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What’s the secret of Detroit’s point guards?

The principles of Dwane Casey’s system make the most difficult position in the game easy

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Detroit Pistons Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

A common occurrence during this season for the Detroit Pistons: The team brings in an unwanted or underused point guard, he excels, and when the team trades said excelling point guard, he regresses. Before the start of the season, the Pistons traded for Delon Wright, who couldn’t find much of a role with the Dallas Mavericks. In Motown – where he rejoined his former coach, Dwane Casey – the playmaker rejuvenated his career with probably the best playing stretch ever. At the trade deadline he was moved to the Sacramento Kings, and his game has deteriorated; illustrated by the significant drop in his Player Impact Estimate (from 11.9 to 9.2).

In exchange for Delon, Detroit received another point guard who couldn’t find a role for himself in Cory Joseph. And again, the Canadian guard is having time of his life in Motor City, going from 5.8 PIE (second worst result in his career after his rookie season) to 12.3 (far and away the best).

Dennis Smith Jr. was buried at the end of New York Knicks bench for the second straight season. He needed to ask them to send him to the G-League bubble to play some basketball at all. The neglected former ninth overall pick in 2017 NBA Draft and NBA All-Rookie Second Teamer came to Motor City in a trade that saw Derrick Rose migrate in the opposing direction. In the Pistons uniform he started to shine again, before injuries dragged his redeeming season down he reached the best PIE of his career (9.6).

Detroit is also having some success with its two rookie point guards. The no. 7 overall pick, Killian Hayes, despite having some predictable problems with making buckets, is third among rooks in assists per 36 minutes with 7.4. The no. 38 overall pick, Saben Lee, is first with 8.

It looks like the Pistons have found some secret formula for making point guards successful. And indeed they have.

First of all, the franchise situates them in a team with proper attitude. “You can probably count on one hand games where we didn’t have the energy,” head coach Dwayne Casey said recently about team’s approach this season. Detroit might not win many games this year. But the guys, be it vets or youngsters, try hard every time. And it’s really contagious. Dennis didn’t come to the NBA with the reputation of a great defender. He didn’t vindicate this judgment in his first two stops in the League. In Detroit, he showed traits of a great defender from the get go.

Saben is telling exactly the same story. Killian was thought of as a very good defender, so him defending well isn’t astonishing. Yet him being 13th among first year players in steals per 36 minutes somehow is.

But even if Detroit point guards make some mistakes on defense, they’re playing within a system in which their teammates will bail them out. Watch here how fluidly Pistons players cover for a point guard who dies on screen for a moment in P&R coverage, and how they take on the ball-handler by properly switching or performing drop coverage to allow the guard to recover.

It’s no surprise then that the team as a whole is 13th in the NBA in defending ball-handler in P&Rs coverage, allowing only 0.89 PPP in those common sets. And here we can observe a display of helping effort that bails Detroit’s one from failed isolation defense.

Next, on offense, Pistons PGs are great beneficiaries of Coach Casey’s premium on constant motion. In the first clip you can see them being able to attack when the defense is already scrambled by previous movement.

In this clip, you can see Pistons scorers bailing out their playmakers with off-ball movement.

And in this one, you can see how much easier it is to assist a shooter when he actively looks for a position to fire and can do so while on the move.

The imperative on players and ball movement that often hides the point of attack, also generates opportunities for Pistons playmakers to score on the weak-side, or thanks to weak-side-esque advantages we discussed some time ago. Watch how open a player can be in such circumstances:

And it’s a systemic thing: After the trade Cory is taking 4.1 shots per game that are open or wide open, with Kings that figure stood at 3.1 for him; whereas Delon shows the reverse – 3.3 as a Piston and 3.1 as a King.

Another thing that contributes to the success of Pistons point guards within team’s motion offense is the skillfulness of their teammates. Here you have Jerami Grant making something happen from simple give and go with playmaker.

And there’s a whole litany of contribution to this state of affairs from Motor City’s bigs. Their elite ability to set screens (Mason Plumlee and Isaiah Stewart are in the top 80th percentile in the league in screen assists per 36 minutes with 6 and 4.9, respectively), gives great advantage to their PGs.

No wonder Detroit has all of its points (plus three wings/forwards) in the first quarter of the NBA in drives per game: Hayes is leading the way with 9.7; then comes Lee with 9.2; Joseph with 7.1 (a figure highly deflated by his games with Kings, if you count only games with the Pistons, it’s 12.4) and Smith Jr. with 5.7. The Motown bigs also do a great job of making themselves available for lobs/dump offs/other dishes inside and one of them can pop to shoot from outside.

They’re helpful in transition as well.

Finally, they’re skillful passers who can find their point guards to repay them with an assist.

The point guard spot didn’t look good in last couple of years for the Detroit Pistons. But this year we’re witnessing a complete turnaround. All of a sudden, Detroit has numerous capable ones and a system that let them run the show in a way allowing Pistons fans to look forward to the future.