The Detroit Pistons’ offensive struggles are palpable. It’s apparent every time you turn on a game.
There’s little variety to a lot of the offense the Pistons are running to begin the season, often looking more reminiscent of something you see in college—perimeter passing and off-ball screens leading to good but not great jump shots.
Some of those woes come from scheme. Some come from the lower talent level Detroit is fielding compared to most other teams. The Pistons focused on continuity and developing its youth so the talent discrepancy should not be a surprise.
For the sake of those of us watching 82 games of Detroit Basketball, though, the team desperately needs to find more creative and fun basketball.
Especially depressing has been the Pistons’ shooting woes.
Detroit sits dead last in the league in three-point shooting at sub-28 percent. They’ve shot slightly better on catch-and-shoot threes, but only barely. They’re last in above the break efficiency and second-to-last on corner shots. No matter where and how they seem to shoot, it’s bad.
The poor shooting has led to the Pistons having the worst offensive rating in the league to date. Looking deeper at those numbers, Detroit ranks respectably in turnover rate, offensive rebounding, and free-throw rate, but the terrible shooting drags everything down into the cellar.
There are a couple of ways to look at all of this, of course.
The Pistons have still played only nine games. Really bad shooting stretches happen over that sort of sample size. Great shooters from a year ago like Frank Jackson and Saddiq Bey are unlikely to continue their current abysmal trajectory. But when that nine-game stretch comes to begin the season, it hits especially hard. And though shooting variance is a very real thing, it often comes in connection with other issues.
To determine what exactly might be at play in the shooting numbers outside of back luck, we need to examine things a bit more closely than we normally would.
So let’s do that.
The below chart, which we’ll discuss in more detail below, is an attempt to track the Pistons’ three-point shooting based on the depth the offense gets to when trying to create shooting opportunities.
First, some caveats. This is a subjective-ish exercise vulnerable to human error, like any tracking data. I’ve done my best to categorize the different actions, but I’m far from perfect. But these categories reflect distinct ways in which deep shots are created that can affect shooting efficiency in different ways (more on that later).
“Perimeter” generally means that the action that led to the shot attempt didn’t move inside the long line in any meaningful way. Or, if it did, maybe the shooter stopped the action and hit a step-back three to the extent that the initial action didn’t create any real advantage for the ultimate result.
“Elbow” means that something happened inside the arc and outside of the paint that led directly to the shooting attempt. A lot of times this is a short pick-and-roll or a high post.
“Paint” means that a ball-handler got the ball into the paint. Or, perhaps the ball handler gave the ball up before entering the paint but drew defenders because of the potential rim threat. Plays are listed in this category even if there’s a swing pass if the paint touch is what led to the defense scrambling.
So, the one situation where Detroit is actually efficient is when they get into the paint and kick it out to waiting shooters. To be clear, they’re still missing plenty of good looks in the other situations (there’s no denying the shooting itself has been poor), but how you get shots can impact how often they go in.
An instructive example is that, at least in 2014, corner threes were being made at a much higher rate than two-pointers of the same distance. When there’s such a disparity, it’s important to think about the why. Seth Partnow points out in that 2014 example that the geometry of the court may affect things.
It’s possible that getting into the paint is having a similar effect with the Pistons. Defenses collapse exponentially harder when the ball gets into the paint. They’re in a much worse position to scramble to contest shots as a result. Shooters in 2021 simply know to be ready to shoot when defenses collapse towards the paint. And there’s a distinct difference between knowing you’re going to get a shot attempt versus being ready if the ball happens to come to you.
Seeing is believing, so let’s take a look at one of Saddiq Bey’s potential assists from the early season.
Watch how Joe Harris falls and Saddiq Bey makes a quick pass to Jerami Grant in the corner for a missed shot:
Now, this wasn’t a bad look by any means. But it could have been a lot better. You can see the defense preparing to collapse. Had Bey driven to the free-throw line, one of Grant, Kelly Olynyk, or Josh Jackson would have had a much more open three. And the pass would have come from a better angle not requiring any real adjustment in the shooting motion. As it stood, Grant receives the pass from a side angle, his motion is more unnatural than it could be, and Kevin Durant is able to at least affect the shot.
Contrast that with Bey getting to the middle of the paint against the Brooklyn Nets in Little Caesars Arena leading to a wide-open Olynyk three:
Sure, it helps that Blake Griffin didn’t even pretend to contest the shot. But once Bey drew two defenders and kicked it out to Olynyk, it didn’t really matter. Notice how the pass coming from this angle lands in a position that wouldn’t have affected his normal shooting motion had he needed to shoot a little quicker.
Even though it’s just a couple of feet, there’s a big difference between getting into the paint and being just outside it. Not only do defenses collapse harder when you get to the paint but even a matter of a second is a big deal when talking about NBA athletes closing out.
Watch how Jerami Grant picks up his dribble early and Alex Caruso is able to close out strong as a result:
If Grant gets deeper or more towards the baseline, the spacing improves dramatically. Caruso has a longer route to recover or the help comes from Nikola Vucevic and there’s room on the weakside for a layup or open deep attempt with the defense scrambling.
You can see the dramatic difference in what happens when Grant gets in the paint when he does so against Philadelphia which leads to a wide open corner three for Killian Hayes:
Just like the Chicago play, there’s help coming from both the perimeter and baseline but the defense collapses further because of the paint threat and a simple step through leads to a pass coming right from where Killian is shooting and a ton of extra time to line the shot up.
That extra time can be a big deal because the passes aren’t always going to be on target.
When Olynyk gets super deep against the Nets causing the defense to collapse, Joseph has to adjust to catch an errant pass but he still has plenty of time to line up an open three:
This could probably be categorized as a transition play because the defense isn’t quite set, but the principles are what is important here. The closer you get to the paint and collapse the defense, the more open your shooters are going to be.
Not all the shots coming from paint action are going in. While Detroit’s shooting roughly 40 percent in those situations, there’s still plenty of wide-open misses.
At some point, the Pistons will just need to make more shots. And they almost certainly will as the year progresses. But they also need to work harder to get into the paint to get as many clean looks as possible.
The addition of Cade Cunningham should certainly help. He’s shown an ability to get to the paint when he wants and his passing and processing should result in many open looks for teammates.
But the rest of the team will need to get to the paint more too. Detroit desperately needs easy looks at the rim and when those aren’t available, the more open looks from behind the arc will be a great bonus.
Whether it comes from the players driving deeper or the scheme getting ball handlers in easier positions to get to the middle of the floor, the Pistons need to find ways to get to the paint if their three point shooting is going to improve at a rate to crawl back to respectability.