

Those three guards are now replaced by Killian Hayes, Delon Wright and Saben Lee. In comparison to Bruce, all three are dribble penetrators who thrive in reading the defense all the time and are able to decisively react to opportunities it gives to them. In contrast to Khyri and Jordan, they all have skills and tools to finish plays successfully.

Killian making great reads of the defense

Delon making great reads of the defense

Saben making great reads of the defense

Delon already shows both these advantages in the NBA being a scorer with solid TS% (55.4 last year, a notch below league average of 56.5%; Bruce had 51.8%, we already mentioned Jordan’s, Khyri was abysmal last year in this department after posting great figure of 63.5% two years ago in G League) and facilitator with elite AST/TO ratio (3.34) against the background of the entire NBA. Killian and Saben at pre-NBA level showed potential to be even better scorers (59.1 TS% for Killian and 58 TS% plus .498 FTr (!!!) for Saben) though a little worse but still acceptable playmakers (1.68 for Killian, 1.36 for Saben; Bruce had 2.3, Jordan had 2.32 in G League, Khyri had 6 assists and 5 TOs in 10 games in both NBA and G League last year). As such, Delon, Killian and Saben are much better suited than Bruce, Khyri and Jordan to run Coach Casey’s offense.

Tying the knot between volume and efficiency, or why the Pistons have Saddiq, Jerami and Josh Jackson instead of Luke and Tony

Luke Kennard was an efficient shooter from all over the floor. Last season, he made 67.3% of his field goals at the rim, 39.9% of his 3PA and 89.9% of his FT. A player tailor-made for DC’s “shot chart,” you say. Ehhh, not exactly. In 28 games, Kennard attempted only 49 shots at the rim and had only 75 free throws.

Tony Snell was a little more efficient (68% FG in restricted area, 40.2 3P% and 100 FT%). But his volume was even more depressing than Luke’s: 50 FGA in restricted area in 59 games played, 252 threes and 32 free throws.

While Kennard had 1.75 field goal attempts in restricted area, Saddiq Bey showed to be capable of producing almost two times more (3.39 FGA) at Villanova. His efficiency was a little lower (62.9%) but the volume make up for it in spades. Saddiq also had better FTr: .248 to Kennard’s .219 and Snell’s .084. On the 3-pointer front, he showed potential to keep up with Luke’s impressive per game number (175 3PA in 31 games), with educated belief that he’ll multiply it by more games he should be able to play. He also showed signs of better efficiency (45.1 3P%). He probably will give up to Luke in assists department, as his AST% (14.9) is a little lower than former Dukie (19.2). But we’re talking about potential secondary/tertiary playmakers, so this shouldn’t be a problem.

Saddiq’s college numbers could point to an eventual player who displays a combination of efficiency and volume, but another offseason acquisition, Jerami Grant, is already doing it successfully in the NBA. Last year, the former Orange averaged 3.13 FGA at the rim, converting 68.6% of them, and had a .309 FTr. He shot fewer triples a game than Kennard (3.5). But with increased role, he should be able to stand in for Snell’s attempts, and he looks more durable than the Duke product. Similarly, Jerami won’t replace Kennard’s playmaking potential, but with increased role he should be able to replace Snell’s. And on defensive end he’ll carry both their loads and then some.

The situation gets a little complicated with Josh Jackson. So far he has underwhelmed in the NBA, but he showed encouraging signs in G League last season and during the preseason in Detroit. Those signs indicate that he can possibly provide the combination of effectiveness with high volume to be a scorer that fits right into Dwane Casey’s “shot chart.” In his 26 G League games, Josh had 123 FGA at the rim, making 64.2% of them. His three ball looked very good too, as he had 6.5 3PA per game, of which he made 38.2%. However, he had a low FTr (.154) and still wasn’t a good free throw shooter, especially for a wing (60.3%). But he has AST% on lever similar to Kennard and has much better potential on defense than both Luke and Snell. Josh is still just 23 years old. The former fourth overall pick still might be a productive player combining efficacy with high volume at the NBA level. And in the preseason he validated this as regards the long ball, which is the tougher part.

Thus we arrive at wing rotation consisting of not only shooters but of scorers mixing efficiency with volume all over the floor according to needs of DC’s offensive system. Two of them are so far only prospects, but this is what rebuilding teams should do – substitute expansive players who can’t fulfill the role the system requires from their position for players who show the potential to do that exceptionally good.

Why we have Mason Plumlee and Jahlil Okafor instead of Andre Drummond and Christian Wood

Ok, so now we have playmakers that can flourish within freedom of Dwane Casey’s system and scoring wings that can efficiently score in bunches according to its “shot chart.” To complete a picture we need bigs who will properly back both those elements. And here’s how Mason Plumlee and Jahlil Okafor could do it.

On the clip we see Jahlil, first, set a pick for playmaker and roles thus prolonging his freedom as he gets into crowded area by providing him additional options. Second, with his rolling with the ball towards the basket, he draws additional defender and thus give a wing shooter an open look at which he also assists. It doesn’t always needs to be all in one. Sometimes it might be a kick to shooter or a pass to a cutter.

Other times it might be scoring by himself off of P&R while saving the ball handler from taking an awkward shot in the paint.

So there are two things you need a big in Dwane Casey-like offense to have. First, he needs to be at least solid passer. Both Mason and Jahlil check this box. The former has 15.3 AST%, the latter 8.2. The players they replaced were worse: Dre had 6.9; Wood 6.6 (by the way, Wood showed the ability to make dribble drives, but in them he’s a slasher not a dribble penetrator). Second, the big needs to be able to convert when the ball is dumped off to him. Last year, Mason was in the 86th percentile as a roller and Jahlil was in the 72nd. Drummond (75th) wasn’t bad either, Wood was elite (95th). But both Drummond and Wood had significantly higher usage rate. And in Casey’s offense you don’t want to invest too much possessions in big men who can’t create for others because it’ll be detrimental for your playmakers and wings.

In other words, Mason and Jahlil’s combination of good ability to finish on rolls, good passing skills and low usage is ideal for playmakers to enjoy their freedom and scorers to be able to combine high volume and efficacy in offensive system like Dwane Casey’s one.

Thus the roster overhaul that Troy Weaver has made in his first offseason as Pistons GM dovetail into a logical whole when we look at them from the prism of Dwane Casey’s offensive philosophy. One last thing to mention is defense. The Pistons just got longer and taller. Most of the guys on this roster are at least solid defenders. Coach Casey’s longstanding defensive philosophy is based on drop coverage of P&Rs with others staying home and defending the perimeter with stick arms. As we saw in the preseason, it was modified by some zoning and blitzing in P&Rs. However we look at the roster changes, having longer and taller players with at least solid defensive skills should help in all those elements of our defensive system.