It is clear the Detroit Pistons won’t win many games this season. For several, me included, that’s not such a bad thing. But until the club started its Western Conference road trip, fans were spoiled by good, competitive and creative basketball despite all the losses. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying the game despite losses. Yesterday’s game at Salt Lake City confirmed, however, that things are going in opposite direction.
Both games from the west coast swing showed that teams seem to have figured out Detroit’s first-unit offense. In his hot stretch of seven games prior the trip, Wayne Ellington was averaging 18.9 points while shooting 57.9% from the field with 59.7 from 3. In his last two games, Wayne scored 3 points combined and was 1-of-13 from the field and 0-of-7 from the long line.
It’s not that he suddenly become broken. It’s that teams know how to deal with him. In his hot streak, he was taking 39.7% of his shots with the nearest defender being 4-6 feet away and 32.4% of his shots with the nearest defender being more than six feet away. The Western teams are less liberal for him. In last two games in San Francisco and in Salt Lake City, 46.2% of his shots were with him being covered tightly (closest defender 2-4 feet away) and 15.4% of them were with him being covered very tightly (closest opponent being as close as you like only your friends being around – less than two feet). Wayne was literally shooting with defenders’ hand on his face.
Ellington’s struggles has repercussion (though both things are probably more mutually correlated) in Blake’s Griffin’s poor play. I’m not talking about Blake’s obvious problems with his knee. I’m talking about Blake no longer having someone to play decoy for his offensive maneuvering, like in his trademarked fake-handoff-behind-the-back-(or between the legs in more classical version)-pullup-triples, which always allow him to get into his rhythm beyond the arc.
Without this rhythm, no one will go for Blake’s pump fakes and his ability to make this kind of drives will diminish.
Griffin had a good streak (relatively speaking, since, unfortunately, for him a 38 FG% is good these days) of games himself during Ellington’s hot stretch, shooting 39.3% from deep. But in two games on the west coast in which Wayne-based offense was broken, Blake was 5-of-21 from the field and 2-of-9 from the long distance.
It seems that the reason for this disaster is that Detroit become too dependent on Wayne’s shooting. It’s like the entire first-unit offense schemed towards him and only him. It’s understandable, especially since Blake seems to play so effectively alongside this type of player. But things have probably gone too far, and that means when Ellington struggles the entire offense falls apart. The Pistons offense became too Ellio-centric. Until other teams figured out the bottlenecks of this Waynopoly, it turned out to have some other good sides, as Wayne, who in his seven games before his streak collected total of 3 assists, was wheeling and dealing like seasoned playmaker, making four times more dimes.
But, as we could observe in the last two games, the hidden side effects outgrow all the benefits.
First, Jerami Grant doesn’t have as many plays run for him. Either he doesn’t get his chunk of shots (the game against the Warriors when he took season low 8 FGA) or, when he does (the game against Utah), he still needs to create his opportunities practically all by himself. Pistons don’t run too many screens to create space for him, as they did in first week of the season, because almost all the screens and two most prolific screen assisters from the first unit – Mason Plumlee and Blake – try to create space only for Wayne. It’s only a testimony to how a big leap forward he’s making, that Jerami still is able to score his elite share of points under this circumstances, though the way there might be rough at first (he was 2-of-7 in the first half of the Utah game before catching fire in the second half). Paradoxically, trying to balance the Motown offense with an effort to create some space for Grant could keep the defenders guessing and yield some additional room for Ellington as well.
Second, Ellio-centric offense consumes too much playing time from young players. It’s not only that Ellington is playing big minutes at the expanse of Svi Mykhailiuk who, as we’ll argue in another piece, keeps developing his game even if his basic stats try to tell a different story. And speaking about those basic stats, as other shooters, Svi needs consistent minutes to get it going, yet, despite having a breakout year last season, his playing time was cut almost by a half. Wayne presence is also artificially supporting inflated playing time of Blake at the expense of other youngsters (Sekou Doumbouya and Saddiq Bey). As much as I wish Blake would be again his old self, the strategy to get there by playing through it with a heavy load just doesn’t seem to be working.
Third, the possibility to trade Ellington to some contender took a hit. As Justin pointed out in his piece he can bring some assets back but you need to have modest expectation about them. Wayne is a complementary piece, so why on earth try to show him as a go to guy!? You won’t get a lottery pick for him, you know?.
The Detroit Pistons are losing. But they were losing in a fun way playing competitive, creative basketball. One of its good inventions was to roll a little bit with Wayne Ellington again. But the invention grew out of proportions. It might be time to scale it back.