Someone recently asked me what it means for the Detroit Pistons to have a successful season this year. I took a moment to chew on the question and came to the conclusion that, at least for me, success has almost nothing to do with wins and losses this season.
I feel like that is a minority viewpoint, and there is a solid chance that there will be increasing tension with the Pistons fan base about the team not improving enough (Team Play In) and improving too much for no good reason (Team Tank).
This team truly seems set up to be a Rorschach test, and the beauty of this scrappy little 25(?)- or 35(?)-win team will truly be in the eye of the beholder.
I don’t really have the time or tolerance to fret over wins and losses. There are more important things in the world than becoming preoccupied with where in the bottom five of the Eastern Conference standings this team falls.
This team will win some and lose plenty and if it falls on either extreme of that spectrum it doesn’t really mean much heading into next year.
That made me step back and ask myself a question. If success really has nothing to do with wins and losses then it must logically mean it’s all about the individual players and their advancement. That is what rebuilding is all about, after all. Taking young players with high upside and helping them reach their ceiling.
I’m going to run through an exercise that I think every fan could do as almost a gut check as we go through the ups and down of the impending season. What is that one thing that I think will represent a successful season for each player on the Pistons’ roster? This wasn’t heavily researched. It isn’t the end-all, be-all of analtyics discourse and what contributes to “winning.” It’s just that first thing I will think back on about each player. Yours might look very different! Share them in the comments.
Success looks like: A true shooting percentage above .600
Grant was a mini-revelation last season after receiving a big contract from the Detroit Pistons to become a showcase player. As a third wheel in Denver, he was quite successful as a two-way player and 3-point threat and he had three consecutive seasons with TS% above .590. But he was mainly a catch and shoot guy who could hurt you if you lost sight of him. In Detroit, he was asked to do just about everything. And for most the season he pulled it off. He was good on the perimeter, could blow by guys and get to the rim, could create his own shot. But eventually he ran out of gas and succumbed to the pounding he took and the lack of other offensive options in the lineup.
If he could have that same three-level scoring diet and still manage to get himself to the free-throw line, shoot 38% from 3 and get that efficiency up near 60% it would mean great things for his game and his future as a top scoring option on an eventual competitive team.
Success looks like: Four free-throws per game
Look, if Saddiq Bey remains a catch-and-shoot option on offense and nothing else, that still means he’s incredibly valuable and will have a long career. He’s been working on things in the offseason, and they are not things I necessarily care that he works on. But I get it. He’s young. He wants a more well-rounded game. So I’ll cut him a little slack. But I don’t want to see him trying to be a distributor or go crazy with iso opportunities.
Just keep shooting 3s and if you’re going to add to your game, just attack the basket more. Attack on run outs, attack in transition, cut when you see an opening. And that means he could get to the line a lot more. And that makes him more dangerous overall, but also will create much easier looks from the perimeter if defenders have to spend even half a second worried about counters and moves to the rim. He averaged two free throws last season so let’s jump that up to four and see where it gets us.
Success looks like: 2.5 3-point attempts per game
There was no player who was a more pleasant surprise last season than Stewart. He was a beast on defense, he was mobile, and he looks to have the making of a quality jump shot. And he was 19. Yes. Yes. Yes. In thinking about Year 2, and specifically about what is going to be asked of him this season, I waffled between a focus on his 3-point shot and a focus on better defensive rebounding.
I decided to go with the 3-point shooting because a quality defensive, switchable big who can hit from the perimeter are the things unicorns are made and also because I fear that with the addition of Kelly Olynyk and Trey Lyles, the team will ratchet down the focus on Stewart continuing to add the perimeter threat to his game. No. Keep firing away, Beef Stew! It could take him from quality energy player and defender into potential star.
Success looks like: Either hit 62% from within 5 feet or hit 36% from 3
Hayes struggles on offense has been well documented. As has the fact that he had an abbreviated rookie season due to injury. A fundamental truth, however, is that while stars are often described as three-level scorers, you cannot be a rotation player in the NBA as a no-level scorer. Hayes needs to learn how to be effective on offense, and I don’t really care how he does it or what he focuses on. He just needs to be some sort of offensive threat because the defense is there. The playmaking is there. The superior court vision is there. He just needs to get the ball in the bucket. Hitting either league average from close to the basket or league average from deep is all I’m asking for.
Success looks like: A free-throw rate of 30%
Cade Cunningham is going to be asked to do a lot, and the expectations are going to be huge. What I don’t want to see happen is for Cade to fall into an offensive rut where he most trusts his 3-point shot and therefore becomes either a passer or a 3-point shooter. I want to see him probe defenses and attack. It might not lead to great initial success, but it’s a needed skill to be a No. 1 option. Frequency in getting to the basket and the free-throw line would also be an early indicator that Cade might not have top-level explosion but he knows how to use his body and his burst in ways that get him to the line.
In college, Cade had a .390 free-throw rate. That was solidly in the middle of his draft class among those with at least 100 close 2 attempts. A .300 free-throw rate would also be similar to the rookie output of Ja Morant (32.9%), Jayson Tatum (30.9%), Devin Booker (29.5%) and Devin Booker (29.5%).
Success looks like: 3.6 assists per game
Olynyk has been known his whole career as a shooter. It was also a large part of why the Pistons paid him good money to replace Mason Plumlee in the rotation. But what made Olynyk a revelation last season in his 20-game stint in Houston was not his 3-ball. His 3-point attempt rate was actually at a five-year low in Houston. Instead, it was how well-rounded his game was including as a distributor. He averaged 4.1 assists in Houston which was by far a career high. It helped open up the offense for him and his teammates and allowed him to set career highs in free-throw attemps per game, true shooting percentage and more. Plumlee as a short-roll man averaged 3.6 assists last season. if Kelly can do at least that it’s a sign that Houston run was not a mirage.
Success looks like: A 3-point attempt rate of 25%
Diallo is extremely athletic, but what opened some eyes after his trade to Detroit was his 39% 3-point shooting. Diallo needs to make that perimeter shot a larger part of his shot diet, and shooting a quarter of all his attempts from 3 would represent positive momentum after 23% came from deep in Detroit a year ago.
Success looks like: Shooting 34% from 3
Shooting is going to be a theme for a lot of these players because it’s a major deficiency in their games and in Detroit’s offense overall. Jackson is a gifted rim attacker and scorer but he’ll never be more than marginal unless he can nudge his 3-point stroke from 30% to something like 34%. If he gets it even higher then he could suddenly be an extremely useful offensive option to go along with his quality defense. Alternatively, you could hope that his assist to turnover ratio doesn’t stick at 1:1.
Success looks like: 4.5 3-point attempts per game
Jackson looks like he is developing into a dangerously lethal perimeter player, but he’s also an undersized shooting guard. Last year he shot 40% from 3 and while I hope he can do that again this year, if he’s upping his volume on a per-game basis, it likely means he’s effective enough on d, getting consistent minutes and continuing to knock them down.
Success looks like: Dominant G League performances
It’s hard to see how Lee gets consistent minutes in Detroit. At the same time, I think he’ll be just as good and intriguing when thrown into the lineup as he was during his rookie year. But again, the best case scenario wouldn’t call for a huge dose of Lee minutes. So, while he’s biding his time, Lee could own the G League for the Motor City Cruise and make it clear he is too good for the league. Then he cements his backup status next season.
Success looks like: Less than 1,000 minutes played
This may be cruel, but the best-case scenario is that Detroit’s young crop of point guards is so effective that they have little need for the terrifically competent 30-year-old Joseph. Them’s the breaks, man.
Success looks like: 37% 3-point shooting on 200 attempts
Lyles is a young vet, but a veteran stopgap all the same. He was brought in to provide some competence and spacing in place of Sekou Doumbouya who provided neither. Last year, Sekou attempted 115 3s. Let’s say Lyles doesn’t quite double that and shoots a good percentage. Great, you did your job. Doesn’t mean we’re picking up next year’s option.
Success looks like: 40 games played
Isaiah Livers seems like a quality prospect and a good gamble in the second round. He just needs to get healthy. Of the 37 Pistons draft picks only 15 have played at least 40 games in their rookie seasons. And while Livers isn’t scheduled to see the court until November, if he could crack that top 15 it means he’s a trusted part of the team with a future.
Success looks like: FG% above 50%
It’s great that Garza can shoot the three ball, and at a decently high level. But he’s a big man that needs to do big man things when the Pistons call his number. That means convert close to the basket regularly (probably greater than 65% shooting) to go with a 3-ball that at least stretches the defense and makes them think. He shot 54% for his career at Iowa so we’ll give him a little breathing room in year 1.
Success looks like: Have a season-high against the Warriors
I don’t need anything from Rodney McGruder. At least nothing fans can see on game broadcasts. He can be a veteran mentor in the locker room and on the bench. But it’d be nice to see him have a nice game against the team that clowned him last season.
Jamorko Pickett (Two-Way)
Success looks like: True shooting percentage of .580 in the G League
Jamorko Pickett was a pleasant surprise on Detroit’s Summer League team. He shot 50% from 3 and his shot looked pure. But in college, he never really was terribly effective on offense. If this added wrinkle to his game is the real deal then he could be a player because he has a high motor and basketball IQ. Let’s see those shots continue to go in with the Cruise.
Chris Smith (Two-Way)
Success looks like: Assist:Turnover ratio of 2:1
Smith just needs to play. After suffering an ACL tear that is all that really matters. But once he sees the court, what you’re hoping to see from him in the G League is better decision making and more of that facilitator role from the wing. He’s had more turnovers than assists all four years in college, and you’d like to see that turned around.